A pile of cymbals

How Many Cymbals Should A Drummer Have?

Drummers often ask, How many cymbals should I have?” Drummers should have a pair of hi-hats, a ride cymbal, and at least one crash cymbal.  Other cymbals can be added to enhance the sonic range of the drummer’s sound.  These add-ons include splash cymbals, Chinese cymbals, cymbal stacks, and extra crash cymbals.

The Role of Cymbals

The drummer will generally use the ride and hi-hat cymbals to keep time (maintain a steady pulse).  This is usually done through the use of a repetitive pattern, referred to in music as an ostinato

Crash cymbals are also used for emphasizing rhythms. They can also be used for punctuation. 

The Drummer’s Main Cymbals

In the early days of the drum set, players would use any cymbal they could find.  The cymbals did not have as much of a classification back then.  If a drummer liked the sound, he or she would use it.  The cymbals later were mass produced and marketed as ride cymbals, crash cymbals, and hi-hats. 

Hi-hat Cymbals – These are two cymbals which are paired together on a stand.  A pedal allows the cymbals to be positioned in the closed position (cymbals touching each other) or open position (cymbals separated).  The hi-hats can be played with the foot pedal, producing a “chick” sound.  They can also be played with the sticks in an open or closed position.

Drummers often use the hi-hat cymbals to keep time. The short, staccato sound produced by the hi-hats allows the drummer to provide a rhythmic subdivision for the groove. 

It is interesting to note the history of hi-hats.  The pioneers of drumset playing were always looking for creative ways to use their cymbals.  Smaller cymbals were combined in pairs and fastened to a pedal, which sat low to the ground.  This contraption was known as a “lowboy.”  The lowboy was eventually improved upon by raising the height of the cymbals, while still keeping the pedal on the ground.  The cymbals could be easily played with the foot or hand.  This adaptation became known as the “hi-hat.”  While those cymbals were generally smaller, contemporary hi-hats are usually 13 to 14 inches in diameter.

Ride Cymbal – The ride cymbal is primarily used to keep time.  Rock and pop drummers often play a steady stream of notes on the cymbal.  Jazz drummers will often play the recognizable, “spang, spang-a-lang” pattern on the ride cymbal.

Crash Cymbal – The crash cymbal is used for reinforcing rhythms.  It is also used as punctuation after a drum fill.  It can be thought of as a musical exclamation point!  Some drummers will play ostinatos on the crash cymbal.  In uch a situation, the effect can be likened to that of a guitar with distortion.

Cymbal Packs

Cymbal manufacturers often package the necessary cymbals together in one boxed set.  The drummer will be able to receive a reduced price when the cymbals are bundled together.  More information on cymbal buying options can be found in my article, “Do Drum Sets Come With Cymbals“.

Cymbal Use – History

In the big band jazz era, the first part of the song (known as the head) was played on the hi-hats.  When the solo section started (saxophone solo, trumpet solo, etc.) the drummer would often switch to a larger cymbal.  Solos were often referred to as “taking a ride.”  The cymbal the drummer used to accompany the soloists was therefore referred to as a “ride cymbal.”  With some exceptions, today’s ride cymbals generally range 20 to 22 inches in diameter.

Today, drummers use all types of cymbals to play repetitive, timekeeping patterns.

Which cymbals should I add next?

Once the drummer has the essentials (ride cymbal, crash cymbal, and a pair of hi-hats), extra cymbals may be added.  Splash cymbals and China-type cymbals are also common additions to the drumset. 

Additional Crash Cymbals – The addition of an extra crash cymbal allows the drummer to have a crash on both the left and right side of the drumset.  Most drummers will have two different size crashes for sonic contrast.  For instance, if the existing cymbal is 18 inches, the second may be a smaller diameter such as 16 inches.  Some drummers add a number of extra crash cymbals to their setup.

Splash Cymbals – Splash cymbals are adequately named because of the short, splashy sound they produce.  They are thin and small, usually ranging from 6 to 12 inches in diameter. 

Chinese cymbals (sometimes called China-type cymbals) – These cymbals have a flanged edge which produces a trashy sound, somewhat reminiscent of striking a garbage can lid.

Effects Cymbal Packs – Drummers looking to add extra sounds to their drum kits may wish to purchase an effects cymbal pack.  These are pre-packaged sets which often include a splash cymbal and a Chinese cymbal. 

What type of stands do I need for my cymbals?

Ride, crash, and China-type cymbals work well on double-braced stands.  This type of stand has reinforced legs, enabling it to support heavy cymbals and allow for harder cymbal strikes.  Splash cymbals may be placed on a cymbal arm, which is attached to either a tom bracket or heavy cymbal stand.

What other cymbal sounds are utilized?

Drummers have found ways to obtain different sounds from cymbals.  A few options will be discussed below. 

Cymbals with rivets – Drummers may want a sizzle-type effect from their cymbals.  Instead of the sound fading away shortly after the note is struck, the cymbal will sizzle for a number of seconds.  One way of producing this effect is by drilling small holes into the cymbal and installing metal rivets.  This can be done by a professional at a drum shop.  Cymbals can also be sent in to the manufacturer to have rivets added. 

Some cymbals are sold with rivets already installed.  Cymbals can have just about any number of rivets, but they usually range from two to eight rivets per cymbal.

Cymbal sizzler (or rattler) – A convenient way to get a rivet-like sound without drilling holes is by using a cymbal sizzler.  This is a beaded metal chain that lays on the cymbal and vibrates after the cymbal is struck.  Drummers may want to use a cymbal sizzler to “preview” the sound before having holes drilled in the cymbal.

Cymbals with large holes – Cymbal companies such as Sabian manufacture cymbals with large holes cut into the surface.  The sound produced is similar to that of a Chinese cymbal, but with a brighter, shimmering quality.

Stacking cymbals – Another interesting effect can be created by stacking one cymbal on top of another.  This creates a short, trashy sound, which is sometimes reminiscent of handclaps.  Drummers can stack various cymbals (mix and match) or purchase a pair of specially created stacked cymbals. 

Secondary hi-hats – A second pair of hi-hats may also be added.  These hi-hats may be stationary or remote.  Stationary hi-hats will stay in the same position, while remote hi-hats are connected to a pedal.  The attachment for mounting stationary hi-hats is less expensive and easily added.  A remote hi-hat system contains the hi-hat mounting mechanism, pedal, and a cable.  The cable allows the pedal to be placed a number of feet away from the mount.

Drummers often utilize a different size or model of cymbals for their secondary hi-hats.  For example, the drummer may use 14” hi-hats on the left and smaller (12 or 13”) hi-hats on their right-hand side. 

A Less Common Metal Instrument (and an alternative)

Another metallic instrument is the gong, as heard in the beginning of the Kool and the Gang song, Jungle Boogie.  Large gongs are quite expensive.  What can the drummer use in place of a gong?  A large cymbal struck with a big, soft mallet can be substituted for a gong strike. 

Another option would be an electronic percussion pad, such as the Roland Octapad, which has a vast array of percussion sounds including gongs, cymbals drums, ethnic percussion instruments.  It is discussed in further detail in my article, Adding Variety to Your Drumset Sounds.

Conclusion

Start with the essential cymbals (ride cymbal, crash cymbal, and h-hats). Then add cymbals based on your specific sonic needs. Consider your personal taste and the music you perform when making the decision to add cymbals to your setup.

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