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

cymbal history

Armand Zildjian with Max Roach, c. 1950.

The Tyranny Of Infinite Choice

The number of types of cymbals produced and marketed today is enough to drive drummers crazy — and it’s best for everyone’s sake that most drum stores do not stock more than a few of the available brands at a time. Still, there are drummers who just can’t find what they’re looking for. If you’re one of them, you may want to check out the work of the few artisan one-man cymbal-makers around. Robert Spizzichino, who passed away in November 2011, is probably the best-known artist of his kind. Spizz, as he’s known, worked at Ufip for a number of years, and then decided to craft his own cymbals, using blanks or even finished cymbals from other makers. Another well-known name is Michael Paiste, son of former Paiste president and sound designer Robert Paiste. While he was active in Paiste Sound Development, Michael was always happy to hear drummers say they liked Paiste cymbals, but drummers who asked for something just a little different simply intrigued him more. As a result, he decided to start making his own cymbals, and he still does. Like Spizz, Michael uses blanks made by other companies, and he also customizes finished cymbals.

In fact, the small community of one-man “artisan” cymbalsmiths has experienced a renaissance in the last several years, with unique offerings from the likes of Matt Nolan, Matt Bettis, Steve Hubback, and the late Mike Skiba, creator of Cymbalholic.com (who passed away almost exactly a year before Spizz). Meanwhile, John Stannard of Hammerax, arguably one of the most intriguing sound shapers working in the field of cymbals and gongs today, is gaining a level of commercial recognition with recent offerings that is bringing his products out of the boutique realm and into the mainstream.

So many cymbals, so many sounds, so many drummers. Drummers who, baffled by the overabundant number of choices, may forget that they’re in control of their sound as much as their cymbals are. “One guy asked me why I don’t have a China,” Idris Muhammad once told me. “Well, I like China cymbals, but I could play a China sound in the cymbals that I use. I don’t need another cymbal just to make one sound.” The art of cymbal playing was similarly stressed by the late, great Papa Jo Jones. “That cymbal that I got up there I gave away five times to five different drummers. I told them: ‘I’m going to let you have this for a month. You learn how to play it, you can have it.’ But they ain’t learned to play it yet.”

cymbal history

Gene Krupa with Avedis Zildjian, c. 1940.

So you should wonder, perhaps, how much time you should spend selecting cymbals. You could even wonder how many different cymbals you need to create your personal sound. Some of the best players in the world never bothered. When I had the privilege of interviewing Art Blakey, my first and foremost inspiration, I couldn’t resist asking him how he selected his instruments, intrigued as I was by his characteristic big cymbal sound. I’ll never forget his answer: “I just play any cymbal. Always do the best with what you have. It ain’t the cymbal, no way, it’s the person playing it. Just give me a cymbal. I don’t select them. I ain’t got time for that.”

That said, I’m still looking for a cymbal to back up my warped, unbalanced, extremely handmade 18" old K, because it’s the only 18" that I can use for delicate, glancing crashes as well as punctuated Latin bell rhythms or washy jazz grooves. Or maybe I should just head back to the woodshed.

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