Perhaps the most overlooked of all drum accoutrements is the brush. Despite this, the brush remains as one of the most unique sounding tools in the drummer’s palette. Originally referred to as “fly swatters” the first brush design is believed to have been patented around the early 1900’s. As an alternative to the drumstick, brushes enabled drummers to play quieter while still retrieving a more dynamic sound. Brushes were primarily used to soften the sound of the snare, but still let the sound be heard.
Constructed by a set of bristles connected to a handle brushes open to a rounded fan shape. The bristles can be made of metal or plastic; handles are commonly made of wood or aluminum, and are often coated with rubber. Some brushes are telescoping, so that the bristles can be pulled inside a hollow handle and the fan made by the bristles can be of variable length, width and density. Retracting the bristles also protects the brush when it is not being used. The non-bristled end of the brush may end in a loop or a ball.
Before this drum stick type, others in a band were not heard during concerts. Recording of music was also a problem as the drums tended to be too loud in the studio and it interfered with the other instruments. Brushes were mainly used in jazz and swing music whereupon the technique of “stirring the soup” was originated. Many of the big name drummers of the 30’s and 40’s to include Gene Krupa, Papa Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett mastered the brush and developed their own styles. Later Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones took brushes to the next level. Players like Steve Smith and Daniel Glass skillfully utilize the brushes today.
Gerry Patton has written an excellent source on the history of the brush at: http://www.brushbeat.org/documents/Never_Swat_a_Fly.pdf
Here is a video on the history of brushes presented by our friend Daniel Glass: