What Are The Differences Between Crash Cymbals & Hi-Hats?

As part of My New Microphone's many comparisons between percussion instruments, let's touch upon two cymbals that are standard in any drum set nowadays: the crash cymbal and the hi-hats. Both present players with a large list of similarities, though, upon closer inspection, they are different in more aspects than what appears at first sight.

What are the differences between crash cymbals and hi-hats? The main differences are:

  • The crash cymbal is a standalone cymbal. The hi-hat is a combination of two cymbals.
  • The crash cymbal produces a louder and more explosive sound. Hi-hats produce more nuanced beats.
  • The crash cymbal is used for special effects. Hi-hats are used for tempo markings.

In this article, we'll be delving into the differences between crash cymbals and hi-hats briefly mentioned. However, let's first unveil both cymbals' backgrounds so that we may get a clearer picture.

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The Backgrounds Of Crash Cymbals And Hi-Hats

While cymbals are not the oldest percussion instruments in existence, their history goes back to the bronze age, around the area between Asia Minor and East Asia. Both regions would be, and still are, of paramount importance in cymbal production and distribution.

Their appearance in Europe would have to wait until the early middle ages. However, their presence would progressively wane until the Turkish Empire held control of the greater part of Eastern Europe (what was then the Byzantine Empire). Cymbals would play a starring role in the janissary orchestra and would quickly gain notoriety again in the rest of the continent.

However, the cymbals used back then were not the same as the ones we see in current times. Many of our modern cymbals were products of slow developments, and many variants would not come into existence until the early to middle of the 20th century. Nevertheless, some of these cymbals retain most of the characteristics of more ancient samples.

The Background Of Crash Cymbals

Crash cymbals are reminiscent of the earliest cymbal models employed in Turkey. The history of the crash cymbal is so tied to Turkey that, as of this writing, two of the most important crash cymbal manufacturers come from a Turkish family tradition, namely, the Zildjian family.

Zildjian was the name given in 1623 by Sultan Murad IV to Avedis, an Armenian-born blacksmith who was initially looking for a formula to make gold. He crafted the best cymbal material almost by accident through a combination of silver, copper, and tin. In fact, Zildjian is literally “cymbal smith” in Turkish.

These first cymbals would be played by being banged against one another. This, along with the sound thus created, would earn them the moniker “crash cymbal”. With the advent of the drum set, the use of drumsticks for playing crash cymbals would become standard.

The Background Of Hi-Hats

The history behind the hi-hat is much more recent. While sharing the same background as the crash cymbals, its creation is roughly contemporary with primitive drum sets.

The first possible direct ancestor of the hi-hat is the Ludwig “snowshoe” pedal, which was a pedal that operated two cymbals on the underside and first appeared in 1928. However, the most likely candidate for the first-ever hi-hat created was the “low boy”, a prototype of the hi-hat, that barely reached one foot above ground level.

From there on, there are speculations on who came up with the modern hi-hat. One name ordinarily associated with the design of current-day hi-hats is Bernie Walberg (co-founder of the Walberg and Auge Drum Company). However, jazz drummer William “O'Neill” Spencer is also credited with the incorporation of tall hi-hat stands.

In the late '20s, “Papa” Jo Jones began experimenting with different timekeepers on the hi-hats, placing the hi-hat on almost equal footing with the snare drum, albeit barely.

For the record, hi-hats used to be much smaller and slimmer than the ones manufactured in recent times. Back then, they would barely reach 11″ in diameter, making them highly impractical for modern rock drummers.

The Similarities Between Crash Cymbals And Hi-Hats

Both hi-hats and crash cymbals naturally share a great number of similar traits. These are some of the most relevant:

  • Hi-hats and crash cymbals are both made of metal.
  • They consist of rounded disks and often feature bell formations at the center.
  • Their sizes are roughly similar.
  • They are standard features in drum sets.
  • They both tend to be situated on the same side of the drum kit (the left-hand side for right-handed drummers and vice versa).
  • Both are idiophones.

The Differences Between Crash Cymbals And Hi-Hats

In the following lines, we'll revisit the distinctions made at the beginning of the article, but in a bit more detail.

Difference 1: Design

While both cymbals have similar designs in terms of the plates, they differ greatly in their mechanism and how they're assembled.

The distinction is two-fold: Hi-hats consist of two cymbals mounted on a stand facing opposite to each other, and they're also equipped with a foot pedal. When pressed, the foot pedal would lower the top “hat” or cymbal down to clash with the bottom.

The crash cymbal, on the other hand, doesn't rely on any foot pedal mechanism, and, furthermore, it's not even required to be mounted on a stand. As explained earlier, crash cymbals were not originally played with drumsticks or mallets.

Difference 2: Sound

The difference in sound delivery is also very noticeable and closely tied to the distinctions in design.

If any word could describe the difference in sound between crash cymbals and hi-hats is “steadiness”. Due to their free-standing posture and lightweight profile, crash cymbals can vibrate more easily. Hence, they produce a harsh, sudden and resounding crash when they're struck.

Hi-hats, on the flip side, render two types of sounds. Open hi-hats (with foot pedal released) sound powerful and sizzling, though not as powerful as a crash cymbal.

Conversely, closed hi-hats (with foot pedal pressed) deliver staccato beats with fewer harmonics or overtones. These tonal changes are justified by the fact that the cymbals in the hi-hats are tightly pressed against one another when closed, meaning that their vibration capacity is more hampered.

We must be mindful that cymbals are idiophone instruments, meaning their sound is virtually wholly dependent on the vibration of their body. This should help explain the disparities in sound between open and closed hi-hats.

These distinctions will become largely relevant in assessing both cymbals' use cases, which we'll be studying next.

Difference 3: Use Cases

This is perhaps the most crucial distinction, if only because it helps you understand the importance of both cymbals within the framework of a drum kit. Also, as mentioned before, this difference is heavily linked to the differences in sound profile.

In theory, crash cymbals could be used to mark the tempo and set rhythmic patterns. One variant of the crash cymbal (or the ride cymbal, depending on the viewpoint), the “Crash Ride”, carries a thicker body so that its movement is not as violent after being struck. It was designed to moderately fill various roles, especially for drummers who couldn't afford to mount various cymbals for their sets.

Still, the crash cymbal is not optimal for holding a steady rhythm, particularly in light of its natural instability. Instead, crash cymbals are suitable for creating accents and dramatic effects at various points in a performance.

Contrarily, hi-hats are the perfect choice for timekeeping, in great part because you can hamper the cymbals' movement via the foot pedal. A closed hi-hat bears the closest resemblance to a snare drum because you'll essentially be able to play similar ostinato patterns without having to deal with much movement.

Hi-hats also are capable of delivering accents amidst a steady pattern, though not to the same extent as the crash cymbal. The accents attained with an open hi-hat are much steadier but may not be the most ideal for conveying a sense of determination. Open hi-hats offer more “transitional” accents (for lack of a better term).

Other Differences Between Crash Cymbals And Hi-Hats

There are also other minor differences worth mentioning in passing:

Playing Style

Hi-hats are designed to be played with the foot pedal, drumsticks, or similar percussion mallets. Sometimes, these can be used within the same phrase or used separately. When played with drumsticks, brushes, or other beaters, drummers tend to aim for the top of the cymbal instead of the rim and would only use the spot around the edge for broader sounds.

The crash cymbal is almost always struck at the rim. Otherwise, it would not play loud enough to stand out.


Crash cymbals are situated higher than hi-hats because the drummer would not have to reach the top of the cymbal to play it. Hi-hats, on the flip side, should be placed at a level where players can comfortably reach the top cymbal's bell or tip.

Read How Crash Cymbals Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Hi-Hats Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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