Updated on April 4th, 2022
Some of the most unsung but absolutely important instruments in the percussion section of every ensemble are the metals. I am talking about cymbals in all their glorious forms.If a percussionist takes the time to purchase drum cymbals with strong reputations for craftsmanship and versatility, he or she may in fact purchase metals that will stay with the performer for decades.
Drum cymbals come in a variety of diameters, thicknesses and tones. Taking the time to do the research on cymbals will lead to happy percussive outcomes.
On the metals side of the percussion market, only three brands matter. Paiste, Sabian and the venerable Zildjian produce, without question, the best metals available today.
While Zildjian tends to garner most of the glory and the attention, its rivals can generally match “Big Z” in all sizes, varieties and finishes.
Many percussionists, upon noticing that their kit or studio instrument features lesser quality cymbals, will trade the imposters for an offering from one of the big three.
Standard sizes for crash drum cymbals include 14, 16, 18 and 20 inch diameters with the middle two offerings being the most commonly used.
Featured during transitions in the score or to accent particular passages in the music, drum cymbals crashes are often “very exposed” in percussive literature and therefore must offer perfect consistent tone. Depending on the metal thickness of the crash cymbal, tones can be darker or brighter.
Paiste’s 17 inch Fast Crash Cymbal provides the best combination of size, performance, and durability.
While a bit pricier than the competitor’s offerings, the Paiste 17 is highly regarded for its strong attack and deft quick decay.
Bright enough for use in the rock setting, the Paiste 17 is typically found in the outdoor ensemble setting where volume matters.
For percussionists performing on a set, the hi-hat is by far the most important cymbal in their collection.
Providing a steady pulse for the rest of the ensemble, hi-hats are sold as a matched pair in 12-15 inch sizes.
While most jazz percussionists prefer the lighter sounds of the smaller hi-hats, rockers tend to gravitate toward the 14 inch offerings.
Sabians AAX 14s are widely consider the best hi-hats on the market today. An extremely versatile hi-hat, the 14 is noted for a buttery sound that is actually robust enough to cut through any ensemble.
Even with this reputation for warmth, the 14s are favorites of heavy metal percussionists because they can take a beating.
With rare exception, Ride cymbals tend to be the most expensive and largest of the cymbals in a percussionist’s inventory. Not as versatile as other metals, Rides tend to rotate based on the genre of music a percussionist is exploring at a given time.
Ride’s come in a range of 18-26 inches, with the middle sizes being the most popular. The sound Rides produce is typically described as dry or pingy.
A dry Ride cymbal, recognized for crispness, is found in jazz settings. On the other hand, pingy Rides are recognized for sound that can pierce through a large ensemble.
Zildjian K 22-Inch Constantinople Ride is amazing. Noted for a sultry, jazz sound, the Constantinople’s tone is unlike anything else in the cymbal market.
While it can sound quite gaudy when struck as a solo instrument, the Constantinople is just gorgeous when complimenting the rest of the ensemble.
Zildjian is quite proud of this one as attested by the fact that Constantinople’s design characteristics, metallurgy and finishes are guarded as trade secrets.
China symbols, sized in an expansive range of 8 – 28 inches, provide a gong-like, Asian sound to the ensemble.
The smaller Chinas tend to feature a very bright and sharp tone-quality making them a popular niche instrument in the rock setting.
Larger Chinas, often mounted vertically with the bell facing the wall, afford a gong effect with a very long decay.
The Zildjian 18 FX Oriental China Trash is well acknowledged as the premium China for the discerning percussionist. The “middle of the road” 18 inch size offers a primo combination of volume, tone and trash.
Crafted in a range of sizes spanning 4 -13 inches, the splash cymbal packs an important punch in a small and inexpensive package.
Offering unique color and sound effects to the ensemble, splashes tend to be the least “uniform” of the cymbal offerings.
Made of relatively thin metals, only the best splashes have the durability to take the beating dished by today’s percussive artists.
Featuring a punchy attack in a durable package, Sabian’s 13 El Sabor Salsa Splash Cymbal is a big splash at home in both acoustic and rock settings.
Durable enough for stick work, the Salsa is also a favorite of conga players interested in adding some hand work to their set-up.
While not the desired approach for professionals looking for uniqueness in every one of their cymbals, cymbal packs are a good option for beginners and intermediate percussionists ready to “trick-out” their kit or studio.
Cymbal packs, often called combos are box sets, should include a crash, ride, and a hi-hat. Some providers augment their box sets with splashes, stands, tote bags and the like.
Without question, Zildjian’s 391 box set is a fabulous offering in an astonishingly low $700-$800 price range. The 391 pack includes a 14” New Beat hi-hat, 21” ride, and 16” and 18” crash cymbals.
The cymbals, all highly regarded on their own, provide the perfect balance of tone, durability and versatility.
Ah, cymbals. Overlooked, underappreciated but vitally important to the pulse and textures of modern musical scores.
While cymbal packs are certainly a relatively inexpensive option for the percussionist hoping to quickly add a lot of color to his/her setup, individually researched and purchased cymbals are the best option when time and money are not concerns.
Take the time to match the instrument to your favored musical style and performance context. And, yes I will say it, when in doubt by a Zildjian. There is really no dispute. From top to bottom, Zildjian is consistently the best name in cymbals.
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