A Drummer's Conundrum
Pulling Good Sound Out Of A Thinner Cymbal
Understanding how to attack a cymbal whether it's washy, medium, or even dry is essential in your development as a drummer, painter of musical colors, and timekeeper. Learning how to control any cymbal takes time and patience. When you have a beautiful-sounding washy cymbal it takes a certain know-how to get a solid stick sound without having it wash out. I've found that just spending a few hours riding a cymbal on the stand deepens our understanding of how that particular cymbal wants to be played. Sit with it and listen. Hear its overtones and undertones. Let the voice of it speak to you.
I know a great drummer named Rodney Green. He would tell me no that matter what a cymbal sounds like he is going to learn how to play it in any situation. I like that attitude. It's tough to dedicate yourself to one cymbal and one particular sound as a discipline. But it pays off.
Rely On Your Hands For The Sound
Keep in mind that they're is no perfect washy cymbal out there. At least, I haven't found it. I have a plethora of beautiful cymbals, however mostly I rely on my hands to do the work. Knowing how to create a mood, get a vibe, and keep good time, are important, too. But pulling good sounds from any cymbal is crucial. Naturally, great instruments make things easier and you sound better with less effort. But, even a half decent cymbal can be played to make it sound beautiful inside the music with the right hands. There is hope for us all, regardless of our gear or our style. It just takes some dedication and a high level of practice.
Let’s take a look at how four great jazz drummers pull great sounds out of their cymbals: Brian Blade, Elvin Jones, Greg Hutchinson, and Jeff “Tain” Watts.
I used to ask myself, "How does Brian Blade get such a beautiful cymbal sound on ‘Chill?’" It is the second track on Mood Swing by [saxophonist] Joshua Redman. It sounds like Brian is allowing the cymbal to create a mood and hitting it just enough. He is controlling his attack and it sounds and feels beautiful with the cymbal's volume just above his drums. I suspect he's letting it bounce and keeping the stick under control using his fingers and wrists. He’s a thoughtful drummer, with a way of playing almost on top of the cymbal, allowing a certain amount of time to pass before striking it again. He seems to go from side to side as well as keep attacking from one side for a lyrical ride pattern, thinking about things and fitting them musically into the music.
I know that Brian Blade has taken the time to find great cymbals as well. He searches them out on and off the road. This recording sounds like he is playing an old K to me, perhaps a 20". He uses a Vic Firth SD2 stick and has so for years. He has worked at it long enough to develop a relationship between his preferred stick and his cymbal. I've also seen and tapped on one of his massive 24" Old Zildjian A’s. It felt like butter, but when he plays it, it's beautiful.
How did Elvin Jones get that perfect balance of tone-meets-wash out of a cymbal on Coltrane's Transition and especially on the album Afro-Blue? It had to be Elvin's hands and his experience of playing in various rooms and situations on many different weights of lids. Playing with John Coltrane didn't hurt in him finding a voice through his instrument, either. The experience with Trane was intense and at the highest creative level: Elvin had to bring it so everyone could feel him as well as hear the beat. It seems to me that Elvin had a great, unorthodox way of holding the stick. If you've ever seen the cover to his trio CD entitled Puttin' It Together, there's a great photo of him holding the stick, playing. One of your answers is right there. Try holding your stick like that and playing time.