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Getting to Know Smith Mallets

An Interview with Robb Smith

Get to know the founder of Smith Mallets and percussionist, Robb Smith.

Let's talk a little about your background. Where did you study and what type of work did you do professionally before you decided to make mallets?

I studied percussion performance in Richmond, VA at Virginia Commonwealth University. Richmond is a great city for music and while at VCU, I was able to gain valuable experience playing with the Richmond Symphony and other regional orchestras. I also played percussion for touring musicals that came to town. Of course, there were all types of pop music gigs there as well. Later I lived in Nashville and Los Angeles where I continued my playing career. I played with countless ensembles over the years and was able to travel the country and perform in many cities in the world. I still enjoy playing in local groups in Phoenix.

While I was in college, I learned to make mallets for myself and as I got good at it, I started selling them to my fellow students. I would even get orders in the mail from students at neighboring universities. Keep in mind that this was in the mid-1980s and long before the internet. I really enjoyed making mallets but at the time I was determined to pursue a performing career. However, I always kept the mallet business in mind and knew that there was something there to revisit. Twenty years ago, I established Smith Mallets and have been making mallets for students and professionals ever since.

What differentiates your mallets from others on the market?

My goal has always been to offer top quality mallets at a fair price. Over the years I have found the very best vendors for raw materials and I never cut corners on quality. I developed a custom machine for mallet wrapping to ensure consistency and it enables me to keep up with demand. We have a great staff who is meticulous about quality and I personally quality check every pair of mallets that leave the shop. I am always available to our customers to answer any questions and help with mallet selections.

What's the main difference between your student series and advanced mallets?

The student series mallets are generally shorter, and the mallet heads are a little smaller than the advanced mallets which helps with note accuracy for the younger players. Also, sometimes the bars on the keyboard instruments for elementary and middle school are more narrow and the smaller mallet heads sound good on those instruments. In no way does “student series” mean lesser quality. They are designed with durability in mind.

What are some must-have mallets you would recommend to band directors for students?

The vast amount of mallet choices can be overwhelming for band directors and students. A simple way to start a mallet collection is to have the minimum pairs of mallets that will sound good on all of the percussion instruments.

Here is an example starter collection:

1 pair of concert drumsticks

1 pair of medium or hard yarn marimba mallets (can be use for marimba, vibraphone, suspended cymbal etc..)

1 pair of hard plastic mallets for xylophone or bells

1 pair of medium rubber mallets for marimba, xylophone, woodblocks, etc…

1 pair of medium timpani mallets (for timpani only - not for cymbals)

From there you add more and more mallets to achieve a wide variety of sound choices.

I noticed these really cool mallet packs for students that recently won NAMM Best In Show award last year. Tell us about that. What's included?

It was a great honor to receive a Best in Show award last year at NAMM and to be recognized for our student mallet packs. The mallet packs come with a stick bag, concert snare drum sticks and a couple of different mallet combinations. The packs can also be customized by band directors or store owners. It is a great way for students to start a mallet collection. Another unintended benefit of the mallet packs in the current climate of Covid-19 is that students won’t need to share mallets. This year we have had several school systems order the packs for that reason alone.

As an experienced percussionist, what's one fundamental skill students need to hone?

Listening. It is easy to get caught up in counting rests and playing the correct rhythms in the correct place at the correct volume that it is easy to forget to listen. Not only should you listen to the ensemble around you but really listen to the sounds that you make on the instruments. So, to make this mallet related, a percussionist should always strive to make the very best sound possible and knowing which mallet to choose for a particular part is an important skill to develop. One misconception that students may have is that hard mallets are for loud playing and soft mallets are for soft playing. It is important to think about mallet hardness in terms of sound quality and articulation and not dynamic level.