Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Truth About Cymbals

Drums are drums. They're loud. They’re exciting. They have body, depth, personality. But cymbals seem to have all this and something more. Soul, perhaps? There are drummers who will switch drums whenever the mood strikes. But these same drummers are often as likely to keep the same cymbals through many changes of drum setup or brand.

Unlike a drum, a cymbal is a fixed entity. Drums can be tuned and retuned; heads can be changed and tweaked. With a cymbal, it is what it is, and either it works or it doesn't. So choosing a cymbal is usually more difficult than choosing a drum.

Tony Williams loved K Zildjian cymbals. His only complaint was that he had to go through 50 or 60 of them to find one that worked. I've gone through more than a dozen in one sitting, only to find that the 'right' cymbal didn’t work for me in the end. It now seems to have become a lifelong mission to find that elusive sound. And to be honest, I’m somewhat enjoying the ordeal.

So here is what I think I’ve learned so far about living with cymbals:

Choosing & Buying 

Before you go laying down hard-earned dollars for cymbals, have a good look at your wants and especially your needs. Maybe you have hand-hammered tastes but a sheet metal budget. Or you love the quick response of very thin crash cymbals but play in a death metal band. The cymbals you choose should match all aspects of your situation, not just your wants.

Fortunately the range of cymbals and price points these days is very broad, so you have an excellent chance of finding a great cymbal at a price you can live with. With options such as B8 bronze and sheet bronze, there are plenty of good entry-level choices available. And at the upper end, well there doesn't seem to be an end. Suffice it to say, if the budget allows, you might go for something rare and exotic such as one-off artisan cymbals or a coveted vintage cymbal. 

Let's assume you don't know quite where to start. I recommend you start with a short list of your favourite drummers. Then go to their personal or band website and find out what cymbals they use. Next, drop by the cymbal maker's website. (These are almost always worth a visit regardless.) You'll usually find artist profiles along with their cymbal setups. In addition to info on cymbals, there may be audio samples of the cymbals you're interested in. Some sites have a 'set builder' feature that lets you choose and hear a selection of cymbals.  

Then head for the drum shop or, more likely, several. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Let them know that you're looking for a particular cymbal or style, and then try, try, try. And be prepared to walk away empty handed. You'll be glad that you took your time when you're able to add cymbals that truly reflect your personal sound.

Give it a proper test  

While a cymbal might sound great in the shop, the only way to tell if it's a keeper is to try it with your kit, preferably under actual playing conditions. If possible, take your current cymbal set up with you so you can work toward a fit. Some music shops have generous exchange/return policies, and that’s a great asset when it comes to cymbals. You don’t want to be stuck with a clunker.


Let 'em breathe. To me there's nothing as disheartening as seeing a cymbal that cracked because it was clamped down too tightly. Cymbals need to move … so let them. They'll sound better and last longer. Also, don’t forget to replace felts and protective sleeves when necessary.


It's important to remember that a cymbal is a musical instrument, and a rather expensive one. Playing with energy and applying some muscle is fine, but there is a point beyond which cymbals were never meant to be pushed.

There's no trick to playing a cymbal properly: Just hit it firmly with a sideways stroke. Your objective is to get the metal to vibrate. Crashing straight down on it or driving a stick straight into it will shorten a cymbal’s lifespan in a hurry. Pay attention to the sound you're making rather than the physical impact of your playing.

If you get off on a lot of cymbal crashes and accents, invest in a few suitable instruments. Hearing the same single cymbal crashing over and over can wear out your welcome with the band and the audience. It’s also easier on your cymbals to spread the load over a few of them rather than overworking just 1 or 2. 

Storage & Transporting 

Hopefully your cymbals won't see any actual storage time, but they will always benefit from being kept in a proper cymbal carrier between uses. It's also a good idea to put something protective between the cymbals. The main environmental concern is heat, so be sure to keep cymbals away from extreme heat sources. Cold shouldn't bother them, but here too, extremes should be avoided. And always let them come to room temperature before putting them to work.


Lots of opinions here. The main question is, what are you trying to accomplish? If all you care about is shine, then clean and polish often. If you want to renew a cymbal's bright tone, then some judicious cleaning is in order. If you like the mellowness and dark patina of an older cymbal, then you might want to forgo cleaning altogether or clean only lightly with soap and water. There are many ways to clean cymbals and each has its pros and cons. I use a cymbal maker’s product (or a gentle household cleanser on tough cases) and avoid ‘chemical strippers’ such as Brasso. If you choose to use a power buffer, be prepared for a change in tone. And don’t go at it too hard; the heat build-up from buffing can kill a cymbal real fast.


Is there really that much difference between a new cymbal and an older classic? Yes and no. There's more variation between same-type cymbals made before about 1985. That's when cymbal makers began to switch over to mechanized processes. Does that make a difference? Not overly. The metal is the same, the design principles and craftsmanship are essentially the same.

Then what is the deal with vintage instruments? Supply and demand, a bit of mystique, exclusivity -- those are the soft factors. Over time, a cymbal will tarnish and attract dirt. These affect the sound as much as or more than simple age and ‘playing in’. Still, age and playing both affect the nature of the metal, and that is what vintage cymbal fans are looking for. It's a bit like vintage wines, but if you don't like well-aged wine, it really doesn't matter how special it is. And old or new, the right cymbal is the right cymbal.

(Here's an interesting point. If you clean a vintage cymbal right down to the original metal, it will sound pretty much like a new cymbal. Hmm.)


So choose cymbals that suit your music and your style of playing. Listen to the sounds your cymbals make. Treat them as you would any expensive musical instrument. And keep trying. Cymbals makers are always coming up with new sounds and refining the old ones, so there's always something interesting to hear at your local drum shop. Never stop searching for that 'special' sound. 

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