5,000 Years In 3,000 Words: Cymbal History
As music evolved from its military applications and its ritual use in churches and palaces, roughly around the 17th century, cymbals weren’t forgotten. The German composer Nicolaus Strungk was the first to use cymbals in an opera orchestra, in the year 1680 — and we can only hope this didn’t contribute to the fact that the man left his family heavily in debt when he passed away. Haydn and Mozart sparsely used cymbals some 100 years later, but they weren’t considered serious musical instruments until the latter half of the 19th century. Until that time, they were always played in pairs. Hector Berlioz was probably the first composer who had a suspended cymbal played with sticks. That sounds as progressive as it was in those days, but even Berlioz couldn’t take two steps at a time: He stated that the combined sound of a cymbal and a bass drum was “only fit to have monkeys dance to.”
One can only wonder how much slower the modern-day cymbal would have evolved if Avedis Zildjian hadn’t moved from Istanbul to Boston, in 1908, where he eventually started his own factory. A candy factory, that is. In the late 1920s, his uncle Aram sent him a letter from Istanbul asking him to take over the Zildjian legacy in the late 1920s. Avedis was reluctant, being perfectly happy making candy. “At first he said: ‘Jesus, that’s a romantic story. You couldn’t make a living of it,’” recalled his son, Armand Zildjian, in The Cymbal Book. “It was my mother who inspired him to try it anyhow.” Jazz was developing at their doorstep, so to speak, and so was the art of drum set playing. The timing couldn’t have been any better.
Initially, the Avedis Zildjian Company made no more then some six cymbals a day. Things expanded as drummers discovered what was going on at 39 Fayette Street, Norfolk Downs, Quincy, Massachusetts (you can still pay that street a visit). Gene Krupa, in his early twenties around that time, was one of the first drummers who explicitly asked Avedis to make thinner cymbals. Drummers loved the results, according to Armand Zildjian: “Krupa, Papa Jo Jones, Chick Webb … They were all wild about these new cymbals.”
Drummers used relatively small cymbals in those days. A British book from 1934, Max On Swing, mentions how, “If you can afford only one cymbal, then buy a 12" one. This should not be of the thick type, nor should they be, in my opinion, of the extreme ‘paper-thin’ kind .… If your pocket allows you to run to more than one cymbal, then you should next possess yourself of an 11" cymbal, slightly thinner than your first, and of a little higher pitch .... If you can still go to another, then you may indulge in the extra luxury of a 10" or 11" paper-thin instrument; there are many fine effects possible with cymbals of this nature.”
In the latter part of that decade, sizes had gone up a bit. Gene Krupa used 8" and 13" thin cymbals, 13" and 14" mediums, and a pair of 11" hi-hats in his big band. The terms “ride” and “crash” had not yet been coined. Even in 1948, the Avedis Zildjian catalog simply listed 20 cymbal sizes, ranging incrementally per inch from 7" to 26", available in Paper Thin, Thin, Medium Thin, Medium, Medium Heavy, and Heavy. The note “sizes cannot be guaranteed to be accurate” in that same catalog clearly indicated that cymbals were truly handmade instruments.
Bacchante Playing The Cymbals by Jean-Simon Berthélemy, 18th century.