Gideon Waxman’s Ultimate Guide to Buying Cymbals

When scouting for your next cymbal investment on the drum market, it is clear there are an overwhelming amount of choices available. Gideon Waxman is here to help you determine which cymbals are right for you, that compliment your sound as a drummer.

Gideon Waxman

Cymbals play an integral part of a drummer’s set up, and they are a significant investment. With a cymbal purchase, you will have to be completely confident that sound is right for you and your music. They cannot be altered or tuned in the way that drums can. So it’s imperative to invest in cymbals that will compliment the styles of music you play.

In this guide, I aim to provide as much information as I can about cymbals to help educate you on how to choose the perfect cymbals that are right for you, and what you need to consider when looking to invest in new cymbals.

First Things to Consider

Every drummer is going to be on a different journey. You might be a complete beginner, a progressing intermediate level drummer, or even a seasoned professional. What will be right for you will be different to the needs of another drummer.

So how do you find the perfect cymbals that are right for you, while being within the realms of what you can afford to spend?

A cymbal’s sound cannot be altered, and with this knowledge we understand that a cymbal’s inherent sound will remain the same whether in a recording studio, on a festival stage or in a club venue. In other words, regardless of what you spend, you will need to be confident that your cymbals can suit the styles of music you play, and sound great wherever you perform.

Image by Takuro Obara from Pixabay

Quality cymbals should be versatile enough to suit a wide range of musical styles, and sound great whether being played in the studio or on stage, and across all dynamics, for example both being played delicately and also loudly.

Unless you are one of the most esteemed drummers on the planet and have a generous  endorsement deal, the likelihood is that you might not be able to own an enormous array of cymbals. The best way to upgrade is to find a perfectly suited set of cymbals that ticks all of the boxes sonically.

Looking at the Price Tag

All of the largest cymbal manufacturers—Sabian, Zildjian, Meinl, and Paiste— utilise an extensive and thorough cymbal manufacturing process. The cymbal craftsmen that guide the process have decades of experience—ensuring each handmade cymbal is fit for purpose.

It takes years of experience to master the fine art of cymbal crafting, with specific processes such as hand hammering, cymbal lathing being specific art forms that are necessary to create beautiful sounding cymbals.

Each cymbal that is crafted is individually hand weighed and tested by experts to ensure they meet stringent quality control regulations.

There is a vast array of cymbals [read article on Types of Cymbals] on the market, and manufacturers around the globe all claim their cymbals are the best sounding, most durable, versatile and innovative. Price tags on premium quality cymbals might appear steep, but one very important piece of information I have to offer is as follows:

With cymbals, what you pay for is what you get. Good cymbals don’t come cheap, and cheap cymbals will eventually need replacing.

This isn’t to say budget cymbals are strictly bad. Some ranges of entry level cymbals exceed the quality of other brands, and these are ideal for beginners at the start of their drumming journey.

Let us not underestimate the huge differentiation in sound between the entry level lines and the professional level cymbals that create a dazzling array of tonal colours both on hit records and on live music stages.

Using Your Ears

I’ll be able to explain more about factors that affect a cymbal’s sound shortly. But before I delve into these topics, I would like to talk about the most important process to buying cymbals. And that is to use your own ears to determine what sounds good to you!

Listen to clips of cymbals online, or better still, go into a music shop and try out cymbals to find the cymbals that best suit you. Have a look at the following considerations to bear in mind when deciding for yourself.

  • Will the cymbals complement the styles of music you play?
  • Do the cymbals open up and respond well when played at different volumes?
  • Can you visualize the cymbals being played within your existing drum set?
  • Do the cymbals create a rich sonic palette that inspires you?
  • Pay close attention to the tone of the cymbals. Are they dark or bright? Or washy or dry?
  • Do the cymbals speak softly, or do they have a cutting projection?

Cast vs. Sheet Cymbals

Let us look more into the different factors that influence a cymbals sound, and how this reflects their price. Cymbal manufacturing is split up into two types. Because of this, virtually all cymbals can be split into two categories: affordable cymbals and professional level cymbals.

Sheet Cymbals (Affordable)

Sheet cymbals are stamped out of a large piece of an existing piece of sheet metal, and they are far easier and cheaper to manufacture when compared to cast cymbals.

It is almost exclusively budget and beginner level cymbals that are manufactured from sheet metal, besides Paiste’s 2002 series being the only anomaly. If you are looking for affordable cymbals, you can expect them to be sheet cymbals.

Cast Cymbals (Professional)

Every professional level cymbal begins its life as a molten bronze disc that will endure extensive rolling, pressing, hammering and lathing to become a predestined, completed product.

The process is very labour intensive and expensive. Because of this process, cast cymbals carry a high price tag. If you are looking for quality cymbals, you can guarantee they will be forged from cast bronze.

Cymbal Alloy Composition

It is traditionally regarded that the best cymbal alloy composition is a formula of bronze known as B20 bronze. B20 bronze is comprised of 80% copper and 20% tin, with traces of silver. Nearly all cast cymbals are forged from B20 bronze.

Famous cymbal ranges that are made with B20 bronze include Sabian’s AAX or HHX range, and the legendary Zildjian A or K customs. It is believed that adding more tin to the bronze alloy darkens the tone and leads to a sonically richer sounding cymbal.

Typically cheaper B8 bronze and brass cymbals will be made from sheet metal, and these are affordable cymbals that make up entry level ranges such as Zildjian’s ZBT line or Meinl’s HCS budget line of cymbals. These cymbals are great tools that allow novice drummers to develop and practice their playing.

Bright vs. Dark Cymbals

Cymbals can most often be split into two different categories when it comes to overall sonics: bright and dark. Most cymbal manufacturers will promote different ranges that slot into one of these groups.

Bright Cymbals

Bright cymbals are easily recognised by their reflective, brilliant finish. These cymbals have a higher pitch and also cut through music easier. They have a longer sustain and they have more clarity, are sharper and often louder.

The Zildjian A custom is a legendary range of cymbals that is the world’s most popular bright sounding cymbal. Bright cymbals are versatile and are best suited to pop, rock, metal and fusion music.

Dark Cymbals

Dark cymbals have complex tones that are warmer and mellower than their brighter counterparts. Dark cymbals will have an unlathed, raw and earthy appearance that contributes to their deeper and less refined sound. Dark cymbals such as Meinl’s Byzance range have a raw, dry sound. They speak with a softer voice that makes them perfect for R&B, jazz, blues and funk music.

Cymbals & Weight Size

Now we know how the method of manufacture, alloy construction and type of finish all contribute to how a cymbal sounds. Let’s take a look at how a cymbal’s weight and size alters a cymbal’s overall projection.

The weight of a cymbal directly impacts the cymbal’s volume, sound and power. Thinner crash cymbals speak faster and are more responsive. But the trade-off is that they are nowhere near as loud as heavier crash cymbals. Heavier crash cymbals can cut through with far greater volume and power.

Medium weight cymbals are the most versatile to choose from. They suit a wider range of musical applications and have the optimal balance of responsiveness and projection. They also have a balanced dynamic range and will sound great when played at different volumes.

Larger cymbals have greater volume and a longer sustain than their smaller cymbal counterparts. Compare a 20” crash cymbal to a 6” splash cymbal. The splash cymbal will explode quicker, because the vibrations are able to travel through the metal faster, allowing for a shorter and energetic burst of sound. But a 20” crash cymbal will explode with far greater volume, resonance and sustain. But larger cymbals will require more energy and power from the drummer to activate them.

Final Thoughts

No two cymbals are the same, and nor are any two drummers. Even two cymbals that are the very same cymbal make and model possess slightly differing sound qualities. This is inevitable due to the painstaking handcrafting process that cymbals undergo for their manufacture.

This is why each drummer should take the time, effort, and care into selecting cymbals that reflect one’s own musical identity and will compliment all of his or her chosen musical endeavours.

The most important decisive factor when choosing a new cymbal is whether or not it sounds good to you. I would recommend bringing your drums to a music store to have a better idea of how the whole drum set sounds together when trying out new cymbals. Use your ears and pay close attention to the unique sonic characteristics before committing to a purchase.

Buying a complete cymbal pack is often the best way to upgrade an entire cymbal setup. It works out to be far more cost effective when buying cymbals in a bundle rather than buying each cymbal separately. Cymbals within a pre-made bundle are also sonically matched to ensure they compliment each other.

Lastly, once you have invested in new cymbals it’s best practice to learn how you can increase the life expectancy of your cymbals through taking good care of them. I’ve also produced a cymbal care guide that teaches you how to best look after your cymbals so that they will offer many years of service.

Related Articles

Types of Cymbals

Effects Cymbals

History of Paiste

Drum Kit Handbook

Did you Know Zildjian….

Gideon Waxman is a London based drummer and music educator, who wolds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Westminster. You can find more of his advice over at Drum Helper – one of the web’s most popular free online drumming resources.

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