The Truth About Cymbals, Part 1

By Vic Salazar

I absolutely adore cymbals. You could even say they're a bit of an obsession of mine. I personally own over 125 of them and use 50 cymbals on one kit and 53 on another drum kit. The many brands that I've played over my forty year career include Paiste, Zildjian, Sabian, and Wuhan.

While cymbals have been around for roughly five thousand years, there unfortunately have been some popular misunderstandings about these majestic instruments that continue to this day.

So with truth in mind, it's time to do some myth-busting! Below are a couple of the more popular ones that I've heard the most:

1. "Cymbals shouldn't be played immediately after being exposed to extended temperature extremes."

Lots of drummers say that you should make sure that your cymbals become acclimated to room temperature before playing them if they've been stored in extreme conditions. The reason for doing this is the fear that the cymbals will break.

This myth simply is not valid.

Cymbals are very durable in terms of the temperatures that they can withstand. Given that they were manufactured at high temperatures of roughly 1,500 degrees F, it's really only at that kind of heat that would damage a cymbal. At real world conditions (even -20 degrees F or 115 degrees F), we're not even beginning to approach that level of extreme heat or cold. So if they're stored overnight in your vehicle in subzero weather or they've been baking in your non air-conditioned attic all summer long, your cymbals will be perfectly fine to play once you unpack them and set them up.

2. "Over time, cymbals can age and wear-in through use, which distorts their sound."

Cymbals don't really age, they just get soiled. What most drummers are hearing when they play an "aged" cymbal or one that they've owned and have been playing for a while is a continued buildup of dirt. It's this dirt - along with oils transferred from our hands during handling - that influences the sound of the cymbal, not the age of the cymbal or how long we've been playing on it.

In general, clean cymbals sound brighter and have more overtones, while dirty cymbals sound warmer and can be a bit drier. If you like more overtones, polish your cymbals. Keep them free of fingerprints, stick marks, and grime. If you are a fan of warmer or darker sounding cymbals, don't clean them. I guarantee that over a period of time, they'll naturally build-up some dirt from playing and handling, and produce a mellower type of timbre.

I had a recent conversation with the great Steve Smith (Journey, Vital Information) about this very topic. He agrees with me, and also prefers the sound of mellower, darker, and drier-sounding cymbals for the type of music that he creates. Steve even jokingly remarked, "I wish someone would make some spray-on funk or dirt that you can apply to a brand-new cymbal to get it to sound like you've owned it a while!"


I'll share additional cymbal myths in future installments of this information series. If there are any that you've heard about, or are confused/bothered by, feel free to get in touch with me, and I'll be happy to clear them up and point you in the right direction!

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