Cleaning cymbals

Cleaning Cymbals 

There are two schools on this subject: The "clean" group and the "don't clean" group.

The "clean" group cleans their cymbals because they like the way a clean cymbal sounds; bright and shimmery. People in the "don't clean" group don't clean their cymbals because they like the way a green cymbal sounds; dark and earthy without a lot of overtones.

If you're in the "don't clean" group you can skip this section, or read if you're inquisitive. One thing I do suggest, though, to non-cleaners: With each new cymbal you buy, it might be enlightening to at least try cleaning it once, after it's become somewhat green. Each cymbal is different. You might find that a certain cymbal really does sound better when it's clean. If you hate the way it sounds after cleaning it, bury it in the back yard for a while and you'll have your old green sound back. :)

Does cleaning damage the cymbal?

Most would agree; no. Some disagree and say that cymbal polish removes metal. This is true. BUT, the amount of metal being removed is microscopic. Also, the metal being removed is mostly oxidized metal that is causing the cymbal to sound bad in the first place. It acts as a layer of gunk that coats the clean, non-oxidized metal.

On the extreme end of this subject, here's a story I always bring up. A friend of mine cleans his cymbals after every gig with sandpaper. It's been about 12 years since I first met him. He still uses the same cymbals today and the amount of wear caused by sanding them is that they look like an A Zildjian (which they are) that was put through half of the Brilliant buffing process. The tonal grooves are still quite present, although they are much more smooth than a brand new A, but still much more defined than on a Brilliant. So if something as harsh as sandpaper doesn't do that much "damage", imagine how little metal is removed when cymbal polish is used.

Which product is best?

Some drummers prefer to use only products sold by cymbal manufacturers. If one were to talk to a representative of a cymbal company, they'd probably say that the cleaner they sell has been developed to work better on their cymbals than a brass-cleaning product sold in a hardware store. I have talked to a person at Zildjian. He said that their polish is not just a product purchased by them in bulk and squirted into Zildjian tubes, but has been developed to work best with their cymbals.

Other drummers have tried commercial products and like them; Brasso, Roadie In A Bottle, Barkeepers Best Friend, etc. One person recommended vinegar, although another person tried this and found that it rusted his cymbal and made it un-usable. I've also used and recommended Comet and Formula 409 for removing heavy gunk on old cymbals.

Make up your own mind which product you should use.

How to clean

Simply follow the directions on the package of whatever you're using. Heed the advice that says to do small areas at a time. If you do too large an area, the oldest polish may dry onto the cymbal and require a LOT of elbow grease to remove it. Also, don't use part of the rag that you've already used. Always use a clean part of the rag for applying and removing the polish. When you've done the entire cymbal, go over it again with a clean rag and a lot of pressure to remove any dregs and to bring out a great shine.

As I mentioned above, if you have a really disgusting old green cymbal with years and years of gunk built up in the grooves, you'll need something more harsh to get that crap out of the grooves. Comet was made for this job. If that scares you, then try dish soap and water with a heavy nylon scrub brush. A cheap old hair brush with thick wiry bristles works great. (Note that I said "wiry" not "wire".)


Car wax will help keep clean cymbals from tarnishing so quickly. (But only on smooth cymbals such as Brilliants, Platinums, etc. It's too hard to get that stuff out of the grooves of lathed cymbals if it dries.) Someone argued that car wax will remove too much metal. Given what I've said earlier about cymbal polish removing so little metal, and that car wax is made to remove PAINT, not metal, I don't think there's anything to worry about. It will also repel water as well as the oils from your fingers.

The thin layer of wax left on the cymbal after buffing it off will not change the cymbal's sound in any way. A lot of companies these days ship their cymbals with a fine coating of polyurethane to keep the cymbals from tarnishing while they sit on warehouse shelves and during the time they're handled by hundreds of customers on in-store displays. This coating will come off in a short time, especially if you clean the cymbal regularly. One company that I know of (Paiste) uses a thick coating to protect the cymbal longer.

Other people have suggested Armor All. However, I always notice how things treated with Armor All attract dust quickly, and there's already enough dust and other gunk sucking itself onto cymbals in smoky bars. I've tried Armor All on my cymbals in the past, but didn't like the slimy coating it gave them.

Final stuff

Of course, the best type of maintenance is preventive maintenance. Always wipe your cymbals down before storing them away. If you still have the plastic bag that your cymbal came in, put the cymbal in the bag before putting it in your case. This helps to keep gunk off the cymbal while it's being stored and helps prevent the cymbals from wearing each other down as they're bounced around during travel. (Yes, I have some old cymbals that have always been stored together in the same way and they have noticeable rings where the grooves are smooth from travel-bounce because I didn't pack anything between them. This could wear the electroplating or other coating off of cymbals such as Platinum's and Color Sounds.)

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