This information applies primarily to higher quality cymbals, not the mass produced cymbals found at the low end of each company’s offerings.
Good quality cymbals are unique. Prioritize sound over cost.
People often think they can get the same cymbal from different sources, and one is bound to cost less. But you can’t get the same cymbal anywhere. You may be fortunate enough to get the same brand, size, model and vintage that is equally beautiful sounding, but it isn’t the same cymbal because each cymbal is unique. If you justify the value of a cymbal in terms of brand, model and size, then you are buying a price, not an instrument.
Unless abused, used cymbals don’t stop sounding good as they age. In fact, a lot of players believe they sound better as they age. For the most part there’s truth to that notion, but we’ll leave this for another discussion.
Used cymbals are priced all over the map. Low end, mass produced cymbals are worth less used than new, and any cymbal in bad condition is going to be worth a lot less regardless of its original quality. But on the high end cymbal values don’t depreciate much. A good sounding used cymbal in decent condition may be cheaper than a new one, or may not be cheaper if the owner has decided that it’s especially nice and is worth more.
Whether new or used, base your criteria for selecting a cymbal on how it sounds and how its sound will serve your musical expression.
My story in a nutshell
Perhaps because I’ve been listening to many different brands, sizes, models, vintages, etc. for over 50 years, I have, through feedback, received acknowledgement for my taste in cymbals and my ability to articulately describe them through demonstration and commentary. I try to do this objectively and take into consideration how personal tastes vary. Sometimes I present a cymbal that I myself wouldn’t use or don’t particularly like, but one that someone with different tastes may want.
However, it is always easier for me to offer a cymbal in own area of preference.
Back in the early ’70s I was fortunate to study for 5 years with Michael Bookspan, principal percussionist and cymbalist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. As we listened to cymbals together he taught me to pay attention to the frequency range of each. We listened to A’s and K’s (separate company back then), and we concluded that most A. Zildjians of that era had prominent highs and lows but lacked mid-range. We called them donuts because they had a sonic hole in the middle. The ’50s and ’60s K. Zildjians were much more consistent in terms of balanced frequency range, although the blend in general didn’t always sound good.
The Phila. Orchestra had some 19th century K’s that were beautiful with full range and amazing projection. I listened to them from the upper balcony of the Philadelphia Academy of Music and the sound filled the hall. The cymbal could literally have been next to me, it had such presence. While these experiences were in the realm of orchestral music, they nonetheless served as my starting point for listening to cymbals as a set player, which is what I eventually became.
Although the choices of brands and models were way fewer than today, I still listen to frequency range and blend first, regardless of brand, model or size. As my cymbal ear developed, I learned that when selecting cymbals first impressions were very important, at least for me. Instead of spending a great deal of time considering a cymbal’s sound, I started to respond and evaluate based on immediate impressions. In fact, the longer I took to listen to and judge a cymbal, the more likely I wasn’t going to like it in the end. I remember aggravating over two 16″ crashes (Zildjians), both of which I sort of liked, for way long. My indecision resulting in buying them both, but in the end I liked neither and sold both.
As a young player I had an experience that taught me that cymbals from the best brands can vary greatly in quality. After hearing Peter Erskine in a small NY club, I asked him the brand of his gorgeous ride cymbal. He said it was Spizz and he got it from the Professional Percussion Shop. The next day I went there and, on the basis of brand recognition, bought Spizz ride. Although Spizz made a lot of beautiful cymbals, this cymbal didn’t turn out to be one of them. Although I tried to like it for a long time, I eventually realized it was a mistake and sold it.
Another thing I learned is that my ear is only capable of listening for so long before it becomes impossible to accurately discriminate one cymbal from another. I had to take breaks, especially when I was able to spend an entire day listening to cymbals in a distributor’s warehouse. Or similarly, when at the Percussive Arts Society convention one year, I bought a couple of thousand dollars worth of Bosphorus cymbals only to brink them back to my hotel and realize that only really liked on of them. I had made a buying decision based on what I heard in the noisy environment of the exhibition hall. Lesson learned — it is impossible to accurately listen in a noisy environment.
All cymbals: Frequency range, optimal volume range and appropriate styles for each particular cymbal.
Rides: articulation (how well the stick can be heard over the wash), brightness or darkness, dryness (decay), versatility (rideability, crashability and bell quality), stick weight and tip shape, different places to strike on the cymbal (from near the edge to the bell). Agressiveness and the tactile feeling I get when I play it — something that has become a factor in my own enjoyment of playing a cymbal.
Crashes: crash response speed directly after striking, rate of decay, rideability, bell quality.
Hi-hats: cut and presence
China cymbals: degree/tolerance of trashiness, treble/cut
Splash and special effects: degree of surprise, quirkiness, how it sounds when choked
Disclaimer, free advice, risk-free online lessons:
This is all very subjective. I am an equal opportunity cymbalist. Brands don’t matter to me, because every cymbal brand produces good and bad sounding cymbals. I will acknowledge that some brands have a higher average of what I consider acceptable to good sounding cymbals. To that end I frequently use a scale of 1-10, 10 being highest, to evaluate my overall judgement of a cymbal.
From that some generalities have evolved. For example, medium weight 22″ ride cymbals from Brand X average a solid 6 while medium weight 22″ rides from another Brand Y average around a 7. If a cymbal I’m selling is a 5 or lower, I’ll drop the price. Accordingly an 8 or higher is worth a good deal more. The highest rating I’ve ever given a cymbal is a 9.5, to one of my current ride cymbals that happens to be a Sabian. It’s not for sale.
Please feel free to call me at 802 247-2700 for free cymbal buying or other drumming advice.
I also give risk-free online lessons — let me know if you’d like to work with me. If after one session you don’t think it was worth it, don’t pay me.