If you are like most drummers, you’re probably unsure if your cymbals are in their most optimal location. You have everything set up but something just feels...off.
At its core, figuring out where to place your drum set gear is all about ergonomics, comfort, avoiding injury, and therefore extending your drumming career as long as it can go.
Before we get too deep into cymbal placement, I want to make it clear that everybody is different. From the way we are built, to our height and tastes, each individual is going to have slightly different preferences in terms of cymbal placement and there is no set rule when it comes to this. Use this as a guide to help you find what is ideal for you, and then continue to experiment and see if you can make it better.
Cymbal Placement Goals
Efficiency and comfort should be your main concern when placing cymbals on your drum set.
Everything from heights, angles, and distances are very important. Even just 1 inch in height can make or break your comfort and ability to play. The whole goal is that you want to be able to play everything effortlessly with your eyes closed eventually. You should be able to visualize everything and play it comfortably and with no tension or stress in any part of your body and not have to reach too far for anything.
If your arms are too high, they are above your heart meaning your heart needs to work extra hard to pump blood into them. This of course is no good, so making sure the cymbals are at the proper height is very important.
The order in which you assemble your drum set is also very important since some parts take priority over others in terms of position and you want to make sure to have room for the important gear.
The order should be:
- Bass Drum
- Snare Drum
- Extra Cymbals
This is the first thing you should be setting up right after your snare and bass drum.
Elbow level is a good indicator for proper height, so you can come down right on top of it, or angle your stick a little bit with the tip up. The goal with hi-hat placement is to be able to easily get a broad dynamic range just from making slight stick adjustments.
You don’t want to have to reach up for it or have it too low where it interferes with your snare playing underneath. You can’t have the snare just an inch below the hi-hat since that won’t leave your snare stick any room to raise up.
Unless you have a fancy remote hi-hat pedal, you’ll be pretty limited in terms of general hi-hat positioning because the pedal needs to be in a comfortable spot for your feet, and that spot isn’t going to vary too much. I’d recommend getting a hi-hat stand with only 2 legs (both in the back) so that you’ll have extra room for a double bass pedal. It can be tricky trying to fit everything in with a 3 legged hi-hat stand, snare stand, and bass pedals.
A great hi-hat stand that really improved my drumming is the DW 3500T Hi Hat 2-Leg Stand. The 2 legs allow plenty of room for my bass pedals, and it's the smoothest playing hi-hat stand I've ever used - and I've gone through plenty of options of the years.
Once you find a good natural spot based on foot position, pay all your attention to things like height, angle, and how easily you can access the different parts of the cymbal like the edge, bow, and bell.
Make sure to not position the hi-hat too far off to the left or too far away from you. You shouldn't have to turn your body to hit it, and it should be close enough that it’s easy to access with both sticks without having to extend your arms too far.
I actually play open-handed, meaning that I play my left hand on the hi-hat and right hand on the snare, so I prefer my hi-hat to be a little bit more back and to the left than traditional drummers play, but that’s just my personal preference based on what’s comfortable for me and my playing style.
I like to have the ride cymbal almost in line with the rack toms so its really close and in reach easily. It’s good to mount it loose to encourage full range of motion. This will extend the life of the cymbal and bring out the full resonance and character of the cymbal as well.
Since drummers use the ride often, you don’t want it too far to your right where you have to bend your wrist or turn your body to get to it. If you imagine the hands of a clock and 12 o'clock being directly ahead of you when sitting down, you’ll want the ride to be somewhere between your 1 and 2 o'clock position. If you have it over at the 3 o'clock position it’s probably not the most ideal spot for it and it will cause unnecessary stress in the long run.
A lot of people like to keep the ride up high, but I find that this causes discomfort and it just feels unnatural. You want it to be low enough where the stick and your arm will naturally fall on it and it should be angled just enough where you have easy access to the bow, bell, and edge.
Similarly to the snare drum, you want to make sure not to tilt the cymbal too much. You don’t want the stick hitting it at too extreme of an angle or else your technique and the cymbal resonance will suffer.
A good exercise for ride cymbal placement is to pretend that you are playing the ride, take away the sticks, and then hold your arm in that playing position for 5 minutes and see how it feels. If it’s not in its ideal position you'll be able to quickly tell because of the stress on your body, and you’ll probably need to pull it closer or make it a bit lower.
Main Crash Cymbals
Let’s talk about the main crash first. The reason why it’s important to place toms before this is so that you can see exactly where your sticks are going to be swinging as you are playing on your high toms. Once you find this “zone“, you should try to position your first crash just outside of it but close enough where it’s easy to reach. It should be just slightly angled, and at a natural height where you won’t need to reach up high for it. Place it in close proximity to the hi-hat so that it’s easy to crash while you’re playing a groove.
As for the second crash it might be a good idea to invest in a boom cymbal stand if you don’t already have one. It can be tricky getting the right distance for this 2nd crash, so having the ability to fine tune it for your specific needs is a great idea.
You’ll see a lot of drummers placing their cymbals way up high. Sure, it can look cool, but there are no benefits to doing this and it will only cause more stress as you play. It’s all about accessibility, ease of motion, and removing any tense feelings in your body.
If your toms are mounted to the top of your bass drum, you might be forced to position them high up and far out of reach which in turn will negatively affect your cymbal position over top of them. If this is the case, I’d recommend clamping your toms to a stand or rack so that you can more easily position them low and close for easy access.
You can also air drum while sitting on your throne to see exactly where the most comfortable spot is for you. It’s good to mount the cymbals on a slightly downward angle to promote resonance and good striking technique.
Be cautious of how tight you secure the cymbals to the stand. If you put them on too tight you’ll choke the sound out of the cymbal and this has a high chance of breaking cymbals. You want them to have a nice full range of motion.
Splashes And China Cymbals
Besides your 2 main crashes, the placement of all the extra accessory cymbals you add from here on are not as critically important. For example if you have a splash cymbal, you probably won’t be playing it nearly as much as your crashes so placing it off to the left or right or your drum set is totally fine since you can dedicate one hand to it. You probably won’t need to reach across and be able to play it with both hands easily.
It’s important to still make sure it can be played comfortably with that one hand keeping in mind distance, height, and angle, but knowing that you don’t have to worry about both hands will open up the possibility of areas to place it.
As far as splash cymbals go, I personally love placing one right between the hi-hat and main crash. It gives you super-easy access to a nice little accent while you are grooving away, and it’s a great way to add flavor to your playing. Like all things in the guide though, there’s no hard rule on this. Some people love placing their splashes right in the middle or way too the right and that’s totally fine.
In the end, this is really all about preventing injury. If you want to continue playing for many years to come, it’s important to take care of your body and remove any repetitive stress.
Look at videos of some of your favorite drummers to see how they position their cymbals. Examine everything including height, distance, and angle, and see how hard they have to work to reach a certain cymbal. It all comes down to experimentation to see what works best for you.
Your drum set is going to continuously evolve as you add and take away new gear, so don’t worry about being glued to one specific arrangement. These are just suggestions to help you become a better drummer through ergonomics and continue playing well into the later part of your life.