A Guide to choosing the right cymbals for you.
- by Ian Darke, Johnny Roadhouse Music Drum Department Manager
So, you've got the right kit for you - and that's a start! - but now you need to decide which cymbals will complement your drums and give you the sound that you are looking for. Much the same as choosing the right drum kit, choosing cymbals can be a daunting prospect. There are now such a wide variety of manufacturers, sizes, finishes and styles of cymbal, each offering their own distinctive sound, that it is easy to take a wrong turn and end up with something that may not have been exactly what you are looking for - we've all done it! It is exactly this reason that some people accrue cymbals over the years and end up with far too many!
In this guide you will find a brief guide to understanding the different jobs that specific types of cymbals do and some simple steps to make sure that you buy the right cymbal for you.
1) Different types of cymbal
You will have seen pictures of drum kits equipped with so many cymbals that they obscure the person playing the kit. Does a drum kit ever really need to have 10, 11, 12 or more cymbals? Some drummers would argue that each cymbal in such a setup provides an individual sound and are therefore necessary. Others would argue that you can achieve all that needs to be done with a pair of hi-hats, a crash and a ride cymbal - no more.
Any setup that features 10 cymbals can always be reduced down to the essential elements of a cymbal setup; hi-hats, crash cymbals, ride cymbals, splash cymbals and 'effects' cymbals such as Chinese cymbals. Some players may have 5 crash cymbals, others may have 2 or 3 pairs of hi-hats or ride cymbals. At the beginner level, most make do with 1 pair of hi-hats, 1 or 2 crashes and 1 ride. With these 3 or 4 cymbals you will have more than enough scope to create the sounds common in modern mainstream music.
Here is a run down of each type of cymbal and what they are used for:
The hi-hat is perhaps the most essential cymbal in any drummers' setup. This is because it is capable of producing a wide range of sounds and is usually used to provide a steady pulse with snare and bass drum beats layered over the top. In this sense, the hi-hat is really the foundation of any formative beat played on the drum kit. Hi-hats are generally between 13 and 15 inches in diameter, although smaller versions (sometimes called mini hats or recording hats) are available and 16" hi-hats seem to be coming into fashion at the moment. They always consist of 2 cymbals equal in diameter; the bottom cymbal resting upside down on a felt surface while the other is attached to a pull rod which is controlled by a foot pedal. Using the pedal, the two cymbals can be clamped together and struck to create a tight 'chick' sound or played open for a loud, washy sound common in most types of Rock music. Hi-hats are usually placed at the extreme left of the drum kit (providing the player is right-handed).
The key is in the name. The crash cymbal is probably what most people have in mind when they think of a cymbal in the general sense. Crash cymbals come in a wide range of sizes from 14" to 22" in diameter and are often used to add accents as opposed to a steady beat. They are mounted on stands (often referred to as 'boom' stands) and held in place with felts and a wing nut. You'll find a huge variety of crash cymbals in any drum shop varying in size, thickness, finish (the modern 'brilliant' finishes and the duller traditional finishes) and weight. Crash cymbals can be placed anywhere around the kit depending on the drummer's preferences.
A ride cymbal is generally the largest cymbal in the setup. They are used in a similar fashion to the hi-hat in that they can provide a steady groove in most drumming styles. Its name is derived from the role it plays in the cymbal setup: to create an overriding pattern that can have bass and snare beats layered over it. Typically the ride cymbal will be placed at the extreme right of the drum kit, again providing the drummer is right-handed. The most common ride cymbal sizes are between 18 and 22 inches in diameter, although some people opt for a massive 24 inch ride for some musical applications. Ride cymbals can be thick and heavy, the effect of which is to create a 'ping' sound when struck and a long decay. Alternatively they can be thin and light which will result in a build up of 'wash' as the cymbal is played - think of a crescendo of sound that can be conjured up whenever the music calls for it.
Splash cymbals are essentially smaller versions of crash cymbals and are played in much the same way, to create a more delicate accent as opposed to the powerful effect of a crash cymbal. They are generally between 6 and 12 inches in diameter and often quite thin so that they 'open up' easily when played. Originally very popular with Jazz drummers in the 20's and 30's, they fell out of favour soon after but have regained popularity in recent years. A splash cymbal can be an affordable way to add another element to your drum kit. They are usually mounted on a 'boom' arm which clamps to another cymbal stand, as they are usually so light that they don't require a separate stand of their own.
China & Effects Cymbals
This category encompasses a variety of cymbals that are a little more on the unusual side than the standard hi-hat, crash and ride setup.
The most common effects cymbals are Chinese cymbals or China cymbals. These are typically cone shaped cymbals with a 'lip' at the outer edge which curves upwards. This slightly odd shape affects the way that the soundwaves travel from the edge of the cymbal through to the bell at the middle when it is struck and results in a sound that most people describe as 'trashy', dark and 'explosive'. Again, these are predominantly used for accents in modern music. China cymbals were at one time popular with Jazz musicians who used them as ride cymbals to create a more complex sound. However, modern China cymbals are not often used this way as they are now typically manufactured to be thinner and so are not always suited to this purpose.
Other types of effects cymbals are:
Essentially ride / China cymbals that have been drilled and riveted to create a 'buzzing' effect),
EFX, O-Zone or Trash Crash cymbals
The name differs depending on the manufacturer but these are essentially crash cymbals with shapes cut out from the body of the cymbal, creating a slightly trashier sound with a shorter decay.
A cymbal shaped like the bell in the centre of a standard cymbal which give a very bright, 'pingy' sound
The name given to the practice of literally stacking one cymbal on top of another to create a new sound. There is no science to this, simply try various combinations of cymbals and see what sounds good to you. A good place to start is with a larger china or EFX-style cymbal on the bottom and a smaller crash or splash on the top. Both cymbals should face the same way up so that they sit together with no gaps.
2) Different cymbals for different styles
Some cymbals are simply not suited to certain styles of music. Generally speaking, if you play in a heavy metal band you are going to require cymbals that are able to cut through a lot of guitar noise otherwise you are going to be drowned out by your bandmates. This would usually mean choosing cymbals that are thicker and 'brighter' resulting in an overall more powerful and louder sound. Alternatively, if you predominantly play jazz you are likely to require a thinner cymbal, possibly darker in sound, overall more delicate and suited to more a more expressive and nuanced style of playing.
Some players such as session musicians play across a wide range of genres and therefore require a cymbal which above all else is versatile. There are cymbals that fit this description and they are often a good option for someone who is beginning their journey behind the kit and still looking to find their own sound. Still, having an understanding of the sort of music that you want to play is a great tool to have when choosing a cymbal.
3) Anatomy of a cymbal
All cymbals intended for use with a drum set are of the suspended type—that is, they’re designed to be mounted on stands that are either free standing or attached to drum kit components such as the bass drum. A hole is drilled in the center of the cymbal to allow mounting the cymbal to a stand. Most cymbals have a raised center portion referred to as the bell, cup, or dome. Playing the bell produces a higher “pinging” tone than the rest of the cymbal. The remainder of the cymbal is called the bow or shoulder. Cymbals with a pronounced taper in thickness from the bell to its thinner edge may be described as having ride and crash areas. The thicker portion closest to the bell is called the ride area; the thinner, outer portion is the crash area.
Cymbal sizes are designated by their diameter in inches or millimeters. Generally speaking, larger cymbals are louder and have longer sustain. Thinner cymbals tend to have a lower pitch and respond faster. Thicker, heavier cymbals produce greater volume, and thanks to their greater articulation when struck with a drumstick, cut through dense sound mixes better.
Cymbals are generally made from a variety of copper-based alloys, some producing a much nicer sound than others. There are four main types; bell bronze, malleable bronze, brass and nickel silver. The first two types of alloy are distinguishable by their ratio of cooper to zinc.
Bell Bronze, or B20, is regarded as the highest in quality and is made from an alloy of 80% cooper to 20% tin. This particular alloy can be hard to work with due to its naturally brittle state. For this reason it takes more time and care to craft a B20 cymbal resulting in the highest prices. Zildjian have been using a B20 alloy in their high-end cymbals for nearly 400 years. Examples of B20 cymbals are Zildjian A, A Custom, K and K Custom series, Sabian AA, AAX, HH and HHX series and the Meinl Byzance range.
Malleable Bronze, or B8, is the first step down from the highest quality B20 alloy. It has a ratio of 92% copper to 8% tin and for this reason it is easier to work with and cheaper to produce. Most people would see this alloy as inferior in quality to a B20 but Paiste (considered one of the 'big three' cymbal manufacturers) take great pride in using B8 for their professional, high-end 2002, Giant Beat and Rude series cymbals. Sabian's entry-level B8, B8 Pro and APX lines are made from this alloy and have also proved to be very successful. Another reason to be guided by sound and not price alone!
Brass is a cooper / zinc alloy - usually in a ratio of 63/37 - which is almost exclusively used to make low-end cymbals. It's is considered much duller and less versatile than either a B20 or a B8 alloy and durability is often a concern with cymbals made from this alloy. Examples of cymbals made from brass include Sabian Solar, Zildjian Planet Z and Paiste 101 and 302 cymbal series'.
Finally, Nickel-Silver is the least common of any cymbal alloy. It is generally made from 60% copper, 20% nickel and 20% zinc and was used extensively by Paiste in the 30's and 40's. These cymbals lack the shimmer and sensitivity of Bronze and are rarely produced by cymbal manufacturers nowadays.
4) There is no set rule!
Much the same as when buying a first drum kit, when buying a cymbal you should always be guided by sound. With drums there are several factors which make up the desired sound; drum size, wood type, shell thickness, hoop type, drum head selection etc. While these factors are present in cymbals (size, thickness, finish) a cymbal can perhaps be seen as a more 'simple' instrument. They are after all forged from a metal alloy, shaped and nothing more.
Some of the terms used to describe cymbal sounds are beyond the comprehension of even the most seasoned players. Therefore there is really no better alternative to hitting them first-hand and listening to the sound. Here at Johnny Roadhouse we allow customers to play all of our cymbals as we believe it is the only way to get a true representation of their sound. Often if a drummer is looking to buy a new crash cymbal to sit alongside a pair of hats or a ride that they already have, we will allow them to set their cymbals up on our demo kit and then try a variety of crashes until they have found the one that works well with their existing cymbals.
The sound of a cymbal may well differ as is ages. This is due to the cymbal gaining a patina, the name given to the natural oxidisation process that all cymbals go through. This is not harmful to the cymbal, but often results in people asserting that a particular cymbal has been 'played in' or has 'aged nicely'. But generally speaking, the sound never differs drastically to the way it will sound when you first play and buy it. For this reason it is important to try various cymbals before you settle on the right one, because once a cymbal is bought very little can be done to alter it's fundamental sound.
5) Glossary of common terms used to describe cymbal sounds
The response rate of the cymbal. Some models are faster (more attack) than others.
Sounds that are high-pitched; they offer increased cut.
The ability of the sound - usually high-pitched or loud - to cut through the surrounding music.
Low-pitched, warm tones that combine for a 'dark' response that blends into surrounding music.
A minimum of tone ensures a very definite stroke response.
Rate of response when the cymbal is struck: how fast or slow it makes a sound and how that sound decays. A smaller or thinner cymbal responds and decays faster than larger, heavier models.
The predominant or main sound within the overall response of a cymbal. A Dark Crash produces a fundamental sound that has a relatively low, warm, rich tone.
The overtones or series of pitches produced in addition to the fundamental. Every cymbal will have a different percentage of highs, lows and mid-range partials.
Clear, shimmering response. Often clean and smooth -- like glass.
The duration of the sound before it decays. Bigger cymbals sustain longer than smaller models.
The general sound characteristics of a cymbal.
Raw and dirty responses associated with chinese cymbals and some special models.
A softer response that focuses on a blend of low-pitched, musical tones.