In 1993, Vic Firth visited the IBVF Brazil, a drum school located in São Paulo city, Brazil. At that time, the place’s founder, the Brazilian drummer Vera Figueiredo, together with the drum teacher Roberto Capisano, interviewed Vic, who talked about the Vic Firth company and the manufacturing process of the drumsticks.
After almost 50 years as principal timpanist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, he retired in 2001. Vic Firth died at the age of 85 on July 26, 2015, leaving behind many admirers and friends.
You can read here the full Vic’s interview.
IBVF: Where and when you were born?
VIC: I was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1930.
IBVF: When did you start playing?
VIC: I was four. I had a cornet and I wasn’t a good player. I come from a musician’s family. My father was trumpet player and worked for studios of Hollywood writing soundtracks. He realized that his fellows who worked as arrangers were the ones who got a lot of money. So, he wanted I become one as well.
I had classes of trumpet, clarinet, trombone and piano, which I played bad. Drums seemed to be the instrument I have more talent to play. So, I dedicated myself to study drums I was around ten years. When I was fourteen, I played with a big band formed by seventeen, eighteen musicians. I played vibraphone and drums, and I was responsible for the arrangements as well. I used to copy the arrangements of the big bands of that time, such as Count Bessie.
Boston was in the other side of the street. I had no idea who was those people. I came from a little city from Maine, and I had never listened to about the Boston Symphonic. They had a special summer program, and I became one of their students. I’ve gotten interest in classic music at the age of eighteen. I was so excited about it that I never played drums again. Then I started gradually losing the ability. What drummers are doing these days is so amazing that I’m used to telling them “Do you want to see me to play drums? All right….” And we laugh a lot, but who laugh for last it’s me when I see them play timpani.
IBVF: Since when do you play with the Boston Symphonic?
VIC: I was twenty years old.
IBVF: How did Vic Firth company was founded?
VIC: I stared making drumsticks thirty years ago. I didn’t have my own fabric at first, but a friend from Montreal, Canada, who had a wood clam. I’m used to sending my prototypes and he make the drumsticks by hand and sent them to me. I cut the wood for the first drumsticks I made from an existent pair. Then I gave it to a turner who made ten pairs. We started small and kept increasing step by step.
IBVF: Nowadays, how many pairs of drumsticks are made for week?
VIC: Between fifty an a hundred thousand, including not just drumsticks, but all kinds of sticks for all percussion instruments.
IBVF: What kind of wood is used to make drumsticks?
VIC: We have a place in Tennessee from where we extract the hickory wood. The good hickory grows only in the South of United States. In Maine, Massachusetts, we have a plantation of maple wood. The warehouse and the factory are located around four hours away from each other, by car. Every morning a truck goes from the factory to the warehouse to delivery sticks. The manager of my factory is really good. We work together and talk to each other by phone or fax many times a day.
IBVF: Do you control every step of manufacturing?
VIC: I do. Nothing goes to anywhere without I check it first. Everything is done in Maine, but it’s verified in the warehouse, in order to assure there’s no defected product. There are eight rooms with computers and walls with holes in front of them. A drummer settles the pairs. First, he weighs the sticks and the information is registered in the computer. There’s a stone covered with a special material in front of a microphone, which record the pitch (lows, mediums and highs), curvature, density and humidity, send the information to the computer. The drummer settles the stick and inserts it in one of the holes in the wall. This is the procedure for each stick. There’s a pedal on floor. Now the computer has all information it needs about the properties of the stick. The drummer steps on the pedal and the computer says that the stick in the hole 1 and the one in the role 39 are even. It’s a perfect match, the first pair. Then the computer indicates that the stick in the hole 2 is a perfect matching with the one in the role 70, the 3 with the 10…. Every stick passes through the computer process.
IBVF: What about a stick that doesn’t fit in the quality program? Can it be used somehow?
VIC: No, it can’t. These I take to my house and use them in the fireplace. I’m used to burning thousands of sticks per year.
IBVF: Is it a lot of money you lost?
VIC: I don’t want to make a second line. Rolls Royce has only one model; they don’t fabricate other. I always prefer to do the best. Some of my students, the ones who comes to my house, where there is a huge recipient to keep the sticks, before burning them. They ask if they could take the sticks with them, but I don’t let them do that. If they want sticks, I give them the good ones. I don’t want the bad ones in the market, because I know someone is going to realize that is a Vic Firth sticks, and that is something I don’t want.
IBVF: How long does it take to make one stick from the cut of the wood to the final product?
VIC: It takes a long time ... six to eight weeks. We transport daily between six and eight boles up to the sawmill. The pieces of wood must go to the oven for five days or so to be dried or dampened, according to what it’s require. As a result, we have a lath that will become a stick.
Each stick must have the right humidity in order to obtain the ideal weight and flexibility. When the stick is more dampened than it should, it’s possible even banding it. We have the “air heads”, which happen when the stick has no humidity. You hold the stick and it has no weight. It means the tree was dead, that’s why the computer rejects this kind of stick. If you say to the computer, you are settling a pair of 5A, and that this model has determined humidity, weight and balance, it won’t be able to form a pair if you insert a 5B model. The computer doesn’t accept this matching. It’s the same when you want a pair of Rock and insert a 5A model. Who is setting the pairs can’t be wrong. So, the wrapped drumsticks are definitely the perfect pair. The only possible mistake can happen if someone at the store mixes the pairs. Otherwise, the pair has always the same sound. The same pitch.
IBVF: How are made the finishing of Vic Firth sticks? Is there any kind of product applied in the stick to avoid it slips off a sweaty hand?
VIC: When the stick is shaped you have the raw wood. Some drummers like this way and we let it. What we do is to give to the stick a thin layer of a solution we not even realize is there. It keeps the humidity the stick needs and avoid more penetrates the wood. If when you are playing is very dry, this product keeps the humidity of the stick, because it would turn it extremely light. But if it’s very humid, it will prevent this humidity penetrate the stick. Besides this product there is a wax. When you play your left hand gets hot and the wax becomes a little clingy. This way the stick doesn’t slip, and this wax avoids the stick becomes dirty, because of the dust of the hands and in the air.
I know the problems and needs of a drummer because I am a drummer. The most manufacturers never were a drummer in their life. They just get into the business or are amateur drummers. But I have a lot of practical experience. I do know what a drummer is talking about when it comes to the sound he searches in cymbal, in tom. At last, not faltering myself, but because I have been playing for so many years now, I know all problems. But always there’s a solution, and you want to find it as faster you can.
IBVF: The tip of the stick is a problem as well. They don’t last for a good time. You play a few times and the tip is damaged.
VIC: It happens because some manufacturers don’t use good wood. We pay for the best wood. I have to select the wood came from Tennessee. It’s my own company, and I have to discard a lot of wood. How many times I went there and said to them to sell this kind of wood to who make tools, hammer handle, this kind of stuff. I discard a lot of wood, and because that my sticks are so good. There is who uses any wood to make sticks. So, some are good and others aren’t.
IBVF: How do you choose the Vic Firth endorsees?
VIC: We have a great program for endorsees. When the company started increasing, people that worked with me used to asking why I didn’t make publicity, have no endorsees or produced clinics. I answered ‘I don’t know.’ I haven’t imagined that before, and then I started thinking on who could be an endorsee.
I knew all the drummers, some of them have studied with me. So, I ask to myself: who is the best drummer, the most popular at the moment? Steve Gadd! This is a good endorsee. Then I called Steve and he accepted my proposal. I also called Harvey Mason who was my student during four years at the conservatory. I invited and he also accepted. It started this way. It didn’t take too long to everyone to be aware about it. After that, we had Omar Hakim, Alex Acuña, who is endorsee for a long time now; Steve Smith, Dave Weckl, among others.
IBVF: Please, let a hint to the drum students. Something you believe is essential when it comes to improve the knowledge about drums.
VIC: The combinations of single strokes from the book Stick Control.