My insight into cymbal care has always come from trial and error or hearsay. While I feel like I have found my groove in the maintenance department, there begs the question, what might a cymbal manufacturer say about our home remedies and trade secrets when it comes to cymbal cleaning and care? 

While we may be the kings of our own throne, when it comes to cymbal alchemy and physics, Yoda we are not. Enter two drummers who can speak on behalf of the cymbal makers themselves: Andrew Shreve (Gretsch Drums Brand Manager / Artist Relations, formerly the Marketing & Artist Relations Manager for Paiste America, Inc.) and Paul Frederick, who passed away shortly after this article was published and was a Paiste Percussion Specialist as well as a specialist who worked in conjunction with Sabian. 

Let’s start with the daily grind fellas. Is there a cymbal cleaner that is good for day to day use? What is the best way to prevent buildup (ie. sweat, oxidization)? Should cymbals be cleaned on a regular basis or is polishing the time to clean?

Paul Frederick: As with anything in this day and age, there are a myriad of products available for almost any application you could be looking for. The first thing is to determine what you are looking for: are your concerns more aesthetic or sonic? For example, do you want your cymbals to look prettier, or are you more concerned with how they sound? Are you looking to remove serious grunge buildup? Do you want to make your cymbals more resistant to fingerprints? There are products available to achieve any of these goals, from mild coatings to cymbal cleaning machines that will literally buff your cymbals to a brilliant finish.

Andrew Shreve: The most effective method in maintaining your cymbal’s shine and lustre is to simply wipe down your cymbals after every use or as often as possible. The longer outside elements, such as moisture, sweat, dust, or stick marks, stay on the cymbal’s surface, the greater the chance blemishes or markings will stay embedded on the cymbal. When you find that your cymbals are beyond the simple “wipe-down stage,” here is the most effective method to cleaning your cymbals:

  • Lay the cymbal on a table covered with a smooth carpet or cloth surface.
  • Wet the cymbal with water and also wet a cotton cloth with water.
  • Squirt a few drops of Paiste Cymbal Cleaner onto the cloth (not onto the cymbal directly) and make sure the cleaner is well watered-down.
  • With the cloth, gently wipe the cymbal in the direction of the lathing grooves until you see dirt being removed from the surface. Do not rub at all! As soon as you see dirt or grime on the rag, stop the cleaning process.
  • Rinse off the cymbal with a different wet cloth until the cleaner is completely removed. You can also rinse the cymbal directly under running lukewarm water instead.
  • When the cleaner is completely removed, use a new dry cloth and gently wipe around the cymbal until it’s completely dry. Again, never rub!
  • After completing the cleaning instructions, pour a small portion of Paiste Cymbal Protector on a clean dry cloth and gently wipe around the grooves of the cymbal. The protector serves as a temporary coating and prevents the bronze surface from oxidizing. Your newly cleaned and protected cymbals will be worth the effort!

Does this rule apply to all cymbals? Should we be treating/cleaning certain cymbals differently than others? (ie. hand hammered versus lathed)

PF: The vast majority of cymbals are made from a very select range of bronze alloys, so basically, yes, the same rules will, fundamentally, apply to all cymbals. The main exception being if there has been some kind of finish applied to the cymbal, as in the case of Paiste Colorsound Cymbals. The actual characteristics of the cymbal, whether it is a crash, ride or splash, will have very little impact on how a cleaner will perform.

AS: For cymbals that feature that Paiste Colorsound coating (black, white, etc.—Visions) the standard cleaning procedures are not applicable:

  • Use only a dry or damp cloth, gently rubbing in the direction of the grooves.
  • For hard to remove dirt or stick marks, warm water and mild soap can be used—but again, no harsh cleaners.
  • This coating is designed not to come off, unless metal to metal contact is made. Paiste Colorsound coated cymbals should always be stored in their plastic sleeves or separated by cloth, towels, or other soft materials.
  • Never allow them to rest against each other or against other cymbals without some protection between them.

What do you recommend in the way of a cloth or rag for cymbal care? Anything specific we should consider?

AS: Use a soft cloth that is not abrasive. An old cotton t-shirt is always the best choice.

What advice can you give drummers when it comes to the reasons cymbals break and/or crack? What are the most common damages and what causes them? Does our technique play a part in cymbal breakage?

PF: The first and most important step here is to understand that your cymbal is a musical instrument. Treat it as such. Human nature seems to dictate that because it is made of some kind of metal and has no moving parts that it is indestructible. Nothing could be further from reality. A cymbal is a delicate, sophisticated, and in most cases, handcrafted musical instrument. It is governed 100 per cent by basic rules of physics. A cymbal that is respected, looked after, and played properly can last indefinitely. Manufacturing techniques and technology have dramatically improved the consistency and durability of cymbals. These days almost any break in a cymbal can be traced back to either poor handling or over-playing. Setting a cymbal down, on its edge, on a rough surface, could easily make a nick in the edge of the cymbal. This is now a vulnerable spot; laying into the cymbal right at this spot can easily cause a crack. Playing a cymbal past the point where it is at its maximum volume (where it is vibrating as much as it possibly can) will not make it any louder; it will make it broke! Basic laws of physics.

AS: One of the most common mistakes that occur with drummers and developing cracks is the initial selection of cymbal versus the style of music they play. I often hear of drummers purchasing a cymbal because it’s dark and very thin and it’s quite appealing to them sonically. However, the drummer is in a loud rock band and they play very aggressively. What ends up happening is that the drummer will play the cymbal so aggressively, trying to get excessive volume from the cymbal to compete with the band.  Bear in mind that a dark and thin cymbal is not intended for extreme volume settings, so the cymbal will get exhausted from the abuse it’s taking and it will eventually warp or crack. Other factors in a cymbal developing a crack are the size of the stick versus the size and weight of the cymbal. It’s not a great idea to use heavy sticks against thin or small cymbals.

The most common area where a cymbal cracks is on the edge. This mostly occurs due to excessive abuse and lack of proper technique—and not looking at where you’re striking the cymbal. Technique does play a factor in increasing the longevity of your cymbals. Playing through the cymbal or hitting the cymbal directly on its edge and not on an angle is going to increase your chance of cracking a cymbal. 

When storing cymbals for tour/gigging, any advice on how they should be stowed and does temperature affect cymbals? And what are the best cymbal cases to buy—cymbal bags versus cymbal vault?

PF: Treat your cymbal like a delicate hand-crafted musical instrument because that is what it is! The better you treat it, the happier it will be and the longer it will serve you. There have been a ton of new products to protect your cymbals that have hit the market over the past few years: bags, polishes, felt replacements and alternatives, soft cases, hard cases—some great, some not so great. Again, this is where you want to have a good drum guy at your local shop that you can trust to help you navigate through what you need and what is available. There are a lot of factors that can affect what you need: where you live, what kind of music you play, where you play, etc.

And, yes, extreme temperatures can affect your cymbals. It seems that thinner and unlathed cymbals and certain alloys can be more susceptible to extreme cold. In some cases, cymbals that have been subjected to extreme cold can become noticeably brittle. This is not nearly as extreme as with a guitar finish; a lacquer crack on a guitar is permanent. After being exposed to extreme cold and letting a cymbal warm up to room temperature will eradicate any of the affects of the cold. That being said, to be on the safe side, always let your cymbals warm up to room temperature before beating them—and then beat them nicely.

AS: Although I have never experienced it first hand, I have heard stories of a cymbal cracking due to cold temperatures. When you set up your cymbals after they’ve been exposed to the cold for an extended period of time, it’s in your best interest to allow you cymbals to adjust to the temperature change before using them. 

Often the question is posed, how do I keep my cymbal logos from fading? Any insight?

PF: This is determined by your priorities: if your main priority is to keep your logos from fading, don’t touch them; if your priority is mileage, treat them with respect. This is pretty simple, the more that you handle and play them the more the logos will fade. 

Cleaners and polishes can have an impact here as well. There are some polishes that leave a protective film on your cymbal. Primarily to prevent fingerprints (which can be corrosive, depending on the acidity of your fingers) these will protect the logos somewhat as well.

AS: Try not to allow any outside surface to rub against your cymbals and try to keep them clean. I have an 18” Signature Full Crash that I’ve owned for about 11 years, and I could sell that cymbal in new condition. Granted, I don’t use that particular cymbal often, but I’m a freak on keeping my cymbals clean and pristine, especially my crashes.

There is also the argument that tightening a wing nut too tight on the cymbal stand can impede, and even possibly put strain on, the cymbal bell. Any truth to this? Does the tension from the wing nut affect the cymbal sound?

PF: Absolutely, over-tightened wing nuts, striking at an extreme angle (straight on), and not protecting the edge of a cymbal are the three biggest enemies of any cymbal.

AS: Yes, there is. If you tighten the wing nut too much, the cymbal’s movement is restricted and it can’t swing freely. Additionally, the cymbal can’t comfortably absorb the shock from the strike of a stick when movement is restricted. 

For those unaware of the alchemy of metal, what is the reason cymbals can turn green?

PF: Cymbals turn green through the simple chemical process of oxidation.
In some cases this can be a good thing (the copper on a church roof needs oxidation to prevent the copper from deteriorating in the elements). Oxidation on a cymbal is rarely a good thing, maybe only in the case of certain jazz drummers or Martians.

Many vintage enthusiasts swear by burying their cymbals in the dirt to get that “aged” sound. Does this really work? Do cymbals really age?

PF: Yes, this does really work, but, as mentioned above, this is rarely a good thing.
Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, when Cymbal manufacturing was based more on alchemy than technology, this may have been necessary for some discriminating players (Terry Clarke) to achieve the sounds that they (he) were looking for. In this day and age you can buy a cymbal for virtually any application that you can think of, and it only stands to reason that if it sounded the way you wanted it to when you bought it, don’t do anything to change it!

Regarding cymbal aging, there have been debates over the years, and the general consensus (from people who really do know what they are talking about) has been that, under normal playing conditions, the vibrations that a cymbal is subjected to can affect the sound over an extended period of time. The less mass versus diameter that a cymbal has, the more noticeable the affect will be. But even in extreme cases, the effect will be so minimal and spread over such a long period of time that the average human would never be able to perceive any change.

AS: I’ve heard of this but I’ve never put that theory to the test. I refer to a cymbal as “seasoning” more then aging. I have a twelve year old 22’ Traditional Light Ride that is a pure gem! Its overall sound characteristics have mellowed a bit; it’s become a touch dryer and the overall frequency mix has “seasoned” and actually matured just right. It also feels so good to play. Out of all the cymbals I own, this one is being buried with me.

Sean Mitchell is a drummer/artist, songwriter and the creator of Drum Geek.