The fallacy of prophylactic cymbal case dividers, sleeves, and protective pockets is this: We hit the things. And then shelter them from same. It’s getting neurotic out there.

No scratching, no damage, K Zildjians in piles

There’s nothing wrong with this picture, I contend. I’m stacking cymbals, end of story. You should see my basement music room. It looks like this times 10.

After all, I strike them,  land solid blows across the bow—and for sure, if I’m more gentile I tip them and shank them. You see the thread that runs through this? If I’m going to strike them, and if they’re going to clash and otherwise mate with their fellows or with sticks, is it that important I should, immediately after use, place them into unique spots…pockets, sleeves….when transporting them or when they’re in repose at home? Protect them, especially the edges, yes, which are going to crack if I drop them from an altitude of 5-feet. But the rest is getting a little…well, read on.

Across the void to Freud

The line is thin. Frankly, I’m surprised to hear that drummers insist that when they cease slapping and their cymbals go silent, they ought to be stored in special cases equipped with dividers of various sorts to prevent them bodily contact. God forbid they rub shoulders on the band bus.

Seriously. Take the hi-hat pair, stress pair. It’s a pair, just as orchestral symphonic cymbals are paired, so we can slam them together. Furthermore, we identify various tenets of technique by the way kit and symphonic drummers slide the plates together, haul off and whack them Wagnerian style, allow them to kiss then choke them, or let them sizzle away.

In a word, they touch. They are meant to touch.

Yet…they are not allowed to touch whilst in the cymbal case?

I ain’t like that anymore”, Clint Eastwood, The Unforgiven

Actually, I was never like that, all prissy and protective with my cymbals. But every step of the way (especially when carting my high school band cymbals home, plus bass drum, a mile by foot) I’ve respected them, most times more than drums.

When my cymbals holding began to swell beyond the ones I could mount around my drumset, I’d place them at arms reach—against walls, never out of sight and always in mind. In a pinch I’m looking for a certain ride sound, I’m going to punch in the security code to unlock the case and extract the contents, first removing their inner covering?

Today, students are amazed at my cymbals. They line the baseboards in a silent parade, some of them standing erect, others slouching, all of them making physical contact.

Mind you, I don’t leave them flat on the floor and subject to someone walking on them, turning them inside out…which is not necessarily a death sentence but begs trouble.

And it’s not as if I get them for free. I resigned a Sabian deal when I started writing gear reviews for Modern Drummer in the mid-1990s (prior to that, it was seemingly hundreds of opinion pieces, studio “inside tracks”, covers, and columns), I reckoned it was wrong to receive free products from one company and render reviews (especially negative ones) of another. Get it: I gave up guaranteed free gear.

Roosevelt did so I do

The war years president—well, he didn’t play drums. This is a cheap ploy to get your attention and garner Google search attention. But it’s relevant. The man was confined to a wheel chair and it was a long haul from his cottage on Campobello Island, across the sloping lawn, and down a steep grade to the ocean front (Bay of Fundy). On many occasions I’ve visited the premises and trekked down to the pebble beach, which, if you’ve never seen one, is not all jagged and hard on the feet. The tide tumbles the rocks over the ages and polishes them.

When I view these beautiful, multi-colored stones (I collect them), I’m reminded of my cymbal collection. I’ve lost count after 100 and don’t have them properly inventoried or insured. Why insure a cymbal…an item so beautifully aged that you wouldn’t think of rubbing it with some cymbal cream and emits timbre and tone so distinctive that any insured loss would never add up to anything like the missing original?

Okay, so my cymbal collection, about half of it in view, resembles Roosevelt’s sea stones. Some are brown, some are green, all are mutant and beautiful.

If you want the truth, I’m as Freudian in my intent in collecting them and stacking them as you are in your prudent protection. Difference is, I play them and hate fiddling to find them. And like the high tides on Fundy, I’m always imaging the perfect one will wash up.

I leave them surrounding me so I can pick and choose in a moment. When rehearsing, and often when gigging, I’ll change ride cymbals—hell, I’ll change any cymbal at any given moment.

Man, if I had to retrieve those things from their repose in special cases, in which they sit pretty in polite, pristine pockets, I’d quit drumming. I’d rather take up another instrument than spend my time fretting the sheen.

What’s more, many a cymbal is made better for the wear. Who did I meet while interviewing for MD, Jeff Ballard or Adam Cruz? One of them showed me a cymbal that had been left under some water drain pipe and, accordingly, was drenched with acidic rain. Everyone agreed that the tone had improved not to mention undeniably funkier patina.

Then again, the prudish will claim that such wanton degradation not only breaks down something or other, maybe separates copper from tin (and, of course, traces of silver…ahem), and, besides, drags down the asking price when horse-traded on eBay or

If you don’t agree with me, thank you for reading this far. You may detect I’m a little tongue-in-cheek. I guess my concern is: How did we stray so far afield from the primary act of making music. And by extension, become obsessed with placing them in protective pockets?

I’m not talking about the sleeves we place on cymbal stand center rods, which are invariably threaded and which erode the center holes of all cymbals, irrespective of hardness.

There’s always a black sheep in every family: Ron Shannon Jackson showed me how he’d take of advantage of this erosion, add a little himself with a file, t o ensure during a quick set up he could situate his cymbals quickly according to the way they naturally fell.

Only an idiot spends good money then trashes his purchase

I understand that none of us are rich. I get it when you say you’ve just purchased a papery UFIP or Paiste Traditional or Sabian HH in the 10” to 12” diameter. Step on one of those suckers, and I just did because I’m loading for a gig as I edit this piece, and they turn inside out and, on a bad day, crack a good one. I can’t remember the last UFIP I bought—I think it was second-hand and most likely my Charlie Watts 18” flat, which he has never claimed or traded for vinyl albums as suggested, but I once reviewed a slew of the Italian cymbals, a new line, for Modern Drummer a decade ago, and can vouch that they’re expensive as the day is long. Are they worth it? I know a guy who buys such an item and, for one week or three, he’s jumping up and down extolling the virtues. Two months later, they’re up for sale at Dave’s Drum Shop. Don’t get me wrong, this guy—we’ll call him by his real name, Richard—is someone I rely on due to his finely honed ears. Point is that ears will frustrate even to the extent that you ride a cymbal at one side of a studio, in one corner, and it’ll be gorgeous and go to tape and flow like silver; place it out in the center, where most studios position drummers and the same cymbal sucks air. I guess my argument is one of sticker over sound, price tag over timbre.

Some cymbals are fragile. I protect them. But what about an 8-lb ride cymbal? At the airport, when you concede and allow them to stow it in baggage, when they screen it it will be fine at the other end of the journey. Those of you who travel know that a case marked “fragile: musical instrument” is submitted to a run-over with a forklift truck. In the case of the heavy ride, they lose a wheel.

Clean them…but don’t rub them?

It reminds me of Elvin Jones, who bucked conventional wisdom and, when he got around to cleaning them, rubbed his cymbals, in the direction of the grooves, with Comet or Ajax abrasive cleansers. To my knowledge he never suffered a ride worn down to the quick—eroded past the crust and into the softer interior that characterizes all good cymbals.

The greater issue, for me, is always that of choice. I seldom arrive at a session with less than 5 rides, 8 crashes, occasionally a splash or two, and several other cymbals falling into the cracks, just in case (got 2 puns in there and nobody noticed).

When packing for a recording gig, I’m acutely conscious of the the fact that some producer or artist is going to suggest a cymbal sound that I’m not going to be packing; so I try and cover the waterfront.

When I used to do jingles and freelance sessions, I think the least cymbals I brought to a date was 14, the maximum approximately 30.

They don’t make a single bag that carries that many cymbals. They make nice hard cases, such as my old Jamie Oldaker cymbal safe (re-introduced by Zildjian) wherein cymbals snug on a long center rod, like pancakes but with a rod that comes up through the pile. The cymbals are then put to rest by means of a bolt and washer.

I use this case to house my hundred year-old paper-thin Turkish K (made in Constantinople) splashes and a beautiful A Zildjian 13”, same vintage, which confuses the mic into thinking it’s a crash. I’m loathe to dump those sorts of cymbals casually or toss them like Frisbees. You look at these things and they crack. Obviously, it is our job to protect the vulnerable.

Most cymbals today are made to a standard whereby they’d survive at least one set in a punk environment. And these cymbals, even those designated as paper-thin, I throw into my funky old leather cymbal bag.

Most of my gigs are traveling across town or within a couple of hundred miles. I have no cartage; I’m driving my own gear in the hatch of a VW New Beetle. I fill it so tight I can barely close the trunk lid. So tightly that the entire rear section, with back seat rolled flat, acts as a case. At midnight if I’m taking the “fast way home” over unlit country roads on a moonless night and it’s pitch-black, something urban guys have never experienced, and I hit a porcupine or some other vermin (always hard to tell when it’s that dark) and the car jolts side to side and comes to rest on the shoulder, everything’s okay.

That’s exactly what I described to Modern Drummer managing editor Mike Dawson—in fact, described it in writing when reviewing a load of new Paist 602 and Giant Beat Thin cymbals. I knew Mike would edit it out the anecdote but I wanted him to smile, you know? What happened in this instance is that I struck an animal the size of a rackoon and thought I’d blown a tire and a wheel. The impact was that jolting. The vehicle took on a life of its own for a moment and I was lucky to avoid bodily harm. The cymbals rocketed around the back, one of them audibly slamming into the curved bullet proof back window violently.

You guessed it. No damage. My theory is that damage comes when you pack things too carefully. Ian Froman, an amazing New York City drummer spearheading the contemporary jazz movement, told me about an airport incident, in which he transported his Paiste Traditional set of prototypes and submitted them to baggage. He wasn’t concerned. He’d packed them into a Zildjian Cymbal Safe and ensured the inner bolt and the one outside the hardshell case were tightened down. He came home to I believe he said Newark and went to collect his baggage. The case was demolished, the thick steel center support rod bent. That’s a tricky act because the case is designed to conceal the center rod and the cymbals; the both are covered by tough poly-something.

I bet had Ian done what my friend Jon Christensen does, namely pitch his prized 22” older Turkish K extra-heavy into a padded case, hand it to baggage, and fly in peace, things would have fared better.

It’s always okay,” Jon tells me. “I don’t worry about things like that. No, honest, it never breaks. Many times, though, it’s been lost. But I know that it will find its way home and it always does!”

You strike it with stick you hammer it

When I’ve decided to keep a cymbal (as opposed to listing it on or eBay) I use it. I’ve talked to Sabian factory head Nort Hargrove about the effect of constant playing. That is, if I’m playing a cymbal almost daily/nightly for ten years, the effect might well be equivalent to another factory round of hammering!

As for maintaining a pristine finish, it’s nice to maintain the “brilliant” in a Zildjian A Custom 18” Thin Crash. Problem is, the deal about contemporary drumming (which harkens back to vaudeville) is to scrape and drag metal implements across the face of cymbals and upside the edges. I’m referring to found implements—and old dulled file or a pedal spring—or to commercially available striking devices such as those Vic Firth Dreadlock “brushes”.

Now this must work some drummers into a lather analogous to the suggestion they play the cascara on the side wall of the floor tom. Either way the possibility of scratching is ever present. Indeed, it is demanded.

Scratch them but don’t scratch them when you pack ‘em?

So what is the purpose of a divider in a cymbal case? I read a letter from a drummer somewhere, or maybe it was part of a cymbal review, the memory fails. But the point was that the drummer was concerned about placing a new “pre-aged” cymbal, one that comes from the factory all worn and unfinished and seeming to exude black metal shavings, against a “regular” finish new cymbal in the case.

In doing so, and in the absence of cymbal case dividing walls, there existed the distinct possibility that the shinier cymbal might contract leprosy.

And that’s basically the deal about dividers, in my opinion, which in no way reflects those of the publisher or editors….I apologize in advance to cymbal companies and to the many drummers I respect who insist on cymbal case dividers. I’m afraid we must part ranks on this one issue.

My only concern is the bottom—especially the bottom—of my cymbal case. I’ve reinforced the underside of my old blonde leather cymbal case as many times as had the straps re-riveted to the sides. And I’ve had shoemakers reinforce the sides, too. The damage, as I see it, comes from direct, blunt force trauma at 90-degrees to the edge of our bronze plates.

By all means, segregate your cymbals if your system permits this. Or, you know, place the darker ones at the back or something.

As for me, my cymbals rattle around on the journey to the gig and home, jolting together and sometimes loudly exclaiming, sort of like when you ride one of those things at the county fair—bumping cars, maybe? Roller coaster? Only time I ever tried one of those, I got really sick.

As with fairground death defying rides as with cymbals, rarely does anything adverse happen.

Nobody dies. Any scratches are implicit in the purpose of the instrument.

I think drummers should lighten up on the matter of dividers, sleeves, and pockets. Get out and play more and do with cymbals what God intended. I mean, I’ve never interviewed him or Mr Peart but I’m told that The Creator instructed his disciples to celebrate the joyous clatter. I may be wrong but it is my opinion that God intended cymbals to be struck and clashed.

Furthermore, it is written that should an unrighteous scar appear, it shall be removed by means of steel wool for 40-days and 40-nights. In the direction of the lathe grooves.

I’d rather not suffer that punishment. I’d rather gig ‘em instead.

T Bruce Wittet September 8, 2012, article & pic copy written: international rights secured