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Which Finger Cymbals or Zills Are the Best?

Those Tiny Little Bells Can Make a Big Difference

"For Beginners" (ZAGHAREET! (May/June 2008)
by Anthea Kawakib Poole

Disclaimer: I've used Zildjian, Saroyan, Turquoise, al Wikalah, and assorted no-name brands... one hole, two hole slots, big, little, silver, brass... this article is about my personal favorites and recommendations for dancers starting to use finger cymbals.

Gotta Love Those... Finger Cymbals!

Finger cymbals are one of the most identifiable aspects of belly dancing. I can’t count how many times I’ve told people what I do, and they ask, “Do you play those (insert odd descriptive terms here)?” while clicking their fingers together to demonstrate what they mean. Yes, ‘finger cymbals’.  “Oh...”

Students also seem either thrilled or apprehensive about learning to play them. If you can drive a car, walk and talk at the same time, text or type, or any other complex manipulative skill we do without much thinking, it’s not out of the question to be able to play them while you dance!

There’s no point in trying to rush this skill so I usually start people on finger cymbals after 6 months or even a year of class; then the body can go on “automatic” while the cymbals get more focus.  If you want to play them, or are having trouble playing them well, I recommend studying with a teacher that you have heard play them. If her students also play them well, that’s encouraging; but remember dancing, and playing cymbals well, doesn’t guarantee the teacher can teach you well. It’s always OK to keep looking until you find a teacher that works for you.

What Kind Should You Get?

Get a set (a set is four matching cymbals) that are NOT necessarily the cheapest ones you can find! You’ll be hearing them a LOT so they may as well sound nice. The cheap “tourist” ones usually sound horrible - thin, tinny, and untuned - don’t bother with those.

Check the size - even a small increase in size feels and sounds different. “Student” or “starter” cymbals are usually 2 and 1/16 inches across; they can be found for $12 - 20 which is not a lot considering that they practically last forever - unless you lose them. At that price, cymbals must still be the cheapest item on your belly dance wish list!

Also, your performance location as well as your personal “hearing” preference will determine what kind you should play over what someone else might suggest. Having said that though I’ll give you my choices: the top brands I’ve used and recommend are Saroyan and Turquoise. Even though I dance Egyptian style, the cupped “Turkish style” cymbals have long been my “go-to” set for most large public gigs; for Tribal I use either Saroyan’s “Modern” and “Contemporary”; but for belly grams in smaller spaces (and for class), I always used Turquoise’s “student size” - they’re gentle on the ears, and most belly grams are in small spaces. Saroyan’s 2 and 1/2-inch “Tut’s” were the kind I used in my Finger Cymbal Solo.

More expensive brands are out there, but I haven’t found them as useful in as many different settings and locations as the brands listed above; in fact, the more expensive set never comes out of its bag because I personally can’t stand how they sound - they actually hurt my ears. I recommend the Turquoise “student set” to my beginning finger cymbal students; they’re perfect for class and for most of their performances as well - and I’m not getting paid to say any of this! They’re a safe choice to buy online even without hearing them first. You can find them at Turquoise International's website

close up Anthea
            Finger Cymbals

How Do They Stay On?

I have no use for those one-hole cymbals - maybe they’re historically authentic, but one hole doesn’t give you the physical control that two vertical slots do. So instead of a “o” they should have “ | | “ for the elastic.

(See complete sewing directions here: Elastic Tutorial)

Ahem! There is no excuse for messiness! Please don’t just tie the elastic together and leave the ends to fray. Yes, it makes a difference - it looks horrible, and the extra elastic inside the cymbal interferes with the sound. Sew the elastic, don't use safety pins. Pins are sloppy looking and interfere with the sound.

No Flying Cymbals!

When you have your cymbals on, they should be tight enough to stay put when you move your hands/arms around. Since your fingers will probably start turning blue after a few minutes, don't keep them on over 15 minutes at a time.

If you're new to cymbals, look at my how-to articles and videos. They will help you learn simple finger cymbal patterns as well as how to hear, count, and practice them. Until then, if you like sewing, you can use some of your pretty fabric scraps for a custom “Drawstring Bag” for your cymbals. Drawstring Bag Tutorial: How To Make A Finger Cymbal Pouch.

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