Choosing Cymbals

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, 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 HEARTBEAT 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 HEARTBEAT.

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 Dry Ride, 19″, 18” and 17” Medium crashes,  12” & 8″ splashes, an 18″ medium china  and 14” Medium Hi-hats (sometimes 15″). ***A standard package would just be a ride; 2 crashes; and hi-hats. I often just use that set up with variations in types of cymbals.

I mostly use the Custom & Studio series from Heartbeat, but I also have a set of the Classics; 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, or you can even leave them off. 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. Of course drummers are always changing this and trying other methods… but I feel for tone, ease of playing, and “health of the cymbal” this approach is preferred.

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.


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About Carl

Carl has been a professional drummer & percussionist for over 30 years. He has played on over 80 Integrity Music projects; Maranatha Praise Band recordings 7 thru 10, & numerous other Christian, Pop, Country, Jazz, & Commercial projects.


  1. Hi Carl,
    Right now I’m in the process of buying new zildjian cymbals. I like bright and dark tones the A custom and K customs sound when I play them at the two churches I play at. I own a ZBT cymbal set right now in addition with a 8″ K splash, 12″ A Splash, and a 16″ Z custom crash. Would A customs and K customs be a great investment to make for my drumming career?
    God Bless,
    Alex Ruata

    • Hey Alex, A Customs & K’s are great cymbals. K’s tend to be a little darker, but you can combine them and come up with a set you love. Blessings, Carl – PS. Be sure you love what you hear.! Trust your ears!

  2. George Felouzis says

    Thank you Carl very informative info on cymbals, I have some good Genuine Avedis Zildjians and some Paistes from the 70’s, How do I go about saling them for what they’re worth???
    Please let me know, I’ll be waiting for your reply.

    • The best you can do is compare prices on the internet; Ebay & others… and then base your pricing on that; post your items; & then see what response you get. I use Ebay and only ship within the 50 states. Blessings on your sales. Peace, Carl

  3. Hey Carl just passing by to say hi.
    Great post on cymbals bro. Really enjoyed reading it. Ill be reposting .
    Im about to sign with Vater and evans so immm suuperrrr happy about that. Im working on trying to get yamaha drums. Dont now if i told you ive been with Paiste for like 3 years already. Im sure you know that Vinnie Colaiuta just joined the family. I really like that ride you use byzance. Nice!
    Ok bro, hope your doing good , ill repost this on my page. Hope to see you again at experience conference in sept. I think you guys are going back. Ingrid and our team will be there on tuesday night and for the rest of the conference.
    here is my link so you know whos talking to you.

    • Very cool Tony. Congrats on the endorsements. They are a huge blessings, for sure! C U out there somewhere. Peace, Carl

  4. Dan Forter says

    What do you mean by slicing on the crash cymbals? I’ve only ever hit them on the edge.

    • Hey Dan, Good question… “slicing” means to hit across the edge of the cymbal rather than playing into/ Or through it… The action is hitting on the edge, yes, but moving away quickly, so the cymbal can bounce back. Also, do not tighten crash cymbals on the stand too tightly; crashes need to move freely when you hit them. I hope that clarifies what I said. Blessings, Carl

      • Hi, I have a 22″ zildijian k custom dark ride and recently found that there is a crack in the cymbal, I am getting it replaced cause its still under warranty thank god! But I really think I need to change my approach because I do not want to crack it again. I like to crash ride on it I think it has a really good sound for crashing on, but when crashing I’m always crashing “into the cymbal” i have never been told to try “slicing” is it just one motion that you can repeat or is it like a swinging motion left to right? Thanks!! Love the article. Before the k custom I played a sabian hand hammered rock ride but there is no way I could crash on that the sound was way to harsh.

        • Hey JD, Yes, I would recommend slicing the cymbal from side to side when using it to “crash ride.” It does not have to be extreme; just enough to feel like you’re pulling away from the cymbal. Always think hit & release… another words, it should look & feel like you’re pulling the sound out of the cymbal… NOT digging in. Also, keep the wing nut looser so it allows the cymbal to breathe. Blessings, Carl

  5. Ann Martin says

    Thanks, Carl! This is really helpful. I have nice hi hat, crash, and rides now but I want a splash and, from reading this, another crash would be next. My teacher found the crash and ride for me, and I bought a used hi hat at Guitar Center, which luckily turned out to be a good purchase. I’m thinking that, yes, this may be like chocolates. . . 🙂 Blessing to you, Ann

  6. Shannon steadham says

    Hey carl, I really enjoy reading the emails you send out. I’ve been playing drums for about 39 years and I’ve always been a zildjian fan,i have ; armand,a-zildjian, and custom z series. Every peice of advice you were giving is right on. I hope you will come back to mobile,al soon, I would like to meet and talk drums in person.

    Peace bro !

  7. This blog would really help in determining on which drumset to buy for my younger son for he is very eager to get one and is always asking to his daddy. At least I have a reference now.

  8. Thanks for finally talking about >Choosing Cymbals — Carl Albrecht <Loved it!

  9. I like how he failed to discuss how to hear and pick out hi-hats.

    • Sorry ’bout that… I feel tonal matching the hi-hats could be a starting place. Many players like things to feel “matched.” But that’s only 1 way. Many players like to mix things up… i.e.- *bright crashes/ dark hats / dry ride / etc. .. In the end, it’s up to the players preference and the demands of the music. Peace, Carl

  10. I’m always interested in cymbal talk, but found myself disagreeing with your notion of a “starting point” for a core cymbal set.

    I wouldn’t consider a splash part of a core set, but rather a special effects cymbal. I also think a “couple of crashes” is one too many. To my mind, the “starting point” for a general purpose cymbal set is a pair of hats, a ride, and a crash (and the crash may not even be required for some styles, like jazz). This may also be the “ending point” for some of us, since many a great drummer has used no more, I’ve never heard an audience member complain that the drummer had too few cymbals, and less is more when it comes to hauling around equipment (as well as taking up stage space).

    Also, any drummer who needs advice on how to discriminate among cymbals when shopping for them (and many do need this advice) really shouldn’t be fooling with a splash and a second crash. They’re better off focusing on getting the sound they want out of a more limited array of cymbals.

    On the subject of listening to cymbals in order to choose them, I have what seems to be a strange orientation, or at least one I haven’t heard from others. It is that I start from the position of generally disliking cymbals and finding their sound annoying. I can’t believe this is an unusual orientation, and I bet if you asked people on the street whether they find the sound of cymbals pleasant or unpleasant, most would say unpleasant. I therefore choose cymbals by a process of elimination, quickly discarding the majority I don’t like and only considering the few that don’t annoy me. Then, I’ll be honest, I let price decide.

    The result is that I’m still using an old early 1970s pair of Zildjian New Beats hats, but a somewhat newer Paiste Dimensions light ride and a Sabian B8 crash. The weak link is the crash, but for a crash it’s actually not bad. If I had money to burn I’d replace it with something better, but I’d frankly first buy a second darker crash, probably a K Zildjian. (Yeah, I like two crashes too.) The New Beats don’t fill me with awe, and I fell in love with a pair of Bosphorus hats, but I passed on the Bosphorus hats and stuck with the New Beats. It was mostly a matter of money. The New Beats are fine (and there are so many used pairs on the market nowadays that they’re very cheap for their quality). The Paiste Dimensions light ride was a surprising purchase for me. For decades I had used an A Zildjian, only to admit that I really didn’t like it. I therefore actually bought and sold a lot of cymbals on eBay as a way of trying out different ones. I was down to deciding between an old Istanbul Zildjian K and a newer Zildjian K Constantinople when on a lark I tried the Paiste Dimensions. I was shocked to like the Paiste as well as the much more expensive Zildjian Ks, so I sold the Ks and kept the Paiste.

    Of course, I’m nowhere near a pro drummer any more, just a mostly retired former semi-pro, and the pro’s may want more and different cymbals. I can see that. In my heyday I had an array of cymbals (along with far too many drums) too. However, even then I never figured out what to do with a splash. I had one for years, but after a while decided it wsn’t worth the stand required to set it up. To me, a cowbell is more important than a splash, though I frankly rarely set up a cowbell either.

    • Hey Ken, Good thoughts… I agree the splash can stay out of a basic set up. *In fact… I even edited the post to reflect that. Thanks for the reminder. BUT, I still like a Ride, 2 Crashes (left & right), and standard Hi-Hats as my go to basics. Although a good crash/ride cymbal could cover the right side. My cymbal bag still feels pretty light. 🙂 I guess if I had to do super quick/ tight set ups/ and navigate city gigs a bare bones set up would be a life saver. **A small kick; snare; 1 tom; hats & the ride/crash. It could be done. /// Anyway, back to cymbals. I actually still have an old set of 14″ Zildjian New Beats that sound great. Classics for sure! You can’t go wrong with them. // I also like your idea of playing a lot of things you DON’T like, and then eventually settling in to what sounds good to your ears. That is a good way to learn the sound of cymbals as well as all the different drums. Thanks for your ideas. Peace, Carl

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