One quality that has made Everett “Vic” Firth a success as both a drumstick manufacturer and former principal timpanist for the Boston Symphony Orchestra is attention to detail.
Forty years ago, after beginning his music career playing percussion with inadequate commercially available sticks, Firth went back to the drawing board to invent a drumstick to meet his high standards. He hit on the simple idea of making sticks with the same regular rounded tips timpanists use, so the sound is the same no matter which way drummers turn their hands. “When I mentioned the idea, other players said, ‘You’re crazy,’” Firth laughs.
Still, Firth was sure other drummers would appreciate the regular sound from the round-tip sticks as well as another Firth innovation that sounds just as self-evident: paired sticks. “When I started there was no such thing as paired sticks. Manufacturers just matched sticks that looked the same. I remember my teacher telling me I had to work more with my left hand because we’d hear two different sounds,” recalls Firth.
His first drumsticks were handmade from quality Tennessee wood, rolled on his dining room table to check straightness (“Anything that didn’t roll straight went into the fire”) and matched by sensitive ears listening to sticks tapped against a hard floor. Firth didn’t advertise his product; he simply sold more and more through word-of-mouth until his tiny company grew into a giant of music manufacturing.
Today, there’s no more hand turning, table rolling, or floor tapping, but the attention to detail is just the same. “The sticks roll along tracks in specially designed machines,” says Firth, explaining his company’s state-of-the-art manufacturing process. “They’re tapped at different frequencies for pitch, flex, and moisture content, checked for straightness, weighed, then sorted into appropriate boxes so that when we pair them, we get two identical pieces of wood.”
Does Firth still find the time to play despite being the head of a busy company? “I fill in with the Boston Symphony Orchestra when needed,” he says. “Very few timpani players last 50 years. After 25 years they all collapse. They’ve had it; their nerves and sensitivity go, but I’m still having as much fun as I did on my first day!”