BY WALLY SCHNALLE | PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVE CONSTANTIN
No matter how big or small, your drum set is a collection of bangables containing innumerable sonic possibilities. And of all those sounds the one you hit the most is likely the ride cymbal (unless you’re Phil Rudd). So getting the right sound is a big deal. Whether it’s in jazz where the ride cymbal is forefront, or in a rock setting where the ride pattern is the tasty icing on a powerful groove, it’s important to get the right sound. And of course getting the right sound is important on all the other cymbals in your kit as well.
Equipment has a big say in the equation that results in the sounds you ultimately get. Cymbal thickness, the amount of lathing, bell size, your drumstick weight and tip shape, all have an effect on the resulting sound-creating vibrations after impact. Every cymbal contains oodles of different sounds to explore. But probably an even bigger part of that equation is how you hit it. And though there are an infinite number of ways to strike your cymbals, we will explore the most useful ones here. We’ll start with the all-important ride cymbal.
ANGLE OF ATTACK
The proper relationship between stick and ride cymbal is pretty important. Wherever your ride cymbal resides in your setup it’s best to have it positioned in a way that when you reach for it your stick is parallel to the playing surface of the cymbal (Fig. 1). This allows for the best response from both the stick and cymbal.
In most ride patterns you’ll want the sound of the of the stick tip hitting the cymbal to be clear and articulate. The typical “riding zone” for a ride cymbal is midway from the edge to the center or bell of the cymbal (Fig. 2). For best results, play in this zone with the full tip of the stick striking the cymbal. This is where most cymbals will reveal their true character with a bit of an overtone wash and an articulate ride pattern. For a trashier sound, ride closer to the edge (Fig. 3). This will usually result in a greater wash of overtones and a bit lower tone. A ride pattern played closer to the bell (Fig. 4) will typically result in a drier, brighter ride pattern that takes on a bit of the added character of the bell.
Sometimes in a quieter musical environment you’ll want a slightly drier, more articulate-sounding ride pattern. One technique to get a ride pattern with a somewhat reduced wash of overtones is to play in the sweet spot of the cymbal bow, at the half-way point between bell and edge, and play with the angle of the stick. Increasing the angle of the stick so the very tip of the stick is striking the cymbal (Fig. 5) will achieve that goal on many cymbals.
NOT JUST FOR RIDE PATTERNS
While the bulk of the notes you play on your ride cymbal will be part of a ride pattern, occasionally you will want to use it for a crash sound. To get the cymbal to explode in a burst of overtones use the shoulder of your stick on the edge of the cymbal (Fig. 6). With most ride cymbals you will be able to get back to your ride pattern quickly as the wash of overtones dies down allowing your ride pattern to be heard clearly.
That bump in the middle of the cymbal is referred to as the bell. Its size can have an effect on the character of the cymbal but it has its own character as well. Dry, bright, and articulate, the bell can be played with either the shoulder of the stick (Fig. 7) or the tip (Fig. 8).
The shoulder of the stick will produce a bigger sound when playing the bell. Patterns played on the bell are often syncopated and sometimes involve moving back and forth quickly from the flat of the cymbal to the bell. For these types of patterns play the area just to the left on the bell (the side closer to you). Then, with a flick of the wrist, your stick can easily reach up for the bell without having to move too far (Fig. 9).
INCREASE THE ANGLE
For crash cymbals, much of your playing will be on the edge of the cymbal for instant response. So you’ll want your crash cymbals a little higher in your setup and a bit flatter than the ride cymbal (Fig. 10). While some drummers set their crashes up completely flat, or parallel to the ground, that can put undue stress on both the cymbal and your sticks.
CRASH ANGLE OF ATTACK
Most cymbal crashes are done with the shoulder of the stick on the edge of the cymbal (Fig. 11). The key here is to get in and out quickly to allow for an explosive crash. If you let your stick linger, the result will be a muted crash (which is also sometimes a desired result). This is also the approach used when riding on the ride cymbal in a loud rock situation, and is known as “wash riding.”
For quieter cymbal “colors,” the tip of the stick is also used on the flat of the crash cymbal at times (Fig. 12). And an important technique is the cymbal swipe (Figs. 13–15). This produces a crash with a softer attack yet a full-bodied sound.
THE RIGHT APPROACH
Sit on your drum throne and bend your right arm to play the hi-hat so that your arm is basically parallel with the ground. Your hi-hat cymbals should be just below the tip of your stick (Fig. 16). This will allow you to hit the cymbals both with the tip and shoulder of your stick with only slight movement up and down in the position of your arm. This is an important technique. Sometimes you play all tip (Fig. 17), sometimes all shoulder (Fig. 18). And a really effective technique used by many drummers is to play alternating between stick tip and shoulder, which gives nice movement and phrasing to your hi-hat pattern.
One of the trashiest ride sounds around is the open hi-hat ride pattern. Here you will definitely want to play with the shoulder of your stick (Fig. 19). Keep the cymbals only slightly open so they interact and give this big-sounding ride approach the most bang for your effort. And don’t overlook the bell on the hi-hat for a cutting, bright, dry sound. The little bell is typically played with the shoulder of the stick (Fig. 20), and to allow for full clearance you’ll want to ensure the wing nut is resting on the far side of the rod.
We should take note that the hi-hat cymbals are not just for hitting with sticks. Your left foot gets into the game, keeping time on the hi-hat or playing any rhythm you want with that familiar chick sound of the hi-hat cymbals colliding tightly together. To get the most out of that chick sound, adjust that little thumb screw on the bottom side of your hi-hat cymbals (Fig. 21) so that the bottom cymbal is tilted a bit. If both cymbals hit together completely flat and parallel, catching an unwanted air pocket, the resulting sound will be small.
Now that we’ve covered some of the basics, here are a few others approaches that allow for some unique sounds out of your cymbals. Used in the right places, these can add a lot of flavor to your playing. To get a nice glissando sound from your cymbal, take the tip of your stick and place it pointing down on the surface of your cymbal near the bell, then slide it quickly to the edge (Figs. 22–24). You can also get an otherworldly squeal out of your cymbal by placing the tip of the stick in one of the lathing grooves and rotating the cymbal like a record. Hold the stick still with some slight downward pressure and rotate the cymbal slowly with the other hand (Fig. 25). Note that this one works better on some cymbals than others. Also, you can take the shaft of your stick and strike the edge of your cymbal with a loose grip and holding your stick perpendicular to the cymbal (Fig. 26). In many cymbals this produces a clear harmonic ding tone.
The techniques outlined here are only the beginning of a universe of possibilities. Experiment and find the sounds on your cymbals that you like and that fit the music you play. Remember, it’s a creative art form, so whatever rules exist are meant to be broken.
CYMBAL TESTING QUICK TIPS
By Wayne Blanchard
When testing cymbals, don’t tap them with your fingers; strike them with the size of stick you normally use. Finger tapping makes super-thin cymbals sound amazing and anything else above can sound, er, thud-y. Once you find one you like, take it off the display and put it on a stand. Keep it loose, so it moves freely and responds fully—don’t over-tighten or you’ll choke the sound, maybe even kill the cymbal. If it’s a crash, slice across the edge in a sweeping stroke to maximize the response. Don’t sink your stick straight into the edge! If it’s a ride, play simple and then busy patterns at slow and fast speeds to determine how defined is the articulation. Play between the bow and the bell to see if the relationship is what you want to hear. And slice on the edge of the cymbal to determine its crash and crash/ride capability, providing you seek that feature in a cymbal (the thinner the cymbal, the more crash-y it may be).
For hi-hats, follow the same procedure as for the ride, checking also the clarity of the chick response when the cymbals are pedaled together. Open and close to determine if the chick sound is suitable. Play some disco up-beats to get a sense of feel for the metal. Play closed and open. A medium top and heavy bottom works best for most players. As always, thinner cymbals are splashier, while heavier cymbals are more tonally tight and metallic sounding. Mix and match series and weights to get the sounds you feel comfortable with and are suitable for the music you play. Believe us, you, and everyone else, will notice and thank you for it.
This article was originally published in the February 2012 issue of Drum! magazine. This is the first time it has been appeared online.