Beginners Guide to Drum Cymbals

There is one deliberating question that every drummer has to ask themselves when it comes time to purchase their own gear: How do I choose the proper setup, and what exactly is it that I need? There are several variations in regards to each individual component of a great beginner drum-kit, but it is the proper set of cymbals which can turn a standard drumming session into something musically ethereal. If you’re stuck, rule number one is don’t buy blind—follow this guide for picking out the proper cymbals for your future drum-set, and save yourself the headache.

Cymbal Features

Firstly, it is important to consider the compositional aspects of a cymbal. The size, weight, and material all play a huge role in determining the type of sound that will resonate from them when struck.

Brass, bronze, nickel silver (an alloy with copper and nickel), and malleable bronze (an alloy of bronze and tin) are the most popular materials used for making cymbals. For beginners, brass is recommended because of its inexpensive price-point. Bronze does offer a fuller, more professional sound, but at a cost (just be sure to find a cast bronze cymbal, rather than sheet metal, if you’re looking for quality). Size depends on the type of cymbal you’re after, but generally speaking, a larger diameter cymbal will be louder, lower pitched, and have a longer resonation time.

The opposite can be said for smaller diameter cymbals. Thicker, heavier cymbals, although louder, are typically less responsive, and much more demanding in order to produce a proper sound. It takes a strong strike to get a solid response from a thick cymbal.

Types of Cymbals

There are several different types of cymbals which can be used to customize your setup to fit your individual needs, but crash cymbals, ride cymbals, and hi-hats are what you will find featured on most standard drum kits. For those of you who are interested in foregoing the “test and try” method of choosing your cymbals, there are always cymbal kits available, which usually contain all of the aforementioned types.

drum cymbals

This is a perfect option for beginners who are putting together their first kit, but if you’re aiming for a specific sound, it’s definitely recommended to buy each of your cymbals individually, based on their resonance.

Before buying any piece of equipment for your drum kit, you should also consider the genre of music you will be playing. The reason there are so many cymbals to choose from in the first place is because of the fact that most musical/playing styles require different sounds. For example, you probably wouldn’t use a heavier crash symbol for a Jazz or Latin song. Since heavier, thicker cymbals are louder, they would be better suited for the Rock & Roll and Metal genres. Zildjian is one of the most popular cymbal companies for rock drum kits, though they are expensive.

Crash symbols: Aptly named, the crash cymbal is arguably the most important in the cymbal family. You would be hard-pressed to find a drum kit without one of these. Usually, when picking out a crash, you want to aim your attention toward the thinner variations, especially if you will be experimenting with several genres of music. If you choose one that is too heavy, it is very easy to limit yourself in regards to the kind of music you will be able to play. Standard sizes for crash cymbals range from 14 inches to 18 inches in diameter, but for a universal sound which can be utilized for several musical styles, it’s recommended to choose one between 16 to 18 inches. It is very common for players to use two or more different sized crash symbols in order to integrate a fuller, more contrasting sound into their playing style. Truthfully, the only way to know what sound you will like for any type of cymbal is to make a trip to your local music store, try a few out, and determine which one is most pleasing to your ears.

Ride Cymbals: To understand the function of a ride cymbal, it’s important to know what “riding” is in regards to drumming. Essentially, the term “ride” means to stay in rhythm with the music, or in other words, ride with the music. This is the cymbal you would hit repeatedly to create patterns. Creatively speaking, there isn’t necessarily a one-use function for any kind of cymbal. You definitely can “crash” on a ride cymbal if that is the sound you are looking for. Typically, a ride cymbal will have a slightly larger diameter (from 18 inches to 22 inches), however, a 20 inch is a perfect option for several playing styles. As far as weight and thickness is concerned, the same rules apply. A lighter crash symbol will be higher pitched than its heavier counterpart.

Hi-Hats: Generally, you want to look for hi-hats that have a medium to heavy thickness, so that when they come together, they produce a nice, audible staccato sound, rather than rattling. 13 to 14 inches in diameter is standard when it comes to these cymbals, however, 14 inches is the more common size. Due to the hi-hat’s inherent multi-functionality, there are many more technical aspects involved when setting these up compared to a standard ride or crash cymbal.

One of the most important aspects is the distance between the two. Typically, you want to adjust the clutch so that there is about one to one and a half inches of space in between both cymbals. It is also crucial to not overtighten the felt washer on any cymbal, to avoid suffocating the resonance, but this is especially important for hi-hats.

Now that you have an idea as to what to look for in a cymbal before you buy, it should be stressed that a cymbal can only sound its best if struck correctly. Someone with no prior knowledge of drumming can make a $200 cymbal sound cheap, whereas a professional can make even a lesser-quality cymbal sound crisp and vibrant. That being said, it’s always in your best interest to practice!

If all of this sounds too confusing or expensive, check out an electronic drum kit!

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