When you’re starting as a drummer, gear is one of your big hurdles. You can get hours of enjoyment and decent practice out of your improvised set of pots and pans. However, if you want to be taken seriously as a drummer, even by yourself, you’ll need to move on to a real kit.
That real kit will need real cymbals to help you get the shimmering, exciting sounds that pros produce. While drums are low, warm, and woofy, cymbals are like the tweeters on a great stereo system. They bring you all the bright highlights and powerful crashes to create a full palette of sound.
So if you’re ready to take the next step in your drumming adventure, here’s what you need to know when buying cymbals.
What are Cymbals Made From?
Pretty much any cymbals worth talking about is made of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin. Yes, there are cheap cymbals out there that are made of brass (copper and zinc alloy), but we have to warn you away from them. While they’re way cheaper, both their sound quality and durability are so inferior to bronze that they’re just not worth their salt.
Bronze cymbals are normally made from two different alloys of silver-infused bronze. B8 bronze has 8% tin and the rest copper. B20 bronze is, you guessed it, 20% tin.
Which is better?
The general agreement seems to be that B20 cymbals are the best kind of cymbals (according to their higher prices, anyway). But that’s not always the case. B20 is popular in higher-end cymbals like Sabian’s AAX series or Zildjian’s K series. In general, B20 can produce a lot more richness in sound, with layered overtones that add more expression to cymbals.
B8 cymbals, on the other hand, are usually the best starter cymbals. Series like Sabian’s B8X and Zildjian’s ZBT use B8 alloy to produce affordable, durable cymbals for low prices. But, it’s not so cut and dry as this.
Other well-known brands like Paiste and Meinl use B8 bronze in many of their higher-end cymbals with excellent results, like Paiste’s 2002s and Meinl’s Generation X. B8 can make cleaner, brighter, and more responsive cymbals.
Other Cymbal Alloys
On top of that, there are less frequently used alloys like B10, B12, and B15 used by different makers. In general, the less tin you have in the mix, the brighter the sound and the fewer overtones. Less tin also means a little more brittleness and less durability.
How Cymbals are Made
Next up, a quick guide to cymbal manufacturing. Cymbals can be either stamped or cast, just like the spoons and forks in your cutlery drawer. Stamped cymbals are cut out of a rolled sheet of bronze and then shaped into the classic curved cymbals shape.
Cast cymbals are made from pouring molten bronze into molds. Generally, cast cymbals are more durable and also more pure sounding. Stamped cymbals are usually lighter and brighter.
Either way, cymbals are then usually lathed to the correct thickness and then hammered to tune them. Hammering can be done by machine or by hand. Hand-hammered cymbals can be very labor-intensive and command higher prices but are prized for their uniqueness.
Types of Cymbals
Now you know what cymbals are made of and how they’re made. So, let’s talk about the main types of cymbals used in drum kits today. This an important part of what you need to know when buying cymbals.
Hi-hats are the most used cymbals in a drum set. They come in a (usually) matched pair that mounts horizontally on a stand sandwiched together.
The hi-hat stand has a foot pedal that you can use to control the opening and closing of the sandwich. The bottom hat sits in place, while the top hat moves down when you step on the pedal and up when you release it.
Hi-hats are used for keeping time, either by playing the top hat with your sticks or by stomping the hi-hat stand pedal in time. They should have a nice “chunk” sound when you stomp the pedal and a bit of wash when you strike the open hats. Most hats are 14 inches, although you can see 13 inches often and sometimes even 10-inch diameter mini hats.
The other timekeeper in the drum set is the ride cymbal. This is usually a medium to very heavy cymbal with a big bell. The ideal “ping” of a ride cymbal results from its heaviness. And this provides a good contrast to the “ching” of the hi-hats.
The bell of a ride cymbal should give a loud and pure “dong” sound like an actual heavy bell. Rides usually run in the 18-22” diameter range.
Crashes are where the explosions happen. These are medium to large diameter cymbals that are medium to thin in thickness. They’re usually set up so that they can be struck on their edges, or at least on the rims of their faces.
Good crashes should explode in sound and then fade away fairly quickly. They’re loud and brash and can be selected in different sizes and weights to give different tones. Crashes are generally anywhere from 14-20” in diameter.
Splashes are just small crashes, and that means a range of about 6-10” in diameter. They’re usually very high and bright and are used to add quick accents to your drumming. Like crashes, they should be loud and very quick to respond. However, they fade away almost instantly.
Apart from the four main types of cymbals, there are all sorts of special cymbals that can add unique sounds to your playing. Chinese cymbals provide loud, trashy, but quickly muted sounds. Cymbal stacks can do much the same thing.
Bells are like the bell of a ride cymbal without the rest of the cymbal and give loud “dongs.” Other cymbals have rivets or jingles attached to them to give more sizzle and intentionally fuzz up cymbals sounds.
Getting Started with Cymbals
If you’re just starting out drumming on a kit, you’ll need to think about which cymbals you should get first. To me, the essentials are a good pair of hi-hats and a good ride. Supplement those with one or two crashes, and you’ll find you have the cymbals to make the majority of the sounds you hear in most music.
Later, as money, space, and skill allow, you can add other items. Once you’ve been playing for a while with the basic set, you’ll get a good idea of what might be missing. Do you need another crash? Maybe a bright little splash or two? Add what you need to make the beats you want.
Caring for Cymbals
Like any piece of gear, a little bit of extra care will go a long way to making your cymbals last. Here are some basic tips to make sure your cymbals give you years of play.
For starters, the edges of your cymbals are their thinnest, weakest points. Though some cymbals like crashes and splashes are normally struck on their edges, be aware that this will make them wear out faster. They could chip or even tear. Striking cymbals back from the edge is less damaging.
You also shouldn’t stand cymbals on their edges if not necessary. It’s better to lay them upside down, resting on their strong bells, so the edges don’t get damaged.
Cymbals stack nicely into each other, but that stack can get heavy pretty fast. If you’re going to be gigging around town, invest in a well-padded cymbal bag like the Protec Deluxe. Or even a hard trap case with wheels, like the SKB Rolling Cymbal Vault.
Keeping your cymbals clean can also help them maintain their bright, clear sound. Use a polishing cloth or even cymbal polish like Zildjian’s Brilliant Finish Cymbal Polish to keep them clear of dust, dirt, and fingerprints.
Looking for Great Drums and Drum Accessories?
We have a nice selection to help you out. Check out our in-depth Zildjian ZBT And ZHT Cymbals Review, our Sabian XS20 Cymbals Review, our Ludwig LC178X0 Drum Set Review, our Roland TD-25KV Electronic Drum Set Review, and our Yamaha DTX562K Electronic Drum Set Review for awesome items currently on the market.
You may also enjoy our comprehensive reviews of the Best Jazz Drum Sets, the Best Portable Drum Kits, the Best Snare Drums, the Best Drumsticks, the Best Drum Practice Pads, the Best Drum Thrones, the Best Drum Tuners, and the Best Electronic Drum Amps you can buy in 2021.
Now You Know What You Need to Know When Buying Cymbals
Now that you’ve got the info, the only thing left to do is to make your choices and get your hands on some cymbals. You can mix and match brands and even match new with second-hand pieces. Whatever you need to do to achieve a great sound so you can play your heart out.
Until next time, let the beat go on.