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There’s nothing more exciting around a drum kit than the sound of a cymbal crash. It often marks the transition into a new section of a song, acts as an accent that punctuates a musical passage or dance number, or signals the dramatic end of a great tune. If you have been playing drums for a while, you probably know what types of cymbal sounds you want to have around your drum set. If you’re new to drumming, this article will give you some useful pointers on how to find cymbals to help you get your drumming career off to a good start.

Go to the website of any major cymbal company and you’ll find an overwhelming selection of cymbal possibilities. Splashes, crashes, dark, brilliant, large, small, vintage, modern – how do you know where to start? Let’s break cymbal selection down to a few key elements.

Cymbal quality

Cymbals are most commonly made of bronze. Some entry level cymbals are made of brass to keep the purchase price low, but your cymbals will usually be made of some formula of bronze. Bronze is a combination of copper and tin and occasionally contains other metals like silver. The two types of bronze most often used for cymbals are B20 – which is 80% copper and 20% tin – and B8, which is 92% copper and 8% tin. B20 is generally thought to have better sonic qualities than B8, but that’s not always the case. B8 can be found in several models that have a long history of desirability across multiple styles of music. Some high-end cymbal bronze is between B8 and B20, and offers sound qualities sought out by the best players in the business.

 

B20 [bronze] is generally thought to have better sonic qualities than B8, but that’s not always the case. B8 can be found in several models that have a long history of desirability across multiple styles of music.

 

How are cymbals made? Watch a documentary on how one brand makes theirs.

Types of cymbals

Cymbals can usually be sorted into four broad categories: crash, ride, hi-hat, and effect.

Crash cymbals: When struck on their edge fairly hard with a stick, crash cymbals should have a good explosive sound that’s not too long in duration. Sizes typically range from 14” to 18”, and a nice 16” is a good size for starters. A general rule is the thicker the cymbal, the higher the pitch. If you’re playing a lot of rock music, a thicker cymbal may withstand the loud crashes better than a thinner cymbal (although the latter has more flexibility). Thinner cymbals have a lower pitch and would be favored by those playing jazz or other more subtle forms of music. This is not to say that you can’t hit a thin cymbal hard and produce an acceptable sound. You can, but the risk of cracking the cymbal is greater.

Ride cymbals: The ride cymbal needs to be able to give a distinct, quick ping-like sound to your ride sticking patterns (eighth notes, standard jazz pattern, etc.) when played on the bow (the flat area that makes up most of the cymbal). A large bell can be struck more easily when you play music that calls for that sound, but the larger the bell, the more overtones the cymbal can have. Too many overtones and the “ping” of the ride – its signature sound – will be lost. Sizes here range from 18” up to 26”, with a 20” or 22” being a good starting point.

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Sabian’s wall of cymbals at NAMM 2016

Hi-hats: Hi-hat cymbals are usually sold in pairs with the bottom cymbal being slightly thicker than the top cymbal. The same rule about thin vs. thick applies here: the thinner the cymbal, the lower the pitch; the thicker the cymbal, the higher the pitch. Typical sizes range from 12” to 14”, but starting with a 13” or 14” will provide an acceptable sound for any type of music. If you’re playing rock, try substituting a heavy, thick cymbal for the bottom cymbal. This trick works well for that style.

Effects cymbals: These are nice to have, but if you’re starting out on a tight budget, you can delay adding these until later. There are many options. China cymbals have a “trashcan lid” sort of tone that works for certain accents. Splash cymbals are very small crash cymbals that add a quick, high frequency shimmer to your sound palette. These work nicely behind a soft vocal passage or other low volume musical segment. Other effects cymbals might be anything from an 18” crash with large holes drilled into it to a cymbal that has been cut into a spiral shape for a totally unique sound experience.

What to buy first

You’ll want to focus your first cymbal purchases on a single ride, one or two crashes, and a good set of hi-hats. These are the cymbals that you’ll use the most in any style of music at any point in your career. Let’s take some time to look at how to make those selections.

 

You’ll want to focus your first cymbal purchases on a single ride, one or two crashes, and a good set of hi-hats.

 

In the above descriptions of each type of cymbal, there’s a short discussion of what type of sound that cymbal type should make. When you go cymbal shopping, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the myriad choices available to you. If you’re just starting to play the drums and making your very first cymbal purchases, a box set from any major musical instrument retailer or local drum shop is not a bad way to go.

Like anything else, the more you pay the better product you get, but some clearance specials can get you outfitted for under $200USD with a decent set of cymbals that will work until you develop a more discerning ear for cymbal sounds.

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Anika Nilles’ setup of Meinl Cymbals

If you live near a retail music store, or are really fortunate and live near an independent drum shop, bravely grab a stick and start boldly playing some cymbals. The salesperson will be more than happy to help you make smart selections. Cymbal consistency has improved over the years, but even within the same brand and model, individual cymbals can still be unique in their sound characteristics. Let your ear be the guide, and buy what sounds good to you.

Your most important purchase

The most important part of your cymbal purchase is not a cymbal at all. It’s a case to carry them in! Once you’ve chosen your cymbal set, you’ll need to get them home at least, and to many gigs at best. A good leather-like case with soft lining and dividers should do nicely. If you know you have work coming up and will be transporting the cymbals often, a hard case gives the best protection. Cymbals are heavy too, so a case with wheels may be the best option.

 

Cymbal consistency has improved over the years, but even within the same brand and model, individual cymbals can still be unique in their sound characteristics.

 

This article really just begins to discuss the many issues involved in cymbal selection and purchase. Spend time online researching cymbal history, a bit about metallurgy, and the many options available for size, shape, and finish. What you learn will not only get you started toward a good first or second cymbal purchase but will serve you continuously throughout your drumming career. The more you know about the equipment you are purchasing, playing, and/or planning to purchase, the more pleased you will be with the entire drumming experience.

(New drummers: Learn more about cymbal brands and cymbal prices in this guide about how to play drums.)


Rick Long

Rick Long is a drummer, bassist, and freelance writer. He plays in multiple projects that cover many styles of music and has published frequently in the music press over the past twenty years.

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