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The Cymbal Book

By Hugo Pinksterboer


The Cymbal Book is the first book of its kind. It details the 5000-year history and development of these fascinating instruments. Based on visits to all the major cymbal manufacturing companies and interviews with the world's leading drummers, journalist and drummer Hugo Pinksterboer has created a well-documented and readable 212 page book, featuring over 200 photos and a 16-page color photo section. It covers topics such as selection and testing, acoustics, ideas for set-ups, cleaning, and repair, and much, much more. Whether read for enjoyment or used as a specific reference guide, The Cymbal Book will answer every question on this subject. Published by Hal Leonard in 1992.

The following is excerpted from a review which appeared in Experimental Musical Instruments:

In many respects cymbals hold a unique place among widely-used musical instruments. They are among the simplest, being but a single piece of metal, with no moving parts. But percussionists will tell you that a cymbal is certainly one of the subtlest of instruments; that each cymbal, whether hand made or mass produced, has its own distinct personality; that the simple act of striking can take on a surprising depth of sensitivity. And then there is the famous "family secrets" business -- but we'll get to that in a moment.

The Dutch author Hugo Pinksterboer, clearly motivated by a love of his subject, has written this big, everything-you-always-wanted-to-know book about cymbals. It's a large-format paperback, attractive in layout, with lots and lots of black and white photos plus sixteen pages of color. The text ranges over cymbal history, acoustics, manufacture, care, and playing technique. The style is conversational and accessible.

Several aspects of The Cymbal Book are worth noting from an EMI sort of perspective. The historical sections touch upon several developments in the evolution not only of cymbals specifically, but of the drummer's kit in general. These are interesting from a purely musico-mechanical point of view (as in references to specific musical devices and how they worked). But equally enlightening will be the sense these episodes provide of the give and take between newly developing musical devices, the needs and desires of players, and evolving musical styles.

The sections on manufacturing processes also will be intriguing to EMI readers. Cymbal making is steeped in tradition. Modern manufacturing techniques including robotics and computer control are increasingly used, yet some manufacturers remain highly traditional, and all of them treasure and try to retain some of the spirit of the old ways. The book's author seems to have done a good job of investigating these things, visiting the major cymbal factories in Europe and the USA, speaking with workers, designers and management, and photographing wherever he was allowed. Especially with the older techniques, the cymbal-making process is a dramatic one, with disks of brass being fired in great, sooty, smoky ovens, and Pinksterboer comes away with some impressive photos.

The Cymbal Book's sections devoted to acoustics are in some ways frustrating. This is may in part reflect weakness in the writing, or in the author's grasp of the material (some of the terminology, for instance, is not well defined or deviates from standard usage). But it also reflects the nature of the subject matter. Pinksterboer, appropriately, approaches the topic primarily from a practical point of view: what factors effect the sound? But cymbals represent extraordinarily, complex, subtle vibrating systems, with countless factors at play, interacting in unpredictable ways. Anything one might say on the subject requires all sorts of qualifications, subsidiary explanations, consideration of additional variables, etc. Still, Pinksterboer manages to highlight salient variables in cymbal design, and to discuss, as well as circumstances allow, their acoustic effects.

The cymbals used in contemporary jazz and rock derive from a Turkish manufacturing tradition. The most highly regarded are made by a handful of companies which trace their history through family lines back to a single Turkish maker from the early 17th century. (Those companies bear the names Zildjian and Sabian, with Zildjian actually representing a couple of different operations at different times and places.) There is some folklore, not unlike that surrounding Stradivarius and the mysterious violin varnishes, regarding the manufacturing processes that the original maker employed. This is the famous secret, passed down orally and in strictest confidence from generation to generation within the Zildjian family. Pinksterboer represents that it's not just a myth; there really is a secret, and that it has something to do with the way in which the brass alloy for the cymbals is mixed. It's tempting to treat it all as some sort of magical alchemy; but who knows, maybe the secret is something terribly prosaic. Or maybe there's nothing of substance there at all, and it's pure silliness perpetrated on a gullible cymbal-buying public. Certainly there are other makers, not in possession of the secret, who have made good cymbals. Yet it is true that an awful lot of people regard cymbals bearing the Sabian or Zildjian names as best.

I can't resist mentioning how this family secrets business stands at odds with what EMI has been about from the start. EMI has managed to serve its purpose and make itself valuable to a lot of people precisely because individuals who had learned a bit from instrument making derived more pleasure from sharing their knowledge and seeing others make use of it than they did from jealous ownership.

And along related lines -- people interested in making their own cymbals who read the Pinksterboer book will find much of it discouraging, in that many of the processes described could not very well be done on a hobbyist's scale in a home workshop. Yet he also discusses cymbals which are not individually cast, but cut from sheet metal and cold-hammered -- processes which are much more do-able without requiring a large operation or special equipment. I myself have never made anything closely resembling a commercial cymbal, but I have fooled around with sheet metals in related applications. I've learned that it's really not so impossible to create satisfying cymbal-like sounds even if your name isn't Zildjian. One key I found is to use moderately thin sheets of very hard metals, like stainless steel. For the sake of simplicity, suspend them, gong-like, from the edges; add some rivets or equivalent set loosely in holes to add some sizzle; experiment with different sorts of beaters; have fun.

To sum up and close (getting back to the book at hand), Hugo Pinksterboer's The Cymbal Book is an enjoyable book on a most interesting topic; it's full of information, most of which seems pretty well grounded, and much of which would be hard to find elsewhere.


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