The Superball Mallet

The superball mallet came into being in the late 60s through the effort of a Bass player, Clyde Flowers. Lee Charlton and I along with others were gathering for music sessions above Lee's garage in Fairfax, CA. and Clyde Flowers was regular participant in these improvised "free" sessions. Clyde played acoustic upright Bass and due to the nature of the music we were playing, he wanted to extend the range of his Bass and one day he brought with him a superball with a ladies' hair pin fastened to the superabll. The friction potential of this mallet was immediately obvious as you could play any smooth, clean surface by dragging the mallet across it. The sound was "other worldly" and by holding the shaft in different positions while apply various pressures the tones could be varied and controlled. Sometime in the very early 70s both Shelly Manne and Emil Richards sat in on some of Lee's sessions and purchases both waterphones and superball mallets. During Christmas of that year Emil gave away superball mallets to many of his percussion and drummer friends both in Hollywood and elsewhere and from that point forward the sound of the superball on a gong or waterphone could be heard frequently on movie and TV sound tracks.

In our music making I was using superball mallets on the waterphone and other instruments I was making and Lee used the superball mallet on a set of tympani and gongs. I began making these new mallets in a number of configurations using wooden handles and spring steel shafts. However, I was aware of the potential that bamboo had and focused on this material by splitting and carving the shaft down for optimum flexibility. (At that time I got deeply involved in bamboo and opened a bamboo nursery growing and shipping over 110 varieties of bamboo world wide.) Over the years I have changed and expanded the bamboo mallet designs to now include 3 different models of superball mallets. All are hand made (split, carved, & sanded) by me.

(Click on images to enlarge)

There are 2 photos above to show both sides of the mallets. The top photo shows the leather pieces used both for a grip and for striking. The original SB mallet is similar to the one in orange - center of both photos and has a round handle. In the early 90s I began making the Mallet/bow (lime green - top mallet in the photos) which was longer and had a flat handle so that the mallet could be reversed and the flat section used to bow the tonal rods on the waterphone. This allowed the player to expand the sounds and technique without having to lay down and pick up another mallet or bow. The range of the bow portion of the Mallet/Bow does not have the range that a horsehair bow has but there are a number of bowing techniques that work very well with a Mallet/Bow. The most recent SB mallet (2008) I call the "Pro SB" ( yellow - bottom in the photos) as it has elements of the other two mallets but is lighter in weight, smaller and more facile in terms of use. The design is somewhat like a small Mallet/Bow and the handle can be used for short bow strokes on the waterpone tonal rods. The Pro SB mallet is also more labor intensive in terms of shaping the bamboo portion as I split the handle and shaft from a piece of timber bamboo that is a special type and length in terms of nodes and internodes.

Instructions & Information
Although these superball mallets can be used in a traditional striking mode, all superball mallets function best in the friction mode. Consequently, it is important to keep surfaces to be played free of oil, grease and dirt including chicken finger residue. If the superball or the surface to be played becomes contaminated with oil, the superball mallet will not work. To correct this problem clean the surfaces to be played with hot soppy water and/or Isopropyl alcohol. If the oil is persistent you may need to resort to acetone. Next take a medium grit sandpaper and sand the portion of the superall that comes into contact with surfaces to remove the oil. This should put your superball mallet into optimum condition for friction. Do not leave superball mallets in the sun as the UV will rot the rubber and make it unusable for friction playing. As I said earlier the superball mallet can play any smooth surface including glass windows, counter tops, walls,automobiles, as well as stringed & percussion instruments. Superball mallets are extremely versatile mallets and I don't leave home without at least one.

Richard Waters

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