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What are Crash Cymbals?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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There are two different instruments referred to as crash cymbals. One is a specific type of cymbal used singly in a drum set or drum kit. The other is a pair of cymbals used in concert and marching situations. We will discuss both here.

Concert or Marching Crash Cymbals. The crash cymbals used in orchestra and band ensembles and in marching bands are a matched pair of cymbals with straps that are held in the hands – hence the British name hand cymbals. Crash cymbals come in various diameters that are specified only as small (10–14” or 24–36 cm), medium (15–18” or 38–46 cm), and large (19–24” or 48–61 cm).

There are several different ways to play a pair of crash cymbals. One way is to clash them together and then hold them over the player’s head while they go through their slow decay. This would be the approach if a half-tie symbol were added to the notehead, or if the term let ring or laissez vibrer (l.v.) were used.

Alternatively, the crash cymbals can be deadened by damping the cymbals against the player's chest. If the term secco or choke indicates that the note is to be played very short, the cymbals are dampened immediately. It is also possible to hold one cymbal still and “swish” the other across it. One of a pair of crash cymbals may also be mounted or simply suspended by its strap and used similarly to the play in the context of a drum set or kit.

Crash Cymbals in a Set or Kit. A drum set or drum kit is usually minimally stocked with at least a set of hi hat cymbals, a crash cymbal, and a ride cymbal. It may also include a splash cymbal and/or a sizzle cymbal, as well as other specialty cymbals, such as a China or Chinese cymbal. Crash cymbal descriptions may mention the particular attack, decay, sustain, and release features that the cymbal has, as well as the volume it’s designed for. The sound may be described as bright, crisp, clean, warm, cutting, explosive, dark, complex, sharp, penetrating, glassy, full, and high or low.

There are some subtypes with names like fast crash, rock crash, power crash, and full crash. There are also variations in thickness, denoted by names like thin crash, medium-thin crash, and medium crash. Some crash cymbals are hand-hammered.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth , Writer
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Musical Expert, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.

Discussion Comments

By stl156 — On Jun 10, 2012

@JimmyT - I would say you may be partially right about whether the different types of cymbals matter. Like the article says, there are three main types of cymbals. If you listen to to percussion in enough songs, you can eventually start to tell which cymbal is the hi-hat, crash, ride, and splash. As far as manufacturing them goes, though, there's really nothing special. The larger cymbals just tend to have a fuller, longer lasting sound while the smaller ones are higher in pitch. On that point, yes, you need more than 1 or 2 cymbals usually.

On the other point, though, jazz players often just have a bare bones drum set with a couple of drums and one or two cymbals. Jazz players are usually considered to be among the best drummers, as well, so the number of cymbals doesn't necessarily make for a good drummer.

In the end, it all comes down to your style that will determine how many cymbals you actually need, but it's not unreasonable for a professional rock drummer to need upwards of 7 to 8.

By JimmyT — On Jun 10, 2012

Interesting article. I have always wondered why professional drummers in rock bands seem to have 16 crash cymbals when I would say only a couple would work just fine. The article talks about there being thick and thin crash cymbals, but does it really matter that much?

Whenever I listen to a band, the cymbals sound like cymbals. Can you really differentiate between which cymbal is the crash cymbal and which one is a splash cymbal and so on and so forth? Maybe I am just not sophisticated enough as far as listening to percussion goes.

Also, when a drummer is playing, can he really keep track of what all the different cymbals are and when they should be used? I always get the feeling that a lot of drummers now just have huge drum sets because it's the cool thing to have.

By cardsfan27 — On Jun 09, 2012

@matthewc23 - Good questions. I didn't play the cymbals very much when I was in band, but I should know enough to help you out.

As far as dampening the sound goes, the "professional" technique is to press the cymbals against your chest. I'm not sure that it really has a different effect. The only thing I can think is that if you brought the cymbals down to your legs, some of the sound might get lost behind the rest of the band. You can control the volume of the cymbals by either turning them toward or away from the audience.

As for using the crash cymbals as suspended cymbals, I don't think it would ever be used in a real concert, since suspended cymbals are readily available. When I was in marching band, though, we did it all the time. You can buy cymbals to attach to a snare drum, but it is much more flashy if you have the cymbal players come around to the snare drummers and let them use their cymbals like a ride cymbal.

By matthewc23 — On Jun 08, 2012

I don't think I had really thought about all the ways a regular set of handheld crash cymbals could be used to produce different sounds. Whenever I was in band, I remember most of the drummers dampening the sound by putting the two cymbals against the sides of their legs. Does this accomplish the same thing as putting them against you chest, or are they two different techniques?

I have also never seen anyone use a crash cymbal like a suspended cymbal. Is this common or is the article just talking in a general sense that the cymbals are still capable of being used in that way? It seems like since the handheld crash cymbals have the straps on them that they wouldn't be very good at being used as suspended cymbals. I haven't ever really played the drums, though, so I don't know.

By anon126869 — On Nov 14, 2010

I though it was quite good but the crash cymbals on a drum kit could have been described a lot better and not a vague way, which I found the description was.

Apart from that it was awesome.

Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth


Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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