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Make it Shine! A Drummerís Guide to Cymbal

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Make it Shine! A Drummerís Guide to Cymbal

Clean cymbals under bright lights can be the most eye-catching instruments on the stage.  They also often represent the largest portion of a drummer's gear budget.  It is, therefore, no surprise that many drummers go to great lengths to keep their cymbals as shiny and new-looking as they can.

Other drummers never clean their cymbals, preferring to allow their instruments to age and patina naturally.  In fact, some jazz musicians will pay huge sums for “Old K's” because they appreciate the mellowing of sound that results from years of accumulated copper oxide, stick residue and dirt! 

For the rest of us, cleaning our cymbals is a way to keep them looking and sounding the way they did when we first fell in love with them!

Hand Washing with Soap and Water

If your cymbals have no signs of excessive dirt or corrosion, a bath in lukewarm water with a small amount of detergent should make them look new again.  Be sure to wipe them in the direction of the “tonal ridges” [lathing], and rinse and dry them thoroughly.  If you are diligent about wiping the dust and finger-prints off your cymbals every time you use them, this may be the only maintenance you ever need to do. 

Hand-washing with soap and water is safe for all cymbal types as long as you remove all the moisture and soap residue before putting them away.

Acid-based Cymbal Cleaners

Some finger-prints and stick-marks may resist cleaning with simple soap and water.  In these cases, consider using an acid-based cymbal cleaner

Acid cleaners work because cymbals are made of bronze – an alloy of copper, tin and various trace metals. When exposed to air and moisture, bronze will form a thin coating of copper oxide on its surface.  Copper oxide dulls the look of the cymbal and traps dust, dirt and the oils on its surface. 

If you search “cymbal cleaning” on the internet, you will undoubtedly encounter many articles and videos from well-meaning drummers who will encourage you to employ various household ingredients (lemons, ketchup, cola, - even toilet bowl cleaner!) for this purpose.  These home remedies will work to varying degrees, but never as well as a commercially manufactured cleaner.* (Acidic foods also require much more rinsing to remove the unwanted protein and sugar residues they leave behind.)

Acids (including the acetic acid in ketchup or the citric acid in lemons) break down the copper oxide, allowing you to remove it and the dirt trapped inside it. 

There are four things to keep in mind should you decide to employ an acid-based cleaner:

1.  Most cymbal manufacturers spray a thin coat of lacquer over their instruments to prevent oxidization.  Using strong acids can damage that protective coating.  If you are dealing with a new cymbal, it is best to avoid harsh cleaners until soap and water are no longer effective.

2.  Although commercial cymbal cleaners are much more effective than the “home remedies” mentioned above, they are caustic, and should be used only in accordance with the instructions on their labels.

3.  Acid-based cleaners are most effective on “brilliant” cymbals such as Sabian's AAX and Zildjian's A Custom cymbals.  It may be less useful on “natural lathed” and unlathed cymbals.  It can also radically change the colour of older cymbals that have never been cleaned with acid before. (This is especially true of B8 alloys!) You should test your chosen product on a small area under the bell of the cymbal before applying it to the entire surface. 

4.  If you are a drummer who takes pride in the logos on your cymbals, be cautious when using a commercial cleaner.  It is easy to fade – or completely erase – the logos from your cymbal if you clean them aggressively with strong acids.

EGs of Acid-based Cleaners Available at Long & McQuade:

Meinl MCP

Sabian SSSC1

Zildjian P1300 

Hand Polishing

If you are trying to remove heavy oxidization, years of ground-in dirt, dried tape residue, or other stubborn marks from your cymbal, then acid-based cleaners may not be enough.  This is especially true if you are dealing with a cymbal that has deep tonal grooves, such as Meinl Byzance, Sabian AAs or Zildjian As and Ks.

Polishing is the use of abrasives to physically remove a thin layer of the bronze and its accompanying dirt and oxidization.

As with strong acids, polishing will remove the layer of protective lacquer on the cymbal, and there is a very strong possibility that it will remove the company logos as well.

The safest way to polish a cymbal is to manually apply a product specifically designed for the task. Use a clean towel, wiping in line with the tonal grooves.  You may need to use some serious elbow grease to get your desired results, but if you work carefully and rinse the polishing compound thoroughly afterwards, you are unlikely to do any serious damage to your cymbals.

Outsourcing/Mechanical Polishing

If your cymbals need serious polishing, there are a number of professional cymbal polishing services available. 

Many of them employ machines specifically built to clean cymbals.  The machine spins the cymbal, allowing the operator to apply more aggressive polishing compounds and/or sanding blocks to remove material from the cymbal's surface. 

Although these methods are extremely effective, they will remove ALL the printing from the cymbal.  (Some of the more established services may offer to re-apply your logos for a nominal fee.)

Given the amount of material being removed, there is a good chance that you will hear a noticeable change in the cymbal's pitch once it is cleaned.  There may also be a slight change in the cymbal's overall “complexity” or “shimmer” due to flattening of the tonal ridges.

These services are relatively inexpensive, but require you to entrust your cymbals to another person.  Be sure to research the company, read all of their online reviews and always take proper precautions when sending your valuable instruments through the mail!

Finally:  There are also plenty of internet videos depicting the use of automotive polishes and hand-held polishing and sanding tools.  Be extremely cautious if you consider using power tools of any kind on a naturally-lathed cymbal. That type of abrasion is very likely to flatten the tonal ridges of the cymbal, reducing the complexity of the cymbal's sound, or even changing its fundamental tone.  You should only use those types of techniques as a last resort!

(If the look of the cymbal is more important to you than its sound, you should consider trading in your traditional cymbals for some brilliants BEFORE you pick up that sander!)

It is up to you

Whether or not you clean and polish your cymbals is as personal a choice as the heads you select, the sticks you use, and the music you make.  If you do decide to clean your cymbals, start slowly and learn as you go.  You may be surprised how easy it is to restore them to their original lustre and shine!


Tony Bouma (“Tony B.”) is a drummer, martial artist and painter living in Southwestern Ontario. In his 25-plus years behind the kit, he has backed numerous rock, blues and country acts on local and regional levels.

Keywords: cymbalcymbalsbrass cymbalscymbal cleanercymbal cleaningpolishescleanerssabianzildjianzildjian AAspaiste

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