Beginners Guide to Cymbals

There are many types of cymbals that exist, produced by a number of brands including Zildjian, Sabian, Meinl and Paiste.

So in this guide, we're going to break down the basics and ensure that you know their differences and what they offer!

Introduction

The first time you realise just how many cymbals we have available at Andertons Music Co, it’s fair to say you may feel a little daunted! You’ll see crash cymbals, splash cymbals, ride cymbals… the list goes on. Each individual cymbal will bring something different to the fore, providing contrasting sounds for the great variety.

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Cymbals: The Basics

Cymbals are made from bronze (an alloy of copper and tin), and two main distinctions can be made based upon their manufacture. Cast bronze cymbals are made individually from molten metal, and usually go on to make high-end cymbals. Sheet bronze cymbals are cut from large sheets of metal and sold as budget models. Sheet bronze cymbals are usually higher in pitch, tinnier, brighter in sound, and have less body than cast cymbals.

Cymbals are then lathed and hammered to fine-tune their shape and sound. Lathing affects the weight of the cymbal, and the finer it is the more focused a cymbal will sound. Hammering changes the shape of the cymbal and adds tension; the more even it is the smoother the sound. The hammering and lathing on budget cymbals is often carried out by a machine, and so is accurate and creates identical sounding cymbals. High-end cymbals are usually hand-hammered, allowing the manufacturer to fine tune each one. This means that no two cymbals, even of the same make and model, will sound exactly alike.

What do cymbals sound like?

When buying cymbals, you may come across a few terms that aren’t immediately clear as to what they mean. Cymbals come in a range of different styles but they can commonly be split into two camps, “bright” and “dark”. In general, brighter cymbals are better for rock and metal and can be easily spotted thanks to their overly polished style. Dark cymbals are better suited for softer styles like jazz, where a shorter attack and not-as-present sound will be appreciated.

Bright/Open - Can usually be recognised by their polished or “brilliant” finish. They are higher in pitch, heavier, more cutting and louder. They also have higher overtones, more sustain and ride cymbals have more “ping”. They are more suited to rock and metal, where cymbals are hit hard and need to cut through a wall of guitars.

Dark/Dry - Look duller and unfinished, sometimes with rough edges. These more often sound softer, deeper and less refined, with a shorter sustain. They have a great deal of subtle character, and are at home in music where the cymbals play a more modest role.

What are the Essential Cymbals?

There are four types of cymbals that are commonly used by drummers all over the world. These are the first options to consider when buying cymbals.

Hi-Hats Hi-Hats are a pair of cymbals that are mounted on a dedicated stand with a foot-pedal, to control whether the two cymbals are closed together or open. These are often used to play 8th or 16th notes throughout a track. They provide a tight, percussive rhythm which helps pull the overall sound together.
Ride Ride cymbals are used in a similar way to hi-hats, however, they consist of a single cymbal which rings out and provides a much more open sound than Hi-Hats.
Crash These provide distinctive accents and help to add dynamics to a track. Crash cymbals have more variation than other cymbal types, some have longer decays (the time it takes for the noise to subside) and others are more punctuated and sharp-sounding.
Splash Similar to crash cymbals, splash cymbals generally have a dryer and smaller sound than their more powerful counterparts. Although not quite as ubiquitous as the previous three, splash cymbals are a great addition to any setup. They will give you more control over your dynamics, and make your sound more versatile. A great option instead of a second crash cymbal, but not a replacement for your first crash.

What Affects the Sound of a Cymbal?

Weight The heavier a cymbal is, the thicker and more rigid it will be. Its rigidity causes it to vibrate faster and have a higher pitch. Heavier cymbals also require more force and time to resonate, and thus take longer to “speak” than a thinner, faster cymbal. Weight will also affect how the cymbal feels to play. Light cymbals will “give” and feel buttery and soft, whereas heavy cymbals will offer a lot more resistance when struck.
Diameter Very simply, the larger a cymbals diameter, the lower its pitch.
Bell/Bow The bell of the cymbal is the raised dome in the centre, and the bow is the flatter surface surrounding it. The larger the diameter of the bell (creating a smaller bow), the more focused the sound and the higher it will be in pitch.
Height If placed on the floor, this is measured from the top of the bell vertically down to the ground. A taller cymbal will have steeper sides, making it more rigid and therefore higher in pitch.

Specialist/FX Cymbals

While the above rules apply to the standard cymbal shape used for hi-hat, crash and ride, a wider range of niche/effect cymbals can be found that offer up very specific sounds.

Chinas China cymbals are the most common specialist products, which have a fast, aggressive sound that is great for accents.
Cut-Out The Sabian O-Zone range. Makes the sound trashier and more aggressive, while allowing larger cymbals to become lighter and “speak” faster.
Spiral Cymbals can also be cut to hang in a spiral shape, creating a trashy yet shimmering sound. This is useful for special effects, and because they look really cool!

How to Customise your Cymbals

Although having a cymbal to fit every occasion would be nice, there are a few things you can do to alter a cymbal’s sound and point it in a new direction.

Sizzles Traditionally done by drilling small holes in the cymbal and then fitting rivets, this can be tricky to get right and is permanent. An easier way is to fix a bath plug chain at the centre of the cymbal and drape it across its surface. This will add a lot of wash to the sound and increase the volume of the sustain.
Dampening By sticking tape to the cymbal, you can dry out its sound drastically. Electrical tape is best, as it won’t leave adhesive behind. Place the tape on the underside of the cymbal so it is out of sight and unobtrusive.
Cracked Don’t throw these out straight away. Cracks in cymbals will shorten its decay and dry out the sound. Have a listen and see if there’s still a place for its new character!
Stacks By stacking cymbals you can create an extremely short, sharp sound – akin to a very aggressive hi-hat. Not all combinations will work, so experiment with each cymbal you have.

Combining Cymbal Sounds

As you are most likely to have several different cymbals in your setup, it is important to consider how the sounds of each cymbal will mix with each other.

Sounds can be both complimentary and contrasting. Your setup should sound unified, but that’s not to say you can’t have varied sounding cymbals to create a range of timbres in your playing. An example would be to have washy crashes that complement each other along with fast, cutting stacked cymbals. Used well, this kind of setup could drastically alter textures and help shape the music.

How do I make the right cymbal choice?

When buying cymbals, it is important to consider it in the context of your existing set up. Very often, a cymbal can sound great in the shop but stick out like a sore thumb when it’s on your kit. It is worth taking a current cymbal along for comparison, and hear it mix with a variety of others to pick out the most fitting companion.

As always, keep in mind the styles of music you will be playing and the likely situations it will be in. Ask yourself: “will this crash be too bright for Jazz?” or “does this ride have enough definition for rock?”. Considering the points mentioned above and asking yourself these kinds of questions, you'll ensure that you will get the most from your cymbal choice.

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