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A drummer’s guide to cymbals!

A dilemma that most musicians face in their initial years is that of choosing gear. Be it analog pedals and digital processors for guitarists, or patches and presets for keyboard players, all of us have gone through the ambiguity of too many choices and not enough knowledge. We’re here to break down one such problem for budding drummers – Cymbals.

These tools occupy a range of frequencies like none other and require very responsible usage in order to communicate and not just add incomprehensible noise. As a starter guide, we can break down some major ideas here that you could further explore with the idea of listening as the most important tool in your quest for the right sound. So look them up, do your research and keep your ears perpetually open.

The Ride

Arguably the most defining sound for drummers in most genres, there are three major sounds you can look at when approaching this cymbal. First is the attack or the sound you get when the tip of your stick hits the cymbal. Depending on the kind of music you play, this would be anywhere from a bright, warm sound to dark and dry sound.

The second is the wash. This is the range of overtones and reverberations as a consequence of hitting a cymbal. The lighter you hit, the more short-lived the wash. If you’re looking to explore this sound, it would make sense to strike the cymbal using the shaft of your stick instead of its tip.

The third is the bell. This is the swollen centre of the cymbal that produces a very defined, sharp sound that decays quickly and cuts through every other instrument in the mix, and has to hence be used very responsibly. There are practically limitless different sounds a bell can make depending on the cymbal itself, and hence it makes for a major parameter when choosing the perfect ride.

While some of these terms might seem ambiguous, as you listen to a variety of cymbals you will understand the meaning attached to this jargon.

The Hi-Hats

This pair of relatively smaller cymbals forms the backbone of practically every genre of music and has such a wide usage in technique and sound that it makes for a very crucial element in any drum kit. Instead of delving into the complexity of its possible use, it would be better to consider a few major aspects that can define your own sound fairly well.

The first would be its sound when played shut. This is usually a quick attack, quick decay sound made by hitting the closed hi-hats with the tip of the stick and serves as the time-keeping spine for a countless number of songs and genres.

The second would be the open sound, played when the hi-hats are left loose and usually hit using the shaft of the stick. This creates an excessively washy and loud sound, but also a relatively quick decay, making it perfect to bind together loud and heavy music.

The third and often overlooked sound is that of a clap. The sound made when pressing the two hats together, which is similar to a closed hi-hat sound yet characteristically different. In order to make an informed choice it’s important not to overlook any of these.

The Crash

Probably the most commonly known and heard sound in the drum kit, the crash has such wide applicability combined with a lack of any definitive rules to its usage, that there is no way to make an informed choice without listening to each one individually. Two ideas to keep in mind, however, would be the overall pitch and frequency of the crash sound that is usually determined by its size, and the length of decay of sound and overtones, which would again decide how often and in which context to use the crash.

Effects Cymbals

This group of cymbals is pretty much every other cymbal outside of the three main ones above, including stacks, chinas, gongs, splashes and more. It would make sense to explore these only after getting a grip on the fundamental cymbals and their aspects, as these are born out of more niche needs and individual preferences, along with usage in specific genres.

Again, it would be important to emphasise on how impractical this guide will be without actually listening to every element of every cymbal you can. Not just virtually, but in studios and stores and a live context. Your ears are a priceless tool, and with some initiative and a small head-start using this guide, we’re confident you’ll be capable of expressing yourself in the best manner possible.

This article was featured in our February 2018 issue:

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