Percussion hammers, also called mallets, are used to strike various percussion instruments. The two basic styles of percussion hammers are unwrapped and wrapped. Each of the two styles comes in different varieties that are generally suited to play particular instruments.
The unwrapped types of percussion hammers have heads made of hard, often heavy, material and shafts made of either birch wood or rattan. Most commonly, the head is made of brass, rubber, or nylon. It can also be made of wood or acrylic. A rattan shaft is more flexible than a birch shaft, and the preference for either usually depends upon the musician’s playing style. For instance, if a musician generally uses four mallets when playing, he or she might prefer a more flexible handle and will therefore choose a mallet with a rattan shaft.
Typically, musicians use unwrapped percussion hammers when they want a sharper contact sound on their instrument. The contact sound is the actual sound of the mallet striking the instrument. Heavier mallets heads, such as brass or rubber, will produce a more distinct contact sound, whereas the lighter materials such as nylon or wood will do the opposite. These hammers are ideally suited for instruments such as the xylophone or the orchestra bells, which are designed to have clear, crisp tones.
Wrapped percussion hammers are designed to elicit a softer, more muted sound. These mallets also have shafts commonly made of rattan or birch wood but have heads that are entwined in soft, cushioned material. Most often, the head itself is made of a soft rubber or a plastic and fiberglass blend called kelon. The head is then typically covered in yarn or cord, yarn being the softer of the two choices.
The spongy covering of the wrapped percussion hammers dulls the contact sound, an effect that musicians might desire for instruments such as the vibraphone, the marimba, and the steel drum. The wrapped hammers that have heads made of covered rubber tend to be heavier than the kelon types. Unlike the unwrapped version, however, the extra weight will not increase the contact sound but will instead result in greater volume.
Another type of percussion hammer not as commonly recognized as the wrapped and unwrapped mallets is the percussion chime hammer. As its name suggests, this accessory is designed specifically to sound chimes. Its head, generally made of hard rubber or resin, very much resembles a typical mallet used for construction purposes. The shaft is typically made of wood, although some have handles made of heavy plastic or aluminum. It comes in varying sizes designed to strike chimes of different sizes and thicknesses.
Drumsticks, because of their design, don’t technically fall into the mallet family even though they are intended to play percussion instruments such as drums and cymbals. Some musicians, however, still classify them as percussion hammers, and consequently, they bear mentioning. Generally, drumsticks are made of hard, fairly inflexible wood such as hickory or oak. Unlike other percussion hammers, the tip is actually part of the shaft, narrowed to a point. It is sometimes covered in a thin sheet of plastic or acrylic to give it a softer strike that is not so punishing to the drumhead.