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5,000 Years In 3,000 Words: Cymbal History

The fact that no one spoke of ride cymbals in those days can easily be explained: Nobody was playing a “ride” pattern on a cymbal until the mid-1940s, when bebop pioneer Kenny Clarke shifted his time keeping from the hi-hat to a suspended cymbal. According to Clarke, the move from the hi-hat to the ride opened up the whole drum set in a new way. Opening up the instrument was not what everybody was waiting for, apparently: Clarke got fired from many a gig in those days.

Cymbals had been getting bigger and bigger throughout that decade: Big band leader Stan Kenton wanted his drummers to play 24" rides and 22" crashes, and a few years later even 28" rides and 18" hi-hats were available. While specific types of rides had been marketed, such as the Bop Ride and the Ping Ride, the term “crash” wasn’t commonly used until the early 1950s. Some drummers never really accepted those definitions: “Every cymbal I use is a ride cymbal,” says Mel Lewis in The Cymbal Book. “Every one of my cymbals is also a crash cymbal. I only use three. Three is enough.”

So what about the hi-hat in those early days? This essential piece of equipment was preceded by the “clanger,” basically a metal beater that was attached to the bass drum beater. It hit a vertically mounted cymbal on every bass drum note. Then came the “snow-shoe,” consisting of two hinged wooden boards with a pair of cymbals on one end. Around 1925 drummer Vic Berton devised the lo-hat, lo-sock, or lo-boy, essentially a hi-hat but no more than some 15" high. The small (around 10") cymbals featured a large cup, which explains the “lo-hat” name. It is unclear who came up with the splendid idea of using a longer tube, allowing drummers to play the hi-hat with sticks as well, but Papa Jo Jones was quoted saying “It was through necessity that I went and got a pipe. I couldn't go down and play the sock cymbal on the floor.” It isn’t surprising that Jo Jones is known as the first drummer who kept time on the brand new hi-hat, rather than on the snare drum. As a result, the cymbals slowly got bigger, with smaller cups, creating a larger time-keeping area. In the late ’40s, a suggested bebop setup of that time contained 15" hi-hats, a 22" medium ride, and a 15" thin cymbal.

cymbal history

Turkish finger-cymbal performer from 1851.

Loudness Wars

The first rock drummers played the same cymbals that their jazz colleagues used. The undefined shhhh sound on 1960s pop records was not by choice; it was just all there was — and that was definitely not enough to cope with amplified guitars. Paiste responded to the need for louder cymbals with its aptly named Giant Beat series in 1965. Two years later, the same company introduced its Sound Edge hi-hats. The bottom cymbal with its corrugated edge, later copied by various other cymbal makers, provided drummers with a well-defined hi-hat sound.

In the years that followed, the cymbal industry (small as it was back then) seemed to focus on louder cymbals only. At the same time, rock and funk drummers shifted time-keeping back to the hi-hat, for maximum definition. Jazz drummers were largely ignored, apparently, and many of them were probably playing Turkish-made K Zildjians, the much sought-after “old K’s.” But handn’t Zildjian moved to the U.S.? Well, yes: Avedis did — but the descendants of Kerope II, who died in 1909, were still making cymbals in Istanbul. Without going into detail in this limited space, it should be mentioned that those Istanbul cymbal makers were not Zildjians, officially. The company was run by Gabriel Dulgaryian, who had married Akabi Zildjian, and by their son Mikhail later on. As Armenian family names at one point were forbidden, the Dulgaryians changed their name to Zilciyan or Zil├žan, pronounced as “Zilch-ian” in Turkish. Sound familiar?

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