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A common mistake drummers (including myself) make is to focus too much on the drum kit itself and inadvertently neglect what cymbals we are playing. What I mean by this is that sometimes we are so focused on buying a high-quality drum kit that we ignore the cymbals and opt for a cheap set.
Cymbals are one of, if not the most critical piece of a modern drum set. High-quality cymbals can make a cheap drum set sound great. Alternatively, cheap cymbals can make even a great-sounding drum kit leave more to be desired.
For years I played with a relatively cheap cymbal set, and while they were okay (I still use some mixed in with my new cymbals), they weren’t the quality I should have been using.
For most musicians, including myself, money is tight, which means we have to pick and choose what we spend our money on, but as a drummer, a primary focus should be the cymbals.
Cymbals lasting for decades is great, but their longevity doesn’t really matter if they don’t sound good.
So what’s the deal? Do cymbals sound better with age?
Yes, especially if you like a darker, mellow-sounding cymbal. As the metals that the cymbal is comprised of age, the sound it produces will begin to change. Many drummers prefer this more mellow sound of an older cymbal compared to the brighter tones of newer cymbals.
Let’s take a closer look at how the sound of cymbals can change as they age and why that tone change is often sought after by many drummers.
Why Does Cymbal Sound Change Over Time?
Like the rest of the drum kit, the sound cymbals produce will change over time. This is because cymbals are made of metal alloys, and weathering and the effects of time will affect metal, like the wood shells of most drum kits.
According to Billy Brennan on the Modern Drummer website, cymbals use four primary alloys, all of which are copper-based and include bell bronze, malleable bronze, brass, and nickel silver. If you are in the market for new cymbals, the metal alloy make-up of the cymbal is a huge determining factor of the overall cost.
For example, the $700 Zildjian 14” K Constantinople Hi-Hats are made of B20, which is 80% bronze and 20% tin. Whereas the $180 Zildjian 14” I Series is made of B8.
It is important to note here that age will not be the only determining factor regarding how the sound of a particular cymbal changes over time or if it will end up sounding good as it ages.
The initial metal-alloy quality of the cymbal is a very important factor. Meaning a lower-quality cymbal will not magically sound amazing as it ages. However, the sound of the lower-quality cymbal will likely change to a dark and more mellow sound, which many agree sounds better.
Another factor to consider is the initial sound of the cymbal. A quick search on Sweetwater or another music site will reveal dozens of options regarding the cymbal size, weight, finish, and bell size, all of which influence the cymbal’s sound.
Let’s take a closer look at three of the main reasons that cymbal sound changes over time.
Reason #1: Reaction With The Elements
The first primary reason a cymbal will change its sound over time is that the metal alloys interact with the elements (namely oxygen, moisture, and oils from your skin), which will cause changes as the copper reacts to the air.
This reaction can cause a greenish color to form on the cymbal (think the Statue of Liberty or some old pennies you might have noticed have a green tinge to them, according to Dr. Helmenstine in her article for ThoughtCo.), known as patina, which many believe can contribute to the mellowing sound of aged cymbals.
Reason #2: Dirt And Grime
Just like the strings on your guitar, cymbals will react to the sweat and oils from you touching the cymbals. Other things, such as smoke and interactions with regular dirt and grime, can create layers on the cymbal’s surface that can influence the sound as they age.
While I enjoy the sound of older cymbals, I also like the bright and crisp sounds of new cymbals. I also like how clean cymbals shine and look and the lights of a nighttime show, so I am diligent about keeping my cymbals clean.
Generally, I wipe down my cymbals after every show and after every practice session, as I don’t like fingerprints or dust building up on my cymbals. Further, I will put my cymbals through a deep clean every couple of months with either specially designed cymbal cleaner or soap and water.
This is a subjective preference, but if you plan to clean your cymbals regularly, you want to ensure that you fully dry them after cleaning; otherwise, it could accelerate the oxidation process unless, of course, that is precisely what you are trying to do.
Reason #3: Physical Damage
Cymbals are resilient. They are made of metal alloys and designed to be repeatedly hit by drumsticks. However, even the most resilient of cymbals will eventually begin to wear down due to the constant onslaught of regular playing. The type of cymbal and angle of attack will also influence how fast a cymbal becomes damaged.
This slow decay over time, according to the Inspectioneering website, may lead to visible cracks forming in the cymbal. At that point, some cymbals become unplayable, especially if the crack is on the cymbal’s edge, as it will only get worse with time and severely distort the sound quality. However, some cracked cymbals are able to be played for several more years after the initial crack.
Playing style and the angle cymbals are set up can significantly impact this. For example, I like to set up my crash cymbals so that I hit them directly on the edge most of the time, which can increase the likelihood of developing cracks.
I prefer to play this way as I like the sounds produced and the control I have over the hits, but it is often not recommended to play this way.
Long before this happens, however, the repeated stick hits will still cause changes to the cymbal’s structure at the microscopic level, which can lead to changes in sound that are observed in aged cymbals.
Do Cymbals Sound Better With Age?
Many drummers will attest that their cymbals will start to sound better as they age, just like older and vintage drum kits. With the wooden shells of the drum kit, this is due to the drying out of the wood, which increases resonance and tonal qualities. With cymbals, it is largely from the three reasons mentioned above.
Ultimately, the answer to this question is largely subjective. I prefer a blend of new cymbals and older cymbals. Many different genres influence me; as such, I like to have a wide variety of cymbals to incorporate as many different sounds and have as many creative options as possible.
I love small minimalist kits with limited cymbals for specific situations. Still, if I have the option and the resources, I try to incorporate as many cymbals on my kits as possible. I am always searching for new and unique tones, and older cymbals can help fill that need.
There are some songs that I need a mellow and darker sound and some songs where I need bright and crisp-sounding cymbals. In my opinion, both new and older cymbals sound fantastic as long as they are used in the appropriate situations. There is no reason to be strictly set on one or the other.
Unfortunately, few videos on YouTube explore the difference between old and new cymbals. However, the video below does compare the difference between dirty and clean cymbals. Listen and determine for yourself if the dirty or clean cymbal sounds better.
Do Used Cymbals Sound Better?
Just like the article I wrote about old drums sounding better with age, that doesn’t necessarily mean that used cymbals will automatically sound better just because they are used and older than new cymbals.
In other words, buyer beware.
There are three main factors you want to look at when considering buying used cymbals.
Factor #1: Overall Appearance
The first thing to look at is the overall appearance. If you are buying online, it is important that there are pictures from all different angles and both the top and bottom of the cymbal. You also want to ensure the pictures are of good quality, as sometimes low-quality pictures can mask some of the cymbal’s issues.
I would not buy a cymbal with excessive patina on the surface unless it were a low price, but again that is a personal preference.
Factor #2: Cracks
Cracks are another factor to look for, and just like factor number one, it is important that there are pictures from multiple angles to ensure there are no cracks.
Cracks in the cymbal are not the end of the world in some cases, but if they are on the edges, I would avoid buying the cymbal as it will only get worse with continued use.
Factor #3: Keyholing
Keyholing is when the bell of the cymbal begins to crack. While not as detrimental as a crack to the rest of the cymbal, it can still cause issues over time, and it is something that you should look for when buying used cymbals.
Below is one of my splash cymbals that have developed some Keyholing. While it currently still sounds great, I will likely have to retire it at some point.
Keyholing typically occurs by metal-on-metal contact and is often easily prevented by using sleeves, felts, and cymbal toppers on your cymbal stand.
Cymbals are one of the most important considerations regarding your drum kit. They are not something that should be overlooked or seen as an afterthought.
After reading this article, you should now have a much better understanding as to why many drummers prefer the sound quality of older cymbals over brand-new cymbals.
Until next time, happy playing!
Hi everyone! I have been involved with music most of my life, beginning in grade school with the trumpet. I am a largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist (drums, guitar, bass, and starting the piano and violin). I currently play drums in two bands and write and produce many genres of music in my home recording studio. I am also an avid guitar and drum collector.