Pat Blythe – Boom boom tsst…..Part One……and music

Why not?! I’ve covered the guitar, the violin, drums, the cowbell, all things keyboard and synthesizer….so why not the cymbal? There’s nary a drum kit or a percussion setup without them. From marching bands to the person in the back of the orchestra who sits patiently, waiting for the build-up and that one moment when they can leap to their feet to crash those two giant cymbals together for that dramatic crescendo……and then (like Christmas) it’s suddenly over. I can’t think of one child who doesn’t love banging and clanging those noisemakers together. So let’s delve right in, shall we.

That one special moment you’ve been waiting all night for….

We all had a tendency to hit or bang things together when we were young. Noise, the louder the better, sounded incredible to young ears, and the more it drove the adults to the brink, the better. Whether it was banging blocks together, mom’s pots and pans (the lids were particularly attractive), or “beaning” your sandbox buddy, we all wanted to see what kind of noise it made……the latter usually producing a more verbal “noise” and not the same hollow sound you were expecting… when you whacked the watermelon. The lids to those pots and pans were particularly delicious as you could create all kinds of clatter and clamour. Oh what a racket and never a dull moment!

I hope they’re wearing earplugs

A cymbal, not surprisingly, is considered a concussion (not to be confused with percussion) instrument. I explained difference in the History of the Traps, a series I wrote a couple of years ago. Okay, okay….the difference being, a concussion instrument is two similar components struck or brought together (i.e. clappers, cymbals, castanets). Percussion instruments are sounded by being struck by a “beater” such as a drumstick or the bass drum pedal (which is actually called a beater). Triangles and tambourines also fall into this category, as does the piano. Cymbals are a blend of both….percussive and concussive. They are part of a drummer’s kit and are typically hit with a stick or a brush, but they are also banged or swiped together in orchestras, marching bands, the drum and bugle corps, etc.

Yep…..a little history

Cymbals have been around, in one form or another, for a very long time. Up until about 30-40 years ago, the basic 5,000-year-old cymbal hasn’t changed much. Where did the cymbal come from? Who invented it/used it first? Well, there’s no definitive answer. The four most popular claimants are Turkey, Tibet, China or India. What we do know is the cymbal was being used in all four of these countries thousands of years ago.

Top right – Ancient Greek bronze 5th century BC; top left – Turkish cymbals; bottom left – Israelite bronze cymbals circa 1000-586 BC; bottom right – bronze cymbals 10th century BC

The word cymbal is from the Latin work cymbalum which actually has its origin in the Greek work kumbalom which in turn derives from the word kymbē meaning “cup or small bowl”. The ancient Egyptians used cymbals that closely resemble our own. Measuring only thirteen centimeters in diameter, a pair of cymbals was found in the coffin of the mummy of Ankhhape, a sacred Egyptian musician. The Assyrians used both plate-shaped and cup-shaped cymbals while the Ancient Persians kept to cymbals shaped like big plates made of brass. There are references to cymbals throughout the Bible as well as different types of cymbals in reliefs and paintings stretch from Armenian Highlands (7th century BC) to Babylon to ancient Greece and Rome.

“During the middle ages the word cymbal was applied to the Glockenspiel, or peal of small bells, and later to the dulcimer, perhaps on account of the clear bell-like tone produced by the hammers striking the wire strings. After the introduction or invention of the keyed dulcimer or clavichord, and of the spinet, the word clavicymbal was used in the Romance languages to denote the varieties of spinet and harpsichord.” —

Clavicymbal or Clavicembalo…..hmmmmmmm

In 1680 by German composer Nicholaus Strungk used the cymbals for the first time in an orchestra. One hundred years later Haydn and Mozart used cymbals in their compositions…..sparingly. Cymbals weren’t considered serious musical instruments until the late 1800s. Until composer Hector Berlioz had a suspended cymbal hit with a stick, they had always been played in pairs. Cymbals have travelled far and wide with very little change in basic design over the centuries, and we’re still hitting them with sticks.

Crash, clash and splash…..

Cymbals offer just about any piece of music colour and effect. From the gentle tapping of the “bell” to the crashing or clashing of large cymbals or the tsst tsst of the hi-hat, they can be heard clearly through the loudest of songs and largest of orchestras, resonating to every corner of any theatre. There is nothing like the distinctive ping, ting, smash, clatter, crack or thundering roar of cymbals.

How many types are there? Ooooo….glad you asked. We have the bell, China, clash, crash, crash/ride, finger, flat ride, hi-hat, ride, sizzle, splash, swish, suspended and Taal cymbals. (test next week) …..and let us not forget…..the almighty gong! When and how to use the various types of cymbals depends on the player’s ear, expertise, instinct, knowledge and understanding of cymbals themselves and how each one’s particular crash, swish, ping, etc. “fits” into the music. Every drummer has their favourite maker or brand of cymbals. Some stick to one brand exclusively, while others like to mix and match depending on the pitch, tones and sounds they are looking for. A particular favourite of mine, although not really a type, are cymbal stacks.

Take your pick ….

Used precisely and judiciously, the cymbal will enhance or punctuate specific moments without overriding (no pun intended) or overpowering a piece of music. Used excessively it becomes a bunch of bashing about, with the cymbals creating a cacophony of noises that jar and overwhelm the listener’s ears and senses. Walk up to the crash cymbal and give a good whack with a drumstick (with permission of course). Now imagine five or six being struck simultaneously. You get the idea…..and you wonder why drummers go deaf!

Each cymbal has its own unique sound and it’s up to the musician to find it, coax that sound out of the cymbal and then play it at exactly the right time. For experienced drummers and percussionists it becomes second nature….they know instinctively where (and when) to strike. 

A cymbal in the making…..

Well….the best way to explain is to show you how…..sort of. Each cymbal maker/manufacturer has their own secret methods and specific balances of the metals they use. No one is ever allowed in the melting rooms except those who “melt and blend”. There are four main alloys that compose a cymbal, all are copper-based. Yes, the devil is truly in the details or I could say, “It’s all in the mix”.

Sabian – Inside Their Cymbal Production; An Indepth Look at How a Cymbal is Made

Under the bronze grouping is bell-bronze and malleable bronze; both contain tin but the former has a much higher tin content (20% tin to 80% copper) increasing the rigidity and resonance of cymbals and gongs. This two-phase alloy means some of the tin is not totally dissolved in the copper grains but “exists between them”, making the metal harder and more brittle. This also affects the hardening of the metal and its response to hammering and lathing. Bell-bronze cymbals provide a greater dynamic range, are predominantly used by major orchestras and are the preferred cymbal for drum kit players. (Sabian, Meinl, Paiste and Zildjian)

Terry Bozzio…..I should have used this for my drum series…..but this fits with cymbals too.

Malleable bronze is more economical and containing only 8% tin, the material is well…..more malleable. It has the ability to “deform plastically”, without failure, when compressed. In other words, it can be squished without shattering. In addition to this, the material is more amenable to hammering or rolling, both of which are applied to cymbals.  Malleable bronze cymbals are not typically at the top of the hit list (see what I did there) for most professional drummers although a few companies claim their latest and greatest are just as good as the bell-bronze cymbals. They are the perfect sound, however, for powerful hitting in heavy rock or metal bands. As someone stated, “They are exceptionally suited for loud music.” (Pearl, Sabian, Paiste, Zildjian, Meinl and Orion)

Next is brass. Primarily for use with a beginner’s kit, brass cymbals are not made for their durability and can yield some very harsh sounds and rather dullish tones. Prone to chips and cracks, the brass used for cymbals is about 38% zinc in copper, which makes it easy to work with, inexpensive and great for those shiny “show” cymbals in the shop window. Popular for finger-cymbals or zills, which are also used in tambourines, some of the finest Chinese gongs and “china-type” cymbals are brass. However, very few drummers use brass cymbals. (Zildjian,  Sabian, Orion, Paiste, Soultone  and Pearl)

The Medieval ladies are using a concussion cymbal by clapping it together (far left) and on the hand drum with zills (far right)….all made of brass. The rest are examples of brass zills. >

Nickel or nickel-silver has about 12% nickel for beginner’s cymbals and a few, very-specialized, high-quality cymbals and gongs are also made from this combination. Nickel-silver provides a brighter tone “without the shimmer and sensitivity of tin bronzes.” It is much harder and is more corrosion resistant than brass. Nickel-silver is used in hundreds of different instruments including the “brass section” (flute, trumpet, sax, etc.) of the band or orchestra. (Paiste , Foremost, Sabian, Meinl and Zilco)

Saving more for later…..

This trip down cymbal lane will need to be split in three. There’s far more info about this instrument than meets the ear. Each cymbal in the current day drum kit has its own story to tell. From the smallest hi-hat to the largest ride cymbal, they each have their own unique beginnings. So we continue next week with more detail about the cymbal types and their individual evolutions.  

For now I am going to leave you with this. “What is the purpose of a cymbal?” I found these humorous, tongue-in-cheek answers on a site where someone asked this rather arbitrary question. A few gave me a chuckle.

“Cymbals have many purposes among them; they also give something for the rest of the band to knock over while they set up.”

“The purpose of cymbals you ask… drain my bank account obviously.”

“You mean to tell me that a drum kit consists of something other than cymbals? What’s the purpose of Drums? That’s my question! I’ve always wondered why they called it a ‘Drum Kit’ and not a ‘Cymbal Kit’, with drums added for effects.”

“Because when I hit one, it makes me happy.” (my personal favourite)

“They’re the color palette of white noises. And they look cool.”

…..and one final note

My confusion and frustration were mounting when selecting the music for this particular subject as I didn’t want to focus on one specific cymbal this week. I wanted the works.  I turned to close friend and professional drummer Paul DeLong for help. He not only sent me a wide variety of music (that will probably hold me over for entire three-part series), he provided the following quote, clarifying a number of things for me. The new kids on the block he mentions….they will be featured in Part Three.

When discussing cymbals, I think you have to look towards the jazz players like Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, because the ride cymbal was the foundation of their time, and they each had their own signature sound and style.

When rock music came along it was the snare backbeat and bass drum that became the foundation of the time. Cymbals were still important, but the focus had changed. That evolved over the years though, with drummers like Steve Gadd creating a new style of timekeeping that involved stating the time in a different, linear way. Instead of the time being stated on a ride cymbal or hi-hat, it could be broken up between the hi-hat, snare and bass drum for instance.

Nowadays the newer players, like Mark Guiliana and JD Beck are finding ways to incorporate new cymbal sounds and ways of playing that once again redefine how the time is being stated.” – Paul DeLong

Rock and Roll – Led Zeppelin

Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin

Miles Davis Quintet, Stockholm 1967

You – sung by Richard Bona – Pat Metheny Group “Speaking of Now” lie

A Quick One (While He’s Away) – The Who

Stand – Sly & The Family Stone

Havona – Weather Report

In My Time of Dying – Led Zeppelin

Mellow Yellow – Donavon


This week’s podcast features drummer/percussionist Davide di Renzo. Davide (pronounced davviday) has performed with many artists including Tom Cochrane with Red Rider, Holly Cole, David Clayton-Thomas, Natalie MacMaster, Jacksoul, The Philosopher Kings and the list goes on…..


Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

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“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto.


Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance! 

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