Wednesday, December 12, 2018

A balanced attitude about cymbals

There's a quote from Elvin Jones where he described his process of selecting cymbals: he would go to the Gretsch warehouse in Brooklyn where the imported K. Zildjians were kept, and he would grab a cymbal out of the 20" bin, and one from the 18" bin, and two from the 14" bin, and that's it. Those cymbals were famously inconsistent in quality and weight, but his opinion was that it didn't matter— it was how you played them that mattered. Art Blakey, too, said something like “Give me a cymbal and I'll play it.”

At the other end of the spectrum are extreme “cymbalholics”, who seem to be utterly fascinated by cymbals as semi-magical entities. Some of them get so heavy into it that music seems to exist primarily as a medium for appreciating cymbals. Amazing cymbals are virtually ends in themselves.

Then you take one of the most famous cymbals in jazz— an absolute fetish object: Mel Lewis's cut up A. Zildjian, called by Buddy Rich the greatest ride cymbal in jazz:

Now, objectively: that's a funky, messed up cymbal. Lewis himself called it “a bad A.” Obviously there is a reason he kept playing it and recording it, but without knowing its history, most people would be pressed to find anything magical about it. Judging it superficially from this video alone, I give it a Cymbalholic Amazingness Rating (or CAR, something I just made up) of about a 3.5. Mediocre.

So, one of the unquestioned top 5 greatest cymbals in jazz is a surprisingly unassuming little thing, that most people would probably not choose to buy over any random new K, Sabian, or Bosphorus.

There's a different rating system I also made up right this second, which I think is more meaningful: the Player's Playability Rating (PPR, or PLAPLAR), based on how this cymbal fares in normal playing situations, played by a good player. Is it easy to play, or does it demand a lot of finesse? Is it versatile? Does its sound support its musical role, and the player's voice, or does it draw too much attention to itself for sounding too awful or too “interesting”? In performance how does it sound to the player, the band, the audience? Does it project adequately? Is it free of off-sounds that make you want to not hit it? Does it inspire you to play better... a more elusive concept than you might think: playing well does not mean being so fascinated by the sound of your cymbals that you play them too much.

By that rating system, average players using Mel's cymbal on a gig or rehearsal might rate it anywhere from a 5 to a 10, with players giving it a low score probably looking for something more “interesting”, with more body, more spread, more pleasing harmonics.

In a way, a low-CAR/high-PLAPLAR cymbal like that is telling you where your listening and playing focus should be, which is mostly not on your cymbals. Your focus is supposed to be on the piece of music in progress, and most music is not purely about fascinating sounds. Drummers are not just colorists. There is a musical structure, with a groove you're supposed to be generating, and a melody, maybe with lyrics. We're also supposed be acting as conductors, driving the band (who are playing plain old saxophones, pianos, basses) and the composition dynamically and energetically. Within that role, too much sonic interest reads as eccentricity... or “bad wallpaper”, as Peter Erskine said in another context.

Incidentally, most of the Cymbal & Gong cymbals I select have a moderate-high CAR, and a high PLAPLAR— part of my interest here is in figuring out why they appeal to me so much, since I'm endorsing them and selling them. People almost invariably love them when they play them, but I don't consider them to be flashy, high-CAR cymbals. When I play them, especially in context with other instruments, they sound normal: Oh, this sounds like a record. Which is a big deal. It's the whole deal.

Portland drummer Tim Paxton was a student of Danny Gottlieb's and said this about the Mel Lewis cymbal: “I played it and it sounded like shit. Danny played it and it still sounded like shit. It was used on a lot of recordings and Mel makes it sounds great.”


  1. I really like PLAPLAR, but shouldn't it be CYAMAR instead of just CAR?
    Sounds much more interesting.
    But you really do have a thing for naming.
    Dave, Alvin, Zenon, Skip and Rico all say "Hello", by the way...