Upgrade Your Cymbal Collection in 4 Easy Steps

Now that you’ve scored your first drum kit or maybe your first set of quality tonewood drums, how are your cymbals sounding? Chances are, you’re playing on that same set of garbage can lids you’ve had since you found the complete set for $45 at a garage sale.

Whether you’re a beginner looking to upgrade or a player who has been neglecting the sweetly singing upper frequencies of your kit, it’s time to delve into the expansive, murky world of cymbal opinion and choice.

Choosing drums can be relatively easy. Most are made from only a handful of hardwoods – like maple, birch, mahogany or poplar – and come in fairly standard sizes. And most of us can wrap our heads around how they’re made: cut a tree into strips, then layer and bend it into a round shape.

But cymbals, with their centuries-old alchemical origins in modern-day Turkey and Tibet, still mystify. Forged in fire, shaped by mills, and finished with hammer and lathe, cymbals begin as rock pulled from the earth. No wonder we connect with their crystalline tones on such a primal level.

So how do you get great-sounding plates on your kit without spending a fortune?

Wading through the options is daunting. Each maker seems to sell a half-dozen or more lines with different weights, sizes and finishes. Some are gold and shiny while some look like an archeological find, and the jargon can be confusing. Do I need cast or sheet cymbals? Bell bronze or B8? Machine or hand-hammered?

We can’t blame players for being tempted by those full packs of entry-level cymbals from a big-box store. But by just observing a few simple steps, you can get a great set of pro-level cymbals, instruments with mojo and tone, for about the same cost as one of those beginner packs.

Starting a good cymbal collection really comes down to knowing your musical setting, sticking to a budget, keeping open ears and embracing the journey. For some drummers, it’s a fever that subsides but never truly breaks.

Buy Used

If you’re picking your first set of “pro” cymbals, there’s no compelling reason to buy new. Sure, new ones are shiny, free of fingerprints, and often come with a two-year warranty. But for now, the used market holds every treasure, bargain and quirky sound you need.

As with other instruments, your money simply goes farther on the used cymbal market. Only a handful of cymbals actually appreciate in value, but these typically trade among players who fetishize the gear of drum lords like Tony Williams and John Bonham. Most cymbals plummet from their retail price after a few bashings.

Let’s assume you’re starting from scratch and need a classic setup: ride, crash and a pair of hi-hats. A quick scan of Reverb leads us to a pre-pack of new, entry-level sheet cymbals from a top brand for $360.

But for just $10 more, we can piece together a nice set of used Zildjians that includes a 20” A Medium Ride ($120), a pair of 14” New Beat Hi-Hats ($160) and a 16” A Crash ($90). That’s a pro-level setup versatile enough for loud rock, hard groove, or even jazz if we work with a light touch. Make offers with the sellers, and you could save even more.

Know Your Style

Buying the right cymbals starts with knowing your style. Nearly every cymbal maker offers something tailored to rock, metal, jazz, and most shades in between. This is great if you know what you’re looking for but totally overwhelming if you don’t.

Weight and thickness play an important role here. If you play jazz or acoustic indie rock, for example, keep an eye out for cymbals marked thin, medium or light. These tend to respond quickly and blend a clear stick sound with an underlying hum (otherwise referred to as “wash”) ideal for keeping time behind pianos, horns or acoustic players. A 22-inch ride cymbal best for these styles might weigh around 2,000 grams.

Zildjian K, Sabian HH, and Bosphorus are excellent – if pricier – choices for mellower, more textural music.

On the other hand, cymbals made for loud and rough styles need to project volume and withstand the abuse of heavy hitters. Not surprisingly, this is where you’ll find your “heavy” and “power” designated cymbals.

A large “power” ride cymbal can weigh around 3,000 grams and may seem too bright and overpowering on its own, but will excel at making itself heard through walls of raging guitar volume. Paiste RUDE and Meinl Mb cymbals are two popular choices for these styles.

Most players fall somewhere in between and will be best served by medium weight cymbals that balance projection and clarity with quick stick response and low volume presence. Zildjian A Custom, Sabian AA/AAX, and Paiste 2002 lines are popular choices for this work.

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Set a Budget, Stick to It, Don’t Be Brand Blind

While an easy rule to encourage, it’s one of the harder to adhere to. Most of us have a budget when we buy gear. We know the fuzzy threshold of what we might pay and the hard bottom line that we can’t exceed in good conscience. It’s important to set your number and remember that there are always more out there.

Let your budget guide you. Allocate $90-$130 for a crash cymbal and consider every 14- to 18-inch cymbal that pops up in your search feed. Seek out online sound samples if you can’t tap on something similar at a local music store.

There is no way to perfectly replicate how the cymbal will sound on your kit, in your room or with your touch, but trying out something similar can still serve as an early filter. Weed out the first ones that offend your ear.

Keep your ears open to all brands. Sure, there’s an aesthetic appeal in one logo that spans your cymbal stands. You might even hear that cymbals from one series are tuned to one another. While not untrue, it’s an exaggerated marketing hook.

Look beyond the “big three” manufacturers. Zildjian, Paiste and Sabian make great cymbals (used Sabians, in particular, offer tremendous bang for your buck), but there are loads of gems from European makers like Meinl and UFIP, Chinese makers like Dream and Wuhan, and small Turkish artisans like Diril.

Seek what fits your budget. That might mean a Zildjian ride and Paiste crash, and it might not. Whatever it is, though, it will be your sound.

Embrace the Search

Drums are big, expensive and harder to cycle through simply for trying out different tonewoods. A drummer might play a maple kit for years before trading into a birch or mahogany kit. But you can’t manipulate a cymbal’s sound like you can a drum’s.

A cymbal’s sound won’t change much from the day you get it. Luckily, they’re easy to move along if you get tired of what you have or if a particular purchase didn’t measure up to its sound sample online.

Dialing in that first set of cymbals often leads to wanting more – an expanded sound palette. Embrace it! Some will earn a permanent place in your collection while others will pass through as your tastes continuously evolve.

When first starting out, buy used. Set budgets and stick to them ruthlessly. Eschew brand loyalty for breadth of choice. And most of all, experiment. If you get a dud, you’re best bet is to sell it off and free up capital for something new.

Just remember: there are no rules, so don’t be afraid to try as many things as you can.

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