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

As part of my series on the differences between instruments, let's evaluate two instruments normally featured in modern drum sets: Hi-hats and China cymbals. Although they're both cymbals, there are also notable distinctions.

What are the differences between hi-hats and China cymbals? The differences can be encompassed as follows:

  • China cymbals are made of a single sheet. Hi-hats are composed of two cymbals.
  • China cymbals are played with sticks. Hi-hats are played with both a foot pedal and sticks.
  • China cymbals have high reverberation. Hi-hats produce more precise sounds.

In this present writing, we'll be doing an in-depth comparison between both cymbals, using the above list as a reference. Let's start by reviewing both cymbals' histories.

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The Backgrounds Of Hi-Hats And China Cymbals

Cymbals are relatively old, although they're not the oldest percussion instruments. They came to existence after the dawn of metallurgy in Asia, and, as with many other instruments of this kind, they were heavily used in religious worship.

The Saracens would introduce cymbals to Spain and Italy during the middle ages, though they briefly disappeared until the 17th century when Turkish janissaries reintroduced them during their conquests.

The inclusion of cymbals was very austere in primitive drum kits, which at that point consisted primarily of kick and snare drums. Rather, the “cymbals' role” would be largely filled by certain kick and snare techniques such as feathering or buzz rolls.

Over time, cymbals would acquire the prominent role of time markers, leading to a progressive elaborateness in cymbal designs capable of rendering a wide array of sounds and complex rhythmic patterns.

Let's begin our dissertation by uncovering the history of the China cymbals.

The Background Of China Cymbals

China has been known for its prowess in metallurgy since its earliest history. Starting with the development of the metal cowbell (though initially only meant for cattle raising), the contributions that many Chinese inventions have made to the modern music scene are undeniable.

China cymbals are said to be successors to the Chinese “bo”, a small cymbal comprised of two plates clashed together. More specifically, these would pave the way for the modern clash cymbals, but they have the particular shape of modern China cymbals.

Early China cymbals were predominantly hand-made and had a rough design. They started being incorporated into drum kits very early on. Still, their role within the framework of the set was to grant some peculiar accents and special effects to the rhythm section.

During the early 1900s, cymbals were manufactured and imported from two countries: China and Turkey. Of particular note were the Zildjian models, which are still considered some of the best cymbals in the modern era.

Yet, despite the frequent comparisons made between Turkish and Chinese cymbals, both possess starkly different designs, with China cymbals having a particular truncated cylindrical bell shape and the outer rim pointing upwards.

China cymbals earned notoriety, especially in jazz and jazz-rock settings, thanks to drummer Billy Cobham, who was wont to mount these China cymbals upside down, endowing their sound with a peculiar edge. This was at a time when Chinese cymbal exports were just being resumed.

The Background Of Hi-Hats

The history behind the hi-hat is a bit more nebulous. It is said that, while hi-hats still owed their existence to their common Chinese and Turkish ancestors, their foot pedal mechanism was relatively recent and inspired by two different inventions: the Ludwig “snowshoe” pedal and the low-boy pedal. The latter bears much more resemblance to modern-day hi-hat pedals, albeit sporting much smaller stands.

There is no clear answer as to who came up with the hi-hat's modern design. However, some speculations point to Bernie Walberg (a famous Drum company owner) as responsible for bringing the hi-hat to its current dimensions and proportions, allowing for more versatile maneuvering with both foot and sticks. Others recall jazz drummer William “O'Neill” Spencer as the creator.

On another note, some of the most used hi-hat techniques in today's drumming are attributed to jazz drummer “Papa” Jo Jones, who immortalized several timekeeping schemes.

Nowadays, many drum sets come with various hi-hat stands linked to remote pedals for flexible positioning.

The Similarities Between Hi-Hats And China Cymbals

Before moving on with the main differences, I should point out some of the similarities between hi-hats and China cymbals. These can be summarized as follows:

  • The hi-hat and China cymbals are both idiophones
  • Both instruments have a distinctively disk-like shape.
  • Both instruments can be used to place specific accents or effects in the rhythm.
  • Both hi-hats and China cymbals are made out of metal or metal alloys.
  • Both come in varying sizes and models.
  • Both instruments have become staples in a great number of drum set models.
  • Both can be struck with mallets, drumsticks, and/or similar tools.
  • Both are prominently used in jazz and rock circles.

The Differences Between Hi-Hats And China Cymbals

The differences between hi-hats and China cymbals may seem fairly discernible. Let's begin with the first one listed at the beginning of this guide:

Difference 1: Design

We have already briefly touched upon the general design of the China cymbals. Nonetheless, the design differences go beyond the very structure of the dishes. The most striking difference lies, rather, in their assembly.

Hi-Hats Design

Hi-hats are comprised of two cymbals that interact via a foot pedal. The mechanism relies on the top cymbal moving up and down as the foot pedal is pressed, striking the fixed bottom cymbal in the process. Hi-hats are mounted so that the cymbals' reverse sides face each other.

Hi-hat cymbals come with various presentations, depending on the model. In many instances, they come with China cymbals incorporated, such as is the case with the Bosphorus 14″ Traditional Series China Hi-Hat Cymbals.

China Design

China cymbals operate differently, as their main purpose is to create effects. They're characterized by lacking a taper. Rather, they consist of a round bell with upward-tilted edges, giving them a peculiar sound profile (more on that later). Despite this, you will find several variants of the China, including:

  • The “Novo”: Taking inspiration from the reverse China setup, the Novo features a smaller bell at the center with a concave bow that extends towards the rim for a more “trashy” sound. Paiste invented this model.
  • China Splash: This China resembles the original Chinese bo, with the convex bow surrounding the bell.
  • Pang and Swish: Designed by Zildjian, it carries a slight taper and a shallower bell, combining Chinese and Turkish design languages.

The China is ordinarily mounted with the tip of the bell up, but it can also be mounted in reverse (following Billy Cobham's example).

Difference 2: Playing Mechanism

China cymbals are standalone cymbals that are struck with a drumstick or mallet to produce a crashing sound, similar to how a gong would be used. They can be arranged alongside other chinas of different sizes to render a plethora of noises.

When it comes to hi-hats, drummers can produce a wide array of accents and patterns by closing and opening the cymbals while playing them with the sticks. Various drummers would play them with the foot pedal alone for time marking on specific beats. Joining the cymbals together allow drummers to play more focused and tight patterns, similar to a snare.

Difference 3: Sound

Considering how different their use case is, both cymbals are bound to produce different sounds.

It bears repeating that cymbals are idiophones. Idiophones are musical instruments that create sound mainly via their body's vibration without relying on airflow, strings, or membranes. For this reason, idiophones' design and build material both play a primary role in their overall sound production.

With that said, it would be a tedious endeavour to go through all the different cymbal models, owing to the assorted build materials and designs utilized in their manufacturing.

Notwithstanding, using the average models of China cymbals and hi-hats as a reference, we should be able to come up with a relatively accurate assessment of their sonic distinctions. Even though both cymbals produce a distinctively metallic tone, the tonal characteristics vary due to the particular characteristics disclosed earlier on.

Due to its peculiar physical attributes, the China produces a “trashy” and unpredictable sound. The sound is superficially similar to that of a gong, despite the obvious differences in resonance. The China, due to the fact that it's a standalone cymbal, vibrates more freely, which explains why it renders more overtones and rings.

The hi-hats, on the flip side, produce a more constrained sound, generally speaking. In other words, they deliver more staccato, making them suitable for focused beats and tempo marking. Naturally, the hi-hat's sound gets tighter as the foot pedal remains pressed since the vibration of both cymbals is dampened.

Read How Hi-Hats Compare To Other Instruments

Read How China Cymbals 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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