Cymbals are thin discs of metal, typically bronze or brass, that are usually part of a drum kit. The first cymbals were developed along with the invention of bronze, around 3000 BC. These flattened discs were used for music, as a way to signal animals, for military communication, and as part of religious ceremonies.
Though the location of the first cymbal’s invention is unknown, Turkey became its adopted homeland, as artisans in the region perfected the necessary alloys which would not shatter even after being repeatedly struck. The most famous of these craftsmen is Avedis Zildjian I, who developed a unique mix of copper, tin, and small amounts of silver while attempting to create synthetic gold.
The fantastic sound of Avedis’ cymbals caught the Sultan’s ear, and he was invited to live at Topkapi Palace and produce his instruments exclusively for Turkish military musicians, known as the Janissary Bands. Eventually, the Sultan gave Avedis the surname Zildjian, which translates to "son of cymbal maker" in Armenian.
Finally, in 1680, the cymbal moved squarely into the realm of popular music with its inclusion in the opera “Esther” by German composer Nicolaus Strungk. Though well-known musicians like Haydn and Mozart would include the instrument in their scores, these parts were always written for pairs of cymbals to be clashed together. Over the next hundred years, the instrument spread among military bands but was rarely included in orchestral scores. However, toward the end of the 19th century, composers like Berlioz and Wagner began incorporating more complex cymbal arrangements, and experimented with single cymbals played with mallets or sticks.
Zildjian cymbals remained the most sought-after products, and the descendants of its original founder eventually relocated the company to the United States after Avedis III emigrated in 1929. Avedis III soon befriended jazz drummer Gene Krupa, who advised him to produce thinner cymbals that could be incorporated into a drum kit. (Today, the fifteenth generation of Zildjian heirs runs the family business, which is considered the oldest company in America.)
Most of the cymbals used in modern drum kits were developed during the jazz boom of the 1930s and '40s, though their common names wouldn’t be fixed until the '50s. These include the ride cymbal, which has a wide surface used for sustained rhythm; the hi-hat, made of two cymbals mounted one on top of the other; the crash, used for a loud, sharp burst of sound; and the splash, which is a smaller, higher pitched version of the crash. In the process of refining the best tools for a drum kit, other ideas were tried and discarded, like the clanger, a cymbal that was vertically mounted and struck with every beat of the bass drum.
The standard size of cymbals used by drummers also began to grow during the 1940s, from around 10 to 12 inches up to more than two feet in diameter. In the 1960s, as the influence of rock and roll spread, companies experimented with louder cymbals that could compete with amplified guitars and vocals, like Paiste’s “Giant Beat” series from 1965...
Still, the cymbal market wouldn’t grow significantly until the early '80s, when newer companies like Sabian, established by Robert Zildjian in Canada, expanded the limited selection of cymbals available. Throughout the '80s, many drummers also added the explosive tone of the China cymbal to their kits, a style developed in Asia with a raised, cylindrical center, originally allowing it to be handheld.