What Are The Different Types Of Cymbals?

What Are The Different Types Of Cymbals?

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Cymbals are often confused with drums or completely disregarded by people who don’t know much about musical instruments.

Despite that, cymbals are one of the most powerful, and dynamic instruments and while some may not know their name, cymbals are definitely noticeable. More so, there are so many cymbals worth learning about!

So, what are the different types of cymbals?

Among various cymbals, you’ll find hi-hats, ride cymbals, crash, splash, China, swish, stack, and effects cymbals like bell and sizzle, as well as finger and hand cymbals. Cymbals are either made from brass or bronze, with brilliant or traditional finishes and they come in different shapes,  sizes, and thicknesses that affect their sound.

Cymbals deserve our attention because with such musical versatility they can be incorporated into any musical situation. So, let’s have a closer look at each type of cymbal out there and how they are made!

What Are The Different Types Of Cymbals?

Cymbals are one of the oldest percussion instruments that originated in Asia and gained popularity in the western world during medieval times.

Even today the importance of cymbals is clear as they are an integral part of the orchestra, but they also played and continue to play a major role in so many genres, whether that’s jazz, pop, or rock and metal.

As you can imagine there’s more than one type of cymbal out there, so let’s take a look at each and one of them!

1. Hi-Hats

Hi-hats must be one of the most recognizable cymbals that are part of the drum set, they are basically two matching small to medium-sized cymbals mounted on a stand facing each other from the bottoms. However, hi-hats weren’t always called this way, and they didn’t even look like they do today.

Hi-hats were called clangers and instead of sitting high, they were mounted to the rim of the bass drum.

With some experimentation, the low-boy pedal was developed. It stood one foot from the ground and instead of using a drumstick, the drummer operated the low-boy pedal with one of their feet to strike the two hi-hats together.

There’s no clear record of how the low-boy turned into a hi-hat, but it must’ve happened sometime in the late 20s. According to Philly Joe Jones, the legendary Jazz drummer, it was another drummer William “O’Neil” Spencer who invented the hi-hat.

First, the hi-hat was raised almost at the same level as the snare drum, but since that position wasn’t as comfortable for the drummer the hi-hat was raised 6″-12″ above the playing surface of the snare drum.

Hi-hats today can be found in various sizes, the most popular is 14″ probably because of their versatility when it comes to sound, but it’s not uncommon to find hi-hats slightly larger or smaller, 15″ or 16″ and 12″ or 13″.

Larger hi-hats sound fuller and washier, something that suits genres like rock but also jazz. Smaller hi-hats are brighter and they’re great for playing fast patterns because they have more rebound that’s why you often see them being used in genres like hip-hop, rap, and R&B.

2. Ride Cymbals

In my mind, the ride cymbal is heavily associated with jazz, but it’s a percussion instrument that can be heard in most genres.

Ride cymbals are named this way because their main role is to “ride the music”, in other words, to help keep time in a song, to mark the tempo, or you can also say that drummers play the ride cymbal to keep steady patterns, also known as a ride pattern.

Compared to the crash cymbals we’ll talk about later on, a ride cymbal has more sustain, and they produce a more focused sound compared to the shorter and fast dying sound of crash cymbals.

The ride cymbal is also positioned closer to the dominant hand making it easier to be handled, and they are also placed in a lower position compared to crash cymbals so the drummer can reach them more easily.

This is important because the drummer has to maintain complete control over the ride cymbal since it’s there to maintain a rhythm and from a practical point of view the ride cymbal is played more towards the center or top.

When it comes to the diameter of a ride cymbal it can be anywhere from 18 to 22 inches, additionally, these cymbals tend to be thicker and denser, which means that they respond better in louder volume situations.

While the ride cymbal is usually the largest, there are various diameter and thickness variations for rides and it all depends on the type of music you want to play, and what sound you are after. Smaller and thinner cymbals for example will produce more shimmer.

3. Crash Cymbals

While the origin of the crash cymbal, or clash cymbal as it’s also called, might be uncertain, this instrument, like most cymbals, was introduced to Europe by 18th-century Turkey.

Nowadays they continue to play a major role as part of orchestral percussion, as well as marching percussion. However, that’s not all because the crash cymbal is also part of the drumset.

If we’re talking about the orchestral crash cymbal then we mean the two identical thin, domed plates that the percussionist holds in both hands and they bring the two cymbals into contact with one another. That’s why you might see some people referring to them as hand cymbals.

This can be done with as much force as necessary to produce the desired sound. In the video, you can see how the considerable force creates a powerful metallic sound to accentuate a strong recurring beat.

The drummer also produces a more delicate sound by rubbing the rim on one of the plates in a circular motion around the face of the other plate.

When the crash cymbal became part of the drum set, probably in the 40s, it was mounted on a stand and played with a drumstick.

Crash cymbals, as the name suggests, produce a sudden and more explosive sound. That’s why they are rarely used for tempo marking, instead crash cymbals are employed for accents, rolls, and dramatic effects.

Crashes are usually located on the opposite side of the dominant hand because they are more unstable and because they are usually played closer to the rim, so the drummer can perform more potent crashes and they don’t have to reach as far.

The reason why crash cymbals are unstable has to do with the fact that they have a lightweight profile and they are much smaller in diameter 14″ to 18″. That’s why they are more likely to crack and split much sooner.

Of course, this percussion instrument is quite versatile when it comes to size and thickness especially compared to ride cymbals.

4. Splash Cymbals

Unless you decide to incorporate the bell cymbal in your drum set, the splash cymbal is probably the smallest cymbal you are likely to use.

While it’s considered an effects cymbal, it still deserves its own spot on our list because it’s often part of the extended drum kit.

The splash as we know it was really popular in the 20s and 30s and it was invented by Gene Krupa, an American jazz drummer who is also credited with helping to formulate the modern drum set.

While it fell to obscurity the splash cymbal had a comeback thanks to Stewart Copeland who was playing in the band “The Police”. Thanks to him the splash and its noticeable sound still is used by many modern drummers.

The splash cymbal comes in different diameters from 6″ to 13″ of course as with most cymbals you can find a greater variety with certain brands, however, you are more likely to see drummers use any size from 8″ to 12″.

The size of the splash cymbal is another reason why they are popular since they are easy to mount on a stand and they can be placed in a convenient spot for the drummer without taking too much space.

This small and thin cymbal with little to no taper helps the drummer produce sharp sounds that are short in nature. Basically, this cymbal produces a quick “splash” sound that helps drummers to provide their riffs and solos with accents.

There are different types of splash cymbals, you have the traditional splash that was popularized by Gene Krupa, then you have rock splash cymbals which are heavier and have a slight taper. Additionally, you have China, salsa, thin, sizzle, stacks, and bell splash cymbals that play their own unique musical role.

5. China Cymbals

As you already know gongs aren’t classified as cymbals, and while I would love to spend most of my time talking about gongs, I have to settle for the China cymbals.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the China cymbal because it shares so many similarities in sound with the Chinese gongs.

As a guitarist, you have a lot of ways to experiment with your sound and one thing I always loved about drums and cymbals is the even greater ability to find unique sounds to elevate your music.

If you’re a new drummer then I promise you that once you get acquainted with the basic drum kit you will start looking for more percussion instruments to add to your kit and the China cymbal might be one of many.

Now they have an impressive size range starting from 16″ to 20″ in diameter, but hear this out, you can get China cymbals that can go as wide as 27″.

These cymbals also come in different styles, they might have your standard bell or a conical bell. You can also find a China cymbal with an inverted bell and an upturned rim as you can see in the video above.

The sound of a china cymbal works best as an effect cymbal because it’s quite loud and the sharp, bright treble sound it produces can be heard over the rest of the instruments.

That’s why it’s a great instrument to use during a drum solo and you will often see Latin, Brazilian music and Jazz fusion incorporate the China cymbal for this particular reason.

Sometimes you will also see this cymbal featured in orchestral works, for example, a suspended china cymbal is included in Olivier Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie and Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation.

So, if you’re looking for a cymbal that can produce a sound that is explosive and crash-like then the China cymbal is perfect for the job!

6. Swish Cymbals

Swish cymbals are another invention of Gene Krupa, and they are sometimes considered to be a type of China cymbal, and while they have some similarities, like the upturned and flanged edge they also have a small bell, as well as a thin profile with little taper.

Unlike the China cymbals that are often used as effects cymbals, the swish cymbal is basically a type of ride cymbal or it can also serve as a crash cymbal when smaller in size and if they are mounted bell down. Speaking of size the typical diameter for the swish cymbal is 16″ to 22″.

If you use a swish cymbal as a ride then you can achieve different tones depending on the way you mount them. If you go with the bell up then you get a trashier tone, while the bell down option will give you a more mellow and warm tone.

Swish cymbals are often sold with rivets but plenty of drummers choose to remove them. Though they can be great if you want to add more sustain and achieve a unique sound and timbre.

7. Stack Cymbals

The stack cymbals are as the name suggests two or sometimes more cymbals that are placed close together one on top of the other.

They can be used as effects cymbals or they can actually be used as a crash or ride cymbal instead.

I love the DIY aspect of stack cymbals simply because you can make your own stack instead of buying a set. Especially if you’re on a budget you can often find used cymbals on the market and simply make your own stack, even if it’s just for the purpose of experimentation.

As long as the cymbals actually fit well together it doesn’t matter what size they are, the only thing you need to be aware of is whether the stack cymbals are producing the kind of sound you’re looking for.

Depending on what kind of cymbals you decide to stack you will get different tones and sounds. The number of stacked cymbals can also give you a more gritty and trashy sound that is worth exploring, as you can see in the video!

Smaller cymbals can give you short sizzles that you can use for accents and fills, while heavy cymbals that are 16″ to 18″ wide can create a type of sound that can cut through other sounds in a dynamic way.

Stack cymbals are all about the different combinations!

8. Finger and Hand Cymbals

As you can see in this incredible video the dancers/percussionists are holding identical finger cymbals, or Zills as they are also called, in each hand, secured by straps on two fingers on each hand, usually the thumb and the middle finger.

The introduction of finger cymbals came from the East, and they were mostly used by belly dancers, similarly, you can find finger cymbals in North Africa.

Finger cymbals also come in different sizes, since a dancer that is performing with an orchestra might need these instruments to produce sounds different in volume compared to a belly dancer in a closed venue.

The material used is usually brass because of the specific sound this alloy makes. Despite the presumable simplicity of finger cymbals they actually have a range of different sounds they can produce, whether that’s a bell-like sound, loud clacks, subtle clicking, and more muted cupped sounds.

While you won’t see finger cymbals in a modern drum kit, and they are more associated with middle eastern music performances, they are often incorporated into Ottoman military bands, and Western orchestral performances.

You may have also heard of hand cymbals, and I thought it’s important to clarify that these are also referred to as clash cymbals, which we thoroughly discussed above.

When we talk about hand cymbals, we also mean the cymbals that are mostly used in an orchestra, a marching band, or any concert hall environment, and instead of being part of a drum set, these cymbals are held in both hands.

9. Effects Cymbals

A lot of cymbals on this list can be considered effects cymbals, like the bell and sizzle cymbals below, and even the stacks, splashed and Chinas above, but I think it’s worth mentioning them separately.

As you may be suspecting the role of effects cymbals is to produce unique sounds that “typical” cymbals are unable to produce.

Effects cymbals are all about experimentation and that’s why you will find them in different shapes and sizes, with thickness variations, with holes of different sizes and shapes.

These percussion instruments are designed to deliver sharp and trashy sounds, they might be used for longer sustain, or to hold a specific note for a prolonged period of time with a smooth fade.

Some effect cymbals are used for their incredible shimmer sound, the drummer can achieve brightness and high-pitched sounds that cut through all the rest of the drums and cymbals.

The materials used for effects cymbals are brass and bronze but you can also find certain brands use aluminum to achieve a different kind of sound that resembles a bell.

As I already said, effects cymbals are all about experimentation, you can put them upside down, or let them hand vertically, and there might be dents that distort the usually perfect circle shape of cymbals.

10. Bell Cymbals

The bell cymbal is probably the cutest cymbal on this list, and while I know some of you might argue that finger cymbals are cuter, I simply have to disagree.

Jokes aside, I do think this is a fairly obscure cymbal probably because it is often seen as an effect or accent cymbal. This might be because of the kind of sounds that it makes or perhaps because it’s not often used by drummers.

The bell cymbal can provide a higher-pitched sound and it can be used to augment a larger crash cymbal. Bell cymbals can also be experimented with, they can be mounted in stacks, to achieve a diversity of sound.

Additionally, you can use a bell cymbal to mark the tempo like you would with the ride cymbal.

You can usually find bell cymbals anywhere from 6″ to 10″ in diameter, but as always the world of musical instruments is quite diverse so you can find larger or smaller versions of the bell cymbal.

11. Sizzle Cymbals

If you’re someone who loves experimenting with different sounds then you need to try a sizzle cymbal. Unlike the swish cymbal that has rivets you can also add chains and rattles to a sizzle cymbal.

The rattles are added through holes bored in the cymbal and the sizzlers can be mounted near the rim or along a diameter.

These additions can help you experiment with different new sounds since the various chains or rattles can make the sound of the wash much louder, however, the rattles lack sustain.

This also doesn’t have to be a permanent change and often times these chains of balls can be removed. But I do have to warn you that if you had the chains attached through holes then the holes can alter the sound the cymbal produces making it sound dryer.

How are Cymbals Made?

You might have encountered some or maybe all of these different types of cymbals, but it’s important to mention that even these cymbals can be divided depending on their manufacturing.

So, let’s take a look at how these dynamic instruments are crafted.

Cymbal Material

The reasons why cymbals are such a loud percussion instrument and why each of the cymbals tends to give off a different sound are the material and finish.

Cymbals are made from two types of alloy, brass, and bronze. Brass cymbals are beginner-friendly specifically because they’re cheaper, but they produce a less desirable sound.

There are two different qualities of bronze cymbals, B8 bronze, that’s 92% copper and 8% zinc, and B20 Bronze that’s 80% copper and 20% zinc.

The first is more expensive than the brass and has a better sound, while the latter is much more expensive between the three and produces the highest quality of sound.

Cymbals can also boast two different finishes, either the brilliant or traditional finish.

Both influence the instrument’s appearance and sonics, making their surface appear shiny or unlathed, as well as producing either brighter or darker sounds, which we will talk more about later.

Cymbal Manufacturing Method

You can also differentiate between two cymbals by the manufacturing method that was used.

Sheet cymbals are made by cutting the cymbal shape out of a larger piece of sheet metal and that’s why they are usually more inexpensive and beginner/intermediate friendly.

Cast cymbals on the other hand are usually used by professionals because they are manufactured using a more traditional process during which the molten metal is poured into a mold.

With this method, a single blank disc is produced and the rough cymbal shape is then heated again and rolled, pressed, and hammered either by hand or machine to reshape into the finished cymbal.

As you can imagine it takes a lot of work to manufacture a cast cymbal. This usually results in a higher price tag, but you get a richer and more complex sound.

That being said, I do want to note that modern manufacturing technology has made many advances so sheet cymbals and cast cymbals are not as different when it comes to quality.

In fact, sheet cymbals are far more consistent across production compared to cast cymbals. Since the process of creating a cast cymbal into individual molds is more likely to produce instruments that have their own unique sonic fingerprint which as you know yourself is not desirable.

Cymbal Shape and Size

Another thing that distinguishes one cymbal from the other is the length of the diameter, its thickness, the length of the bell, the profile, and the taper.

The profile is the curvature along the radius of the cymbal, while the taper is used to explain how the thickness of the alloy tapers from the bell to the edge.

Cymbals also vary in size, the smallest on our list being the finger cymbals while the ride cymbals have the largest diameter.

As you can imagine, all these characteristics affect the kind of sound each cymbal produces.

What Affect The Sound A Cymbal Makes?

Knowing how cymbals are made and what goes into that process can help you understand what makes each type of cymbal sound so different.

Let’s take the material, for example, brass cymbals usually produce low-quality sound, while B8 and B20 bronze cymbals result in both high-end sounds.

Cast cymbals that are made from a mold are able to produce a much richer and more complex sound that can improve with age. However, sheet cymbals are more likely to produce a consistent sound between each batch.

Whether you buy a cymbal that went through the process of lathing or not will also affect the sound it produces.

Lathing is the process during which the surface material is removed from the cymbal, while it is spun on a machine. The grooves that appear on the surface provide a channel through which sound waves will travel outward.

Different grooves have a different effect on the sound, it can become more focused and direct, or the opposite of that.

Once lathing is done the manufacturer will use either clear lacquer or high-speed buffing as a finish over the cymbal to protect the instrument from oxidation.

Polished cymbals are not simply shiny but they have the ability to cut through the rest of the kit and add very subtle overtones.

Dark cymbals on the other hand have a non-polished finish that dampens the high-end frequencies and that’s why they have a more vintage style.

When it comes to size and shape, the larger the cymbal’s diameter you can expect a longer sustain and greater volume. Additionally, smaller cymbals produce higher tones than larger cymbals.

Cymbals that are on the thick side of things will have a higher pitch, and greater volume, however, you can expect a slower build-up of overtones. The thickness will also add to their durability.

Depending on the size of the bell you can either have fewer overtones, shorter sustain and more attack and that’s if the bell is smaller.

The taper and profile of the cymbal also play a major role, since flatter/thinner cymbals have a quicker response and produce fuller sound, however they decay quickly and have decreased volume.

That’s why thicker hi-hats for example have a brighter, more articulate sound, while thinner hi-hats are darker with less projection.

Closing Thoughts

With so many cymbal options out there it’s important that we don’t overlook the unique character, power, and beauty of each of these instruments.

I may not be a seasoned drummer, and while my loyalty lies elsewhere (the guitar), I know that a drum set would not be the same without the incorporation of cymbals.

In truth, music would not be the same, whether we’re talking about blues, the orchestra, or your high school’s marching band!