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Cleaning Cymbals Is SO Mainstream... Or, Is It?

Drumming is a controversial profession, passion or hobby, with never-ending debates over the best kind of drums, drumming style and who should make the “ Top 10 Drummers of All Time” lists across the Internet. Because drummers are unique, polyrhythmic thinkers, there is no doubt that when a dozen drummers are asked a question, there will be a dozen different answers. The diversity that is innate to each drummer could be why there are so many different styles and types of cymbals out there, each bringing its own nuanced sound into the groove, with perhaps no two sets of cymbals exactly alike (just like drummers!). But, for each shiny, brassy, grungy or jazzed up cymbal we see, there is a different theory on how to clean cymbals… or even if cymbals should be cleaned at all.

Most quality cymbals are made from a copper and tin alloy, commonly called bronze. Copper is highly resonant and malleable, making it much more desirable for its musical purpose in terms of the manufacturing and playability of the cymbal. The alloys in cymbals can also contain other trace metals, including silver and nickel, and even some low end or beginner cymbals are constructed from brass (copper and zinc). That being said, the longer-lasting instruments are typically made from bronze, even those with a “brassy” or brilliant finish.

The brilliant finish of a cymbal will change over time and can become dirty or corroded due to environmental factors, handling the cymbals or just through regular play. Since cymbals contain a high amount of copper, when a cymbal is aged, it may start to turn darker or green, much like a penny. The oils in our hands, oxidation or the degradation of the cymbal’s clear coating are mostly to blame for the discoloration, and that same discoloration can affect the sound of the cymbal. This is usually where the cleaning debate begins, as many drummers prefer the warmer sound that a dirty cymbal brings versus the blazing shine of a brilliantly finished (and spotless) cymbal, which can actually have a flatter tone.

For everyone who appreciates the cleanliness of a cymbal, either visually or because of tonal qualities and nuances, there are different methods and/or products available to get your cymbals back into the same shape in which you bought them. Household items, general cleaning products and cymbal-specific cleaners are all available to try out and find out what works best. Just remember, any cymbal that is cleaned will begin to lose some of its natural defenses (clear coat) through the action of cleaning, just as it will through the natural aging process.

Household suggestions for cleaning cymbals include:

  • Toothpaste.
  • Baking soda.
  • Ketchup.
  • Fresh lemons.

Each of these works as either an acidic cleansing agent, or through very light, abrasive motion. Many, many drummers swear by the ketchup or lemon methods of cleaning cymbals: apply generously, let the cymbal sit for a while, rinse or rub off gently.

Suggested general products for cleaning cymbals include:

  • Brass polish (Brasso).
  • Bar Keeper’s Friend.
  • WD-40.
  • Windex.

Each of these products, and others, are fiercely debated in the drumming world because of the residual effect of each solvent and surfactant in the products and the varying effects on the sound and lifetime of the cymbal.

Other/Professional cymbal cleaning products:

  • Zildjian, Meinl, Sabian & Paiste all have cymbal cleaners.
  • Groove Juice, Buckaroo, Never Dull, etc.
  • Mild soap or baby shampoo.
  • Water.

Cymbal manufacturers will always recommend their own products for cymbal cleaning, especially considering they are developed specifically for the alloy and finish on those cymbals. Aftermarket cymbal cleaners are also good choices in order to take advantage of professional trial-and-error in the development of the cleaners. Of course, a light soap or a simple wipe with a moist cloth can gently remove dust and light dirt, which could be just enough clean for anyone's taste.

No matter what it is that you choose to clean your cymbals, always test out the product or cleaner on a small spot on the cymbal, or on a cymbal that is no longer in use in order to get an idea of what to expect when using the different cleaning options.

When you finally go to clean the cymbals, regardless of what is used to clean, remember that a cymbal is a delicate instrument that is manufactured specifically to produce its unique tone, over/under tones, decay and more. A cymbal is created on a lathe, with ridges and grooves so small, they can be hard to see, especially on a “brilliant” finish. The ridges will break down over time, causing the corrosion that many want removed or cleaned, yet, in the process of cleaning, it is possible to damage those same ridges or the pantina of the cymbal permanently, as well as the imprinted logo (if that is a concern to the drummer).

Other cautions for cymbal cleaning:

  • Logos can come off with any cleaner or cleaning product.
  • Scrubbing the cymbal harshly or using steel wool can damage the instrument’s shape or alloy.
  • Using abrasive cleaners (comet, ajax) can also cause damage.
  • Always wipe/clean the cymbal with the grain of the cymbal (no small circles or "sections," no straight lines from the bell to the edge of the cymbal).
  • Remove all cleaning products with a damp cloth after cleaning in order to reduce further degradation of the pantina or alloy.

Whether you are a cymbal cleaning fanatic, or you love the dirty sound of a well-aged cymbal, there can be no doubt of the effects of chemicals, solvents, surfactants and even water on the life and tone of a cymbal. As with any instrument, keeping cymbals in their best health is imperative to the experience of drumming and the lifelong love of music and rhythm all drummers and percussionists share.

What has been the best method or product you’ve used to keep your cymbals clean, or, do you just like ‘em dirty? Let us know!

7th Aug 2014

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