Choosing the Right Cymbals

How To Choose the Right Cymbals

by Daniel Glass

Although they often play second fiddle to the drums, your cymbals are just as important in defining you as a player. Put as much care into choosing them as you would a new kit, a new car, or any other "serious" purchase. Here are a few things to keep in mind when preparing to bring a new cymbal into the fold.

Before actually heading to a music store or perusing the classifieds, make sure to do the following:

1. Decide what type of cymbals will best support you as a player—the sizes, thickness and brightness that are typical for the type of gigs you do. If a Tony Williams vibe is what you're after, then you'll need a heavy jazz ride that can provide good stick definition. If you want that Dave Grohl sound, you'll need to invest in a ride cymbal that can also be crashed. If you're a freelancer who plays in any number of styles, it's important to have a variety of sizes and weights to select from. But don' t go overboard, a good drummer should be able to draw music out of any cymbal.

2. Educate yourself. These days, options abound like never before, and stores are full of brands and styles that have very specialized purposes. Choice is a great thing, but it can also be confusing. Read product reviews in drum magazines. Find out what your favorite players are using. Most importantly, talk with other drummers—your peers, a teacher, a more experienced player. Once inside the store, don't be afraid to pull a salesperson aside and ask their opinion as well. It's what they're there for.

Once you've narrowed your choices down, keep the following in mind:

3. Whenever possible, make sure that you play any prospective cymbal before buying it. This may sound obvious, but many younger drummers assume that all 16" crashes sound alike or that a 22" ride is an acceptable substitute for a 20", etc. Listen to advice, but don't assume that someone else's favorite cymbal will automatically work for you.

4. Make sure you play prospective cymbals at a drum set. A cymbal might sound great when it's being hit on the display stand, but does it have the resonance you want in the context of a groove or the punch you expect when it's crashed in tandem with the bass drum? You won't know unless you try it all together.

5. Test out new cymbals in conjunction with your existing setup. As with the strings on a guitar, your cymbals should mesh sonically as a set, so don't feel afraid to bring your cymbal bag with you when you buy. Most music superstores like Guitar Center have "cymbal testing rooms" for just this purpose. Take advantage of them!

6. Explore every aspect of a cymbal's capabilities. Crash it (even if it's a ride), ride it (even if it's a crash), check the bell, hit it with both ends of a stick. Note the decay time for crashes. Determine how much of an overtone "wash" builds up when you play time on rides. Swish hi-hats with your foot in addition to hitting them. Although it may not seem like it, cymbals are finely crafted musical instruments—it's up to you to be fully aware of the array of sounds they can produce.

7. Don't rule out used cymbals. They're not only cheaper, but may have developed a unique and incredible sound from being hit over a period of years. Also, don't feel you need to "clean up" a used cymbal—it may be the grime that gives that cymbal its unique personality. Jim Keltner has described in interviews how he would stomp on new cymbals and throw them down stairwells in an effort to get that "worn in" sound for recording projects.

Here are a couple words of caution to keep in mind:

8. Beware of buying cymbals through the mail. Although mail order catalogs, auction websites, and the like will offer tempting prices, you may end up getting something that sounds very different than what you had originally wanted. If the mail's your only option, make sure there's a quality returns policy. You should never have to feel that you've been "stuck" with something.

9. One final (but extremely important) reminder: Don't buy cymbals because they're pretty!! Although brand name logos, signature series' and glossy magazine ads may influence your preferences in the way of gear, let your ear make the final decision. In the end, the way your equipment sounds, not its appearance, will play a much larger role in getting you toward your musical goals.

Daniel Glass has spent the last seven years spreading the gospel of classic American music with neo-swing pioneers Royal Crown Revue. He is currently at work on a book examining "roots" styles of drumming, to be released by Warner Bros. Publications. To find out more, or to contact Daniel directly, go to his website,

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