Is there really a difference between pickleball paddles? That's one of the most common questions asked about pickleball paddles, and it most often comes from new players. So, in short, here's the answer.
Yes - there is a profound difference between pickleball paddles. Hundreds of attributes create significant differences between paddles, from tangible factors like materials, weight, and shape, to intangible factors like craftsmanship, innovation, and sourcing.
How each component orchestrates into a final paddle will ultimately influence its performance and cost. While some new players will ask this question to justify spending $20 vs $200 on a paddle, others simply don't understand all the differences that make up a paddle.
Regardless of the path this question stems from, both are meant to influence a purchase decision.
This post is built to help you ask and answer 11 questions to find the perfect paddle that fits your needs. Use this questionnaire as an accompanying document to Paddletek's pickleball paddle buyer's guide.
Where the buyer's guide explains the ins and outs of 5 key components of a paddle, this questionnaire will help you personalize your needs for a paddle, giving you clearer direction on what you should ask of your next paddle.
Now then, in no particular order, here are 11 questions to ask yourself before you buy your next paddle.
1. What's Your Pickleball Rating?
If you don't know what a pickleball rating is, jump over to our 3-step guide to get started, then come back right after. If you don't feel like hopping out of this article, your rating is a simple way of knowing your skill level.
For the abridged version of pickleball ratings, there are a few ways you can get a rating, and the scales can differ a bit, but using USA Pickleball's skill levels for guidance, someone new to pickleball with no paddle or racquet sport experience would start at 1.0. Someone at the pro level would be 5.5+.
This is an important question to ask yourself before buying a paddle because it reflects skill and experience. Depending on your experience, you may benefit more from a midweight paddle with a larger head to help balance power and control. And rarely would you recommend a heavy paddle to a new player.
Whereas, if you're an experienced player, you may know the outage in your game. For instance, you're looking for ways to improve your finesse shots or want to boost the power on your shots. Each is a different need, and each would require a different path for a paddle.
2. What's Your Style of Play? Banging, Aggressive, or Soft?
Asking which style you play (needing power, aggressive, or soft game), helps determine your strengths and weaknesses. Playing aggressively is a bit of a trick question since it's a very complete approach to playing, each style comes with pros and cons.
Quite a few factors pop up when you start asking this question. In short, do you want more power, a softer touch, or something that can help in both areas?
Not sure which way to go here? Let's dig a bit further into what each means.
What's the Difference between a Banger and Playing Aggressively?
The main difference between a banger and someone who plays aggressively is that a banger solely relies on powerful shots to win a rally, whereas an aggressive player can switch between power and finesse to keep their opponents on the defensive.
It might seem a bit subtle, but there's a clear difference. A banger just can't help but hit every shot with power - they are simply trying to overpower their opponent to win.
Whereas an aggressive player knows when to flip the switch, and while their shot could be powerful or soft, the aggression is about how they strategically place the ball. Playing aggressively can involve using power shots as well, but can also include more strategy, such as placing the ball out of reach of your opponent or gaining an advantage in the court positioning.
It's most easily understood when you look at the types of shots each can hit:
- Bangers: Forehand drives, backhand smashes, drives, drives, and more drives. Never a drop shot or lob.
- Aggressive Players: Drives, drop shots, dinks, lobs, serves, volleys, serve returns - everything is on the table, and the speed at which each is done is custom to the situation.
What's a Soft Game in Pickleball?
A soft game in pickleball focuses on finesse and clever shot placement rather than power and strength. This style relies on using soft shots like dinks, drop shots, and sometimes lobs to gain control of the court and keep the opponent guessing.
These types of shots also require good footwork so that you can stay ahead of your opponents' return shots. The objective is to make it difficult for your opponent to find their rhythm and eventually tire them out.
How Does Style of Play Influence What Paddle You Select?
Depending on whether you want to lean into your strength or augment a weakness, the playing style has a profound impact on selecting a paddle that's conducive to your desired play.
In a simple scenario, imagine you have 3 players who are each looking to purchase new paddles. Each has a unique style - power, soft game, and aggressive. Instead of switching up how they play, they are looking for a paddle that boosts their preferred way of playing pickleball.
Their purchases might look something like this:
The Power Player:
This player might opt for an elongated paddle with a heavier weight. The extended reach combined with greater mass will generate greater force. They might also look at a thinner core and a fiberglass surface to boot.
The Soft Game Player:
To maximize finesse, this person might choose a lightweight paddle in a standard shape, or even look at an edgeless face since they'll be dinking so frequently. Since they want more support in and around the kitchen, they may be less concerned about power, so a thicker core with a graphite face could be a good option.
The Aggressive Player:
- This player likely needs a good balance of power and control. But can easily adjust certain elements slightly to amplify components. For instance, they may choose many versatile attributes, like a midweight paddle with a polymer core, and standard shape, but want to add a component to help with a more powerful finesse, such as a carbon fiber surface material.
Should each player want to compensate for any outages, they would want to look at paddles at the opposite ends of the spectrum - the power player who wants softer shots would want to get a paddle closer to the soft game player and vice versa.
There are even more ways to lean into a style of play, but you hopefully get the point here. Knowing the style you have or the style of play you want to emulate can add direction to your hunt for the perfect paddle for you.
3. Do You Prefer Thicker or Thinner Paddles?
This one is very straightforward and is solely about the core of a paddle. But while you may think it's just about the thickness of the core, it can also involve the type of material used for the core.
The thickness of your paddle is a sliding scale of power and control. Thinner paddles offer more pop and power and are typically lighter than their thicker counterparts, which helps with paddle agility. Thicker paddles, on the other hand, provide more control and consistency on each shot.
It's buried in there a little bit, but control comes in two ways with a thicker paddle, both revolving around the transference of energy. When the ball makes contact with your paddle, a thicker core will consistently take the brunt of that so your hand doesn't recoil and throw your accuracy or placement off.
A thicker core will also maintain its strength across a wider area of the paddle, meaning if you make contact outside of the sweet spot, you'll have a more intact hit than you would with a thinner paddle.
Energy absorption is the key difference between core thickness levels, and since a thicker paddle will own more of each hit than a thinner paddle, your body picks up the tab for this energy more with a thin paddle.
So if you're prone to tennis elbow (which by the way should be renamed pickleball elbow) then this could be a consideration for a thicker paddle since it will reduce the impact on your arm.
Knowing that you prefer one to the other is usually a good way to indicate whether you like to play with a paddle that offers more control or power.
Do You Know What Type of Core Material You Prefer?
As it relates to the core material, polymer core is certainly popular, and there are many reasons for this. It's durable, has a nice balance of power and control, and is widely available.
But there are also other types of core materials, like Nomex, and some consist of blends. For instance, Paddletek's Tempest Wave Pro uses an advanced high-grade carbon fiber polymer, which helps enhance control without sacrificing power.
4. Does the Ball Often Make Clean Contact with Your Paddle?
Whether you're dinking or driving, do you usually hit the ball cleanly, or does it seem to hit dead spots on your paddle? If you answered the latter, it may be one of two things.
First, your paddle may need to retire as the core could be compromised and it's affecting your shots. But more likely, you may be playing with a paddle that has too small of a sweet spot.
What is the Sweet Spot on a Pickleball Paddle?
The sweet spot of a pickleball paddle is the area on the paddle face where contact with the ball will provide the truest response from the paddle; where the paddle's purest power and accuracy are best exemplified.
Finding the sweet spot can help players hit precise shots with maximum force, ultimately improving their performance. Also, hitting through or near the sweet spot helps reduce vibration and strain on wrists and arms. For this reason, it is important to find and use the sweet spot when playing pickleball.
But you know what, unless you're a pro, the majority of your shots will be just off-center. That's why the sweet spot size matters. Different shapes and structures can impact the size of a sweet spot.
If you find that you're constantly hitting the ball where it feels like you're way off-center, or just not getting the most pop out of your shots, then you may want to look at a paddle with a larger sweet spot.
For example, if you compare a standard paddle shape to that of an elongated paddle, the standard paddle shape will have a larger sweet spot than the elongated one. Meaning, you may not want to go with a more narrow paddle if struggling to make solid contact with the ball is currently a challenge for you.
5. Which Paddle Weight Do You Prefer: Lightweight, Midweight, or Heavy?
You may or may not know that pickleball paddles are loosely classified into three weight classes, as follows:
- 7.3 ounces or less - Lightweight
- Between 7.3 ounces and 8.3 ounces - Midweight
- 8.3 ounces or greater - Heavy
Some groups will classify heavy paddles as anything over 8 ounces, so just know that there's some gray area to this. But the more important point is how these weights impact performance, and why you may like one over the other.
Discussed in greater detail in Paddletek's guide to picking the right paddle weight, the general concept is that heavier weight creates more power, whereas lighter weight supports greater control. So naturally, midweight paddles fall somewhere in between, toeing the line of power and control.
If you know you're preference for paddle weight, it may line up with the following:
- Lighter Paddles: If you love soft shots, maximum control in placing a shot, or just the hand speed you have at the kitchen line, then you may prefer a lightweight paddle.
- Heavier Paddles: You enjoy driving the ball and playing aggressively as it relates to power.
Weight is critically important and is the result of everything that goes into creating a paddle. While it may be the difference of 1 ounce between light and heavy, when you make hundreds of shots a game, this can have a significant influence on your performance.
But you should know that there's another type of weight you need to know about, and that's the balance weight of a paddle - let's look at that now.
6. Do You Ever Add Lead Tape Weight to Your Paddle? If So, How?
As you know, a heavier weight adds power overall, but this question is more specific to swing weight, and the balance you create. In other words, when you add weight to your paddle, do you do so in a balanced way or do you typically add the weight toward one side of the head?
There will naturally be an area of your paddle where you can evenly balance its weight. For some paddles that may be closer to the head, for others, it may be closer to the jewel on the grip/handle.
And depending on where and how you hold the paddle, or if you add weight to it, you'll feel that balance shift.
What is a Pickleball Paddle's Swingweight?
Swingweight, which is extremely common with golf clubs and tennis racquets, is one way that equipment sports measure the balance and power of clubs and racquets. The same principles can be applied to pickleball paddles.
Swingweight takes into account the length of your paddle, its weight, and how it's balanced. The latter factor accounts for whether the head of your paddle is heavy or light - that is, does the weight favor the head or the handle?
When you calculate these variables for a paddle, you can rate them on an ordinal scale to determine if it has a low or high swingweight. If it's a lower swingweight, it will be easier to move and manipulate your paddle but at the price of power. A high swingweight does the opposite, giving you more power with less maneuverability.
So, do you ever add lead tape? If so, this could be because you have a preferred balance in a paddle and didn't even know it, or it could mean that you like where the power comes from on a paddle.
You can measure this with whatever new paddle you look at, and see how it compares to your current paddle. Check out Tennis Warehouse University's guide to measuring swingweight. It's specific to tennis racquets, but the same guide applies to your pickleball paddle as well.
7. Do You Wish You Had Extra Reach?
There's no need to wish when you can get elongated paddles these days. But if you decide to go with an elongated paddle, do you know what you gain and lose in the process? If you're a beginner, we wouldn't advise you to pick an elongated paddle.
And if you don't understand why, jump back up to the 4th question on this list. Some limitations can almost guarantee an elongated paddle is going to have a tighter sweet spot.
USA Pickleball Paddle Size Constraints
Some limitations can almost guarantee an elongated paddle is going to have a tighter sweet spot. It comes down to size constraints regulated by USA Pickleball (Rule 2.E.3.)
The rule requires USA Pickleball-sanctioned paddles to follow two criteria:
- The combined length and width of the paddle... shall not exceed 24 inches. This includes any element of the paddle, such as an edge guard or jewel (butt cap).
- The paddle length cannot exceed 17 inches.
Because of this rule, for an elongated paddle to be sanctioned for USA Pickleball tournament play, which nearly every paddle would want, the greatest length it could be is 17 inches.
And since the overall combined L+W cannot exceed 24 inches, the maximum width at a 17-inch length would be 7 inches. To put this in context the vast majority of paddles will have a width between 7.5 inches and 8 inches.
The surface area will be the same, but the surface area of the elongated paddle will decrease as the paddle gets narrower.
And a smaller sweet spot isn't exactly a winning recipe for pickleball newcomers, typically reserving elongated paddles for players with more experience. Barring sweet spots, what are the pros and cons of an elongated paddle then?
Pros of An Elongated Pickleball Paddle:
- Reach: This is certainly a factor, albeit just an inch or less compared to most standard shapes, this slight difference can mean the difference in getting to a ball or not. Greater reach lets you hit the ball earlier and at different angles than you would get by conventional paddles.
- Power: Offers greater power potential due to its added length, which requires the head of the paddle to move faster than it would if the length were shorter.
- Singles: This is less an attribute and more so the perfect condition for an elongated paddle, but in singles, even skinny singles, you've got to cover twice the ground. Having an extra inch is a big deal and quite helpful.
Cons of An Elongated Pickleball Paddle:
- Maneuverability: May feel unwieldy or difficult to handle, which could affect performance on the court. Your agility will most likely suffer as a result as well.
- Placement: You can reach further and hit with greater power, so naturally your ability to place a soft shot is going to become more challenging.
8. Do You Have a Preferred Paddle Surface?
Everyone's heard about fiberglass, graphite, and carbon fiber paddles. But few understand how they truly behave, and even fewer could tell you the difference between graphite and carbon fiber. And yes, there is absolutely a difference between the two. More on that in a second though.
Unless you're a chemist or physicist, it's valid to not fully get the differences across each surface material. When words like allotropes, composites, and polymers join any conversation, it's easy to shut your ears and let your eyes glaze over, but using one vs. the other for a pickleball paddle can change the trajectory of a paddle's behavior.
What is a Composite? What Pickleball Paddle Surfaces Are Composites?
A composite is a material composed of two or more substances that have been physically combined. Fiberglass, carbon fiber, and graphite are all considered composites.
- Fiberglass is a composite material made up of thin strands of glass fibers bonded together with a resin.
- Graphite is also a composite material composed of carbon atoms arranged in layers that are bonded together.
- Carbon fiber is made from extremely thin strands of crystalline carbon bonded together with a resin.
All three materials are strong yet lightweight which makes them ideal for the construction of pickleball paddles.
Are Graphite and Carbon Fiber Different Or Interchangeable?
Graphite and carbon fiber are two different materials. Carbon fiber is made from strands of crystalline carbon, while graphite is composed of layers of carbon atoms that are bonded together.
Graphite does not contain any glass fibers like fiberglass does, and carbon fiber does not contain any crystalline layers like graphite does. Graphite is not made from carbon fiber, but both materials can be used to create pickleball paddles due to their similar properties.
If you want to dig into surface materials further, you'll love Paddletek's pickleball paddle buyer's guide since it covers the finer details of each.
But should you prefer the CliffsNotes version instead, here's what you need to know about the three most popular paddle faces, and yes, there are more than just these three.
Fiberglass Pickleball Paddles in a Nutshell: Power Composite
Bear with us for this one, but take a trip down memory lane and remember a time as a kid when you were jumping on a trampoline. At a microscopic level, this is what happens when the pickleball (younger you) hits a paddle made with a fiberglass surface (trampoline.)
Fiberglass is super flexible, so when the ball hits its face, it slingshots right back in the opposite direction, and this is how it generates tremendous power and why it's a more conducive surface for players needing more reliable power.
Under a more scientific lens, the innate flexibility of fiberglass helps transfer more energy from the paddle to the ball. Fiberglass is also the heaviest of the three finished materials in this list, although marginal, you know what effect weight can have on power.
Graphite Pickleball Paddles in a Nutshell: Control Element
Graphite surfaces on a pickleball paddle provide players with more control and accuracy, allowing them to tackle even the toughest shots. The stiff nature of the graphite surface helps generate power while still providing the player with precise movements.
When the ball impacts a graphite surface, it tends to spread that impact across the surface instead of sinking in like fiberglass, this assists in control.
Players with a penchant for the soft game or aggressive playing style who want to gain more control over their shots and increase their accuracy would benefit the most from graphite surfaces on a pickleball paddle.
Carbon Fiber Pickleball Paddles in a Nutshell: Control with Power Composite
Carbon fiber surfaces on a pickleball paddle provide players with enhanced control. The lightweight nature of the carbon fiber surface makes it easier for aggressive players to generate more power without sacrificing control.
Carbon fiber surfaces can also be great for the soft game and defensive players to make quick reactions and adjustments.
Carbon fiber is typically lighter than graphite, allowing for more dynamic and powerful swings and those quicker movements mentioned previously. It also has a stiffer feel than graphite, which helps players maintain control while swinging with greater power.
9. Is Spin an Important Part of Your Game?
Spin isn't for everyone, but those who play with spin tend to love to use it - you're either all in or not at all it seems. And just as spin isn't for every player, not every paddle is conducive to spin. Some are far better at creating spin than others. Can you guess what part of the paddle adjusts the degree of spin?
If you answered grit or texture, you're correct, but that one's too easy. Thankfully there are several features of a paddle that can enhance or decrease the ability to generate heavy spin.
If you love to drop some spin on your shots, in addition to grit, you'll want to look at paddles that include the following elements:
Larger Head Size:
Having a larger head size on your paddle increases the surface area of contact between the paddle and the ball. This increased surface area allows you to make a bigger impact with the ball, increasing rotation and generating spin.
Based on the 7th question on our full list, you know there are limitations to a paddle's length and width. So how can one paddle have more surface area than another?
It all comes down to the handle - a shorter handle can add more length to the head of a paddle, and therefore increase its total surface area. So part of picking a larger head size for a greater spin effect may also mean picking a shorter grip/handle.
Shape and Sweet Spot:
This is a real balancing act - a larger sweet spot found in a more oval and teardrop shape is going to help you gain better control and spin as a byproduct. But, on the other end, you have elongated paddles that are great at creating spin too, yet they notoriously have smaller sweet spots.
A bit more on paddle shape, any paddle with a pronounced round or curvy head shape can tap into the gear effect to create additional spin at the point of contact with a ball. This is because different points of contact around the sweet spot can affect the directional curve of the shot, depending on where it strikes.
There's a tradeoff as it relates to the shape and size of the sweet spot for creating spin, both can achieve a similar goal but have different means of getting there.
Balanced Weight Distribution:
Referring back to the 6th question on the list, you'll recall the role of swingweight and paddle balance. A more evenly distributed weight of a pickleball paddle will increase the amount of spin you can generate when you make contact with the ball.
By having a balanced paddle weight distribution, you can create more power and spin from this centralized movement. This helps to apply greater force when hitting the ball, resulting in increased spin and control over your shots.
The center of gravity, which is determined by the weight distribution of your paddle, is a component of spin that nobody talks about, but absolutely should.
Having a thicker core increases spin through improved control. By having a thicker core, your paddle has more give when the ball makes contact with it. This provides you with more control to direct the spin of the ball in whatever direction you want.
10. Singles or Doubles?
When it comes to pickleball, playing singles pickleball calls for a different strategy than doubles. Doubles pickleball spends far more time dinking around, whereas singles require covering a lot more ground and less dinking.
In doubles, when near the kitchen, you have to be cautious about volleys as you know, but you're often looking to create angled shots toward your opponent's weak side or cross-court dinks, in the hope you can keep them off balance.
Playing close to the net is very much a delicate balance of control and intentional power after some true patience.
On the other hand, if you prefer to play singles, you may be forced to play a game with a lot more space between you and the net. This can rely more heavily on powerful drives and smashes as a result.
While both singles and doubles require skills to play up front and back, if you commonly play one over the other, then a specific paddle type may be better suited for your games and where you're commonly positioned on the court.
If You Play Doubles
You'll inevitably play near the kitchen in doubles, some features you might want to look for in a paddle include one that's lightweight or midweight, has a large sweet spot, and features a gripping texture on its surface.
All of these features can contribute towards improved accuracy, control, and agility when taking shots close to the net while avoiding the pitfalls of volleying in the kitchen.
A light or midweight paddle allows for quick reaction time when volleying or making sharp returns on tricky shots - it's less mass to move around. A larger sweet spot helps with control and is far more forgiving if you make an error so close.
Plus the sweet spot is a dear friend of spin, which is where a gripping texture comes into play. The extra grip adds a new dimension to dropping angled shots and advanced spin techniques on your court foes.
Specific to materials, graphite and carbon fiber paddle faces are going to be better at improving your touch and finesse close-up.
If You Play Singles
You need the Swiss Army Knife of pickleball paddles. At a minimum, this might include attributes of a paddle that find a balance of power and control in many aspects.
For example, you may want a midweight, a moderately thick core, most likely a carbon fiber face, or a hybrid that finds a balance between fiberglass and graphite features.
However, if you want to lean in one direction, power is more likely the better end of the spectrum since you'll spend more time further from the net than in a game like doubles.
For more power, an elongated paddle is a great solution, so long as you can handle a smaller sweet spot. If you wanted to maintain a more standard paddle shape, bump up to a heavier weight and swap the paddle face material for fiberglass.
11. Do You Know Your Grip Size?
If you know, you're good. But if you don't, this is a good time to put some thought into it and try some paddles out yourself. Choosing the right grip size is essential for comfortable play and maximum performance.
Here are some things you should consider when selecting a paddle with the right grip size:
- Comfort: Grip size should be tailored to fit your hand, so it feels comfortable and reduces fatigue during long matches.
- Control: Correctly-sized grips provide more control over your shots and help you make quick adjustments while playing.
- Power: The right grip size maximizes power as it allows you to transfer more energy from your arms to the paddle, resulting in powerful returns.
- Maneuverability: Smaller grips are easier to maneuver around quickly, allowing for quick reaction times when defending the court.
Getting the right size grip is as easy as trying a few paddles out for yourself. Generally, you'll want to choose something that fits comfortably in your hand and allows for complete control of the paddle.
So, if you don't already know your grip size, take some time on the court or at the store to try some paddles out to determine the right size. Remember to always aim smaller if you truly don't know, you can always beef the grip up an overgrip.
Keep in mind that grips usually range between 3.875 inches and 4.5 inches. There are outliers, but the large majority of grips will fit into that range of circumference. So if you had to shoot from the hip on grip size estimation, use the following two methods to get close.
Relationship of Palm to Grip Size
This is an old racquet sports trick for figuring out your grip size, but surprisingly accurate nonetheless in pickleball or otherwise. You'll just need a ruler and a free hand to do this.
- Open your dominant paddle hand so that your palm is facing upward. Instead of fanning your fingers out, make sure they are flush so you can't see any space between them.
- With your hand facing you, look for two horizontal creases in your palm. Did you find it? Perfect.
- Take your ruler and drop one end of it right between the two horizontal creases of your palm so that the length of the ruler runs parallel to your index finger.
- Slide the ruler horizontally toward your ring finger, while still keeping the butt of the ruler as centered on the two horizontal palm creases as possible.
- Once the ruler is completely parallel to your ring finger, measure and record the length from the butt of the ruler to where your fingernail starts curving around your finger.
You should find a scarily accurate measurement with this method, most likely landing somewhere between 3 7/8" and 4.5." Round to the nearest 1/8th when you record your measurement. This is a good time to round down since it's always better to aim small and build up with an overgrip. Remember to test and feel out several different sizes before making your purchase.
We Hope You Have 11 Answers by This Point
Who knew picking the perfect pickleball paddle required more than picking your favorite graphic on the paddle face? Joking aside, although picking a paddle may seem complicated, we hope you've reached the point where you understand that knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and the type of player you want to be is clear enough to make an informed purchase decision.
Other factors play an important role in the paddle too, such as where is the paddle manufactured, or where are those materials sourced. For instance, many brands will source their paddles and materials offshore, but Paddletek sources materials and manufactures in the US. It's important to us, and you can feel the difference in quality.
If you want to learn more about the 5 critical elements of buying a pickleball paddle, we'd encourage you to check out Paddletek's thorough buyer's guide. Remember, this is more so the accompanying document to get you asking the right questions.
If you go from this to the buyer's guide, you'll be well-informed by the end.
Buying a paddle doesn't have to be complicated, and the detail in this guide is simply to answer any question you may have. As always, if you still have questions, we're here to help you at any time.