Finding the right cymbals for your style of playing can be one of the most challenging and frustrating tasks for a drummer. With so many options you might feel like it’s trying to find your favorite tree in the forest. You end up with that feeling of being totally lost in the woods. Well come along with me and let’s go cymbal hunting. I’ve walked this trail before.
Let’s first decide what you want to accomplish. Do you need cymbals for a heavy rock band or a jazz trio? Is your style more latin or classical? Or maybe you just want a great “all-purpose” set of cymbals to do everything.
I would definitely recommend having a set of cymbals that will cover all the bases. Don’t think of getting weird “special effects” or “style designed” cymbals if your budget is limited. Look for a good ride cymbal, a couple of crashes, a splash, and a great set of hi-hats. You can add to your collection later, but use this as a starting point.
What company makes the best cymbals? To be honest, all of the major cymbal companies are making great instruments. And they all offer a large variety of cymbals to choose from. So I say, “Play what inspires you.” I personally prefer MEINL cymbals. But I am also aware of what the other manufacturers are making. I just happen to be very happy with what I’m hearing from Meinl.
Here is what I look for in a “general purpose” set of cymbals. They have to sound good in all the styles of music I’m playing so they can’t stand out individually or have a tone that is identified with a certain style.
For instance in jazz the cymbals are often lighter and sound dry and dark. In rock music they are usually heavier and sound cutting and harsh. That’s not always the case, but just a general reference. So in my “all purpose” set up the cymbals are a medium to medium thin weight. And the sizes are what would be considered the current standard. A 20” Medium Ride, 18” and 17” Medium crashes, a 12” splash, and 14” Medium Hi-hats. This is what I call the modern standard package.
I use the Byzance series from Meinl; very similar to the classic A series from Zildjian. You could probably compare that to the AA series from Sabian or the Signature line of Paiste cymbals. All of these models are the top of the line for each of the companies I mentioned. And along with that comes the top of the line price. When buying cymbals you can not cut corners. I recommend buying fewer pieces and getting better ones if your budget is tight. When buying drums you can spend a little less money and still get a great sound with good heads and proper tuning. Cymbals are a whole different story. So with the set up I’ve listed you could easily spend $1000 or more.
To save money you could buy used cymbals but be sure to test them and inspect them carefully. Hold them up to a light and look for any small cracks. Also look for sales at your local drum shop or shop on line. There are some great web sites that have tons of drums and cymbals to choose from. Take your time and don’t feel pressured to buy.
If this adventure is new for you ask the salesperson to show you a large variety of cymbals to try out. Most drum shops will have a room where you can play every cymbal that’s for sale. If a store will not let you test cymbals don’t buy from them. *You wouldn’t buy a car without test driving it. But don’t abuse the privilege either. Once you’ve played a cymbal for a while move on to another. You should be able to hear pretty quickly what sounds you like or dislike.
So what are we listening for? We want to find a set of cymbals that sound good as an ensemble, not just great individual instruments. I play a cymbal all over its full surface. I hit it on the bell, on the edge, and every where in between. I’ll tap soft rhythms and then build into pretty hard “slices” across the edge to hear how it sounds as a crash cymbal. Yes, even on the ride cymbal! When I hit a crash I’ll let the sound decay as long as possible and listen carefully to how the tone fades. It should have a smooth, shimmering decay. If it sounds like it’s flanging or making a wave tone I’ll try something else.
When playing “ride” patterns, does the cymbal maintain good stick definition or does it start to “wash” out? Crash cymbals will probably do that anyway, but I try to find at least one that could be used as a ride cymbal too; maybe the 18” crash. Ride cymbals should definitely stay controlled. They should flow with the intensity of your playing. If you love the tone of a ride but it wants to wash out too soon you could put a little tape on it. I’ve got a couple like that; they sound great but I had to put a little tape underneath to “dry” them out a bit.
Once I’ve found individual favorites I’ll set them up together. I’ll play patterns on the whole set and listen carefully to see if they sound great as a group. You should notice very distinct pitches. Ride to crash; splash to crash; top hi-hat to crash, etc. etc. I try to hear a broad range of tone from the set. I especially choose crashes the have very different pitches but similar timbre or character. As the sounds fade I’ll listen carefully for an “odd” tone; a sound that just doesn’t seem to fit with the other cymbals. Sometimes you have to try a different crash, or splash, or even a ride cymbal. I know this is an art and it takes time to learn. Just be patient and you’ll get the hang of it. That’s why it’s probably a good idea to try cymbals from the same series when you first do this. But after a while you’ll be able to mix and match cymbals according to what your ears are hearing and not by what you’re seeing. Even with the best design and manufacturing processes, each cymbal is unique. The same models may be very close, but there are always subtle nuances that I think make each one an individual voice.
When mounting the cymbals, be sure the plastic sleeve is on the stem of the cymbal stand. This cushions the cymbal hole and protects it against grinding. Also check the base plate on the stem. If it’s curved, make sure it curves downward. It’s supposed to match the shape of the bell of the cymbal. And last but not least, be sure the felt washers are in place on the bottom and the top of your cymbals. All of these elements affect the tone of your cymbals. Don’t tighten the wing nuts too much either. Crashes and splashes have to move freely to get the best tone. Ride cymbals can be a little tighter to control the tone if you’d like, but the general rule is to “let them breath.” Even the top hi-hat should be able to wiggle so the tone is not choked. It only needs to be tight enough to track properly with your foot action.
The angle of your cymbals is also important. No matter what height you place your cymbals, angle them to point toward your chest. This will line them up with the motion of your arms and wrists. When crashing your cymbals, use a “slicing” stroke. Do not hit straight on the edge of your cymbals. They will not hold up under that kind of stress.
All of these guidelines should give your cymbals a long life. When making this kind of investment, you’ll be glad you followed these general rules.
Over time, I’m sure you’ll want to add to your collection. Maybe another crash or splash would be nice. Whatever cymbal you add, be sure to do the same testing method. I use to take my ride and two crash cymbals with me to test the new one along side them. Now my ears can pretty much hear a cymbal to identify its character and tone enough to get a good match.
Remember though, this is still an art form. Don’t hesitate to try different types of cymbals to expand your musical palate. A good set of cymbals will be a key element to your sound. As I said before take your time and choose carefully.
Blessings to you and good cymbal hunting.