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Buyers Guide: How Do I Choose the Right Cymbals?

You can tweak the sound of a drum kit and in many ways. You can tune it to a high, low, muted or open sound, or use different batter drum heads or resonance heads. All these elements have an impact on how good, or how poor, a drum kit sounds. At the end of the day, you have a huge influence on the sound of your drums, except for when it comes to cymbals. While you still maintain some control over the sound, the general tone and functionality of a cymbal is largely determined by the manufacturer. That's why it's not uncommon for drummers to take their own set of cymbals (and often snare drum) to gigs even if there's a complete drum kit at their disposal. During festivals, where multiple artists perform on one stage and there is only one drum kit available, drummers use their unique choice of cymbals (and snare) to distinguish themselves from one another.


Different types of cymbals

Cymbals come in all shapes and sizes, and each cymbal performs a specific function in your setup. A hi-hat, a ride, and a crash are sufficient for drummers just starting out. Splashes, chinas, and other effect cymbals are fun accessories, but are definitely not a necessity to have straight away. We recommend you wait before buying those types of cymbals, especially if your budget is limited. Cymbals are an important investment!

Hi-hat

The hi-hat is an essential part of any drum kit, together with your snare and bass drum. It consists of a pair of cymbals on top of each other, and the top one is attached to a pedal. You use your foot to you determine how loosely or tightly the hi-hats open and close. Foot technique is therefore an extremely important factor in how your hi-hat sounds. The most commonly-used hi-hats are 14 inches in diameter, but drummers these days favour either a set of 10, 12 or 13 inches, or up to 16 inches.

After the hi-hat, the ride is the most important cymbal in your kit. FIt's used to establish tempos and rhythm. Rides vary in size from 17 to 24 inches; in some cases, up to 30 inches. Rhythmic patterns are played with the tip of the drum stick, usually in the area between the rim and the cup of the ride cymbal. By hitting the rim at an angle with the neck of the stick, you can create a crash effect, and by hitting the cymbal surface directly between the rim and the cup, you can produce a sharp, bright sound. For most musical styles, one ride in your setup is enough, but bear in mind that rides differ per genre. A metal drummer, for instance, will want a ride that produces a bright, high tone that can cut through the mix, while a jazz drummer will probably prefer a more subtle, darker ride for playing complex rhythms and crash effects.

Crash

The crash cymbal is commonly used to designate the end of a stanza or the beginning of a new one. Crashes are less suitable for playing rhythmic patterns and come in different sizes as well, ranging from 14 to 26 inches in diameter. Crashes are played by using the neck of the stick to hit the rim at an angle in a 'stroking' movement.

Splash, china, and effect cymbals

The splash is essentially a small crash, and is used for accents that would sound too big if done with a crash or ride. A splash needs to be handled with care, and not struck too hard, as the bow is small and therefore not able to disperse a lot of vibrations. Striking a splash too hard will almost always result in cracks, or even worse, a completely broken bell. The china is available in many different varieties and ranges from 12 to 28 inches in diameter. Basically, a splash is a type of crash cymbal, but then the other way around. The bell is on the underside and the bow curves upwards, then back down close to the rim. A china delivers a bright, yet dark trashy effect. Besides the splash and the china, there are many other effect cymbals on the market, including ones equipped with tambourine jingles, holes, or steal rivets for a 'sizzle' effect.

Materials

Cymbals are comprised of various materials, each possessing its own unique sound characteristics.

  • Die-cast cymbals are made from what's known as B20 alloy, which is comprised of 80% copper and 20% tin. This material is often the best choice for great-sounding cymbals that are durable and long-lasting. The traditional cymbal-making process begins by heating a ball of B20 alloy, then rolling it flat with a press and hammering into the perfect shape, often by hand. The final diameter, weight, finish, and how the cymbal is hammered is specific to each individual cymbal, which means that no two cymbals sound alike!

  • Sheet metal cymbals are made of B8 alloy, which is 92% copper and 8% tin. Cymbals made from this material fall into the mid-range price category. Unlike traditionally-made cymbals, they are stamped out of a sheet of metal, which is a less time-consuming, less expensive production process. Even though the hammering is done by machine, sheet metal cymbals offer excellent value for money.

  • Brass cymbals are made from the least expensive type of metal, an alloy comprised of 62% copper and 38% zinc. Compared to cymbals made of B8 or B20, these have a smaller dynamic range and less sustain and are usually included with standard entry-level drum kits.

Wear & tear and warranty

The smaller the cymbal is, the more you'll need to handle it with care. If you strike it too hard, you run the risk of causing irreparable damage in the form of cracks from the rim towards the centre. These kinds of cracks are often not covered by the manufacturer's warranty, even if the cymbal is only a few months old. If a crack originates in the groove along the bell, or if the bell breaks completely, then it usually is covered. Sometimes, cracks can occur at the hole in the bell, which are often caused by incorrect mounting to the stand. Always use a metal or plastic plate with a felt washer when mounting! If you want to use a screw to secure your cymbal, be sure to use a felt in between so the two don't touch each other. The top hi-hat cymbal always requires felts or plastic sleeves on both sides. It's also extremely important to use sleeves on the stand to protect the cymbal's keyhole, which prevents any contact between the stand and the cymbal. Before purchasing your cymbals, make sure that the hole is perfectly round. If it isn't, we advise you try a different one. Furthermore, never rest the cymbal on its edge on the stone floor; any dent or imperfection in the rim can lead to cracks and damage.

Maintenance

In general, you don't need to maintain cymbals as you would with other instruments. Nonetheless, some people like their cymbals to be shiny and polish them regularly, while others like visual signs of wear and tear. With certain cymbals, a layer or two of dirt can even contribute to their authenticity and tonal character! Some drummers (and manufacturers) even bury their cymbals in the ground to get that layer of dirt. If you like clean, shiny cymbals, however, be sure to use a special cleaning product made by the same brand as the cymbal. Try polishing the underside first to see the effect of the product before applying it to the top so you don't accidentally polish away the brand name. Never use silver polish from the supermarket! Shine your cymbals at your own risk!

Protection

A good cymbal bag or case is essential for transport. There are manycymbal bags and cases available. We recommend a bag that has separate compartments for each cymbal so they don't touch each other and cause damage. A case is usually equipped with a screw in the middle for you to attach the cymbals, just make sure you use felts between each one so the cymbals don't touch each other.


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