There are two things drummers tend to collect: snare drums and cymbals! The reason is because they are the easiest way to add variety to your drum sound. In the many decades I’ve played drums, I have collected and modified a wide variety of cymbals and so I thought I would share my experiences with you.
So, how do you make your cymbals sound better, unique and different? Proper playing technique is usually the best way to improve the sound of your cymbals. Other factors also affect the sound of your cymbals including cymbal condition, hardware maintenance and modifications like various muffling techniques and extreme methods like drilling holes and riveting.
My recommendation is always to start with non-invasive changes before attempting more permanent modifications. That said, my goal with this article is to give you a complete rundown of all available options in order to get the most out of your cymbals.
Inexpensive, Poorly Made Cymbals Will Never Sound Great
Most starter sets come with inexpensive cymbals, which are typically formed from sheet metal and are therefore not very durable, nor resonant.
By contrast, most other cymbals (even those that don’t cost an arm and a leg) are made from cast metal, which is then either hammered, lathed or a combination of both. Not only are these cymbals more durable, but they also have much more resonance and tonal qualities to them.
As such, your inexpensive ‘sheet cymbals’ are essentially throwaways and not really worth investing your time in making them sound better. That said, with a little creativity, you can do some pretty interesting special effects with these types of cymbals – but that’s for another article.
Playing Technique is EVERYTHING!
Believe it or not, there are right and wrong ways to play cymbals and doing it the right way is likely to have the most impact on the sound of your cymbals than anything else you do. There simply is not replacement for playing musically. But what does that exactly mean?
Well, first let’s talk about posture. It is key to be relaxed, not just when playing cymbals…but the drums in general. Being loose while focusing on proper, upright posture while seated behind a drum kit will translate directly into the sound of your instruments.
When you are playing in a relaxed manner, without a lot of tension in your arms and fingers, your cymbals will thank you with a rich, resonant response.
When striking the cymbals themselves, you’ll generally want to hit them at a roughly 45 degree angle (i.e. not straight on or not straight down) with a “glancing blow” to the side. Doing so will cause the most resonance and response from the cymbal.
Playing a cymbal straight down will not cause as much vibration in the instrument, meaning you won’t get the full range of sound from it. You can also play the bell of the cymbals, usually with the shank of your stick, which will give you a very sharp attack and less sustain. This is usually used when playing ride cymbals.
Drummers don’t just clean their cymbals because they want them to look phenomenal on stage (though that’s a big part of it too). We clean cymbals because by removing dust and other deposits like sweat off of them will help to keep them sounding vibrant.
In addition to keeping them clean, regular inspection of a cymbal’s condition is recommended because early intervention can mean a long life or early death of the instrument. Cracks often appear in older instruments and inspecting them can mean you can intervene early before they become major problems. If you are getting odd rattles from your cymbal, it’s likely that the instrument already has a fairly well established crack in it, which will be harder, if not impossible to fix.
At the end of the day, a cymbal is a hunk of relatively thin metal which is being repeated (and sometimes forcefully) struck with hard wooden sticks. As this sets a cymbal in to a frenzied state of vibration, this is essentially a recipe for cracks to appear in the instrument.
Cymbals will typically crack in one of two ways: from the outside edge inward or in a circular fashion around the circumference of the cymbal. The latter is especially true in lathed cymbals, as this process leaves grooves around the instrument where the lathe has passed.
Intervention when you find a crack is a bit tricky, as the only way to effectively stop a crack from developing further is to drill holes into the cymbal at the very end(s) of the crack. This will stop the crack from developing any further. Not only is drilling into your prized cymbals nerve wracking, it’s also fairly delicate and takes a steady hand.
First, you must find the very end of the crack, which is usually not visible without some sort of magnification. Once you have found it, mark the location and drill a hole where your mark is. I typically recommend using a 1/4″ drill bit specifically designed for metal, though you may choose a larger or smaller size bit depending on the size of the crack.
Cymbal Stand Setup, Care & Maintenance
Since the cymbals are mounted on stands, it is important that they are properly maintained. This is however an often overlooked aspect of the sound of a cymbal. Not only are there a lot of rattles and squeaks which can be introduced into your playing, but the position of your cymbals is also critical to maintaining proper playing technique.
To ensure that your playing technique is easy to achieve, you will want to make sure that your cymbals are mounted well within reach and at a slight angle towards you. This ensures that you won’t be stretching to reach the cymbal and are relaxed when you play it. The angle of the cymbal will also ensure that you aren’t playing it straight on or down…but at an angle.
Cymbal Stand Care & Maintenance:
First and foremost, whatever you do – please don’t over tighten anything on your stands. Regularly clamping down the wing nuts and adjustment points on your stands leads to stripped screws/threads and worn out gaskets…and the ultimate death of your hardware.
Equally important aspects of stand maintenance are cymbal sleeves and felts. Sleeves are nylon or rubber tubes which slide over the posts which go into the hole of the cymbal. These are important because they prevent metal-to-metal contact between the cymbal and the stand, which can be quite noisy.
Cymbal felts further help isolate the cymbal from the hardware, providing a soft and isolation cushion on which the cymbal rests. Both sleeves and felts can be bought cheaply (often in a set like this one) and should be kept in your stick bag at all times.
Muffling is often reserved just for drums and is rarely associated with cymbals. That said, sometimes there are harsh overtones which can be toned down with the use of some type of muffling.
Sometimes, a small piece of duct tape applied to the underside of the cymbal will do the trick. Another option would be placing Moon Gel on top of the cymbal, the benefit being that it is easily moved around, allowing you to experiment with placement.
The environment in which you play can have a big impact on the sound of your cymbals (and drums) as well. Large rooms will tend to amplify the brightness of your cymbals. The same is also true for rooms which have a lot of hard, reflective surfaces on them.
Extreme Modifications – Holes, Rivets, Tambourine Jingles, Chains, Oh My
A word of caution: A lot of the following tips require sometimes permanent modifications to cymbals and should only be attempted if you are absolutely sure you want to alter your cymbals permanently.
That said, these tips can also be the most fun and rewarding options as you’ll often discover unique and different sounds which might make you and your sound stand out in a crowd. I always recommend doing some of these things with cymbals which are of decent quality (i.e. they’ll last a long time), but that don’t really sound that great. That way, if the results are good – you’ll have a really cool instrument to play for a long time.
Drilling and Rivets
This technique of adding rivets to a cymbal came out of the jazz world, as it is still to this day quite popular to add them to ride cymbals. This method involves drilling small holes in the cymbal and inserting specialized cymbal rivets into them.
Quick Tip:If you have a cracked cymbal on your hands that you’re going to have to drill holes in anyway (to stop the crack), you might as well experiment with rivets as you’re drilling those holes. If you don’t like it, you can always remove the rivets and go back to the familiar sound you’re used to from the instrument.
The best way I can describe the resulting sound is that it adds sizzle to the cymbal. If you’ve just added a few, the cymbal’s primary sonic characteristics will still be in the forefront, but you’ll hear what sounds like an increased sustain and soft high-end sound.
If by contrast you’ve added a lot of rivets to the instrument, the sizzle will become a more pronounced aspect of playing the instrument, which might be the way to go if you did not enjoy the sound of the cymbal to begin with!
There is an interesting, non-destructive alternative to adding rivets to your cymbal. Several companies make cymbal chains, which are a replacement to the cymbal stand’s felt disc with a chain attached to it. This chain, when draped over the cymbal creates a very similar sizzle effect achieved by the rivets, with the main difference being that you haven’t actually drilled any holes into the cymbal. This one happens to be my favorite.
Another, more extreme option would be to add tambourine jingles loosely to your cymbal, using the rivets to attach them. This will definitely change the characteristic of the instrument in a more dramatic fashion, adding a definite trashy rasp but also cutting down on the sustain.
If you’re not into the sizzle of rivets, you might try cutting a few larger holes around the circumference of the cymbal. There are special effects cymbals out there which have this feature and provide a unique look and sound.
Cut The Bell Out
I’ve seen a few examples where someone has taken a hopelessly trashed cymbal and cut off everything except for the cymbal bell itself. The Zildjian cymbal company makes a product called the Zil Bell, which is essentially just the bell of a cymbal. This might be an inexpensive way of experimenting with making your own.
Please do exercise caution when cutting or drilling metal though and wear proper protective gear.
If you liked what I wrote here, you might also like an article I wrote on how to make your cheap drum set sound great.
How to drill holes in cymbals:
- Mark your drill locations
- Use a metal punch to make an indentation on your mark
- Use a drill bit rated for cutting metal
- Start slowly to make sure the bit doesn’t travel
- Apply steady pressure and increase the drill speed until you’re through
What should I do with cheap cymbals? It’s likely you won’t like the sound of these cymbals by themselves, so try mounting them on top of another cymbal to make some sort of trashy special effects sound. You can also use them for decorative purposes, or as props for your next YouTube video in which you fake people out by destroying your ‘favorite cymbal’.