While a drum kit without cymbals can happen, you’re unlikely to actually come across one, and there’s a very good reason: treble. Without the cymbals, the low-pitched, mid and bass-heavy sound of any drum kit will start sounding colourless and bland within eight bars. The cymbals also play an essential role when it comes to communicating timing and transitions with the other band members. Here, we’ll take a brief look at drum kit cymbals so you can get to know what they sound like, what they’re for, and what you can do with them.
- A Necessary Expense
- The Hi-Hat
- The Ride Cymbal
- The Crash Cymbal
- Added Noise
- Shopping for Cymbals
- Try Things Out
- Keeping the Hi-Hat Tight
- See also…
A Necessary Expense
“I read somewhere that: ‘the only musicians that actually like cymbals are drummers.’ It is true that cymbals can just seem like a necessary expense when you’re in a band, especially if you’re working with a cymbal-happy drummer in a pokey little rehearsal room or on a small stage. The sound of the cymbals can penetrate anything. But the fact is, you just can’t drum without cymbals. You really need them,” admits drummer and drum teacher, Jacques Groen.
Why drummers need their cymbals and what role they play in keeping time for the rest of the band, we’ll explain later on in this blog. First, we’ll dig into the history of the cymbal and take a look at some different drum kit cymbals, before getting stuck into their musical role. We’ll close with a short cymbal buyer’s guide.
In the city of Constantinople in Turkey (now Istanbul), the Turkish-Ottoman sultan commanded an elite troop called the Janissaries. In 1623, an innovative member of the corps, Avedis Zildjian developed the first cymbal which was originally used to both deafen and strike fear in the hearts of any enemies of the sultan. There’s also archeological evidence suggesting that Assyrians used cymbals as far back as 800 BC, and in China, Egypt and Greece, people were smacking cymbals for the first time in around 500 BC. Since then, cymbals have appeared in endless types of music, including classical music, folk music and military music, and the cymbals used by drummers today are pretty much the same as the Turkish cymbals of the 1600s.
Cymbals are usually made from a bronze alloy (a copper and tin alloy). First, the alloy is cut into portions and heated in oil and water before being left to cool. The portions are then reheated and repeatedly pressed in rollers. A rough cymbal is cut from the flattened pieces and a bell is struck into the centre. By tempering the rough cymbal (heating and cooling) it’s made pliable enough to hammer into shape. Most cymbals are hammered around a thousand times just to get the right shape, then the surface is usually shaved by a chisel, leaving circular grooves to balance the resonance and tone. Of course, most drum kits don’t just have one cymbal, but three core cymbals: the hi-hat which helps form the backbone of the beat; a crash to add some accents, and a ride for filling out the rhythm. There are plenty of other cymbals you could add, like a splash or a China cymbal, both of which have their own unique sound. And then there are effect cymbals which are many and varied, so we’ll only touch on them briefly here.
Kicking off our run through of any drummer’s bread-and-butter cymbals is the hi-hat: two cymbals mounted on a pedal-driven stand. The cymbals are stacked like a ‘mouth’ that can be opened or closed by holding down the pedal or releasing it. If you’re a right-handed drummer, then you’ll toggle the hi-hat pedal with your left foot (your rhythm foot) and primarily keep the beat going by striking the hi-hat cymbals with your right hand (your rhythm hand) or with both hands.
The hi-hat can be played in a myriad of ways. “It’s incredibly important,” says Jacques. “The hi-hat is like the rhythmic coat-rack for the rest of the drum kit. It’s basically the metronome for both the drummer and the rest of the band because the ‘notes’ or strikes are short and sharp. If you want your band to play as tightly as possible, then it all rests on the hi-hat. In principle, the hi-hat part is the most consistent, and will only drop out to make space for something like a snare strike.”
While the hi-hat does serve as a band’s metronome, according to Jacques, it shouldn’t actually sound like one. “The sound of the snare and kick drum usually need to sound super tight and consistent, in terms of both the tone and the volume. With the hi-hat, you can be more musical, add more variation and really give a track feeling depending on how you hit it, how hard, and when. It can really bring your drumming to life. Even when you hear a recorded track with a drum machine beat, usually the hi-hat will be played in manually, so you get more of a swing and life-like vibe.”
The Ride Cymbal
The ride cymbal does a similar job to the hi-hat. If you play the ride a lot, then make sure it’s set up in an easy to reach, ergonomic spot in your kit to stop yourself from straining your shoulder.
“The ride is a standard in jazz drumming,” explains Jacques. “But thinner rides (usually a crash-ride or medium ride) are also used a lot in blues music because they have a fuller sound to them. The same goes in rock – especially recently. Another interesting variation on the ride is the flat ride – or flat top. This is a much thinner ride cymbal without a bell and has a clearer ‘chick’ and less resonant noise, which can sound nice and clean – especially when you’re backing up a vocalist with a softer singing style or a piano soloist. Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones uses them a lot.”
The ride cymbal can also serve as an extension of the hi-hat. “So, you could play the verse with a closed hi-hat, the chorus with an open hi-hat (to make it sound a little more raw) and then back up the guitar solo on the ride,” suggests Jacques. The raised bell at the centre of any standard ride cymbal can also be struck for a cowbell-style attack. “Playing the bell can give the beat a nice, playful twist. You can play the bell tightly or more open to vary the sound. Striking the bell with the neck of the drumstick will usually get you the best sound.”
The Crash Cymbal
Unlike the hi-hat and ride, which are all about timing and keeping the beat tight, the crash cymbal (or just crash) acts as a kind of signpost in the structure of the track. With a crash, especially when you stack it on top of a strong kick drum strike, can elevate the drum sound at just the right moment – at the start of a new section, for example, or at the end of one section to signal the transition.
The crash is also considered the loudest and most potentially annoying part of any drum kit. Variations include the splash cymbal – which is a smaller crash that can be used to add effects, and the China cymbal, which has bent-up edges and a bell that you can hold. China cymbals have a shimmering, gong-like sound. You can either play rhythms with one, or inject extra bright accents.
The musical role of cymbals isn’t just limited to timing and structure. “The cymbals are also an essential part of the sound of a drum kit,” says Jacques. “The drum shells bring a lot of low-end and mids and the cymbals round this off by bringing the trebles. This makes your drum sound clearer and more rich. Because of the way they resonate, cymbals also add what you might want to call ‘noise’. And this noise is different depending on the cymbal. So, a crash has a longer tail of noise than the ride, for example. That particular ‘noise’ can really tie together the total sound of a band.”
The difference between a chick and this ‘noise’ probably needs to be understood. If you play the hi-hat in a way that ‘makes a lot of noise’, then you’ll lose that defined chick – which is something you really need from your hi-hat. It’s also important that drummers maintain a balance between the drum sound and cymbal sound. “Try to avoid annoying your band mates,” advises Jacques. “Think about the placement of your cymbals. For example: avoid planting your crash so that the lead singer is in the direct line of fire.”
Another tip: the dryer the sound of your hi-hat, the more transparent your sound gets. Even if your playing is pretty heavy. “Some numbers actually need that, so it’s worth adjusting your approach. But if you’re working on a song full of screaming guitars, then you’ll probably want more noise, so you can play the cymbals more fully, to get a broader sound. Basically the way you actually hit your cymbals can dictate the atmosphere of a song.” Of course, you can also play your cymbals (especially the crash) with a much lighter touch. “You can, but you can risk missing (along with the rest of the band) those signposts or crescendos in the track. I mean, a crash isn’t called a crash for nothing.”
Shopping for Cymbals
If you’re drumming on a tight budget then Jacques recommends “saving money on your drum shells and spending more on your cymbals. You could go for an entry-level drum kit then upgrade the drumheads and get some good cymbals. I know plenty of drummers who went down that route and have since played on studio albums. No one complained.”
Jacques also knows a lot of drummers that spend more on their drums (and the amount of drums) than they do on their cymbals. He also has thoughts on that: “There are drummers who sit behind a whole rack of toms that they’ll probably never use. I usually play with as many crash cymbals as I do toms. Even when you have just two toms mounted on your bass drum, you have to put the ride a bit further away which immediately puts more strain on your shoulder.”
If your drumming budget is so limited that you only have the funds to fork out for one really good cymbal, which one should you go for? “In that case, I would advise picking out a really good crash,” insists Jacques. “It’s also worth thinking about whether or not you even need a ride, since it’s not necessary for every playing style. You can also get a ‘rough-ride’ sound out of the bell of bigger crash cymbals, giving you the best of both.”
Try Things Out
The range of cymbals you can choose from is enormous, which on one hand is great, but on the other hand can make things more difficult. Cymbals are also organic instruments, in that, no two cymbals will sound exactly the same – even if it’s the same make and model. “That’s why it’s always worth trying out multiple examples of the same model,” says Jacques. The other thing to bear in mind when shopping for your cymbals, is that you’ll rarely actually hear them in isolation. “The crash is almost always played at the same time as your kick drum,” says Jacques. “So it makes sense to try out a crash in that context. Ask in the shop if they can set up a bass drum for you – whether they like it or not.”
It’s actually even more complex than that, because you never truly know if the sound of the cymbal will fit until you play it with the full band. “The best way to try out a cymbal is in the rehearsal room,” admits Jacques. “So the best case scenario would be to find a friendly music store that will let you do this because, when you play as part of the band, you’ll immediately notice that things like the decay time feel different because the last bit of the trail-off dies away in the sound of the rest of the band. You just don’t get that when testing out a cymbal in a shop.”
Also, when it comes to the price, remember that a good cymbal will last you a long time. “You’re investing in something that you’re going to be playing for years. I have a cymbal that’s already forty-five years old and is still going strong.”
Keeping the Hi-Hat Tight
In this blog, we talked about how the hi-hat functions as a metronome for both the drummer and the rest of the band. So it makes sense that, if the hi-hat is as tight as possible, your band will play as tightly as possible. Try recording your hi-hat and having a listen back. Just like the technique involved in playing a lot of instruments, you have to make an up and down movement to play the hi-hat – much like the downstroke and upstroke when playing rhythm guitar. Often, the timing of the downstroke is on point, while the upstroke is off. Listen back to your playing and pay attention to the tightness of your upstroke. Apply what you notice to your playing and your timing will only get better.