How to Play a Cymbal Crash in 11 Steps

Frank Epstein was the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Cymbalist for 40 years and during his reign as the cymbal master with this world class orchestra he developed his treatise on cymbal playing technique entitled “Cymbalisms”.

Mr. Epstein created an eleven part step by step process for the percussionist to develop their cymbal stroke and he describes it this way.

Because cymbal sounds should not hang over into orchestral silences or notated rests, all of your stroking should be downward, with the ability to muffle and/or choke notes into the chest area as quickly as is necessary.

Where cymbal notes are intended to ring on, you will be able to continue onward into the air. The stroke is based on developing a clean and consistent sound, maximum tone, minimum impact noise, and a fluent follow-through. The strokes should be consistent with your conviction that cymbal notes have specific duration and that notes should be stopped when either the notation or the music demands it.

For these concepts to be achieved, the following steps are recommended. Each one, when mastered in order, will lead to a successful cymbal stroke.

Frank Epstein, Cymbalisms

Here are the eleven steps to cymbal playing as Frank Epstein saw them:

Step 1: The Hi-Hat “Chick” Stroke
Step 2: The Sizzle Stroke
Step 3: The Slide
Step 4: The Pianissimo Stroke
Step 5: The Pianissimo Stroke Refined
Step 6: The Mezzo Forte Stroke
Step 7: The Forte Cymbal Stroke
Step 8: The Fortissimo Cymbal Stroke
Step 9: The Flam Stroke
Step 10: The Follow Through
Step 11: The Cut Off

Okay, on to the explanation and demonstration. Try to follow along each step by practicing one step before moving on to the next. Each previous step will help you get better at the next one so it is important to take your time and not skip any.

Step 1: The Hi-Hat “Chick” Stroke on Cymbals

Hold the left cymbal vertically and still. Bring the right cymbal to it so that all edges of both cymbals strike together making a “Chick” sound in the same manner that hi-hat cymbals connect.

The sound does not ring, there’s no flam and the cymbals connect in round with one another. Practice this slowly and until a consistent “Chick” is made every time.

Step 2: The Cymbal Sizzle Stroke

Step two requires you to relax the cymbals as soon as they make contact with each other after playing the Hi-Hat Chick Stroke so that the cymbals vibrate together and sizzle. The sound should be that of a sizzle cymbal.

Remember to keep both cymbals vertical and that the left cymbal is stationary. The right cymbal makes contact with the left on all edges and then relaxes the horizontal pressure so that the cymbals vibrate together to create the sizzle effect.

Watch this short video about the Cymbal Sizzle Stroke and give it a try.

Step 3: The Cymbal Slide

The slide is something to practice once you have a firm grasp of the Hi-Hat Chick and the Sizzle techniques. The slide is the performance of a sizzle stroke that “slides” and moves downwards about an inch or two.

The left cymbal is stationary and vertically held for this and when the right cymbal makes contact you make the cymbal slide in a downward motion while you maintain the sizzle sound.
Practice this technique slowly as you have been doing for the other two techniques to ensure that you have a consistent sound each time you do this.

Take a look at this lesson after you’ve worked on steps 1 and 2:

Step 4: Playing The Pianissimo Stroke with Cymbals

The pianissimo cymbal stroke requires a refined technique so that you can play the most quiet cymbal stroke any time you need to do so.

As with all of these cymbal techniques you should practice them slowly with careful attention to all the detail to ensure that you develop a consistent and clear sound.

Here’s how to do the pianissimo stroke with your cymbals:

Hold the left cymbal in a vertical and stationary position and only move the right cymbal. The pianissimo stroke is similar to the slide stroke, but without the long slide. Once your cymbals meet and start to ‘sizzle’ together slide the right cymbal only a slight distance and then separate the cymbals from one another.

Practice this slowly to develop a consistent sound and gradually increase the speed. Start at the quarter note at 52 and work up to about 100 on the metronome.

Step 5: The Pianissimo Stroke Refined

This is just a further study into the pianissimo stroke technique, but practice going slower and slower with a lot of time between each of your notes. This will help you develop the skill and confidence to be able to play a very quiet stroke any time that you need to do so

Work on your sensitivity with the cymbals!

Try this exercise; Play very quiet pianissimo cymbal stroke with your eyes closed. If you practice this you’ll develop a keen sensitivity with the large cymbals and be able to play with more confidence and accuracy. Go ahead! Give it a try!

Take a look at this video as I demonstrate both steps 4 and 5:

Step 6: the Mezzo Forte Stroke for Cymbals

The mezzo forte stroke follows the same basic principles of the pianissimo stroke in lesson 4 and 5 but it moves faster and the stroke starts with the cymbals farther apart

All of these strokes require that the left cymbal remain vertical and stationary. Practice each of these techniques in order from 1 to 6 to develop a consistent clear cymbal crash.

Take a look at this video that focuses on Step 6:

Step 7: The Forte Cymbal Stroke

Up until now every stroke from number one to six has been with the left cymbal completely stationary but for the forte stroke the left cymbal must react to the impact.

The right cymbal moves pretty much in the same manner as it’s been moving when executing the crashes at the softer dynamic but the stroke starts from higher and further away.

Just before the right cymbal makes contact the left cymbal should tilt slightly away.
When the forte stroke makes its contact the left cymbal moves naturally and sways away from the impact site.

When you play the forte stroke try to hold the strap further back from the cymbal so that the cymbal can move without any resistance from your.

Practice slowly at first and then practice forte strokes up to 100 beats per quarter note.

Relax and let the cymbals ring!

Step 8: The Fortissimo Cymbal Stroke

Here’s the general rule: The louder the cymbal stroke the more active each of your cymbals has to be.

The right cymbal starts from a position high and the left cymbal starts at a low position and the two opposing cymbals move in opposite directions towards each other. The right cymbal goes up and down and the left goes down and up.

The volume is determined in the fortissimo crash by the speed at which the cymbals strike one another but it’s really important to remember to let the left cymbal absorb the impact of the blow so the sound will be loud and beautiful.

Remember to move your grip back on the strap to allow the cymbal to swing freely

Hold onto your ears and watch this demonstration of the Fortissimo Cymbal Stroke

Step 9: The Cymbal Flam Stroke

This is the cymbal flam stroke as it relates to orchestral cymbal playing technique and which is different from the cymbal flam that’s utilized on the marching band field.

The cymbal flam stroke is a technique that occurs naturally or unavoidably when you play very loud cymbal crashes but with practice you’ll be able to control the flam so that you achieve the best cymbal crash possible.

The flam stroke happens when the bottom edge of the cymbals touch just before the main cymbal stroke and if you listen to it you’ll hear a “ka-CHANG” sound.

With practice you’ll be able to control the separation between the ka and the CHANG and create a variety of loud cymbal crashes that will have a defining musical character.

As a musician the cymbal player should have an assortment of techniques at their disposal and be able to apply them when their musical intuition kicks in. The more variety of sounds that you have the more musical you will be able to be.

Take a look at this video to see what the Flam Stroke does:

Step 10: The Cymbal Follow Through

This is the cymbal technique that is all about the percussionist making music with their ability to portrait longer notes and shorter notes with their cymbal crashes.

The rule of thumb for executing the follow through stroke is that the cymbals should remain in motion for as long as you want the cymbal note to sound. For big crashes that need to ring for a long time lift the cymbals above your shoulders and lower them exactly in rhythm at the cutoff of sound.

Short cymbal notes will have a very short follow through, but the follow through motion is still important for these notes.

Practice your Follow Through Stroke and you will find that:

Cymbals in motion add drama, energy, and intensity. Cymbals allowed to stop in mid-air dissipate energy and bring the sound to a gentle stop.

Frank Epstein, Cymbalisms

Here’s my demonstration video for the follow through cymbal stroke:

Step 11: The Cut Off

Cutting of the cymbal sound changes depending upon the length and quality of the note that you have played as well as your specific body shape or type.

The three best areas on your body would be your chest, under arm/chest, and your abdomen.
For very quick cut offs you’ll use the center of your body and if your notes are longer and you have the time you can use more of the side of your body for the cut offs.

You can cut off quickly or let the sound diminish gradually. It all depends on what the music dictates to you as you are playing.

As with everything involved as you develop your cymbal technique you want to have as many different methods for dampening the cymbals as possible. Having a choice will help to make you a better musician because you’ll have an interesting and musical variety of techniques at your disposal.

Practice several ways of dampening so that you can adapt to whatever the situation might be.

Take a look at this video as I describe the basics of the Cut Off.

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  1. Brian Kepher says:

    Thank you for that cymbals lesson now I have answers as to why at time my cymbals sounded bad.
    Thank you.

    • I learned to play cymbals from one of the best players in the business; Frank Epstein, Cymbalist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra Retired. I cannot recommend his book “Cymbalisms” highly enough. Every serious percussionist should read this amazing book on how to play cymbals!

  2. Great demonstrations; thanks!
    I am a composer and learned somewhere along the way that the sound from a cymbal crash, (particularly a loud one?) takes a micro second to build up to its full intensity, so that a cymbal player has to sound the cymbal a tiny bit before the full sound is to be there. Is this correct? Today I was helping a friend edit a video recording, and it seemed to us that while the audio (i.e. ‘sound’) of all the other orchestra instruments appeared to be in sync with the video, the cymbal appeared to be a tiny bit behind. Could this possibly have anything to do with the ‘intensity-delay’ effect?

    Many thanks,

    Donald (

    • HI Donald,
      That’s a good question. I’m not sure that there is really an intensity delay and if there is one I doubt that it would be long enough to be noticeable. The impact sound of the cymbal’s crash is what the player times to play with the music and not the resulting wash of the cymbal’s sound. It’s the impact that provides the rhythmic clarity to the musical passage and the cymbal’s sound is the color of the sustastain. My thought is that the cymbal player in your recording was playing too far behind the beat and was late. Listen to the impact sound; that will tell you if the performer is late or not.
      Sometimes the cymbal player needs to anticipate the beat to be with the ensemble, but that is because of acoustics of the hall and because of distance and not because of any intensity delay as you call it.
      The only time I think of “intensity delay” is when playing a suspended cymbal roll with a crescendo that climaxes to a crash on a particular beat. The suspended cymbal’s rolling building up of sound must be controlled so that it’s “wash” or crash sound coincides with the desired rhythmic punctuation. If the player doesn’t make the cymbal crescendo properly it might sound like it’s arrival to the climactic beat is delayed.
      Thanks again for your question and I hope I’ve answered it! If not, please let me know and I’ll try to do better.

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