It came to me as a surprise to realize that not everyone cares about keeping their cymbals clean as much as I do. Some have their reasons as they prefer their instruments to look old and worn. Others just never care.
Many drummers (especially beginners) may just be unaware of how to clean cymbals. If you are one, you will appreciate my experience I summarized for you here. You don’t have to agree if you have a different point of view, but if you’re new to it, I’d recommend you try all these.
Cymbal Cleaning Guide: Methods Conventional and Not So Much
- Cymbal Cleaning Guide: Methods Conventional and Not So Much
- Why cleaning cymbals?
- Cymbal cleaning methods
- Mythbusting time
- Choosing the best cleaner and polish for your drum set
- Cymbal cleaners for specific brands
- Keeping the cymbals clean and safe
- Looking as Bright as They Sound
Like everything about music, keeping cymbals in order has become a sort of art. Here is the basic course of it collected both from my experience and that of my colleagues.
Why cleaning cymbals?
First, it’s just less pleasant to have your cymbals dirty. It’s the brightest and the shiniest part of your drum set, the most visible one (except for the face of your bass drum), and the part that you hit the most publicly. So having them clean just shows.
Second, dirt on the plates can finally damage their finish structure and alter the sound they produce. Not that it will show instantly, but when it does, it will be too late to do anything about it. The dirt changes the sound as it accumulates on the surface as well, making it drier and shortening the sustain.
Finally, it’s just more pleasant to see the cymbals as clean as new. Especially if they are very old; given that they’re mostly made of rustproof alloys, it’s no wonder to see an authentic one from the Jazz Age around, and cymbals from the 1950s and later are widely sold on eBay and other marketplaces – vintage but still playable. They may be slightly deformed, but it’s the cleanliness that they owe their great condition to.
So, let’s speak of what to clean cymbals with and how to do it. Both specialized cleaners and household solutions have their pros and cons (though those in Zildjian or Paiste will certainly disagree).
Cymbal cleaning methods
If you forget all you know about cymbals and look at this strange item like you are seeing it for the first time, you will see a large metal plate. So a question of cleaning it will sound strange: get it cleaned as you do to any other metal dish. In fact, there are a few specific methods that don’t fit into this scheme.
Skipping the most obvious method (or rather discussing it a bit later), I’ll focus on how to clean cymbals without cymbal cleaner. All the methods below only require regular household inventory. Not only is it cheaper: sometimes it’s just faster to do.
Cleaning cymbals with soap water and a sponge
It’s the most obvious and, for many, the best way to clean cymbals due to its simplicity. It’s highly recommended when the cymbal is really dirty, and going with a dry cloth will not help. This way of cleaning may be required monthly or even less often; some do it once or twice a year.
What you will need along with soap and water is a tub large enough to put the cymbal in it and let it soak for a minute or two. The best sorts of soap for this procedure are mild dish ones.
Mild should be your moves as well. Apply no excess pressure that can deform the grooves or damage the original protective coating. And, of course, be especially careful around the manufacturer logo if you want to keep it intact.
Still, this method is required only if the cymbals get too dirty for dry cleaning. Some practice it once a week, but most consider it too frequently. There are drummers that clean their cymbals with water once a year or even less often, without any complaints. It’s a matter of attitude – like most things about cleaning.
Cleaning cymbals with a nylon brush
A nylon brush has lots of advantages that make it the most popular choice for dry cleaning. It’s hard enough to reach the dirt in the grooves and in the bends and soft enough not to damage the surface. So a nylon brush is a must if you choose the instruments for keeping your drum set clean. In addition, it can be used for drums for the same purpose.
Even a toothbrush is sometimes reported to work well on grooves. Hardly is there any sort of nylon that can disrupt them; at least, I have never heard of such. A good old hairbrush can work wonders too. But the hair needs to be wiry hard.
A nylon or plastic brush is just as good in cases of old dirt. You need to soak the cymbal in soap water and then remove the soaked dirt with a brush. Sometimes it’s more convenient than using paper towels, especially if you have the brush on you. Overall, it’s a good accessory for a drummer.
Cleaning cymbals with ketchup and other unconventional methods
Ketchup as a cymbal cleaner? This may sound bizarre. Nevertheless, cleaning cymbals with ketchup is practiced more often than one might expect. The idea is that ketchup is acidic due to tomato acids and vinegar, so it dissolves the dirt on the surface and restores the original color and feel, as well as the sound.
This method is very attractive for a lot of reasons. First, ketchup is cheaper than branded cleaners and polishes. Second, it’s an underground, anti-system approach. Third, it makes you feel smarter than the advertisers suppose you to be in order to spend your money on branded products. Fourth, it appears to work.
The downside of it is not so obvious. The acidic environment is so very aggressive that instead of removing the dirt it dissolves the outer layers of metal, thus smoothening the finish of it and thus altering the sound.
If you do it in a hardcore way, you will have the surface of your cymbals strictly flat. That makes it less resistant to mechanical damage, so hitting it with sticks will eventually damage it harder than if you had never applied ketchup and other acidic substances (like lemon juice and vinegar often recommended and at least discussed for its cleaning abilities).
Cymbal manufacturers openly warn you against this method. They directly address it in their ads and instructional videos and recommend you avoid this. Still, there are cleaner manufacturers (like Groove Juice) that deliberately advertise their products as based on lemon juice.
But don’t get confused: a lemon juice-based formula and pure juice are not supposed to have the same effect. The former is here to clean the metal surface; the latter tends to destroy it. And when it comes to removing soil, lemon juice is inferior even to other acidic edibles, let alone specialized products.
Even for musicians, chemistry is not just something between the band and the audience; it’s a science as well.
As you see, usually it’s done after the cleaning. Clean the cymbal according to all the rules. If you do it the dry way, you can start immediately. If you have to use water and soap, you need to let it dry out and only then start polishing. In addition to the polish itself, you will need paper towels and a pair of gloves.
- Shake the polish well and put a bit on it evenly onto the overside.
- Then use towels to spread it all over the plate and remove the excess polish.
- After 15 seconds, take a clean towel and remove the rest of the polish, pressing firmly and moving the towel along the grooves.
- Keep easy on the logo areas if you don’t want the logo to fade away with each polishing session.
- Repeat the same steps on the underside.
Of course, you can purchase a specialized cymbal polish (by the original manufacturers, just like brand-specific cleaners). But you must be careful with these as well.
For example, Zildjian officially warns that its specialized brilliant polish is only meant for brilliant-finished cymbals. Others may be harmed by it, despite the same branding. So if you have traditional-finished Zildjian cymbals, you better go with generic cymbal cleaners or household analogs and then with generic polish.
On the contrary, Sabian does not offer its branded polish at all, but it has its cleaner to offer. The vendor claims the cleaner is compatible with all the cymbals by Sabian. In fact, these two products can make a great pair of… for a finely selected set.
If you listen to specialists like those from Zildjian, they will warn you not to use lemon juice to clean cymbals. But are they speaking frankly, or just advertising their branded polishes?
Chances are you have heard a lot about fresh lemon juice works wonders on old cymbals other cleaners are useless on. On various forums, though, there are lots of recommendations on how to clean cymbals with household items, regardless of what Paiste or Zildjian might think. So, who’s right?
Given the price of authorized or branded cleaners, it’s easy to assume that the manufacturers just advertise the original items this way. The truth is a bit deeper, though. The assumption that lemon juice is useful is based on the general properties of acidic substances. Products like Groove Juice (proudly claiming the cleaner has lemon juice as an ingredient) only contribute to the overall confusion.
If you still choose to use household cleaners, be careful, and avoid metal cleaners. Being the most aggressive of the kind, they can easily damage the instrument.
When discussing how to clean brass cymbals on forums, though, there are lots of recommendations on how to use these methods with care. Some risky persons may try ketchup or lemon juice, but the result is not seen immediately. Yes, they are good at removing dirt and fingerprints (along with the vendor logo, most of the time), but it’s unclear from the beginning how they affect the original coating. This, in its turn, may affect both the sound and the durability of the cymbal.
So, the assumption may be the following. If your cymbals are really precious to you, you better follow the guidelines provided by the manufacturer, using either brand-specific or specialized cymbal cleaners by third-party vendors. Otherwise, you may save a bit by using household cleaners and even edible acidic products for cleaning.
Choosing the best cleaner and polish for your drum set
Somewhere between branded cleaners and household items, there are generic polishes for cleaning cymbals. These seem the optimal option if you are not ready to purchase the expensive originals, but neither are you willing to risk your instruments for petty saves.
There are brands like Buckaroo (making cymbals as well, but much more famous for its cleaners and polishes), Music Nomad (specializing just in instrument care and maintenance), or Groove Juice (known primarily for its cymbal cleaner). These manufacturers also include instructions on how to polish cymbals with their products. Being versatile, these product lines offer something for various types.
Still, any of these cleaners should be applied the right way. Follow the instructions provided by the manufacturer and use your common sense. If you do, the cleaners will do your set right.
Cymbal cleaners for specific brands
When you see brand-specific cleaners for cymbals, you may think it’s as much of an exaggeration as, say, breed-specific pet food. In fact, there is some ratio about that. The reason is the manufacturer’s knowledge of how their instruments are made and processed.
It’s the manufacturer who knows exactly what alloy is used in a certain cymbal model, or how its surface has been finished, and thus how to clean traditional finish cymbals or those made another way. Knowing these details enables them to find the best cleaning agents that will do the work the fastest and cause as little damage as possible.
You must keep in mind, though, that some of these original products are overspecialized. For example, the aforementioned original Zildjian polish is only meant for cymbals with a brilliant finish and for no others (even if they are as Zildjian as can be). If you have none of these, you better choose some other product.
So yes, it makes sense to hunt for the brand- and even model-specific cleaners.
The greatest downside is that they are way more expensive than generic household cleaners. Still, there is nothing criminal if you use the original Zildjian cleaner on your Zildjian with a brilliant finish and some Music Nomad on the rest of your kit.
Keeping the cymbals clean and safe
There are some simple rules for keeping the cymbals clean. They apply to any type of cymbals, as they are all very generic.
- Keep the original protective layer as long as it maintains. After it wears out, polish the cymbals on a regular basis (as described above).
- Avoid touching the surface with anything but sticks (except for cleaning procedures). Even if your hands are just washed, they still leave fat and dirt with fingerprints. Dust sticks to it, staining the metal. It’s a good idea to use special gloves.
- Never lay a cymbal onto a hard surface, especially if it’s curved. This may deform the cymbal and thus affect its sound, distorting it down to no usability.
- No abrasives. It’s been said, and now I repeat it. No freakin’ abrasives!
- If you decide not to clean your cymbals at all (this point of view exists, you know), you still need to protect them from mechanical or chemical damage. So, clean them with a soft, non-abrasive sponge if they get too dirty somehow.
As the topic is very controversial even among experienced musicians and technicians, there are questions that constantly arise and myths that circulate for decades. Here are some of them; I hope more will appear in the comments.
Does cleaning cymbals affect the sound?
Yes, it does if you have let them get extremely dirty. Covered with a thick layer of dust gone dirt, a cymbal loses its brightness and sustain. It takes a lot of dirt, though, for the effect to become noticeable.
By the way, you can use this effect for your benefit: if you want the sound to be darker and deeper, you can cover your cymbals with some stuff (like toothpaste or jam – pun unintended) to change their response. Just remember to clean them up after the session. A little bit of dust, though, will rather be seen than heard.
What household item can I use to clean cymbals?
There are various cleaners that act well on cymbals. The most important condition for them is being non-abrasive, so they don’t damage the original finish.
Still, if you use cymbals by a well-known brand (like Zildjian), the ads will warn you against using household cleaners that may harm the surface and impact the performance. Generic metal polishes can sometimes do good work, but I’d recommend them on cymbals you’re ready to risk with.
How do you clean dirty cymbals?
For most of them, it’s like washing a dirty frying pan.
- Prepare soap and warm water. You will need a lot of it, as the plate is to be washed more than once. Prepare also a tub large enough for your cymbals.
- Let the cymbals soak in the water for a minute or two.
- Take a heavy and hard nylon brush to scrub the cymbal all over. Remove the dirt from it, as it gets soaked in water. Avoid metal brushes, as they can damage the surface.
- Repeat until the water remains clean after applying.
- Wipe the cymbal dry.
- Take a soft cloth and apply the polish as described above, along the grooves.
Should I clean my cymbals at all?
In fact, keeping them shiny is not necessary. Some musicians (regardless of the type of music they play) consider some dirt not harmful. They like the worn look, and some of them think cleaning procedures that involve chemicals distort the original voice of cymbals. But even these drummers practice what it takes to keep the cymbals from getting too dirty.
How do you remove oxidation from cymbals?
Oxidation is not just dirt. It’s the effect of metal contacting air and the oxygen it contains under certain conditions, including moisture and contact with salts. The outer layer of it is gradually oxidized, and it affects the structure and thus both the acoustic properties and the durability of the cymbal. The oxidized surface usually looks green, and it first appears as stains on the surface before covering all of it.
To remove the oxidation, you need some mild abrasive that will only remove the oxidized layer while not touching the body. It will restore both the original look (probably except for the logo) and the original sound. But don’t try too hard: though the original coating must be already gone, the surface still has the original structure. Damaging it too hard will alter the sound irreversibly.
By the way, you do not have to do it. Some musicians prefer not to remove oxidation, which makes their cymbal sound darker and older. If they happen to break the plate, they replace it with a used one with about the same oxidation level; it’s not hard to find on these numerous marketplaces.
Looking as Bright as They Sound
If I had some cymbals more precious to me than others (say, vintage originals or very expensive newly made ones), I would only use branded cleaners on them, especially minding the logo area.
Regular cymbals that I would not regret much about replacing can be cleaned with generics like Music Nomad or Groove Juice, though very cautiously and minding the logo area even more. As for lemon or ketchup…
Well, it’s your say about lemon or ketchup, as I have never run into trouble with them. Maybe you have? Let’s talk in the comments and get a good jam started.