FROM DRUM! MAGAZINE’S MARCH 2018 ISSUE | BY JOHN NYMAN
One at a time and with his hands on the entire process, Matt Bettis crafts cymbals from finest-quality bronze blanks. He crafts them at his mountaintop shop in Idaho, and he crafts them on the road in his truck, and he crafts them — no kidding — on the banks of wild rivers.
His “River Of No Return” project was a bold and odd endeavor that had Bettis running rapids in a raft, with cymbal blanks and hammers lashed to the gunnels. After passing the harrowing foam and waves, Bettis pulled in at the next sandy beach and hammered cymbals. Beautiful cymbals.
Wait — what? Yes, river rafting and cymbal hammering. How did it come to this? Bettis, reached by cell phone at his remote Idaho home, turned out to be no ear-chopping Van Gogh, no Luddite mountain hermit, but simply a nature-loving drummer dude who makes cymbal art.
And art it is. Bettis cymbals are so pleasing to eye and ear I don’t care where he made them. Two sets arrived for this review: 20″ and 22″ cymbals and 14″ hats (from the RONR collection), and a more rock-ish gang of 17″, 19″, and 21″ cymbals and 14″ hats.
The 14″ River Of No Return hi-hats give us a jarring glimpse of Bettis’ talent. The outside diameter is left raw for about a half inch. Bettis calls this foundry-raw ring the “Strong Edge” and puts it there for a strong foot-chick sound. There’s a patina to the cymbals and a deep luster, too, for a brand-new-old-stuff look. The hammering looks dense, consistent, complex, and is highlighted by more raw rings. It’s a beautiful creation — and hey, it sounds good, too! This pair is medium-light and evenly weighted. The foot-chick really is strong and firm and reliably consistent. There’s a bit of dry grit to these hats and also a warm, familiar tone.
How did this dude get good at doing this? Did he have a Turkish uncle or something? Was he born on the mountaintop? No. Over a decade ago, Bettis, like so many drummers/gear junkies in the Internet Age, started “hanging out” in online drum and cymbal forums, especially at cymbalholics.com, and he found inspiration from discussions and the works of others (especially cymbal artist Robert Spizzichino). But then, unlike most of us, Bettis spent a couple of years “ruining good cymbals,” as he says.
Drowning In Jazziness
He’s not ruining things anymore. In particular, he has definitely not ruined the Bettis RONR 22″ ride, a cymbal that brightened my swing band jam with its glassy, glassy ping and its low wash. That low wash disappeared into the string bass and horns, gluing it all together, while the spang-a-lang bounced on top, shiny as a bag of bearings. Bettis put an inscription on each RONR cymbal. For instance, the 22″ says, “Lake Creek, 6,800 cfs,” telling you about the force of the water rafted that day, if you speak river, which I do not.
My RONR 20″ ride shared that “6,800 cfs” rating, even shared the same raft, yet sounds completely different. This 20″ is dark, complex, and fiery. It pings like a piece of broken glass, aggressively, not at all like the slippery, diplomatic 22″ ride. Its face is relentlessly hammered, and has four different rings of work, rings I’ll call Regular, Schizoid Zebra, That’s Too Thin, and Raw Power. Its wash is a dry torrent.
The other Bettis cymbals are in classic rock sizes of about 17″ of crash, 19-ish inches of crash, and somewhere between 21″ and 22″ of ride. These are handmade, so put the measuring tape away.
Rock My Boutique World
This “Rock Set” seemed thin to me at first. I doubted their fortitude. I was wrong. The 17″ and 19″ crashes are low-pitched, thin enough to fully activate with a slap of the hand, and ferocious when beat upon. As I wailed on their classic, old-Zildjian-style faces, I thought of Dave Grohl and Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward, and the lovely low wash that comes from a good rock and roll beating. Also, I thought of singers that might appreciate a lower-pitched cymbal voice that doesn’t impede on their space, sonically speaking.
I had the same good feelings as I tickled and beat the 21″ ride, which reminded me of legendary cymbals spoken of by old farts in drum stores. It has a classic, bright ping (very ’60s/’70s rock and roll) and a modest wash, but never the two shall meet no matter how hard you rock. The ping stays strong and the wash stays subordinate. It also crashes great, and is a joy to smash-ride. Maybe it was inspired by old farts talking in a drum store, with Bettis listening in while pretending to peruse the stick section.
Naturally, Bettis began his musical journey as a drummer, playing in all the bands he could and wanting to be a rock star. He undertook his musical tasks formally, moved to California, and attended a reputable college. But there he met an oversupply of drummers and it warned him off the professional track. But still, Bettis remained a pie-worshipping tub-thumper, and as a cymbal-smith he simply seeks what we all seek: The magic cymbal. The One.
Why work outside and not in a shop? Well, sometimes he does work in his shop, but mostly he just prefers to work outside. And he likes to raft. And he likes to hammer while the adrenaline is still flowing, and the scenery is still surrounding him. It’s a formula for unique artistry instead of industrial repetition. Bettis says the individual blanks dictate the path as they respond to his hammering, but also admits, “I make ’em kind of how I’m feeling that day.”
Must have been a strong day for my pair of 14″ Bettis rock hi-hats. Like the RONR hats, they have the Strong Edge foundry crust. The crashes and rides mimic the look with similar-looking outer rings done with oxidation instead of remaining crust. Foot-chick is strong and sure, the densely hammered top cymbal complements the less-accosted bottom cymbal nicely. This pair played, to my ear, like a Zildjian K top and a Sabian AA bottom: Very traditional but complex. But, hey — that’s just this pair. I don’t even know if these were originally born as a pair.
And who knows what might be next? Bettis gets blanks from a Turkish cymbal foundry and also from Sabian, so it will start with good stuff all around. From there, the whole process has Bettis’ hands on it, including the hammering, lathing, super-shiny finish, packaging, and shipping.
Bettis embodies the paradox of modern artistry. He learned cymbal-smithing from the Internet and his own sweaty investment. He can live on a remote site thanks to the presence of an Internet connection, selling his artisan wares online and bringing them to town for shipping. And thanks to this, Bettis is pursuing ancient craft arts passed on via modern, worldwide digital technology — and he’s killing it.