Anatomy of the Drums – Part 3: Cymbals

Cymbals are metal curved disks that produce a unique sound when struck with a mallet, stick or even another cymbal. There are numerous metals used, but various alloys of bronze and brass tend to be the most commonly used. While there are numerous cymbal manufacturers, only four dominate the market: Zildjian, Sabian, Paiste and Meinl. All sound good to me, but I prefer Zildjian and like least Paiste. But that’s me.

Cymbals have been around for thousands of years, at least 2800 years and probably even longer. They seem to have originated in what is today the Middle East area. One of the oldest cymbal makers, Zildjian originated in the 1600’s in the Ottoman Empire. Cymbals then soon started to work their way into the European music of the day. By the 1750’s, they were being regularly used in orchestras and in the military. Early drum sets included cymbals, usually from Turkey and China. In fact, cymbals became so popular that Avedis Zildjian moved his Turkish cymbal manufacturing to Massachusetts in 1929, just as the Jazz Age took off.

Cymbals are primarily made from a bronze alloy or brass but can be made from other copper-based metals as well. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin while brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. Copper is known for its musical tones but it a soft metal. The other metals in the alloy are primarily used for durability but they can also affect the sound.

The highest quality cymbals, as well as gongs and bells, are made from a bronze alloy of 20% tin which is referred to as bell bronze. Some manufacturers also refer to this as B20.

The tin alloy percentage changes to provide for other, more inexpensive cymbals. These include 12% tin (B12) and 10% tin (B10) alloys. There is also 8% tin, or B8, which is also called a malleable bronze. This is a common alloy used for cymbals for students. They do not sound quite as good as B20 alloy, but they do not sound bad.

These bronze alloys account for the majority of cymbals out there.

There are also brass cymbals. Brass is also used for student cymbals but brass is prone to wear faster than the lower quality bronze cymbals. They also have a more muffled sound than their bronze counterparts. Tradition gongs and traditional china-type cymbals are made of brass, as are the small finger cymbals typically associated with belly dancers.

Another copper alloy used for cymbals is nickel silver, which does not contain any silver. The mixture is typically copper, zinc and 12% nickel and has a silvery color. These cymbals are not as widely used as those made from bronze or brass.

Cymbals are traditionally cast from a mold using the molten alloy as the material. The resultant metal blank is then pressed, hammered and lathed into a cymbal. The other method of construction is a cymbal blank being stamped out of a sheet of pre-made metal alloy. This stamped blank will get the same treatment to be transformed into a cymbal. Cast cymbals are usually a better quality than sheet cymbals, but not always. The size of a cymbal’s diameter as well as the thickness, or weight, of the metal alloy will affect the sound.

A cymbal had a hole in the center to either allow it to be mounted on a stand, or else to allow it to have handles attached. A cymbal is usually either played suspended (on a stand) or hand played (clash cymbals or finger cymbals). A cymbal has a bell, the raised ‘bump’ at the center of a cymbal, a bow and an edge. The bow is the majority of the area of a cymbal and where one ‘rides’ with a stick. Again, different areas of the bow make different sounds. The cymbal edge is struck to ‘crash’ the cymbal.

There are four main types of cymbals: ride, hi-hat, crash and special effects. The ride cymbal and hi-hats providing the ride pattern, crash provide accents and special effects provide special effects, which are usually accents.

A ride cymbal has a larger diameter (typically 20 inches and over) and is a heavier cymbal. Older cymbals from the 70’s and before, sometimes had rivets installed that produced a “sizzle” from the vibration upon the cymbal being struck. Somethings small metal chains are attached to the cymbal stand and these lie against the cymbal and vibrate like the rivets. These cymbals can be known as a sizzle cymbal or a swish cymbal. Sizzle cymbals were very popular in jazz and early rock and roll.

A hi-hat is two cymbals, mounted facing each other on a hi-hat stand. A hi-hat stand allows the cymbals to be open or to be closed. Hi-hats are typically 14 or 15 inches in diameter and can be of any thickness. Many times the bottom hi-hat cymbal is heavier than the top hi-hat cymbal.

A crash cymbal can be any diameter and of any thickness. Larger diameter cymbals are usually louder than smaller diameter cymbals. Thicker cymbals tend to have more sustain, that is, they have more “ring”. Smaller diameter crashes, 12 inches and less, are called splash cymbals. Their sustain is very short, in other words their ring is brief. Heavier crashes can somethings be referred to as a ride/crash as these cymbals can be used both as a crash and as a ride. A china cymbal usually has a larger diameter and can be thick or thin. A china cymbal has both a distinctive, upturned edge shape and a distinctive sound when crashed, although Lars Ulrich used one as a ride cymbal sometimes.

All crash cymbals used with a drum set are of the suspended type, meaning they are hanging on or from a stand. Clash cymbals, those cymbals used in an orchestra that are clashed together to make their sound, are typically outside the realm of a drum kit.

Special effects cymbals are just that, they supply a special effect, or sound. There are small diameter bell cymbals, which look like large cymbal bells, and these have a distinct bell sound. There are trash cymbals, which also have another distinctive sound, like a trash can lid in my opinion. There are stacker cymbals, cymbals and other devices mounted on top of another cymbal that affect the sound of these cymbals. There are tuned cymbals, very small diameter cymbals, each tuned to a specific note, usually known as crotales. These cymbals are usually organized in groups like chimes and/or the bells.

Cymbals are an integral part of a drum kit. And like everything on a drum kit, one can use the bare minimum (a hi-hat or a ride) and others can use numerous cymbals (hi-hat, ride, crashes, splashes, china, special effect). Because of the various sounds, cymbals can add a lot to a drum kit. I personally like having numerous cymbals to make many different sounds.

The one drawback with cymbals? They can crack. A cracked cymbal sounds like poop. A cracked cymbal is also a dead cymbal. Good for making into a clock. I have cracked more cymbals than I care to admit too. My drum technique must have improved however, as the majority of those cymbals were cracked in the 80s. Technique, or the mechanics of playing the drums, the motions, AKA the dance, affects both the sound and the instruments themselves.

Posted in Cymbals, Drum Set.