Cymbals are an integral part of any drum kit. Although they look like a simple hunk of cyclical metal, there’s more to them than meets the eye, and an incredible amount of mastery goes into making the best ones.
In this article, we cover everything you need to know when buying them, plus we review the best options out there.
At a Glance: Our Pick of the Best Cymbals Available Today
Effects (Splash / China)
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- The Three Types of Cymbal
- Cymbal Making
- Product Round-up and Mini Reviews – Best Cymbals
- So, Which Should I Buy?
The Three Types of Cymbal
When shopping for hi-hats, two of the main things to consider are diameter and thickness.
In terms of diameter, hi-hats are usually 12, 13, 14 or 15 inches. 13 and 14 inches are by far the most common.
- Smaller ones tend to be brighter and more responsive, making them well suited to fast, tricky rhythms, and easier to transport.
- Bigger ones tend to be louder, darker and heavier and are perfect for heavy metal music. They also sound great when played semi-open, while smaller hi-hats are typically best either open or closed.
While the diameter of your hi-hat will determine the sustain, frequencies, and volume, the thickness will also impact volume, pitch, and articulation. Thicker hi-hats are higher and louder than thin ones and have a bright, articulateness when played in the closed position.
So, if you’re a heavy rock player, who plays semi-open, hi-hats that are large in diameter but thin in depth will give you the best. If you’re looking for volume over everything else, thick and large is the way to go. If you’re looking for something bright and ‘sizzly,’ small hi-hats will suit you. Thin ones are usually labeled ‘thin’, so you know what you’re getting, and thicker ones are usually described as either ‘thick’ or ‘heavy’.
Ride / Crashes
The key differences between ride and crash cymbals are:
- Rides often have a greater diameter than crashes – at 20-22”, and they’re also thicker. Crashes are usually 14-18” and thinner.
- Crashes also have a more varied taper, thin on the outside and extremely thick at the bell. This encourages very little stick articulation, resulting in a ‘crash’ noise.
- Rides, on the other hand, have a consistent thickness throughout, which allows for more stick articulation and offers a ‘pingy’ sound.
As with hi-hats, the same rules apply with regard to thickness and diameter. If you want a sustained, heavy crash, go for a bigger, thicker build. If you want something brighter and shorter-lasting, go small. If you’d like your ride to give out a ringing, pinging sound, the larger, the better.
Some are also labeled as both ride/crash. These are often around 18” in diameter, and are adequately suited to both purposes. Perfect if you’re trying to save on space.
As well as the basics, you can get cymbals that are marketed for ‘effects’. These aren’t essential components of the kit but can be an important part of creating a ‘signature’ sound and making your grooves and fills interesting. There are many different options around, but the two most popular and versatile are splash and china cymbals.
- China: large with upturned edges. This gives them a ‘trashy’ sound. Often mounted upside-down on stands, to allow for easy access.
- Splash: usually smaller – around 8 – 12” – with a faster decay. They typically produce high-frequency sounds which cut through everything else.
Cymbals are, of course, made from different types of metal. The most commonly used are brass, B8 bronze and B20 bronze.
- Brass is the cheapest of the three, and what’s most commonly used for beginners.
- B8 bronze is the next step up. It’s what you can expect to see on mid-range products, and it gives you high tone, loudness and intensity.
- B20 bronze is more expensive. It’s the most popular metal and generally considered to have the best sound.
The B8 and B20 numbers refer to the amount of tin in the bronze mixture. B8 bronze has 8% tin, 92% copper, whilst B20 has a 20 / 80 mix. The lower the tin content, the higher the frequency.
Of course, there are other metals used and different bronze mixtures to B8 an B20. B15 and B12 are not unheard of, and extremely high-end cymbals can be made of stainless steel, titanium and even silver.
Bell size, profile and taper are also important factors.
- Bell size: Cymbals with a larger bell have a longer sustain than those with a small one, but they attack less. Many ride products have a large bell, due to their focus on sustain rather than cutting through with a sudden ‘crash’. Smaller bells have opposite qualities.
- When it comes to the profile of your crash, ride, hi-hat or effects cymbals, consider the curvature along the radius of the cymbal. The greater the curvature, the higher your pitch will be.
- Tapering is also worth considering. The more your thickness varies, the more versatile it will be. One that’s thick in the middle but thin towards the edges will offer crash qualities when you strike it to the side and ride qualities when you hit near the bell. If you choose one with very little tapering, it will have a consistent sound that’s likely to be more cutting and ‘crash’ like.
The cheapest cymbals are made by cutting out the shapes from large metal sheets. However, most decent ones are ‘cast’. This means that they’re made after molten metal is set in a cast, then rolled and hammered into shape. They sound significantly better than those that are cut out from large metal sheets and have more character, and each one is unique and slightly different from the next. For that reason, they’re more expensive.
Product Round-up and Mini Reviews – Best Cymbals
Zildjian K Custom 14 1/4” Hybrid Hi-Hat
These are warm and loud. The 14.25” surface area gives them a powerfulness whilst the careful design including a ribbed bottom cymbal encourages articulacy and gives you control.
There’s a short sustain on this set, owing to the medium-thin weight, which makes them perfect for consistently loud playing. These are versatile, and as well as being capable of many sounds they also have a half brilliant, half traditional finish. This gives them an edge on most other similarly priced products, which are either one or the other and will allow you to experiment with multiple tones.
They’re pretty expensive: if you’re playing on a beginner’s kit at the moment, these probably cost more than it, but they’re well built, guaranteed to last and appropriate for the professional drum kit.
These hi-hats will be well suited to players of all levels and in a variety of styles. Due to the lack of sustain, they might not be ideal for heavy metal but the projection and articulation they offer make them a perfect fit for almost any other genre.
- Medium-thin weight makes them versatile and gives them a short sustain.
- Designed to give you the power of a 14” whilst maintaining the articulacy and control of a 13” cymbal.
- Warm, loud ‘chick’.
- They’re pretty pricey.
- They lack the sustain you might want in heavier genres.
Sabian 14 inch HHX Evolution Hi-Hat
Here’s another 14” set, offering a bright, full sound that can cut through even the loudest of bands. They have a modern, dark tone that’s perfect for today’s pop music as well as the heavier genres.
They are thin and sensitive, giving you ultimate control and ensuring musicality (as opposed to clanging).
Like the Zildjian set, they’re pretty expensive, but they’re also built to last and are a truly professional product.
These will suit drummers who are intermediate and beyond and play modern music. They might be so great for those who play jazz and looking for a warm, subtle option.
- Good cut through.
- Thin and sensitive give you the ultimate control.
- They sound dark and heavy whilst open.
- They’re more suited to modern, heavy music than other genres.
- They’re pretty expensive.
Paiste 2002 Sound Edge Pair 15 inch
These are medium-heavy, making them loud, dark and sharp. There’s a ribbed bottom cymbal, which gives them a sharp ‘chick’ that cuts through, and they’re made from B8 bronze which adds some high-frequency qualities into the mix.
They’re pretty expensive, but like the Zildjian and Sabian, these are built to last and with the professional in mind.
There’s a medium sustain on this set, making them versatile and the dynamic range goes from medium-soft to loud. You can expect a sharp, pronounced stick sound and a crisp, clear tone that suits rock, R&B, heavy metal and beyond.
This set will be ideal for those playing classic rock, R&B and other popular genres, but not so great for jazz musicians, as the dynamic range doesn’t go as low as some others and the sound is very sharp.
- Medium / Medium-heavy thickness and 15” diameter make them very loud.
- Ribbed bottom cymbal gives it a sharp ‘chick’.
- Made of B8 bronze, adding to the high-frequency qualities.
- They won’t play as quietly as others on this list.
- They cost a lot.
Zildjian K Custom Dark Ride
It has a medium-thin weight, producing a dark/mid sound that suits modern music and there’s a long sustain, making it excellent for playing consistent rhythms.
When you hit it on the side, it almost sounds like a crash cymbal, whilst playing it around the bow offers dark overtones that resonate nicely without being overpowering.
Due to its versatility, this ride cymbal would be well suited to session musicians or those who play in function bands. It might not be so good for players in a heavy rock band, as it doesn’t project that well. Although this is marketed as a ride, it an do the job of a crash cymbal as well.
- Has trashy, crash qualities good for accents.
- High-quality B20 Bronze.
- Dark overtones resonate well without being overpowering.
- Doesn’t project as well as brighter rides, so it will be less suited to rock music.
- It’s expensive.
Paiste 20” Signature Mellow Ride
Paiste’s 20” Mellow will certainly get the lovers of jazz drumming excited.
It’s hand hammered, so you know you’re getting something of unique quality and the carefully designed B15 bronze gives it a rich sound that’s ideal for mid-frequencies.
Despite its size, its mellow and well-suited to low volumes. The attack is crisp and the fade is rapid, so you won’t be drowning anything else out beneath its smooth sizzle. It has a limited range of frequencies, so you can expect consistency.
This ride will be great for those who want a smooth, subtle groove to accompany jazz musicians in acoustic gigs at intimate venues, and less so for anybody looking for volume in their ride.
- Warm and mellow, great for low volumes.
- Crisp attack and fast fade makes articulation easy.
- High-quality B15 Bronze.
- Not so good for louder playing.
- The range of frequencies is limited.
Sabian 16 Inch AAX X-Plosion
Sabian’s 16” crash is in many ways opposite to Paiste’s Mellow Ride. It has a bright attack, thanks to its medium thin depth. The sustain is massive, meaning that your impact won’t fade in a hurry and the B20 bronze mix makes the overall sound rich and high quality.
It has quite a large bell and little tapering, meaning that you’ll be consistently loud.
Due to its power, volume and brightness, it’s very well suited to rock musicians who want to make an impact. It would be unlikely to be appropriate for a jazz musician.
- Medium thin depth gives it a bright attack.
- High quality B20 bronze.
- Excellent sustain.
- Not good for those who want something more subtle or darker.
- You might not be able to use this as a ride, due to its sheer powerfulness.
Sabian 10 Inch HHX Evolution Splash
Sabian’s HHX Evolution Splash is a high-quality effects cymbal made from B20 bronze. It has a short sustain, meaning that you can throw it in without worrying about other sounds being drowned and there’s very little tapering giving it a consistency as well as biting qualities.
It’s hand-hammered, so you can be sure you’re getting something unique and high quality and there’s a large bell which gives the splash a decent amount of volume.
It has a dark sound that fits in with modern genres and a sensitive response that will react differently each time you strike it.
It’s a professional product but comes at a surprisingly reasonable price.
Sabian’s HHX Splash will suit those who are looking to add a high-frequency, high-quality crash-alternative to their kit.
- High quality B20 bronze.
- Good for modern genres.
- Short sustain.
- It’s very biting, which isn’t right for all genres.
Zildjian 18” Oriental China Trash
Zildjian’s China Trash is an oriental cymbal with a bright, loud volume and lengthy sustain.
It’s made from B20 bronze, giving it a richness and despite its diameter, it’s very thin, so you can expect a depth that adds complexity and keeps the volume below overpowering.
It’s the sort of thing you’d use sparingly, to add layers to your performance and its ‘trashiness’ could suit many genres, from punk to space rock.
It’s pretty expensive, but will really add an exotic layer to your kit that it’s impossible to ignore.
This is superb for experimental, creative drummers who are looking for something that manages to be both bright and booming, but not for those who want ‘high-frequency sizzle’.
- Fast response and rapid decay.
- High quality B20 bronze.
- Long sustain adds to the impact.
- High pitched sound won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.
- It’s not as loud as some others.
So, Which Should I Buy?
If it’s your hi-hats you need to replace, you have the Zildjian K Custom, Sabian Evolution or Paiste Classic cymbal set to choose from. Zildjian’s hi-hats are perfect for rock drummers, Sabian’s lend themselves to heavier styles including metal and the Paiste set is versatile amongst all classic genres.
If you’re replacing a ride, Zildjian’s K Custom Dark Ride or Paiste’s Mellow Ride are your options. The Custom Dark Ride has a long sustain and is suited to modern music, whilst the Mellow Ride is quiet, ‘mellow’ and good for jazz. The Custom Dark Ride also has crash-like qualities, but if you’re looking for the ultimate crash cymbal then it has to be Sabian’s 16” X-plosion. This crash really is explosive, with its loud projection, long sustain and bright attack.
If you’re adding to your cymbals, rather than replacing old ones, you might like a splash or china. The Sabian 10” Evolution splash offers a short, sharp, high-pitched crashing sound, whilst the Zildjian 18” oriental china can add an exotic, bright yet booming sound to your kit.
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.