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Rudy Royston on Cymbal Creativity

Drummer picks 10 cuts that demonstrate the innovative use of cymbals

Photo of Rudy Royston on cymbals
Rudy Royston (photo by Emra Islek)

The use of cymbals should be as purposeful as it is mechanical. Some of us drummers sit at our kits and swat at the cymbals as if they were merely flattened pieces of metal. Much rarer is a musician who uses the cymbals to expand into not only pitch and texture but also color, atmosphere and other tools for creating melody and harmony from behind the kit. Here are key performances by some of my favorite drummers, who use cymbals not only rhythmically but in orchestral ways as well.

Listen to several of the cuts on this JazzTimes Spotify playlist.

John Coltrane
(Elvin Jones, drums)

Impressions (Impulse!, 1963)
I chose this because it’s by a trio. There’s no piano on this track—Elvin is the piano; he plays all the chords. Trane is playing and Elvin is just comping behind him. He plays through the cymbals; he doesn’t play off of them.

Paul Bley Trio
(Barry Altschul, drums)
Touching (Debut, 1965)
Barry is harmonic, he’s melodic, he’s colorful. You don’t feel that he’s just hitting the cymbal; you feel that he’s playing something on purpose. He’s comping—contributing these little melodies or complementing what Paul Bley is doing. It’s like an orchestration.


Buddy Rich
(Rich, drums)
Swingin’ New Big Band (Pacific Jazz, 1966)
It’s difficult to play cymbals delicately in a big-band setting, but he has such great technique. People talk about how amazing he was as a technical player, a showy player, but that show was for a reason. He has this way of providing padding beneath everyone while also pushing everyone.

Miles Davis
(Tony Williams, drums)
Water Babies (Columbia, rec. 1967)
I like when cymbals are used in harmonic ways. On this tune Tony uses the cymbals like orchestration. The whole tune is the hi-hat; I don’t think he hits the drums once. And he plays the cymbals in a way that illustrates [the concept behind the title]—there are water droplets and splashes.

Roy Haynes
(Haynes, drums)
Hip Ensemble (Mainstream, 1971)
There’s a break in this tune, and every time after the break he goes to a certain ride cymbal. He plays off the cymbal so it’s a staccato but full sound. For a drummer, that’s like saying every time we get to the B section, we just like the way this major-7/sharp-11 sounds. You don’t have to play that chord, but you just like the vibe that it creates.


Keith Jarrett/Gary Peacock/Jack DeJohnette
(DeJohnette, drums)
The Cure (ECM, 1991)
Jack uses cymbals precisely for pitch and tone in certain parts of the tune, which is all closed hi-hat. There’s a groove background but also a textural background. He sets up his own harmonics before his solo, and when he gets to the solo it’s just short crashes, short explosions.

Branford Marsalis Trio
(Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums)
The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born (Columbia, 1991)
Tain is the ultimate—a strong, killing drummer but not bashing. And he’ll use these very quiet cymbal textures for orchestration. Sometimes we drummers do small swells, and we want to be heard. He’ll do them, but it’s not to be heard; it’s to be felt. On this track he creates a total harmonic atmosphere and plays this sort of Eastern rhythm behind what Branford is doing.

Ben Allison
(Jeff Ballard, drums)
Medicine Wheel (Palmetto, 1998)
Jeff Ballard is all about touch. When you hear him, you don’t feel like you’re hearing cymbals and drums; you’re just hearing the set. Even when he’s crashing he never gets out of control. There’s this rhythmic interplay between drums and cymbals.

Photo of Brian Blade (photo by Marek Lazarski)
Brian Blade (photo by Marek Lazarski)

Brian Blade Fellowship
(Blade, drums)
Perceptual (Blue Note, 2000)
Within the first two minutes he’s played 30 tones on his cymbals. It has a chordal quality—if the piano wasn’t playing, you’d still feel the chord go by. Then he repeats things. If you want to know when a drummer is playing melody on the cymbals in his or her mind, listen for them to repeat the same thing over and over. Those are notes.


[As told to Jeff Tamarkin]

Rudy Royston is a drummer and composer based in New Jersey. He regularly performs and records with Dave Douglas, Bill Frisell, JD Allen, Linda May Han Oh and others. As a leader, Royston has released two albums on the Greenleaf Music label, most recently the trio album Rise of Orion. Visit him at

Read John Murph’s profile of Rudy Royston in JazzTimes.


Originally Published