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

As part of My New Microphone's series of analyses on percussion instruments, we'll be assessing two cymbals that are staples in virtually any drum kit today: the ride cymbal and the hi-hat. These cymbals have very similar use cases, though they heavily differ in many other respects.

What are the differences between ride cymbals and hi-hats? These are the main differences:

  • The ride cymbal is larger than the cymbals in the hi-hat.
  • The ride cymbal is operated with beaters exclusively. The hi-hat is played with a foot pedal and beaters.
  • The ride cymbal produces more ring-like tones than the hi-hat, with improved sustain.

In this article, we'll be discussing these differences in greater detail. First, we'll learn background information on these instruments and cymbals in general.

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The Backgrounds Of Ride Cymbals And Hi-Hats

The history of the cymbals goes back to the very dawn of metallurgy, across the territory that comprises Asia Minor all the way to East Asia. Cymbals were notably employed in religious services, particularly in China, where they would also have military usage down the road.

As a curious note, the bell (or “cup”) that many cymbals already sported back then was reported not to be inserted for any particular acoustic reason (as it is nowadays) but only to serve as a handle.

The Turks and Arabs also had their own versions of the primitive cymbal, with diverging evolutionary processes. The Saracens were charged with importing the cymbal into Southern Italy and Spain during the early middle ages, though it was short-lived around that region due to the hammering arts not being passed down. Nevertheless, the Turkish Ottomans would bring the cymbal again to the fore, courtesy of the Turkish wars that led to their occupation of a sizable portion of Eastern Europe.

A major milestone in cymbal manufacturing is owed to one of the oldest companies in the world: Zildjian. It was founded by an Armenian blacksmith/alchemist named Avedis, who accidentally came up with an alloy with the property to bounce and ring.

When Avedis showed this new finding to Sultan Murat IV in 1623, the latter was so impressed that he immediately hired Avedis to craft cymbals for the army and the Janissary orchestra. From that moment on, Avedis came to be known as Zildjian (cymbal smith), and his legacy would outlive him for almost 400 years and still does as of this writing.

Fast-forward to the 20th century, cymbals primarily started to be imported from China and Turkey into America and Western Europe. These cymbals would be manufactured in various designs, shapes, and sizes.

The term “crash cymbal” would be assigned to the classical Turkish cymbals developed initially by Zildjian. The first “ride cymbals” began to be retailed during the mid-1900s by Zildjian and Paiste, using crash cymbals as a template but with a thicker and larger profile for steadier deliveries.

Moreover, many ride cymbal variants would cater to drummers seeking a nice middle ground between crash and ride cymbals (aptly named the “Crash Ride”) for inclusion in affordable drum sets.

Meanwhile, the hi-hat had a starkly different development. There are two main precursors to the hi-hat: The Ludwig “snowshoe” pedal and the “low boy”, the latter of which resembles the modern hi-hat the most, albeit with a much shorter stand.

In the interim, two other names are credited with the design of modern hi-hats: Bernard “Bernie” Walberg (of Walberg and Auge Drum Company fame) and jazz drummer William “O'Neill” Spencer. In addition, “Papa” Jo Jones was responsible for creating innovative timekeeping and accent patterns on the hi-hat, thanks to the stability and versatility provided by its foot pedal.

The Similarities Between Ride Cymbals And Hi-Hats

Ride cymbals and hi-hats share a fair number of similar features and functions. These are some of the most relevant similarities between the two:

  • Both the ride cymbal and the hi-hat are composed of metal or metal alloys.
  • Both instruments are staples in most modern drum kits.
  • The ride cymbal and the hi-hat are major timekeeping cymbals, albeit producing slightly different tones in comparison.
  • Hi-hats and ride cymbals have mostly similar designs and shapes, at least in terms of the plates.
  • Both cymbals are designed to be played mostly at the tip or bow, so they are positioned at a lower altitude with respect to crash or splash cymbals.
  • For the most part, both instruments are placed more scarcely in drum kits than other cymbals, meaning that you'd expect to find only one unit of each type installed around the drums. Meanwhile, you may see multiple crash and splash cymbals of different sizes within the drummer's reach.

The Differences Between Ride Cymbals And Hi-Hats

We will be going over the differences between ride cymbals and hi-hats that were previously exposed. Let's start with the design differences, which will segway us into the topic of sound distinctions.

Difference 1: Size

Size differences are readily noticeable when placing both plates together, especially when comparing rides with smaller hi-hats.

Typically, you will find hi-hats sized from 12″ to 16″ in diameter, with 14″ being a sweet middle. Conversely, rides will hardly be shorter than 18″ and can easily reach 22″ in diameter. These differences in size will definitely carry over to the sound.

Difference 2: Playing Mechanism

While the function of both cymbals is roughly the same – namely, to play timekeeping patterns – both instruments operate on an entirely different basis and mechanism.

The most notable difference, apart from the number of cymbals affixed to the stand, is the addition of the foot pedal. As said earlier, the foot pedal design stems from two earlier ideas – the Ludwig snowshoe and the low-boy pedals – which were meant initially to add accents.

The taller hi-hats enabled drummers to utilize them similarly to snare drums. This would be achieved by pushing down the foot pedal to bring down the top “hat”, pressing it firmly against the lower cymbal. This allowed the top cymbal to remain steadily in place so that it could be struck in quicker successions with the drumsticks or any other types of beaters.

Coalescing foot pedals and drumstick patterns would also help create a creative and complex rhythm with interjected transitional accents. This sets hi-hats as the most versatile cymbals in any drum kit.

On the flip side, the ride cymbal is much more limited in its functionality, considering that it's a standalone cymbal with no other playing mechanism available. Being only capable of being played with sticks, its ability to add immediate accents or effects is fairly low.

Regardless, the role of the ride cymbal is still very relevant, especially in certain genres such as bebop and similar jazz styles, as its size and weight endow the instrument with enough stability to play ostinato without much difficulty, in stark contrast to the crash and splash cymbals.

Ride cymbals can also be used as larger crash cymbals, but their sound can be too loud for most ears. Crashing a ride cymbal also requires much more strength than usual, making it very impractical for this purpose.

Difference 3: Sound

As you may probably deduce from our previous assessments, while both instruments are heavily used to create intricate rhythmic phrases, their phrases convey totally different tonal qualities, thus justifying the coexistence of both cymbals in most drum sets.

Conventional ride cymbals are prone to deliver beats with a particularly smooth “ring” effect and low decay. The attack is also smooth while not being any less responsive. This trait makes the ride cymbal a very sought-after cymbal for jazz drummers. The rides tend to be extremely loud and unsettling when used as crash cymbals.

Rides have a relatively wide dynamic range, though the preferred tone for many drummers (specifically jazz drummers) seems to stem from the bell, which produces a peculiarly acute “ping”. The bow (the middle section of the cymbal) evokes a slightly more powerful chime with substantially more sustain. Rides are hardly struck at the rim because they tend to sound disruptive, though louder musical tracks may benefit from this drumming technique.

Hi-hats, naturally owing to their specific design, produce a wider array of tones, making them suitable for both accents and steady rhythms.

Open hi-hats produce a sizzling sound that should work for interposed accents within phrases, though they fail to offer any sense of closure to fully replace the sound of crash cymbals.

Meanwhile, closed hi-hats yield a contrasting staccato beat more akin to rim shots (save for some obvious differences). This is because, as the bottom cymbal exerts pressure on the top cymbal, there is not enough wiggle room for vibration and harmonics to be produced.

Just as with open hi-hats, closed hi-hats are not set to fully replace the ride cymbal by any stretch. Rather, the presence of both hi-hats and ride cymbals creates ample possibilities for conveying a wider spectrum of tonalities.

Read How Hi-Hats Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Ride 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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