Birth Of The Modern Hi-Hat
The hi-hat was not always part of a drummer’s setup. In fact, it does not show up on recordings until about 1931. Prior to that time, drummers kept time on the snare drum using press rolls, or they approximated an open/closed, “spang-a-lang”-type pattern on a splash cymbal using two hands (one to strike and one to choke the cymbal).
The first spring-operated foot cymbal – called a “low boy” – was touted as a hip new addition to the basic kick/snare setup for New Orleans drummers. Sitting only about a foot off the ground, the dual-cymbal contraption provided a chick to the boom of the bass drum.
Sometime in the late ’20s, somebody got the brilliant idea that if you raised this foot cymbal up, a drummer could create the “spang-a-lang” pattern using only one hand (and one foot, of course). Thus, from the low boy sprung the hi-hat.
Fun Fact #1 Originally, the hi-hat was placed almost level with the snare, and drummers would play it under their snare hand (not very comfortable). You can see Buddy Rich using this technique in video clips of Tommy Dorsey’s band from the late ’30s.
Fun Fact #2 The first hi-hat cymbals were much thinner and smaller than the ones we use today, usually measuring about 11" in diameter. This would spell disaster for a modern rock basher, but it fit perfectly for playing the smooth quarter-note pulse of swing.
Fun Fact #3 Baby Dodds, the most famous of the early New Orleans jazz drummers, refused to add a hi-hat to his setup (even after it became standard), claiming that the device grossly interrupted the time flow of his press rolls.