The 21 best, most innovative and functional cymbals of all time according to T Bruce Wittet

Paiste Artist Profiles orange book 1975, John Bonham page

Paiste 1975 "orange book", page showing Bonham's set up

Hold onto your (hi-) hats. Get ready for a surprise or two—and a shock. Here’s your Christmas list of cymbal delights.

Print it out and go shopping at pawn shops and second-hand instrument shops. Note that I’m intentionally sneaking a few oddities, downright cheap cymbals (inexpensive ones, too) into the tally just to yank your chain.

Best cymbals? As Bob Henrit said years back in Rhythm magazine, there’s no such thing: “there are no bad cymbals”.


Quite right but there’s a hierarchy of good, better, and best and I reserve the right to tag them. The following once tallied 50 but I’ve chopped it down to create controversy and get drummers thinking. Don’t be aggrieved if your personal favorite goes unmentioned. We can do another list. Maybe you’ll get a thread going at the great cymbal site http://www.cymbalholic.com/ or you’ll explain your own selections to me. Send me a post card, drop me a line, stating point of view: tbrucewittet@gmail.com

Pro Cussion Flat Ride like Charlie Watts'

Pro Cussion 18" Flat Ride...like Charlie Boy's

Should you be lucky and stumble on a number of these, you’ll be delighted to learn that several are selling for under $50. It’s simply a matter of knowing what you’re looking for.

I’ve purposely excluded the old Turkish-made K Zildjians. For one thing, it’s extraordinarily difficult to cite, for example, any one “medium ride”. Weights might vary from 3.75 to 7 pounds on that one cymbal! I bought a few new just as the factory was closing circa 1977. There was a tiny ink stamp (as there were on many latter day Turkish Ks) that read medium. The cymbal was so thin I used it exclusively as a rock crash. It worked a charm and it appears on several vinyl albums—when the producer would tolerate a monstrous rumbling.

K Zildjians and A Zildjian living in harmony, Gretsch catalog 1949

The last time A Zildjians and Turkish-made K Zildjians were on the same page

If you’re into old Ks, I suggest heading over to cymbalholic.com. There’s some genuine expertise over there. I know a little bit myself but I’m not going to encourage highway robbery: the prices are absurdly high. Let he who is without guilt cast the first stone: I sold a 22” Turkish K, probably mid-1960s, audible on the new Regals CD (in fact, it’s all over the mix like a rash: I loaned it to the other drummer on the date) for fully $2000. The purchaser didn’t even bat an eye. Enough of that, hie thee to cymbalholic for your “K fix”.

The top 21 cymbals in the last 50 years

Sabian 1980s Sound Control 15" crash cymbal

Sabian '80s 15" Sound Control: top of Christmas list?

  1. Avedis Zildjian 20” Medium Ride: the staple of the modern drummer irrespective of era. he weight and the wide variation were such that the cymbals caught on with players diverse as Buddy Rich and Ginger Baker. This was a desert island cymbal, still is. If on your island old Ks were hard to find, you might be able to find that darker tah in an A medium.
  2. Sabian 15” Sound Control crash (red label): Didn’t know there was a red label version of the Sound Control, the Sabian series originated in the 1980s featuring a flat lip on the circumference? I own one in brilliant finish and other drummers’ jaws drop when they hear this. One engineer calls it my “Nashville crash”, a compliment in that the modest-diameter, extra-thin B20 alloy disk is remarkably complex in overtones and amazingly smooth and balanced in decay. While the narrow, hammered “lip” was said to gate decay, on this cymbal it lowers the fundamental pitch, thus fooling the mic into believing this 15” cymbal is a 17”!
  3. Zildjian Symphonic Traditional 22” (hand cymbals): I love these, heavy as all get out, and so replete is diverse overtones it’ll be a week from next Thursday and I’ll discover something new. I’ve explained this phenomenal cymbal elsewhere on tbw.com. Just to reiterate, the series is still with us (the 17” is killing…they all are) but the 22” has been discontinued. Drop a 22” 8.5 lb cymbal on your toe—if, in fact, you can hold them up long enough to wait 64 measures to smack ‘em together—and you’ve lost a good friend.
  4. Avedis Zildjian 17” medium-heavy, brilliant or regular finish; a personal favorite and one used by an early idol, Connie Kay. I bought one of these circa 1974, believing I’d discovered what John Bonham used on “Stairway to Heaven”. What the hell, I was only 7” off! Mine was stamped A Zildjian, Made in Canada. This means that the cymbal came out of the “red barn” factory that would later become Sabian Ltd. If you’ve never tried a 17” ride, you’re in for a treat. There’s surprising depth here and I retained this ride until around 1977, complete with a long black, sulfurous scar—the result of me striking a wooden match across the lathe grooves. Back in those days you were encouraged to smoke, even on stage. No cymbal cleaner or solvent was successful in removing that blemish. Which kind of amuses me because the sound was not affected one way or the other; it remained a great cymbal. I read about drummers seeking to separate their cymbals by means of dividers in cymbal cases to avoid scratching and trauma. As anal as I am when it comes to cymbals, I’ve never been concerned about scar, welt, or blotch.
  5. Paiste Traditional Medium Ride 20”(or perhaps the Trad 22” light proto). Forget all your Paiste 602 Medium Rides in jazz context and go for the Trad medium, or the medium-thin, come to think of it. This is the money shot. At the time of its debut, it was arguably the closest ride closest to the old Turkish-made K Zildjian with its archetypical dry tang with a rich underbelly. Although the tip was a little more brittle than certain legendary Ks, it gained that its ping without sacrificing the caw of the stick laid parallel to the bow.
  6. A Zildjian Deep Ride. A marvelous low-profile, mystical ride cymbal that offered the articulation inherent in a heavier cymbal with the dark utterance of the Turkish K. I’ll never forget the first time I heard one in the flesh: in Burlington, VT at a venue called Hunts. Dave Mattacks played the heck out of one, not to mention his ability to make an 18” Yamaha bass drum sound and feel like a 24”. This was one of Richard Thompson’s last gigs with Linda Thompson and separation was in the air. The Deep Ride was in a class all its own and while Zildjian figured the onslaught of new American-made Ks would render it redundant…they didn’t. The Zildjian Deep Ride confirmed my suspicion that a cymbal could be at once heavy in weight, full in tone.
  7. Paiste Formula 602 Dark Ride. At one point, around the time when the Paiste Profiles of International Drummers was published, the 602 Dark Ride was the Holy Grail of cymbals in my opinion. It was a thick, heavy, cratered like the lunar surface owing to extensive machine and hand hammering. I first saw one in the flesh when interviewing Jack DeJohnette circa 1978 for MD (my first MD feature). Jack told me that he’d collaborated in the development of the Paiste Dark Ride, which was a rare cymbal that succeeded in combining bright stick attack highs with exotic, dark undertones. There was no trash in this one nor was there a lot of build up. I wrote to Paiste, half hoping they’d loan me one for review purposes, and one of the brothers sent me a letter stating that to enjoy fully the Dark Ride, I’d need to play thicker sticks and with considerable force. His take on me was that I’d probably prefer the 602 22” Medium Ride! Ah well. The suckers were expensive and each time I’d see one I’d be penniless, so it was probably just as well.
  8. Meinl Sand Ride in the expanded 22” version: as broad a palette as anything out there. Benny Greb worked with Meinl on this ride and I thoroughly enjoyed the way it took to my broadside push-crashes.
  9. Avedis Zildjian 15” Flanged Hi-Hats: No longer made, as far as I can tell, these were clanky and gruff, partially on account of the flattened circumference “lip”, a bit of a trend at the time (late 1950s through 1960s?), manifested in ~ rides as well. That hammered lip on the bottom cymbal was intended to provide plenty of edge contact such that the cymbals would “mate” and “kiss” intimately. For me the jury was out on that one: I never noticed any enhancement with regard to optimizing the “fit”, but I enjoyed the funkier, deeper pitch and unique timbre that would sit well in the singer-songwriter milieu, particularly the 15” pair. Zildjian Flanged hats were not the picture of cool jazz, nor did they make inroads in hard rock. Thing about the flanged bottom is that it permitted a wide variety of toppings, analogous to the later Paiste rippled Sound Edge bottom; thus, if somebody tries to sell you a pair of Flanged Hats that don’t seem to work for you, talk them down from the $85 asking price by demonstrating the ill-fated union and Hoover them. I guarantee that you’ll quickly find an alternate top cymbal that’ll make the bottom shine, as it were. You’ll feel like the illegitimate offspring of Matts Chamberlain and Cameron conjoined with Ginger Baker.
  10. Paiste 2002 China Type: The fuss this made when it hit the market still echoes in some quarters, directly proportionate to the rebellion against Eagles’ style muted drums. The shape, the pill bottle bell disposition, the fact that it mounted right-side-up or the other way and would deliver a shotgun blast or an out-chorus cushion appropriate for “New York, New York”, established the Paiste 2002 China Type as a benchmark for western China type cymbals. It could be bold and it could be meek. Either way, particularly the latter, you’d drill them with 8 rivet-holes an inch away from the outer edge, evenly-spaced. You will get many opportunities to install, or yank out, your brass split-end rivets—real rivets that you pry open by means of needle-nosed pliers and not those brassy office fasteners.
  11. Paiste Formula 602 18” Flat Ride (maybe even the 20” model): Albert “Tootie” Heath, quoting another famous drummer, recounted to me the line, “I ain’t gonna play no cymbal without breasts”, referring to the absence of even an A-cup protruding proud of the flat surface. Speaking of which, I could have sworn I saw Tootie playing a Paiste flat ride but the Paiste Orange Book claims he used a 20” 602 medium, not that that book is comprehensive or gospel. For example, it claimed that Jon Christensen played Paiste cymbals, including the Dark Ride, which led me on a chaotic path to acquire one, only to discover decades later that Jon never bothered with them on all those ECM jazz recordings, relying instead on his trusty 22” old Turkish K. At any rate, the Paiste 602 flat ride may be an example of an instance in which in-house cast B20 alloy (Zildjian, Sabian, Wuhan) takes second place to sheet B20 obtained from a German supplier. My theory as mentioned in my diary was (as in the Mini-Cup, coming up shortly) protruding above the nearly level surface. Truth is, this cymbal owed its politeness to the sheet B20 alloy as much as to the missing bell. It’s one of those instances in which the precious, in-house casting of B20 bronze (ie, the 602 series were formed from sheet B20 obtained from an outside supplier) may have been overkill. In the Paiste 602, all the elements were mixed in exquisite proportions that prompted bandleaders, who hate cymbals, to proclaim, “this was a cymbal!” I owned a couple of these and disposed of them in irrational bouts of horse-trading. They were good cymbals, suitable for creative music of all sorts, witness a drummer I inteviewed for Modern Drummer, Marty Morell, who, along with Aldo Romano, drew signature tones and expression from the flat surface, into which they’d install rivets. Marty showed me his and it was humming nicely. I own what I believe is an equally good, if not greater cymbal (by virtue of a slight bump in projection), a 20” modern K Constantinople flat…it resembles the 602 a teeny bit… but if you find a Paiste 602 in an 18” or 20” diameter, you won’t be disappointed. It makes an obscene (in a good way) dry as dust crash, incidentally. Oh yeah, the great Swiss drummer, Peter Schmidlin has used one to good effect; then again, Peter touches a tin plate and makes it sound exquisite.
  12. Zildjian Rock Ride/Sabian Rock Ride: 21”: these run neck in neck. I’ve owned both and favor neither. They are excellent. I played one with a touring guy named Eugene Smith, who’d come up to Canada from, I don’t know, Philly or Baltimore, and, although his dynamic range was vast, he liked to keep the volume down so he could pick away gently on his 4-string guitar. You wouldn’t think a first choice ride would be a rock ride but damn if it didn’t work perfectly, foiled to its right by a 20” Turkish K thin. The rock ride features a fairly high profile and substantial weight, though it’s no bullet proof plate; and the bell is wide and stands proud of the surface. The possibilities inherent in such a cymbal are endless, given it responds to a flick of a wire brush as credibly as a steady beating from a Firth 3A American Classic, with its thick throat: used to love that combo, stick vs cymbal.
  13. Paiste 2002 24” Ride: Unlike its predecessors, the Giant Beat and the Formula 602, this one delivers on all fronts: over all presence, width of the stick tip ping, crash potential (if you were a glutton for punishment or spiteful towards the singer), bell tone, and a vague “shimmering” quality, which I found absent in the original Giant Beat. To me, that whole thing is fashion and folly—the reissues, with the exception of the 602, which are gorgeous. At any rate, speaking of the 24”, the only cymbal that comes close, at least speaking rock music, is the Paiste 3000 series 24” as played by Cozy Powell, a brilliant, one-off drummer you ought to investigate. He went into considerable detail when I interviewed him, describing the “warmth” of the 3000 vs the 2002. Beautiful guy, great car racer—guess how he died…..
  14. Bosphorus Stanton Moore Trash Crash 20”, a cymbal I referred to in my Modern Drummer review as a “party animal”. I ought to have said “party crasher” in the manner of John Belushi, who, in one SNL skit burst uninvited into the living room of a quiet home and lingering a little too long. Matter of fact, that’s what I like about the Trash Crash: it’s not like a China cymbal mounted upside down, meaning all attack and no sustain. It’s more cymbal than vaudeville effect and offers a real, retro dark crash—with a particularly brutal onset. The review cymbal, as I recall, boasted 10 clusters of intensely hammered “craters”, which no doubt disrupt any “linearity” of harmonics and curb sustain while lowering the fundamental pitch. When I hung with Stanton briefly, his T-Crash had hung with him for a few years and was looking funky. This may be, in part, attributable to his customary “lemon wash”. He does this to darken the appearance of his new cymbals, giving them a more natural patina than other methods. Since I last saw Stanton, I’ve tried rubbing slices of lemons on certain cymbals and it works a charm if you apply at least twice and give it overnight to “cure”. Enough to make a man reconsider the old shoe polish trick. Back to the crash, it’s an example of how trash can be treasure. I ought to add a footnote: the Bosphorus Stanton Wide Ride, 20”, is a keeper, as well. It’s one of the closest modern examples to old Turkish cymbals, especially the last batch prior to the closing of the Istanbul factory. I’m talking complexity of overtones, the rich trash available, and the appearance even. It bears a striking resemblance to a 20” K I bought new in the bag the day after I lost a drum kit in a hotel fire. A friend tells me that someone on a forum declared I was in bed with Zildjian or, maybe, Sabian. Fine and dandy but if I owned a king size I’d invite this Bosphorus (and a couple from the Gold series) to join us under the covers.
  15. Sabian Ozone: is it a crash or is it rash? It’s dry but not thin, unsettling but not harsh, fat but not smothering (are we having fun yet? Allow me one more…) wet but not washing everything away. The holes harken to an earlier Zildjian effects cymbal but the Sabian Ozone, with its large-hole configuration combined with weight and profile, is magical. It’s extremely versatile. Aside from playing peekaboo with children, you can use it as a thin ride (if your aim is true), China but with greater sustain, and even as an orchestral suspended cymbal; with mallets it’s particularly satisfying. I’ve never owned one but I’ve played Ozones at the various trade shows and drum shops and I’ve yet to hear one that sounds unconvincing or “thin”. Legend is that Nort Hargrove, Sabian vice-president of manufacturing, installs the holes in each Ozone personally, putting his marksman skills, and a 44 Magnum, to good use in the woods out back.
  16. 10” UFIP splash. Nobody makes splashes like UFIP. You can say what you want about the Italian company’s crashes and rides—and it’s mostly positive talk—but, man, their splashes are like butter. The only thing I own that comes close is World War II -era K Zildjian, brilliant, which I could bend in two and then again; but the cracks in the bell would probably fan-out and that’d be the end of it. I used it on an album session recently but, honestly, I’d have been as happy with a UFIP.
  17. A Zildjian 15” Splash: I owned a couple and finally got rid of the last one, given I owned a couple of other cymbals that did the trick for me. This one, yes, marked clearly Splash, despite its larger 15” diameter, displayed hammering/lathing patterns revived in the Zildjian Armand and vintage series. You strike it, it’s all there, no stragglers, and it’s in frequencies that aren’t harsh or obtrusive. In the studio, it often passed as a 16”, 17”, or 18” crash: the mic doesn’t know.
  18. Istanbul Agop 22” 25th Anniversary Ride: now this is the way they used to be before companies blotted the face of cymbals with silk screened logos and designations and hydraulically pressed cymbals into shape. Cymbal to cymbal variations aside, this is the old K I revered, although often couldn’t use due to inherent volume limitations. This is the cymbal lathed like the ones from the fifties, hammered like the ones from way back, and cupped with mutant, sometimes not quite dead center bells that didn’t always beckon you to play mambo. This is the real old Turkish K, in my opinion—one era of misshapen, erratically hammered old Turkish Ks (as opposed to the Stanton Moore Wide Ride, above, which is more like a 1970s Turkish K). The crash ain’t quite right and the right ain’t quite there, in your face, and that is the point.
  19. 24” Zildjian K Custom Dry Complex Ride (ie Series II; ties with 22” KCDC Ride seriesI): audacity and brilliance courtesy of the collaboration of Bill Stewart and Paul Francis, Zildijan cymbal designer. The cymbal has been recently yanked from the catalog, further testimony to its greatness in an era in which Celine Dion outsells The Roots. This cymbal is my go-to, speaking the 20” mainly, although for truly creative projects it might be the 24”. The only thing close is the Agop Matt Chamberlain 23” and I can’t speak to it but can affirm that the Zildjian is a spitting image of a couple of old cymbals I’ve owned, Turkish made, bumped-up (in profile), rides that offer readily a tah, not a ping, and a bell that doesn’t ring but sends you rangy. One false move with even a skinny stick and you set off this extra-thin ride like pin on a balloon. You learn to play this cymbal, with bead or butt, and bless you if you come close to the dynamic range Bill Stewart exhibits on his chosen instrument. This is art, not craft; although it can easily sound like crap in the wrong hands. Did I mention that the populace has put their money where there mouth is and this cymbal has been discontinued?
  20. Dream 22” Bliss Ride: it’s flatter than the original series 22” Sabian HH, which were flat rides but for the addition of bells. But you take the Chinese method, which involves hammering out bronze, some of which I’m convinced exceeds the industry B20 bronze standard, possibly to extremely brittle B23 on a good day, then stress the metal unreasonably, and you get a special hiss. The fact that Dream has perpetuated the seemingly untenable Bliss series commends the company, particularly Andy, who really knows his stuff. Actually, I almost prefer the Dream first-series 22” Contact Ride, as reviewed in MD.
  21. Your choice: A 22” Krut budget cymbal carrying a $32.00 sticker in 1971? A Super Zyn? A Sabian Manhattan or DeJohnette Series II Encore China? What’s your desert island ride? My Sabian/North Hargrove prototype 23” flat ride multi-surface, Rob Wallis’s 22” prototype Zildjian ride, unlathed top, lathed bottom (“very dry”), Jim Keltner’s Paiste 22” Rough Ride with 18-rivets (my choice, not his), 1960s 22” hammered ride stamped simply “Japan” (I gave my editor, the late Bill Miller, a full set of these, plus replacements for the ones he bent out of shape, and he reported they were the talk of the east coast club circuit), 13” Sabian AAX heavier Studio Hats,  mid-1970s Tosco 18” crash…hmmm. I’ll add more later. The Istanbul Agop 23” Matt Chamberlain Signature…hell, or the Agop Lenny White Eon Ride, which I reviewed for MD; that was cool. Zildjian A Custom Medium Ride…. Maybe you can’t narrow it down to the top 21. Leaves us room for more in a later entry.