All About Cymbals - The Guide

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018


Cymbals are easily my favorite part of the drumset, especially being a jazz-educated drummer. I get such joy from both the feeling and the sound of laying a stick into a sweet ride, or a dark crash, or any other of the wide varieties of musical metal that exist for drummers today.

They are also the most personal part of a drummer's setup. Generally speaking, a drummer will play any number of rental drum kits while on tour, but will always bring his own ride, crash and/or hi-hats to the gig. These metallic sounds can be so unique that often times, you can't even get away with playing a different version of the same model. It has to be your crash or your ride. Bass drums and toms, however, are more easily substituted with rented gear.

If you have the right cymbal, you can get by with only that ONE on a gig, crashing it and riding it.

Size, shape, cleanliness, age, lathing, finish, condition (cracked, cut, drilled, etc.) all have a huge impact on your sound. A bigger size, for example, will be harder to crash on/ easier to ride. The same goes for thickness: the more material you have, the harder it will be to get it to vibrate enough to produce a "crash sound". This is why heavy rock rides are so thick: drummers can play very hard and never have to worry about a washing-out of their ride.

Age and dirt will create a "darker" sound (less high overtones). Cracks might cause a loss of volume but might create some interesting buzz or character. This might be favorable or not, depending on the music. A steeper bow (less flat, more cone shaped) generally creates a higher pitch. An older one will sound way different than a newer one, mostly because of the change in production techniques over the ages. Hand hammering creates unique complex overtones that machine hammering tends not to have. The list of qualities goes on and on...

Hi-hats are a different monster altogether!

If you're just starting out, it can be tough to know how to go about finding the sound you might be hearing in your mind. These articles should walk you through the basics so you can make a more informed decision!

Cymbal Setup

Cymbals are, hands down, my favorite part of the drum set. My cymbal setup is very important to me. They are what vary the most when I change from one genre to another.

By "setup", I could be referring to actual choice of cymbals, or how they are placed around the kit. I'd like to talk about a little bit of both: the kinds of cymbals I choose, and where I think they should be placed ideally. A cymbal setup is often the most unique part of the drum set, and I encourage you to get creative and innovative with your cymbal sounds and setups.

This article is split into 2 sections...

  • Cymbal Choice
  • Cymbal Placement

Cymbal Choice

Cymbals are quite special. Every cymbal, even two identical models from the same line, will sound different and unique. Some drummers can be instantly identified by their cymbals.

Typically, if you're gonna be playing louder music, heavier, brighter cymbals would be your way to go. For pop or rock, some solid 14" hi-hats, a 20" heavy ride and some medium crashes are going to work for you. Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers uses some very heavy, very large cymbals, and he hits them with authority!

A Jazz cymbal setup is different (again). Jazz drummers typically use a 22", thin, complex, dark ride as both a ride and a crash, and a 20" ride with similar characteristics on the left. 14" hi-hats are common as well. But...

Don't be bound by stereotypes! What kind of music do you play? Do you need a pingy ride? Do you want a washy, light ride? Just because you play loud rock music, doesn't mean you need a heavy, dead ride! Look at Ronnie Vanucci from The Killers. He uses Zildjian Constantinople jazz-type rides as both his main ride and his crash! These are thin cymbals that can be ridden, as well as crashed, and are used by jazz drummers everywhere. But he likes them. And he rocks HARD!

Pick cymbals that offer you the sounds you're looking for, it's really that simple. I've been known to use too big 16" or 17" crash cymbals as hi-hats.

There are also interesting "cymbals" available on the market like the Sabian "chopper", which is a star-shaped piece of metal attached to a cylinder. It sounds like a short, "white-noise", trash-hit type of thing. Even a pot or pan can be used as a "cymbal". The only limit is your imagination.

Cymbal Placement

I've seen some whacky cymbal setups before! I'm not a fan of doing things "randomly". Your placement decisions should have logic behind them. These logical reasons should be musical, but I suppose if you have a gig that requires a certain level of showmanship, then placing your crash cymbals or hi-hats very high might be a necessary evil, and your technique at that point, has to adjust.

Travis Barker, for example, sets his cymbals up very high and far apart. Consequently, it takes a lot of extra energy to play his kit. It is, however, part of his style and his showmanship. While he could easily play what he does with is cymbals close together, it would have less of a visual impact. Observe...

Your cymbals should be placed in such a way that you have access to them without leaning your body weight forward. You don't want to place weight on your legs, preventing them from lifting freely.

You also want to try and limit your upper arm movement. Ideally, you'd like to be able to reach your cymbals with your elbows close to your side, using only forearm extension and rotation to hit cymbals. The shorter the distance you have to travel, the faster you can traverse it; it's simple physics.

Some movements, like playing the bell of the cymbal, or maybe hitting the crash from the backside for a louder explosion, are inevitably going to take some reaching. Don't take what I've just said too literally, you're not going to be able to fit everything (drums and cymbals) within your forearm's reach. Do make an attempt to set your cymbals up in such a way that makes it as easy as possible to get to and from them.

Example two cymbal setup...

Cymbal Setup 1

I place my ride cymbal a little bit over the floor tom so that I have quick access to both instruments. The crash cymbal is placed over the hi-hat, but not too far over the rack tom, because it would get in the way of my sticks striking that drum. It's also high enough that it won't hit the hi-hat, even in full wobble, even if the hi-hat is open and wobbling as well.

Cymbal Setup 2

The hi-hat is placed so it overlaps the far left "corner" of the snare just a little bit. I still need a good distinction between my snare playing area and my hi-hat playing area, but a little overlap is sometimes necessary for my feet to be in a comfortable position!

What will your cymbal setup look, sound and feel like?

Cleaning Cymbals

Cleaning cymbals is not for everyone. If you're asking yourself, "should I be cleaning my cymbals?", then you need to follow that question up with a couple more questions.

How do you want your cymbals to sound? Dirt, grime and "patina" accumulating on your cymbals give them what some would call character (others will argue otherwise). All that accumulation will make cymbals sound a little "darker" (i.e. less high overtones), a little "dryer" (less sustain, faster decay time), and have many other subtle effects like changing which overtones pop out of the cymbal. A cymbal can actually age and change with time.

What an "aged" cymbal looks like. Complete with a green "patina"...


A freshly polished cymbal will be brighter (sonically) and maybe even a little louder. If it was a particularly dirty cymbal that you cleaned, the overtones will change significantly. There will be more highs, and the cymbal will decay a little slower. Naturally, the more grime you remove while cleaning cymbals, the more the sound will change.

So, should I clean?

If dark, smokey, and dry are adjectives that please you, then no, maybe you shouldn't clean your cymbals.

If you love it bright, loud and free, then cleaning your cymbals regularly might be a great idea!

Also, if the look of your cymbals is important to you (if you play a gig that demands a clean, sparkly look), then maybe you should polish them. It might conflict with your sound choices, but only you can determine which carries more weight in your particular situation ( sound vs. look ).

Cymbal cleaning can dull or even remove the logos on your cymbals completely, depending on the product!

How To Clean

If cleaning is right for you, I highly suggest using a drum specific cleaner like "Groove Juice" or "Sabian Cymbal Cleaner". If anything happens to your cymbal using some other product, you're less likely to be reimbursed, seeing as that product wasn't designed for cymbals. I'm sure there are many products that work well, but officially, I'd like to suggest something made by a drum or cymbal company. They would know best!

Cleaning cymbals is simple enough, just use your product of choice with an old rag. Apply, and wipe it off (better yet, follow instructions on the bottle, if there are any!). How much you want to rub and polish is up to you. You might want to clean only a little bit, or only the top or bottom sides of the cymbal.

If you simply wish to remove logos from cymbals, you can use these cleaner as they have been reported to take logos off after a few uses, but I've always used acetone (nail polish remover) or rubbing alcohol to take it off. Acetone removes logos very efficiently!

Don't worry if you don't want to bother with cleaning cymbals. Many drummers never clean a cymbal in their lives. It's really personal choice.

Cymbal Sounds

It's important to understand cymbal sounds. What causes your ride to sound the way it was? How do you describe a sound you're looking for, and how do you figure out what kind of cymbal will offer you something close to that sound?

As drummers, we should understand what altering that shape, size, bell size, weight, bowing, etc. of a cymbal will do to its sounds. When choosing, requesting, or trying out cymbals (maybe even designing cymbals?), you will be much better off if you know what characteristics gives a cymbal its sounds.

Article divided into...

  • Cymbal Curvature (Or Bow)
  • The Bell
  • The Taper (Difference In Thickness)
  • Cymbal Thickness
  • Cymbal Width

Cymbal "Bow"/ Curvature

The "bow" of the cymbal will affect its pitch!. During the creation/hammering process of a cymbal, varying degrees of curvature can stem out from the bell. The more curved a cymbal is, or the more "bow" it has, the higher the pitch will be. Inversely, the flatter a cymbal is, the lower its pitch will be.

The overtones are reduced by this curving of the cymbal. A flatter cymbal has more overtones than a thinner one. This curvature is sometimes referred to as "Profile".

Cymbal Bow

The Bell

Bell Size influences volume, sustain, and resonance. I'm not talking about when you only play the bell itself, either. The whole cymbal is greatly affected by bell sound. If you've ever played or heard a flat ride, you know what I'm talking about. Take out the bell, and you're left with a very quiet, almost glassy sounding cymbal with plenty of stick attack, but not much resonance.

A larger bell will create more complex overtones, and allow the cymbal to resonate much longer and louder.

Also, a heavier bell will produce a louder, clearer "ding" sound when played with the shoulder of the stick. Some very heavy bells create piercing, cutting high notes when played directly, which can be beneficial to some musical styles!

Some bells are thinner, and sound hollow when played with the stick. A thinner bell will also activate more of the cymbal when played directly. For example, the old Bill Stewart model from zildjian (Dry Complex Ride) is thin with a big, but thin bell. When that bell is struck, there's less of a ping, and more of a "hollow" sound, accompanied with some of the "crashy" complex overtones of the cymbal. It's harder to get a clear, distinct bell sound from a thinner bell. It's one of my favorite cymbal sounds.

To hear what a ride sounds like without a bell, one has only to listen to Roy Haynes! He really plays that flat ride hard, but it never sounds too loud because it simply doesn't have the ability.

Cymbal Taper

The taper of a cymbal is the difference between its thickest and thinnest parts. Generally, cymbals thin out from the bell to the edge, some more extremely than others. This affects cymbal sounds in some major ways. Cymbals will a thinner edge (we're talking ride cymbals, mostly) tend to be more "crashable" than others.

Recently, Sabian and Jojo Mayer developed a new cymbal called the "omni", that takes the concept of cymbal taper to a whole new level. This cymbal has a thicker, unlathed "riding" surface and bell (like the "duo" or "el sabor" models), and a lathed, but much thinner "crashing" surface around the outside. Unlike other similar cymbals, the "omni" can sounds like two separate cymbals, one crash and one ride. You can be playing a ride cymbal pattern, crash the edge and immediately resume the cymbal pattern without any loss in definition. Two cymbal sounds in one! This is really cymbal taper at it's finest!

Cymbal Thickness

The thickness of a cymbal will affect its volume and its overtones. A thicker cymbal is usually heavier and more stiff than a thinner cymbal. A stiffer cymbal will vibrate faster and create higher, louder overtones. It will take a little bit more muscle to activate a heavier cymbal, but it will be able to play much louder and brighter (higher overtones) than other cymbals.

Thin cymbals have a lower volume threshold than thicker ones. They are generally lower in pitch than thick cymbals, and have more of a "wash" and a "wobble" to them. In terms of thick and thin ride cymbals, thick cymbals are generally more defined, with less sustain. Thin ride cymbals have more of a sustain, and more of a washy, complex, breathy sound.

Cymbal Width

Last, and probably a litle on the obvious side, is the variable of cymbal width. Big cymbals vs small cymbals.

Cymbals come in many shapes and sizes, which create all kinds of cymbal sounds. I've played everthing from 6" splashes to 40" gongs. I know that width has a huge impact on the kinds of cymbal sounds we get.

Small cymbals, like splashes and some hi hats, are designed to be higher in pitch. Small can sometimes means quieter, but many variables have an effect on volume. A splash will be much higher in pitch, as well as have a much shorter sustain than a crash or a ride cymbal. Small is short and high.

Some splash cymbals have such short sustain that they can sound almost staccato. Here's a Stephen Perkins (Jane's Addiction) solo on splash cymbals alone. Interesting cymbal sounds!

The bigger a cymbal is, lower it will be, as well as somewhat louder. It will also have a bit more sustain and ring than a smaller cymbal. Imagine a gong, and how long it sustains for, versus the splash cymbals we just heard.

There is definitely a point at which cymbals become either too big or too small to properly function, so size is definitely not the only factor in choosing a cymbal. It may be the most obvious starting point for finding a sound you're looking for, but taper, bell size, thickness and curvature have more of an effect on specific sounds you may be seeking out!