Roman mosaic from the Villa del Cicerone in Pompeii.
The tendency to hit things that might produce a sound in return isn’t reserved to drummers only, so it’s safe to say that the earliest forebears of the cymbal were made around the time bronze came about, around 3,000 B.C. Judging from the many stories on the use of the instrument in those early days, people soon discovered how versatile it really is. While modern-day cymbals can be heard in classical music, rock, jazz, Latin, and pretty much any other Western style of music, their predecessors were used by beggars to attract the attention of potential benefactors, to celebrate weddings, to add luster to orgies, to tell bees to come back to their hives, and to worship gods.
If you think of a cymbal as a bronze disc with a hole in the middle, the instrument hasn’t changed a bit over the past, say, 5,000 years. At the same time, a whole lot of things have changed over the past, say, 30 years. An explosion of new cymbal makers, and an even heftier explosion of cymbal types and sounds have radically altered the face of the market in the past three decades. A contradiction? Not in the world of cymbals, the most basic yet complex instrument we know. Let’s take a closer look, starting with a bit of history.
Ming Dynasty art (17th century).
James Blades, in his book Percussion Instruments And Their History, mentions Dionysus as an example. “The Greek god of wine, women, and merriment …” contemplated the late drummer Arthur Taylor. Taylor obviously liked him, and if you listen to his inspired drumming on John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, that Dionysian influence is clear.
What isn’t clear is where the first cymbals were made. Tibet, India, and Turkey, perhaps, or maybe China, where soldiers scared the living daylights out of their adversaries with a cacophony of clashing cymbals. The instrument reportedly was used for the same purpose in Korea as recently as 1950. Did you know that the characteristic cup of China cymbals wasn’t designed with a particular sound in mind, or to force you to mount them upside down? The cup simply functions as a handle, allowing the “musician” to bash two cymbals against each other.