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Learning to Play Your Cymbals

One truth you are going to have to come around to in a hurry as a fledgling drummer is that there’s much more to playing your cymbals than just bashing at them full force. Cymbals offer you the ability to “paint” the rhythm of the music, and the way you contact them with your drumsticks or mallets dictates how they will respond and the type of sound they will produce.

The first thing you will need to do is become aware that the cymbal consists of two very different components – the face and the bell. The face of the cymbal is the circular expanse that stretches from the edge of the cymbal all the way to the point where the cymbal begins to rise into a “dome”, if you will, at its center. That dome is known as the bell, and all it takes is one quick stroke of a drumstick on either area to tell you that a very different sound response is generated from each.

We’re now going to look at each of the 3 core cymbals in a drum set and offer tips on how to get the most out of each of them in your playing.


Hi-Hat

Your left foot (for most, some drummers will play it with the right foot) will be responsible for activating the hi-hat cymbals by means of the pedal at the base of the hi-hat stand. Becoming intimately familiar with the working and feel of your hi-hats is important for a drummer, as the hi-hats often make up the constant notes in the rhythmical patterns in most music.

The amount of pressure you apply to the hi-hat pedal will dictate how tight or loose the sound of the hi-hat cymbals will be with each note played. To get a grasp of this, depress the pedal with full pressure and play two ¼ notes on the face of the hi-hat using the tip of the drumstick. Now perform the same but use the shaft of the drumstick against the edge of the cymbal. Note the difference in sound. Playing with the shaft of the stick on the edge of the hi-hat produces a much more aggressive and loud sound from it that is effective for cutting through loud music, while the controlled “tick-tick” sound that comes from the tip is better for when you need note definition.

Now you need to familiar yourself with “flaring” the hi-hat. Allow the hi-hat to open by releasing your foot from the pedal. With the hat resting open, strike the face of the cymbal with the tip of your stick while simultaneously depressing the pedal. Note the unique sound created. Now try playing two ¼ notes on the closed hat followed by one ¼ note flaring the hat from open to close.

“Tick  Tick  “Tee-sut””

Now do the same but using the louder technique with the drumstick-shaft striking the edge of the cymbal.

Lastly, acquaint yourself with the bell of the hi-hat by performing the same exercise as above, but only with the tip of the stick. The bell of the hi-hat cymbal is almost never played with the shaft of a drumstick. Other cymbals yes, but not the hi-hat.

Crashes

Your crash cymbals are very likely to become focal points in your drum set playing, no matter the style of music you play. In fact, the type of music you play will probably only dictate how many crashes you have in your kit. They are the primary means for the drummer to accent points in the music that require a crescendo, but more than any other cymbals on your kit there is a need to understand dynamics when striking them.

Take any crash cymbal on your kit and simply tap it with the tip of a drumstick. Notice first the difference in tone and sustain between the hi-hat and the crash. Tap the bell of the crash as well and take note of the sound there too.

Crash cymbals are typically struck with the shaft of the drumstick. This is for two reasons; first, striking a crash hard with the tip of your drumstick will not produce much volume and you’ll likely find yourself with a broken drumstick more often than not. There are times when you may want to gain that softer more defined sound that the tip will produce on a crash, particularly in jazz music and similar styles, but more often you will play your crash cymbals with the shaft of your drumstick. Aim to make contact with the edge of the cymbal about ¾ of the way down the drumstick shaft. Get comfortable with this movement by repeating it slowly and deliberately.

A crash cymbal is played in standard stroke with two forms – half-through and full-through. To play half-through, strike the crash cymbal but restrain your forearm at the half point, stopping the stick from moving downward. To play full-through, allow your arm to power the stick through the cymbal freely to produce maximum volume.

Lastly, there are three other techniques applied to crash cymbals – punching, choking and shimmering. To punch your crash cymbal, bring the front half of your forearm completely above the cymbal and bring the length of the drumstick shaft down flush across the face of the crash cymbal. This technique gives a semi-muted effect to the crash sound, with a quicker decay of the sound.

To choke your cymbal, strike it in the conventional manner (shaft to edge) with your strong hand and, in a split second, grab the edge of the cymbal between the thumb and index / middle finger of your other hand. To do this properly, you will need to transfer the stick in that hand to the area between the base of your thumb and the palm of the hand. Choking the crash cymbal is a common technique used when the music requires a quick staccato followed by a break, and you should become proficient at it.

Shimmering your crash cymbals involves striking the cymbal edge with the shaft of the drumstick, but then rather than recoiling your arm with the stick you allow the shaft of the drumstick to rest on the edge of the cymbal and bounce/vibrate freely. This produces a cymbal shimmer and is commonly used at the close of songs or during breaks in them where there is a desire to provide a wash of sound.

Ride

Your ride cymbal technique is an important part of your ability as a drummer. The ride is the largest cymbal on your drum set and like the hi-hat it is often played as the constant in many rhythm patterns.

Because of the expanse of its diameter, there are many different tones you can generate from your ride cymbal. Get to “know” it by playing repeating ¼ notes at different spots on the face of the cymbal, beginning near the outer edge of the cymbal and working towards the bell. Once you reach the bell, give it a solid strike with the tip of your stick. Hear the pronounced “ping” the bell of the ride cymbal makes in comparison to the bells of your crashes or hi-hat.

Now take your drumstick and strike the bell of the ride cymbal flush with the shaft of the drumstick, not using the tip at all. Hear the more emphatic and loud ping it makes. “Sticking” the bell of the ride is a technique that is used by all drummers to give it an accent required to cut through certain parts of the music. Practice playing drum patterns where you move from the cymbal face to the bell for a ¼ note at different intervals and alternate between a tip stroke and a “sticking” of the bell.

As you grow as a drummer, so will your array of cymbals but these three types are going to be part of your arsenal from day one. The cymbal techniques detailed above will get you started down the road towards being a proficient cymbal player and you’ll start to enjoy exploring the possibilities you have with your cymbals. Enjoy!

Phil Barrow

Phil Barrow

Phil is a guitarist and Director of Resound School of Music, a music school specializing in at-home music lessons. Phil's passion is helping others to discover their lifelong love of music, and he writes about a variety of topics aimed at helping you to become a better musician.

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