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Types of Cymbals: Drummer’s Complete Guide

Cymbals are an incredibly important aspect of drum sets. While there are a few types of drums, there are several types of cymbals. All the types look slightly different, and they produce various sounds

This guide will show you every kind of cymbal that you get. We’ll explain how to identify them, as well as how they affect a drum kit or percussion setup. We’ll also briefly explain a few cymbal qualities, along with how each cymbal type affects those sounds.

Types of Cymbals


The hi-hats are the cymbals that always come in pairs, and they’re referred to as top and bottom hi-hats. The bottom hi-hat cymbal is typically a bit thicker than the top one. 

These cymbals get placed on a special hi-hat stand that goes next to the snare drum. The stand has a pedal that attaches to a hydraulic rod to control the hi-hats

The top hi-hat cymbal sticks to the rod, so it goes up and down as you press the pedal.

Hi-hats range from 8” to 16”, but the most common size is 14”

All hi-hats produce a tight “chick” sound when you play them tightened together, and then the sound gets washier as you lift the pedal.

Ride Cymbal

The ride cymbal is typically the largest cymbal in every drum kit setup. It gets played almost as often as the hi-hats, but it has a more open and resonant sound

Drummers will choose to play the ride cymbal instead of the hi-hat when they want their grooves to sound a bit louder and more expansive.

Ride cymbals range from 20” to 24”, but most drummers opt to play 20-inch rides. As the size gets bigger, the ride sounds become washier and louder. 

In terms of placement, the ride cymbal gets placed on whichever side of your kit your dominant hand is, and that’s normally the opposite side of where your hi-hats get placed.

Crash Cymbal

Crash cymbals are smaller than ride cymbals but typically bigger than hi-hats. Most drummers have two or three of these placed around their kit. 

These make a crashing sound when you hit them, so drummers strike them after drum fills and sometimes play grooves with very aggressive sounds

They can range from 14” to 20”, but you’ll find most drummers using crash cymbals that are 16” and 18”. 18-inch crash cymbals are the most commonly used ones

You can place them anywhere around the kit, but the standard placement is having one crash positioned to the left of your high tom and another one positioned to the right of your floor tom.

China Cymbal

China cymbals are highly unique cymbals that perform similarly to crashes. However, they have a different structure. They almost look like inverted crash cymbals, as they have a raised lip and a dip in the bow

All china cymbals are loud, and they sound incredibly trashy. They’re not used by every drummer, as the loud and trashy tones aren’t loved by everyone.

They’re an essential cymbal to have in a metal setup, though, as they’re the go-to cymbals for playing breakdown grooves. 

They range from 10” to 22”, with the larger china cymbals having more resonance. Most drummers stick to using one china cymbal in their setup if they do have one. 

Splash Cymbal

Splash cymbals are the smallest cymbals that you’ll find in a drum kit setup. They’re essentially mini crash cymbals that range from 6” to 12”

Since they’re so small, they have high-pitched sounds with little resonance. This means that their tones get out of the way very quickly after hitting them. 

Their size makes it easy to fit them in a setup, and most drummers who use splash cymbals have two or three of them placed around their set

You can place them on boom arms that attach to full cymbal stands, or you can place them upside down and fasten them above the crash cymbals. 

Stack Cymbal

Stacked cymbals are combinations of different cymbals that have been piled on top of each other. They produce similar sounds to hi-hats, but they’re a bit trashier with more resonance

Most modern drum setups have some sort of stacked cymbal. Drummers will create their own stacks using cymbals that are broken, but you can also buy premade stacks from major cymbal brands

Stacks are typically made up of splash and crash cymbals, but some will also use chinas and ride cymbals. 

Effects Cymbal

Effects cymbal is the name given to cymbals with unique properties. It’s the broadest cymbal type, as effects cymbals can often be considered hi-hats, rides, or crashes. 

The most commonly used effects cymbals are trash crashes. These are crash cymbals with holes in them to produce trashier sounds. 

You’ll find some whackier ones as well, such as Zildjian’s Spiral Stacker, which is a thin cymbal strip that hangs off a cymbal stand.

One of the most loved effects cymbals that recently hit the market is the Clapstack from Istanbul Agop. It’s a stacked cymbal that makes the sound of a handclap. All the other cymbal brands have their own version. It’s more of an effects cymbal than a stacked cymbal, as you can’t use the cymbals on their own.

Hand Cymbals

Hand cymbals are matched pairs of crash cymbals that you play with your hands. They have straps that run through the holes of each cymbal, and you hold those while crashing the cymbals together to make a sound. 

These cymbals are used by percussionists in orchestras and marching bands. They’re not cymbals that are designed to be used with drum kits. 

They range from 10” to 20”, and you’d be amazed at the variations of sounds that marching drummers can play with them. Classical percussionists just pick them up to play them in certain parts of scores, and then they play other percussion instruments as well. 

Finger Cymbals

Finger cymbals have the same design as hand cymbals, but they’re a lot smaller. You strap them to your finger sand then crash them together to play a sound. Percussionists who use them will typically strap a pair of them to each hand

They have incredibly bright tones that resonate a lot. The sounds are like bells. 

You’ll mostly see percussionists in orchestras using these.

Cymbal Anatomy

While all types of cymbals have various designs and sounds, they all share fundamental design styles. When people refer to playing the bell, bow, and edge of a cymbal, here’s what they mean.  


The bell is the center part of every cymbal. It’s typically the highest point of a cymbal, and it will the size of it depends on how the cymbal was designed. 

The bells of ride cymbals are typically played the most by drummers, but you can play the bells of crashes and hi-hats to get unique sounds as well. 

Striking the bell with the tip of a drumstick will give you a bright sound, and striking it with the shaft of a drumstick will give you a louder sound with more body

Drummers will often choose which ride cymbal to get according to how the bell sounds. 


The bow of a cymbal refers to the angle of the surface from the bell to the edge. However, drummers commonly refer to the entire surface as the bow

You’ll hit the bow the most on hi-hats, ride cymbals, and stacks. When you hit the bow, you get all the tone of a cymbal, but you don’t get any aggression.

Drummers who want gentle sounds tend to play the bows more out of any other parts of each cymbal. 


The edge of every cymbal is where the cymbal ends. You get the most aggressive sounds when striking a cymbal on the edge, and it’s where most drummers strike crash cymbals

Some ride cymbals have excellent crashability, and this means that they have good crashing sounds when you strike the edge

Most drummers switch between playing hi-hats on the surface and edge to create dynamic intervals with their grooves. 

China cymbals are the other cymbal type that needs to be played on the edge to get the full effect of their tonal qualities.

Cymbal Qualities

You’ll commonly hear people refer to cymbal sounds using the following words. These have become the agreed-upon terms for describing what you’re hearing when a cymbal is played. 


Cymbals that are bright have high-pitched tones. These cymbals will cut through mixes, meaning they can easily be heard above all the other instruments

They can sometimes sound too harsh if you hit them hard, especially if you’re playing drums in a venue where volume is an issue. 

They’re the best cymbals to have in large venues, though. Drummers who play in arenas and stadiums always opt to have a range of bright cymbals in their setup.

Most affordable cymbals are bright, but there are a few popular professional cymbals with bright tones as well, including the Zildjian A Customs and the Sabian AAX line


Dark cymbals have low-pitched tones, and they’re typically a lot more dynamically expressive than bright cymbals. 

These cymbals tend to blend into mixes, meaning that they can’t clearly be heard above all the other instruments. They’re fantastic for when you don’t want your cymbals to sound very aggressive. 

They’re usually the top option for drummers recording in studios, as dark cymbal qualities are easy for sound engineers to work with

Most high-end cymbals have dark characteristics, but you can get ones that are much lower-pitched than others. 


Dry cymbals don’t have a lot of sustain. They get out of the way very quickly after hitting them, as their tones don’t ring for long. 

They also blend into mixes instead of cutting through them, and they’re the best cymbal options to go with if you don’t want a lot of volume

They’re a great option to use when playing in small venues or churches

There’s a divide in the drumming community when it comes to dry cymbals. Some drummers love them, while others can’t stand them


Trashy cymbals have harsh frequencies. They’re very loud, but they also don’t have a lot of sustain. So, you get an aggressive punch that fades away quite quickly

Chinas are the trashiest cymbals that you can get. That’s their main quality. However, you also get crashes, splashes, and hi-hats that have holes in them to create trashy tones.

What are the Most Important Cymbals for a Drum Kit?

Every drum setup needs to have a pair of hi-hats and a ride cymbal. Those are the two essential cymbal types that will allow you to play most grooves. It’s even better if the ride cymbal that you have can be crashed on. 

For a more expansive and dynamic setup, crash cymbals should be the next addition. It’s good to have two of them, with one being slightly larger than the other. 

If you play modern pop music, you’ll need to add some sort of stacked cymbal into the mix. If you play fusion or gospel, you’ll need a few splash cymbals

Everything after that becomes a personal preference, and you should just create a cymbal setup that reflects the sound you want to have.

What are the Best Cymbal Brands?

Top 5 Best Cymbal Brands of 2017

Over the past decade, there have been four major brands that have dominated the cymbal market. These brands are Zildjian, Meinl, Paiste, and Sabian

They’re referred to as the big four, and they’re the cymbals that you’ll find being sold all around the world with multiple distributors in most countries. 

If you want to guarantee that you get good cymbals, it’s best to choose ones from those brands. 

There are a few other cymbal brands that are worth mentioning, though. They’re not as big and don’t have as wide a reach, so you may not find them as easily as the ones from the big four brands. 

The other brands worth mentioning are Dream, Istanbul Agop, Istanbul Mehmet, Bosphorus, and Zultan.

Final Thoughts on Types of Cymbals

Having a good understanding of different cymbal types is the best way to ensure that you’re getting cymbals that will give you a sound that you love. While the drums are the meat and bones of your set, the cymbals will be what distinguishes your kit from others

There are more tonal variations with cymbals, so your cymbal choice affects the overall sound of your drum set. 

Make sure that you have a good pair of hi-hats, a ride cymbal, and at least one crash cymbal. After that, you can choose what to add to create a diverse setup that reflects your playing style. 

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