The number of cymbal types available can be bewildering – here’s a helpful ‘beginner’s guide to cymbal types’
Those unfamiliar with the finer details of drums, such as beginners, may wonder what the differences between the many different cymbal types are.
I mean aside from sizes that can vary between practically CD sized, and big enough to be used as a shield, should you be involved in sword-based combat, there are differences in material, construction techniques… the list goes on.
Here, we’ll provide a guide to the main types of cymbal, and the other details to consider when buying.
1. Crash Cymbals
When most people think of how a cymbal sounds, they’re generally thinking of a crash cymbal. These are the loud, explosive cymbals that are used to accent particular parts in the drum pattern.
Crash cymbals can range from around 8” in size, up to around 24”, changing the pitch drastically. They can also range in thickness, with brighter tones from thinner cymbals. Typically, a beginner set of cymbals will have a crash somewhere between 14” and 18” in size.
Occasionally, a beginner kit will have a crash ride, which is designed to function as both a crash and a ride. Usually, this is something of a compromise of each type of cymbal.
Generally, crash cymbals will be placed to the left of a right-handed kit.
2. Ride Cymbals
A ride cymbal is often the biggest cymbal in a typical beginner drum-kit (but not always), and in a right-handed kit is generally placed on the right above the floor tom. Whereas crash cymbals are typically used for accents, ride cymbals are used to play steady patterns, often in a similar manner to hi-hats.
Whereas a crash has a sound that is rich and explosive, rides tend to have a shimmering, sustaining sound. Generally (though not always), ride cymbals tend to be larger than crash cymbals in a typical beginner kit. An average ride may be around 20”, but rides of 26” and bigger are not uncommon.
The sound of a ride varies hugely depending on where it is hit. The bell (the bit around the cymbal mount) produces a sharp bell ‘ping’ sound, with low sustain, whilst the bow produces a more subtle, familiar cymbal sound. This variation makes the ride an incredibly versatile cymbal.
Again, thinner rides will give a lighter, brighter and ‘washier’ sound, whilst thicker rides tend to be darker, with a louder, bell-like ‘ping’.
Hi-hats are the pair of cymbals that sit together on stand, with a pedal to open and close them. These are used to play steady patterns, and playing them whilst open provides the means to provide an additional accent.
When played closed, the sound can vary from a soft, crisp, percussive ‘chick’, to more aggressive, muted and metallic sound, depending on cymbal type. When open, hi-hats have a sandy, ‘sizzle’ sound that cuts through, allowing the drummer to easily accent.
Once again, lighter hi-hat cymbals produce a brighter sound, whilst heavier cymbals produce a darker sound. Hi-hats are typically between 13” and 16”.
4. Splash Cymbals
Splash cymbals are usually used much like crash cymbals, to provide accents, but are also used for special drumming effects.
Generally small and thin, they have a sound that is sharp and short, like a water splash (geddit?). Sometimes these are referred to as multi-crash or crescent cymbals.
Splash cymbals generally range from about 6-13”.
5. China Cymbals
China cymbals are generally recognisable by their upturned edge, and cylindrical bell. Tonally, they have an explosive, crash-like tone, but far trashier. As a result, they sometimes are referred to as trash cymbals. Their design can be traced back to Chinese gongs- hence the name.
Styles of china cymbals vary hugely, with sizes from 8” up to huge, 27” models common. All are characterised by the slightly ‘trashy’ tone, however.
Generally speaking, cymbals can be divided into two categories: cast cymbals and sheet cymbals.
Sheet cymbals are the least expensive type, and are made by stamping from sheets of metal. The drawback is that these cymbals do not have the same levels of sustain as cast equivalents. However, sheet cymbals are usually fine for beginners.
Cast cymbals are made by casting molten metal in a mould. The casts are then, rolled, hammered and lathed into a finished cymbal. Cast cymbals have better projection, sustain, often with more complex tone and are generally tougher than sheet cymbals. But, the more labour intensive production methods involved means that these are a more expensive option.
There are of course countless varieties of all of the above types of cymbal available from brands such as Zildjian and Sabian, but hopefully this guide should illuminate some of the basic types available to the drummer.
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Jon is a multi-instrumentalist with a passion for inspiring others to get involved in making music. After spending many years playing venues here, there and – pretty much – everywhere, he joined the Dawsons’ Music Web Team before progressing into his current role managing the Dawsons Blog.