The Perversion of a Cymbal: Why Mess with a Good Thing? Part I of II

Entrance Test:

Examine the following statement and indicate “agree” or “disagree”:

“A cymbal with a mirror-finish is a wondrous thing

Perverting Perfectly Good Cymbals

If you responded yes, press the back button.

Make your exit now. Thanks for dropping in. See you later. The following article will disturb you. Better we part friends.

We’re about to broach the topic of cymbal modification, not at the factory but in the privacy of your own home. We are going to speak the  unspeakable—how to change your cymbal’s appearance and sound by subjecting it to tinting, painting, dyeing, bleaching, submerging in sea water, sanding, hammering, bending, burying, puncturing, weathering, taping, and gooing.

I love cymbals—love them enough to risk breaking them. That’s the essential paradox with cymbals, and drums, too, the truth be told. We love them so much we beat the living daylights out of them.

I want to go on record as admitting I have never hit, cuffed, slapped, or otherwise mishandled a woman or child or pet. They’re off limits and sacred. Cymbals are divine but not sacred in that respect.

Okay, there’s one exception. I once took a good kick at Andy, our previous dog. I missed, caught him with a glancing blow, the side of my foot against his rear end, no damage done either way. He had it coming. But no living being has it coming and justice was served, according to that moral tenet. Indeed, Andy had the last laugh. When he was advanced in age and in mortal pain, I cradled him in my arms as a vet injected him with a lethal dosage of anesthetic. I sensed he was fading and patted his head lightly. He sensed time was short and acted decisively. In a final gesture, immediately before closing his eyes, he bit me, drawing blood. Accordingly, the doctor fulfilled his obligation and informed me I was immediately subject to a quarantine and vaccination regimen. Rabies is a serious affliction.

Cymbals are like that. I hit a cymbal, it hits back, sometimes with ferocity, others delicacy. I find this astonishing, even when I’m familiar with a cymbal. Case in point is the first cymbal I ever owned, and still own, a 16” A Zildjian thin crash. At age 15, since I could only afford one good cymbal (my hats were sub-standard), I made this papery crash double as a ride. I’m providing this context so that when you read skeptically the following bits about cymbal modification, you’ll know that  I get it.  I know what it means to harness the power of an instrument and what it takes to tame an unruly cymbal without resorting to adhesive tape, spray lacquer, and worse.

Good Cymbals are not Pristine

For ages drummers have been impatient with the course of nature. This is understandable. Sometimes it takes thirty years for a cymbal to darken, gather a little “permanent dirt” in the grooves and otherwise transform into something funkier. In your life, the gig is next week.

The lore is rich with tales of jazz drummers burying cymbals in the garden over the winter, hoping that the spring harvest will bring bizarre blooms—acid deposits, abnormal oxidation and plain old dirt. You see, the idea is not simply to foster a dusky tint; it’s to mute harsh, bright overtones and, in a perfect scenario, bring the pitch down a half a step.

We’re going to skip burying, however. The jury is out on its effectiveness and, besides, if you live on the twenty-fifth floor, odds are you can’t scratch together enough topsoil to cover a tulip bulb!

So there’ll be no burying but plenty of other options in store for you. Note that they’re mainly oriented to ride cymbals—a reflection of that cymbal’s importance in transmitting personality, touch and individualized time. The fact is that an increasing number of jazz, singer-songwriter, and roots drummers don’t want or need stinging rides with razor penetration. These drummers are after something grittier.

At one time there were experts to reshape cymbals. My good email pal, the sadly distressed and brilliant Johan Van De Sijpe comes to mind. Johan died a few years ago, to my dismay. Johan knew cymbals and he spoke to me about cymbals as they figured in his life. Would that his relationship with certain human beings had panned out so positively. And there was another wizard I did not know as well, also sadly passed on, Mike Skiba. You owe it to to yourself to investigate both men, one from Belgium, the other New Jersey, both on the same footing when it came to cymbals, at cymbalholic.com

Others may have taken their place, as if. You can make your determinations, with cymbalholic as your guide.

My guide is my gut feeling as mediated by my ears and my (lapses of) common sense.

D.I.Y. Warning, Caution, Disclaimer

No person in their right mind would undertake any of the propositions detailed herein. The rest of you, follow along.

Please note: If you take a hammer to a cymbal you do it at your risk and, possibly, to the detriment of that which you are striking. For example, if you begin beating a 20 year old cymbal cast from B20 bronze, it’ll be more apt to crack than one of B8 alloy, all things equal. But all things are not equal. Especially when you introduce chemicals and dyes. We’ll not discuss muriatic acid, sometimes used in the cymbal community to fast-track the aging process. This is scary stuff and ought to be avoided. That spoken, each of methods has its hazards, even a Kiwi tin.

As elsewhere in life, if you commit a crime, you may get away with it occasionally, but eventually you will suffer the consequences. Not for the first time I’ll cite a Radiohead line: “You do it to yourself….”

My goal is to dissuade you from doing anything that will harm you. Wear goggles, wear gloves, wear a Kevlar vest if you have to. Keep some mechanics’ goop or industrial-strength hand cleaner around. Incidentally, although we won’t go there, some of this stuff is amazing as cymbal cleaner!

Ask not How, ask Why

Allow a personal note, which may rationalize my descent from gleam to gutter. Around 1989, I purchased a 22” Turkish-made ride cymbal that had emerged decades earlier from a factory down a backstreet in Istanbul. I acquired this instrument through the good graces of Blair Holben, who may still run his enterprise Blair ‘n’ Drums in Michigan; the answer may be available at cymbalholic.com.

This old, dusky burnished beast remains in memory as the closest to the Holy Grail I’ve stepped; even finer than the 22” Turkish K I parted with during the height of the recession. Hundreds of late night after-gig hauls in rain, snow, and sleet had rendered it a twilight brown with patches of green and even blue. The fundamental pitch was deep but not excessively so. Due to the medium to medium-heavy weight the tip sound when riding was glistening and clean, yet the cymbal was crash-able owing to a mid-sized, read “ample”, bell combined with thin edges. The murky wash that followed the tip was enough to make a person stand up and shout. Brief accents with the side of the drumstick against the bow would open up the cymbal, which would then gate down.

One day a friend came by and urged me to pitch the cymbal into a laundry tub and restore its native luster with then-powdered Sabian Cymbal Cleaner, which, back then, was not unlike Comet cleanser.

Absolutely not, I replied. Never. Hours later, however, in a moment of weakness, he had me polishing that scuffy plate to a shimmering, close to new state.

It sucked, everything about it, pardon my lapse into the vernacular. I can’t overemphasize my disappointment. Not only did the cymbal look too pretty but it sounded almost pretty: Many high frequencies had returned and the bell was ringier and, unlike its pre-op state, suitable for any mambo shout chorus. I swear, with each stroke of stick, an ounce of blood left my face until I stood as pale and as ineffectual as that cymbal.

I put the cymbal aside. I kid you not, it had changed so much that it had become an unrecognizable generic. I shelved it and turned away. A year later, I reckoned, it’d regain its former lackluster and whatever salutary grunge had lurked in the tonal grooves. But twelve months elapsed and no significant patina materialized, nor had the tone returned. I resolved: (1) never to clean an old ride cymbal, and (2) to develop a quick means of implementing in a new cymbal the tone an aged appearance of an old one, second-guessing the effect of patina, which brings us to….

Patina

If you visit eBay, you’ll read cymbal jargon that borrows from antique dealers’ blurbs that include the term “provenance”, and architectural designers’ discussions of inducing retro on command. The most common term is “patina”, which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “incrustation, usually green, on the surface of old bronze, esteemed as ornamental.” Patina refers to the relative state of dull in an object that was once shiny.

An even patina, as opposed to a haphazardly stained surface, is more appropriate for cymbals. It reminds me of the 17” A Zildjian ride I used between 1972 and 1975, convinced that John Bonham got his ride sound from a small-diameter cymbal such as this. In those days I smoked cigarettes. It was cool to strike a wooden match in opposition to the lathe grooves on a ride cymbal. The match would flare up and the effect would be heightened by the reflectivity of the cymbal. On one occasion, I rested the lit match too long against the bronze plate and an extra pitch-black glowing ember rocketed out and an extra helping of sulphur wafted up both nostrils. After sneezing, I looked at my ride and at the black trail I’d left across the surface. No problem, I thought, and rubbed away with the underside of my black t-shirt. No luck. That scar remained on the cymbal long after I quit smoking and I’m sure the current owner will verify the merits of the cymbal and the extent of the damage.

There are easier ways to discolor a cymbal and ones that tweak overtones posivitely. None of the following suggestions are for appearance alone, although I admit that years of listening to jazz, and witnessing the likes of Ginger Baker and Art Blakey riding heavy unkempt riveted cymbals have led me to the conclusion a good ride cymbal is an older, unpolished one. Today we discuss that intersection set of appearance and tone.

Imperfect Cymbal Confined to Garage

Imperfect tarnished cymbal with dark streak

Why rush natural order and apply an artificial patina? Well, perhaps even if the cymbal doesn’t change radically in tone, it will be a perceptual aid…a psycho-acoustic means of enhancing the playing experience. I often derive comfort and pleasure according to the aesthetic sense that drives architectural designers to fit a new building with weathered brick and rusted metal rails.

The Value will Hang in with the Grit

This brings up an interesting issue. You may be aware that old coins drop in value if polished. It is the same with ancient cymbals from America, Turkey and China. Hardcore collectors pay far less for an old cymbal that has been polished to a gleam. I’m not a hardcore collector, meaning I use all my cymbals on gigs, but I agree that the worth of a cymbal is diminished by spit and polish, witness my story (above) about the old K Zildian that was “tainted by cleaning”.

hardware for chest of drawers from Hacienda Imports Pasadena

chemical patina on drawer handle, Hacienda Imports, Pasadena

Hardware and homewares outlets  sell “instant patina” packages/bottles. Follow the instructions and your bronze turns green, brown, or whatever you choose. With a little care and patience, the results can be convincing. I’ve used it recently on a Chinese-made cymbal and after one pass achieved the desired look and tone; the tone did measurably change. Do a search at cymbalholic.com and you’ll find a thread dealing with commercial patina products. My concern is that the metal may suffer the effects of over-oxidation: too much of a good thing. I’ve seen such “instant patinas” create a rust-like layer you’d have to chisel away. I’ve seen photos of cymbals, and also metal drawer handles for cabinets, and the results ain’t pretty. Some are okay, witness one of my favorite non-drum places to shop when traveling: Hacienda Imports in Pasadena.

Repairing Cymbals the Nodar Rode Way

Nodar Rode "Frankenstein" cymbal repair

Nodar Rode, founder of the now defunct Manhattan Drum Studios, is an expert in cymbal repair. His “Frankenstein treatment” for repairing damaged cymbals extends to bolts in the head, neck, and body. Nodar refers to such major surgery as “body and fender” work.  Any instance I’ve mentioned some solvent or stripper he’s warned me, “Leave the use of harsh chemicals to experts or you’re inviting big trouble.” We can simulate a patina by other, safer means.

Tape First

Tape does not create patina but you ought to try adhesive tape of some sort to gauge if subsequent measures will produce the desired result. After working up a patina, I often reapply tape…but require much less to do the trick.

I remember getting excited while interviewing Ralph Peterson for a MD Update. Ralph, in his usual forthright, ebullient manner, complained that it seemed unfair that guitarists can EQ to the room but drummers cannot. Ralph described how, in certain rooms—say ones with a lot of glass or tiles—he’d apply duct tape to the underside of ride cymbals to curb bothersome overtones. His “EQ strips” could be removed in a dead, carpeted venue. It wasn’t the first I’d heard of affixing tape to cymbals; I’d been doing it for years. But I like his way of expressing it and the inherent affordability.

Duct tape is preferable to masking tape, the latter which bonds to the surface quicker, leaving a residue that defies removal. On the other hand, session drummer Dave Mattacks, who rarely tapes a cymbal, in rare instances will apply a strip of masking tape, which he finds less drastic than duct tape.

My ideal duct tape used to come from a Chinese hardware store on Canal Street near Broadway. Two inches wide, it comes in my favorite color, deep forest green. I’ve yet to see this tape elsewhere in the world (Target stocks a nice turquoise) and, true to form, I have searched, literally, from occident to orient. Green tape against a gold cymbal is a treat for the eyes, if you buy the operating assumption. If you prefer red, the world is your oyster. You can find shades of red in hardware stores, crafts shops, and libraries.

My current favorite is a black tape, again about two inches in width. If it were available in but one color, hot pink, I’d still favor it because the muting is more subtle, yet more solid than masking tape, and you can tear it off a year later, from any surface other than cardboard, and residue is minimal. It costs an arm and a leg but mine, a kind gift from a government broadcast technician, is a couple of years old and still has a few pulls left on the roll.

When applying tape, it’s best to avoid the extreme edges of cymbals unless your intention is to muffle the cymbals for quieter practice. For that purpose, I’d rather go with HQ Sound Off cymbal mutes, or, as I did when we lived in high rise apartments, tape hand towels to my cymbals.

If you’ve never taped a cymbal it seems daunting. You have to pick and choose, to experiment. Above all, remember, you’re customizing your tone, not wrapping a fridge.  Begin with a short strip of tape mid-way between bell and edge. The logic is that the higher frequencies reside in the bell and close to the bell. One or two strips may not radically alter sustain and you may think you’ve achieved nothing. That’s why you ought to do careful before-and-after tests. What you haven’t altered in one way, you may have tweaked in another. Two small strips of tapes at the edge (not recommended), for example, won’t appreciatively alter harmonic content in the mid frequency range but it will kill sustain by a full second. Conversely two strips close to the bell will remove upper register zing.

First you must decide if you’re seeking sustain or overtone control—I’m well aware they’re intimately related and not totally amenable to isolation, meaning what you do to frequencies will affect sustain. And feel.

Traditional “tape freak” protocol suggests the application of an evenly-spaced tape pattern on the underside. For example, strips go at 10:00 and 4:00; if you require more, 8:00 and 2:00, and so on.

Taping What?

I do the following with great results. It helps me identify and map the frequencies inherent in a particular cymbal so that I can address these with adhesive tape. First I remove the cymbal from the stand and place it face-down on a carpet. It’s sort of unnerving the first time ’round: the bell looks up at you like a fish in a rowboat. Please put me back: this ain’t right!

With all tone muted, I tap in lines from edge to the bell and trace paths across the bow. It requires patience and you can’t do it casually if you want to reap rewards.

Pretend you’re one of the lonely souls who scours the beach with a metal detector. Tap with your customary stick. If you use three or four, don’t make a big deal of it. Just know how your tool works in a non-clinical setting.

You’ll learn a lot about cymbals if you’re new to the game. For example, if you tap the bell you’ll hear tinkling, high frequencies; near the edge, dead damp low tones.

If you hear traces of high frequencies or objectionable pitches (there is no right and wrong), mark the spot with a Sharpie pen or, better, in your memory and see a line through to the underside of the cymbal: that’s where you’ll place the tape. In the alternative, you can place tape on the top as you go at those points. Some drummers affix tape to the tops of their cymbals.

It’s quite literally touch-and-go. Add a 1X1” strip here, lift the cymbal off the carpet, tap it and let it ring. Listen closely. Back again. This way you have points of reference when deciding the extent to which you desire open or closed. It’s somewhat like placing your index finger of one hand in the center of a drumhead while you tap around the circumference when tuning. Somewhat like….

Continue in this manner until undesirable frequencies have receded but the cymbal still displays signs of life. Invariably I’ll locate strips nearer to the bell and bow of the cymbal, avoiding the edges from whence emanate the funky lows—generally speaking this would be the edge. The gig is up when I’ve determined the final resting place of 2 – 4 strips although NYC jazz drummer Ian Froman, a tape freak pal going way, way back, gets the desired effect employing up to nine strips of tape.

Ian Froman's Paiste ride with 8 tape strips

One of Ian Froman's Paiste rides w/ 8 strips of tape

And to confound it, I’ve been spitting distance from Bill Bruford when he’s placed a glob or two of Moon Gel on the top side of his Paiste ride.

end of part I


MORE PERVERSIONS AGAINST PERFECTLY GOOD CYMBALS IN PART II,
TO FOLLOW