Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Cheap jazz cymbals

During that Washington residency one of the students asked me for a recommendation on an inexpensive jazz cymbal. It's not really a budget category of cymbals, and I didn't have a great answer for him. 

First, for “jazz cymbals”, we're normally looking for lighter weight cymbals, that can act as both a ride and a crash, with some complexity, and a warmer, darker sound. Usually that means Turkish or Turkish-style hand-hammered cymbals.

Buying new is generally not the best value. The cheapest cymbal might be the one you only have to buy once, and everybody thinks whichever latest hot item is going to be that cymbal, and often it is not. They don't work out as well as the buzz surrounding them promised. The Zildjian company, for example, has gotten really good at hyping its new products. So people end up married to cymbals that don't work well for them, just because they spent so much on them. 

Sidebar: Cymbal & Gong is, I believe, an exception to that equation— any truly good cymbal is, when you find one. In selling them, many times I have seen jazz professionals, after playing them— against their natural bargain-seeking nature— enthusiastically buying them new and happily using them for years. To me that's a special situation. I believe they're very special instruments.  

But generally, to get into jazz cymbals for the cheapest initial price tag, you have to shop used.

For students, the first move from lousy student cymbals is to get the cheapest available professional cymbals: dirty old A. Zildjians or Sabian AAs. That's still a good move; those are good, all-purpose cymbals. My very old how to get real cymbals when you're poor post still is mostly true. 60s-80s A. Zildjians and 70s-80s Sabian AAs can be gotten very cheaply. They're not considered “jazz cymbals” now, but they have certainly been used on many jazz gigs and recordings. 

For actual jazz-seeming hand hammered cymbals, in the last decade there have been some tantalizing  options, notably Dream and Agop Xist... each of which quickly got more expensive with the buzz surrounding them. Dreams are highly variable in quality, and it would be easy to get stuck with a pretty crummy sounding cymbal. Xists are better, but are not much cheaper than some real pro cymbals we'll talk about in a moment. They're good if they're a bargain, they're not good if they're more expensive than the cymbals I'll mention next. 

I think students should look for: 1980s American K. Zildjian ride or Sabian HH medium ride. Any random one will likely be a decent, versatile cymbal, that you can use for some years as your taste and ear for cymbals develops. The medium rides will be a safer random purchase than the jazz rides, and will be more versatile cymbals for students. 

That's the easiest move: get the dirtiest, funkiest example you can find of either of those. “Flea bites” on the edges and keyholing are acceptable, cracks and “repairs” are not acceptable.

If you want to shop a little bit, perhaps take a bigger risk, here are some general guidelines:  

The product lines in currently manufactured “hand hammered” type cymbals have expanded enough that we can distinguish between ordinary and top of the line, and recently, boutique— I'll comment on all of them, based on the premise of buying a lifetime cymbal once. Maybe also antique.  

Ordinary: Regular lines of the major companies. Zildjian and Sabian will be safest, cheapest, and most plentiful of these.  
K. Zildjian (American) ride, jazz ride; Sabian HH ride, light ride, Traditional series by Agop, Bosphorus, and Mehmet.   
TOTL:  Ambitious/innovative designs trying to be the ultimate in something, with a dedicated elite-seeming marketing angle, stylized appearance. More expensive, with more weird/specialty/exotic cymbals. 
Kerope, Constantinople, various K Custom, various Sabian HHX series, many Agop, Bosphorus and Mehmet series. 
Boutique: Enthusiast artisan individuals, usually one-off designs. It's good that people are doing this, and they should be supported, but purely in terms of value in getting a usable instrument, this is an expensive, rather risky category. These cymbals should really be chosen in person, by someone who knows what they want, and knows how to judge a cymbal.  
Bettis and Funch are perhaps most popular right now.  

Antique: Old cymbals with a lot of caché. Most expensive option, and a big gamble that you will get something you like— many individual cymbals in this category are not good. Or, from a player's perspective, not better than newer, much less expensive options. Can be very expensive, in the weight range we want.   

K. Zildjian, 50s or earlier A. Zildjian, Spizzichino.  


Note: Cymbal & Gong probably falls under the TOTL category, though the ones I carry I would categorize as great ordinary cymbals— the designs and sound are traditional. They're very safe to purchase— I select each cymbal I sell, and I only sell cymbals I would want to play. C&G is a very small company, but the cymbals are produced by a professional shop, with established designs and exceptional consistency, so I wouldn't call them boutique.   

There are a number of other smaller Turkish brands that you may be able to find some used bargains with them— lesser known brands will depreciate more, and be cheaper to begin with. Again, traditionally lathed cymbals will be safest. “Sultan”-type designs (with unlathed bell and a wide unlathed band in the riding area) are also reasonably safe.

For a student getting a set, the safest and most economical strategy might be to get one of the 20" K or HH rides above, with an A. Zildjian or Sabian AA 16-18"crash (thin) and 14" hihats (New Beat, medium, regular, light).   

Shopping for jazz cymbals, the ideal range of gram weights would generally be: 

18" - 1325-1425g
20" - 1650-1950g - Note that the recommended 20" K/HH rides will be heavier than that.
22" - 2050-2350g
14" hihats -  less than 1000g top / 1200g bottom

Within those weights, lighter = getting rather splashy,  heavier = trending towards a medium.

Good luck! Please feel free to contact me with any questions. 

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