Types Of Cymbals (Differences & Use Cases Explained!)

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  • What are the parts of a cymbal?
  • What are the most common types of cymbals?
  • How are cymbals made?

If you don’t have much experience as a drummer, finding your way through the mountainous variety of cymbals available online can be torture.

What is a ride cymbal? Where do I use a crash cymbal? How are hi-hats mounted?

All valid questions and a good reason to read through this basic guide to the most common types of cymbals, their uses, and reasons you might want to add them to your kit.

So, let’s get into it and have a look at some cymbals.

What are the Parts of a Cymbal?

A cymbal has three main parts: the bell, the bow, and the edge. Each of these parts has separate characteristics that individually contribute to the overall sound of the cymbal.

The bell is the round, raised area in the middle of the cymbal. The size of the bell has a large effect on the sound of the cymbal. A larger bell will give the cymbal a better projection level and greater overtones.

The bow is the curve that a cymbal follows from the lower edge of the bell to the outer edge. The bow can be divided into two categories, “crash” and “ride.” To get a ride sound, play closer to the bell. Further away creates a crash. The bow of a cymbal determines the sustain.

Lastly, the edge of the cymbal is the most delicate part. Take care when packing your cymbals, and this is the part most likely to crack if you drop them.

What Are the Main Types of Cymbals?

While cymbals come in various sizes and purposes, it helps to understand the most common cymbal types out there. These cymbals can be used primarily for timekeeping, like the hi-hats or ride cymbals, or as effects and accent cymbals, like the China and Splash cymbals.

The most common cymbal types are:

  • Hi-hats
  • Ride cymbals
  • Crash cymbals
  • Swish cymbals
  • Effects cymbals
    • Splash
    • Stacked
    • China
    • Perforated
    • Gongs
    • Rivetted/Sizzle
    • Bell

Cymbal Types

Each of these cymbals has its own purpose, with distinct differences in thickness, size, and design that affect their sound and how they’re used on the kit.

Hi-Hats

I have always felt that hats are the breathing lungs of a kit, and they are the most played part of my kit.

Hi-hats come in pairs. The bottom hat is usually heavier and thicker than the top hat. That difference in weight is what gives the characteristic “chick” when you close them.

The hats are mounted on a hi-hat stand, with the top cymbal attached to the rod by a hi-hat clutch.

The most common sizes you will likely encounter are 12”, 13”, 14”, and 15” hats. When choosing a set, remember that smaller hi-hats have a much quicker response and a brighter sound.

Ride Cymbal

A staple rhythm keeper on any drum kit. The ride cymbal is your best friend if you are a jazz drummer.

Ride cymbals are significantly larger than crash or splash cymbals, with sizes ranging from 20” upwards. They also have a significantly thicker taper.

The ride cymbal produces a clean “ping” and is played on the bow or the bell of the cymbal with the tip of the stick.

Crash Cymbal

Crash cymbals are used for their loud, explosive sound. Often used to highlight accents in the music or to mark a transition or musical phrase or even to finish off a fill.

As I mentioned, the sound is loud and has a washy tone that cuts through the mix.

Sizes range from 14” to 22” in diameter. They can be used as a ride cymbal by playing on the bow of the cymbal or alternatively by using the shoulder of your drumstick on the cymbal’s edge. Great if you are looking for a washy, slightly trashy ride sound.

Swish Cymbal

The swish cymbal is incredibly common in big band settings and is hands down my favorite cymbal.

The swish cymbal is shaped similarly to a China but is unique in that the part of the bow that starts to turn upwards has equally spaced rivets around the edge. My first drum teacher had one of these bad boys, and I was instantly in love with that “swish.”

They are also fairly large cymbals. And range in size from 16” to 22”.

Effects Cymbals

Effects cymbals as a category encompass a wide range of options. Any cymbal used to create effects falls under this category, so this can include your more common splash and China cymbals, all the way through to oddly shaped bits of metal with holes in them, that give you that authentically trashy effect.

Because they cover such a vast variety, effects cymbals vary in both size and the materials they are made from. From your tiniest 10” splash cymbal to the largest perforated cymbals.

Typically, there are several common types of effects cymbals you are most likely to see let’s go through a quick rundown of each.

Splash

The sound of this cymbal is right there in the name. Splash cymbals are effects cymbals that create a “splash” with a fast, sharp sound usually used to play accents. The cymbal has a short decay as well.

Splash cymbals are typically quite thin, and come in relatively small sizes, ranging from the small 6” to the much larger 14”. The cymbal’s size will certainly affect the sound, with the smaller cymbals having a much quicker decay.

The compact size of splash cymbals means they are easy to place around a kit, and if you are a bit of a gear nerd like me, the possibilities are endless.

Stacked cymbals (Stackers)

Here, cymbals of different weights are stacked one top of the other. Dave Weckl was a forefather of stacking cymbals. He started doing this in the 80s, stacking splashes on top of Chinas. Nowadays you can buy them as stacked packs from various cymbal manufacturers like Paiste and Zildjian.

China

The king of trashy cymbal sounds. Everybody knows the China cymbal, with its distinctive upturned bow that looks a little like the Chinese gong, which is how it got its name. The China is a really explosive cymbal with a brash and crisp tone.

With its explosive nature and loud sound, China is played similarly to a crash cymbal. The sound is incredibly complex, and if you haven’t added one of these to your kit, you are missing out on some fun. They can vary widely in size as well, starting at 8” all the way up to 24”.

Perforated Cymbals

Certain manufacturers sell effects cymbals with perforations (or holes) in them. These odd-looking cymbals mean that the sonic frequencies can’t travel as smoothly across the cymbal’s surface, producing a much more complex and “trashier” sound.

Gongs

Okay, not going to lie. When I was a baby drummer in the 90s, nothing looked cooler to me than a double bass drum kit with a gong behind it. 

As I am sure you can deduce, gongs originate in Southeast Asia. They are generally, though not always, larger, thicker sheets of a metal alloy that are lower in pitch.

The one you are most likely to encounter is the tam tam. This is the gong little drummer seen behind the kits of legends like John Bonham. They are usually a flat gong that does not have a defined pitch, and has a rolled edge. They are also played with a mallet. That gong sound is distinctive.

Rivetted cymbals (Sizzle cymbals)

I love the sizzle. This is one of my favorite cymbals of all time. The sizzle cymbal found its roots in the jazz bands of the 1930s, with jazz drummers looking for that distinctive wash sound, adding them to their own cymbals.

Sizzle cymbals have holes punched through the cymbal with rivets, chains, or other metallic material put through the perforations to modify the cymbal’s sound.

Bell Cymbals

Bell cymbals pretty much do exactly what it says on the tin. They are small and thick, with little to no taper. So think about just the bell part of your ride.

They produce a higher-pitched and distinctly bell-like tone. Hence the name.

Honestly, effects cymbals are an enormously varied category and are more a categorization of the cymbal types you would use to create effects than a “type” of cymbal in and of themselves.

How are Cymbals Made?

Cymbal making is a three-stage process that involves casting, hammering, and finishing.

At the casting stage, the bronze alloy used to make the cymbal is melted, then poured into molds before being allowed to cool down.

The cymbal is then put through a heating and pressing machine to give it shape. Finally, the cymbal is placed into a hydraulic bell press to create the bell.

From casting, the cymbal moves to the hammering phase. Hammering is the part of the process that will most affect the sound and characteristics of the cymbal. This process creates the thickness, shape, and sound of the cymbal. The process further strengthens the cymbal and can be done by hand or by machine.

Lastly, the cymbal is sent to finishing. Here, the cymbal is cut and shaped before being polished and having any logos or finishes applied.

FAQ

Are Bigger Cymbals Louder?

Yes, larger cymbals tend to be louder than smaller ones. A bigger cymbal usually means that you will have greater sustain and volume. However, the response is that you pay for the additional volume. Smaller cymbals, although they have a lower volume, have a faster attack, and the sound decays faster.

How Long Do Cymbals Last?

Honestly, if you take care of your cymbals, they can last you a long time. If you choose the right cymbals for your style and playing technique, your cymbals could last more than 20 years.

I have a Zildjian ride cymbal that is at least ten years older than I am and looks and sounds significantly better for its age than I do.

Should I Clean My Cymbals?

You should definitely clean your cymbals, but stay away from household metal cleaners when you do it.

The best way to do it is to do a quick wipe down with a micro-fiber cloth after every session to ensure you eliminate any small bits of grime and fingerprints.

If you need a bit of a deeper clean because of a spill or seriously stubborn dirt, you can use a small amount of soap and some warm water to remove them. Just make sure that you dry the cymbal well.

There is also the option of using a commercial cymbal cleaner. I suggest you follow the manufacturer’s instructions here, but remember to use a soft microfiber cloth and to dry the cymbals afterward. You want to avoid leaving metal in contact with water.

For a more in-depth guide on how to clean your cymbals, check out our article on the best cymbal cleaners available today.