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Types of Cymbals: The Complete Guide for Drummers

For any skill, pastime or hobby, there is no end to what you can learn. This is no different for the drums.   Whether you are just beginning to learn, or you’ve been at it for years, there’s never a bad time to discover all the different types of cymbals as a drummer. It is best to start your musical career with as much information as possible, so you can start learning with the best tools at your disposal. Or, maybe you feel like you want to change things up after a few years playing the same types of cymbals and styles.   This guide is here to help you. Just like learning what your bass drum does and how to hold your sticks properly, we have put together this breakdown to help beginners differentiate between ride cymbals and hi hats, and suggest ways for seasoned drummers to expand their horizons. Below are all the different types of cymbals, a bit about them, and what they’re used for. 

Crash Cymbals

Crash cymbals originate in military-style playing, and only made it onto the standard drum set in the 1940s. But now it is probably the most recognizable kind, representing the sound most people think of when they think of a cymbal.   That sound is loud, sharp and explosive, often ending a musical phrase or accenting parts of a drum pattern. Indeed, a crash is intended to punctuate key moments in a song or drum pattern. Its sound explodes and then decays quickly when struck on the edge, allowing for good control. Drummers can use sticks or hands on a crash.  Crashes vary a great deal in size. They can measure as small as 8 inches and as large as 24 inches: this affects the tone of the crash. A beginner’s kit will usually have a crash measuring between 14 inches and 18 inches.   They also range in thickness, too, depending on your preference. A thinner crash will produce a lighter tone.   Generally, the crash will be placed to the left of a right-handed kit. 

Ride Cymbal 

A ride cymbal is standard on any drum. Rides are used for a different reason to crashes. Rather than accenting patterns of music, drummers play the ride cymbal to keep steady patterns. That’s why they are called ‘ride cymbals’, because the drummer is supposed to ride with the music. The ride cymbal will play steady rhythms in rock and pop or swing notes in jazz.  Although the ride is sometimes used as a heavy crash, this difference in use is reflected in the sound ride cymbals produce. Rides produce a shimmering sound that endures, similar to a hi hat. (We will get onto hi hats later on in this guide.)   Depending on where you hit the ride cymbal, it can produce a wide variety of sounds. Striking the bell by the cymbal mount releases a ‘ping’, and hitting the bow produces a subtler sound. A thick ride cymbal is much darker in sound with a louder ping when you strike the bell and thinner rides are much brighter. This variety means many drummers and musicians consider the ride cymbal types to be one of the most versatile types of cymbal.   Rides are most often bigger than crash cymbals on a beginner’s kit. Sizes range between 20 inches and 26 inches, although 20 is most common and ride cymbals larger than 26 inches are relatively common. On a right-handed kit, a ride cymbal is placed above a floor tom on the right of the kit.  

Hi Hats 

Drummers in early swing bands would play bass and snares with their feet, but there were no hi hats to play with their sticks. That’s how hi hats made their way onto the modern drum sets: early swing drummers wanted to play hats with their sticks, and so the hi hat was born.  Hi hats combine two cymbals, and drummers operate them using a foot pedal while striking them with their sticks. Pressing the foot pedal moves the top cymbal down to strike the fixed, bottom cymbal.   Hi hats produce most of the sound when the cymbals strike against each other, but drummers can play a hi hat when the hi hat is open, too. When closed, the sound can be soft and crisp or muted and metallic. When open, hi hats sizzle, which enables the drummer to use the hi hat to accent patterns. Playing the hi hats open gives drummers an additional accent, but they are usually played closed to play steady patterns.  There are 4 common sizes of hi hat: 12 inches, 13 inches, 14 inches and 15 inches. Most hi hats were 14 inches until the 1970s but drummers started using 15-inch hi hats. Now, 13-inch and 14-inch diameters are most common, although 16-inch diameter hi hats are increasingly common.   Instrument manufacturers will make heavy, medium and light cymbals so drummers can choose their own combination of tops and bottoms. A heavy bottom and a lighter top gives drummers greater volume and range. 

Splash Cymbal

The splash is an effects cymbal. More often than not, splashes are the smallest types of cymbals placed on a drum set. Famous American jazz drummer Gene Krupa invented and popularized the splash in the 20s and 30s, but they went out of fashion until they were revived by the band The Police.   Owing to their smaller diameter, splashes are thin and activate and decay quickly, producing short, sharp sounds. To add strength, they usually don’t have a taper, so they produce a high-pitched note. This makes splash cymbals great for accenting patterns, supported or unsupported by drums, particularly when you don’t want a big crash or timbre of a hi hat. Because of this, they are often referred to as ‘baby crashes.’  Splashes measure as small as 6 inches and go up to 13 inches, but the most common sizes used by drummers are between 8 inches and 12 inches.   Drummers can mount splashes almost anywhere. Owing to their relatively small diameter, drummers often place them on drums to affect the tone.  


China cymbals are unique. Splashes and Chinas are both effects cymbals, they have no taper, but they have upturned edges and a cylindrical bell. Because of the inverted edges, many drummers upturn them on their cymbal stand.  As a result of their unique design, China cymbals create a much more complex sound than many other types of cymbals. Their tone is explosive like a crash. The sound is often described as ‘trashy’ and their name derives from their sound’s similarity to Chinese gongs and tams. They’re one of the most powerful effects cymbals.  China cymbals vary greatly in size, from as small as 8 inches or 10 inches, up to as large as 18 inches or 20 inches. This variance is also reflected in the variety of ways a drummer can use the China cymbal. Drummers often support the China cymbal with the snare or kick drum, but they can be used unsupported, too.  


The swish cymbal is a ride comparable to a China cymbal, but its usage is much different.   The swish is thin with a little taper, and is designed like a China but has equally spaced holes and rivets along the bow as the edge starts to turn up. These rivets make the swish’s design almost unique, again similar to a China.   Drummers tend to mount the swish like a regular ride, with the bell facing upwards on the stand. This gives them a trashier tone, but mounted bell down, a swish produces a mellower tone, which offers drummers greater access to the ride area. The rivets along the edge allow the swish to sizzle, and in big band or jazz the swish is often played just like a ride.  


As drummers look for more and more options for their kits, cymbal makers meet this demand by creating new options. One such new option is stacks, which have become increasingly popular of late.   This isn’t strictly one of the types of cymbal, it is just a stack that a musician can put together on their drum set, or that instrument manufacturers can sell. Some manufacturers will offer cymbals made for the exact purpose of stacking.   Stacks are great because they create a short sizzle that you can use for accents and fills, and their originality can bring something new to your scores. There’s not really a correct way to do this either. Many drummers put together China and splashes in their stacks, which complement each other nicely. Alternatively, you can combine heavy cymbals measuring 16 inches to 18 inches to create a big sound.   This is the perfect thing to try out if you are a seasoned drummer looking to change things up a bit.  


The sizzle is another type, like a China and a splash, that has a rather unique profile amongst other additions to your drum set.   In many ways a sizzle is most like a swish as they both have rivets. The difference for sizzles is that chains and rattles are also added to alter and freshen the sound. These additions make the sizzle another original option to add to your drum set.  They are another great option for experienced drummers looking to freshen up their kits and bring something new to the table. Holes are bored into the cymbal so that you can add rattles, chains or anything else you might think of.  The resulting sound a sizzle makes is just as interesting as the concept. It makes the sound of the wash much louder, dominated by the rattle. On the other hand, sizzles can’t sustain for as long with these new attachments, affecting its dynamic range. As the energy fades out, the rattle cuts it sharply.  While it is best to use high quality cymbals, sizzles can be useful for obscuring overtones in low quality ones. 


You can split cymbals into two types – cast and sheet – which are two different ways of making them.  Sheet cymbals are more affordable than cast. Sheets are made by cutting out and stamping them from a large sheet of metal. This option can be produced cheaply, and there is little variation from between products, and so guaranteeing a uniform class of cymbal. But there are, of course, downsides.   Sheets don’t sound as good as casts because they cannot maintain the same levels of sustain as casts can. However, if you are purchasing a beginner’s drum set, sheets should be fine.   Cast cymbals are much better quality but also more expensive. They are made by pouring molten metal into a cast or mold, which is then hammered and lathed into a cymbal. This process can be done by hand or by machine. Hand-crafted casts are generally better but also more expensive. Making them is very labor intensive, but casts are professional grade.   What this process produces is cymbal types that have a much richer and more complex sound than sheets. Casts’ better quality means they are more durable, so they last for a long time and even improve with age. This process also produces unique cymbals: the character of each one is distinct from the one made before it and the one that comes after.   Which one to choose really depends on you. If you are just starting out, then sheet cymbals are great. They are affordable and perfectly good enough while you find your way around the drum kit and figure out everything explained here for yourself.   Casts however are worth investing in if you are getting really serious about your drumming: They can make a serious difference to your sound. Indeed, even if you are just drumming for fun as a hobby, treating yourself to some cast cymbals might be the encouragement you need to revive your drumming.  


For many of us drummers, there is nothing better than the shimmering or crashing cymbal sound on drum kits. It is so versatile — and not to mention meaningful — it can inspire the young drummer that is just starting out or revitalize an aging rocker.  There are lots of options out there, and it looks like there will be more and more to come. Make the most of your cymbals: they make the sound of your drum set!

2 years ago