Episode 22: Cymbalsmith Ray Byrne of Byrne Cymbals and A&F Collaborator

Have you ever played a totally custom, hand-hammered, handmade cymbal? Maybe you’ve experienced one of those holy grail old Ks made in Turkey. Or perhaps you’ve played a Spizzichino, a Bettis, or a Lauritzen. If these names aren’t familiar to you – and there’s a good chance they’re not – stay tuned because everything you think you know about what cymbals can be, is about to change.

Today’s guest is a different type of personality than I’ve ever had on Drum Showroom. He speaks with the language of an artist, devoid of salesmanship and look-at-me marketing. This matter-of-fact style of speaking made him a joy to talk to and a pleasure to edit. Like virtually every other guest on the show, he came up as a childhood drummer, made modifications to gear he wanted to be different, but then cymbalsmith Ray Byrne took a very different turn on his journey, that I think has influenced his work and way of thinking about instruments.

Ray and I pick up the story when he went off the beaten path… pun intended.

RB: When I was 19, I ended up going to the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery in Phoenix, Arizona where I learned how to build and repair guitars, and over the next 11 years between Dallas and the Chicago suburbs I did guitar repair, and I built a handful of guitars for friends. Right now I’ve got a classical guitar, as a matter of fact, that I’m building for a friend. That’s not something that I do to sell; it’s just a friends and family thing if they ask me to. I did guitar repair for a long time, but was still just kind of a funny thing: I was a guitar tech that was a drummer. That was something that I enjoyed, it was a way for me to be a part of the music community.

But I always had this dream of making cymbals, and going back to when I was in high school I had put rivets in a bunch of cymbals with a friend, and that was really exciting back then. I had tried rehammering stuff and probably just destroyed it, but it’s all part of the learning process. So then several years ago, I started researching more and more about how I could possibly make cymbals, because we think of it as such a manufactured product.

For a lot of the drum makers that are out there, you can buy a shell, the hardware, you can kind of assemble it from parts, but how do you get cymbal bronze? How do you get a raw cymbal blank? And eventually online I found out about Roberto Spizzichino. There’s a great little mini-doc that’s just a few minutes long. After I had seen that, the curiosity as a hobby was ignited to a different level so I started emailing different cymbal manufacturers overseas.

If you think of the North American cymbal suppliers, they’re not really interested in supplying somebody like me with cymbal blanks, at least not very often, so I work with a couple of overseas cymbal manufacturers, and they supply me with totally raw cymbal blanks. They’re dirty, crusty, and sharp, with jagged edges. Usually I get them with a bell pressed in the middle, but that’s the only prefabricated part that really it comes with. The hammering and the lathing that I do, but I just I kind of got into it step by step over a number of years determine everything else.

That involved a lot of steps because, for example, you can’t buy a cymbal lathe; you really have to make one, so I’m on my third lathe that I’ve built and have worked on. I took an old wood lathe and I was able to convert it to an outboard lathe where I can put the cymbal hole over the spindle and had to do a bunch of modifications on it, but it’s just been a process from building the tools to figuring out what kind of carbide to work with to… all those little things.

All the tools are pretty simple. There’s nothing terribly complex about them, but you can’t just go buy them. You’ve got to figure this stuff out on your own. You’ve got to be willing to make it on your own and so that’s all part of the process and that all came kind of slowly, so it’s been in some ways it’s been a 20-year process, and in other ways it’s been like a five-year process, but it’s just been a long time coming to get to the point where I’m at where I’m really doing what I want with cymbals.

DS: So interesting, why do guitar makers get this cool name of luthier, but we don’t have a word like that for drum makers?

RB: I don’t know. That’s a great question. I guess you know luthier goes back to, I guess lute maker, and that was just kind of applied across the board to violin makers, and so there’s probably a little bit more of a romanticized history there that doesn’t really get applied. I guess making drums isn’t as sexy or something like that.

DS: I guess the closest analogue we have is the Zildjian family name, which means cymbalsmith in Turkish. It’s interesting, you take a very similar path, it sounds like, to Matt Bettis, another handmade cymbal guy who’s getting blanks from a factory and then turning them into art.

RB: Yeah.

DS: He was getting cymbal blanks from a factory in China and now is getting them from Sabian, right?

RB: I reached out to Sabian, and they sent me a very polite reply letting me know that they were only going to be working with Matt. And that’s okay. I just thought that being on the same continent, I’d have cheaper shipping because when you’re shipping big pieces of sheet metal across the world that’s expensive, and it just would have been nice to be able to have that little bit more locally sourced, but at the end of the day whether it’s from China or Turkey or Canada, it’s eighty percent copper, twenty percent tin. It’s all been treated in a very similar way, and the thing that’s going to turn it into the cymbal that it will become, will be the hammering strategy and how it’s lathed. It’s really kind of in the hands of the cymbalsmith at that point.

There’s another cymbalsmith in Australia named Craig Lauritzen, and he’s a really cool guy.

DS: He makes some really unique and not-so-mainstream stuff, right?

RB: Yeah, I really admire his stuff. He makes some pang-type cymbals that are really cool that have been an inspiration to me. He was very kind to patiently answer some questions. I would email him like once a year. I would try and wait until I really had a good question to ask because I didn’t want to wear out my welcome with him.

DS: Do you have a specific design- or working philosophy that you feel like defines the cymbals as a whole?

RB: Yeah, I start with just the piece of bronze and as I work it and shape it. You know, the big difference between a truly, fully hand hammered cymbal that’s made by one person versus even hand hammered cymbals that are made in a mass-produced sense, and certainly completely different from your mostly punch-pressed cymbals that come out of out of your big three or four cymbal manufacturers is that it’s kind of almost like you’re like you’re engaged in a conversation with the piece of bronze because as you hammer it and as you stretch it, there’s hammering strategies.

So I lay down a foundation around the bell going a few inches out, and I just work in a continuous spiral, and then I stop and then I hammer in these pie slices that go opposite back and forth across the cymbal just the way you tune a drum or the way you change the lugs on a tire, to evenly distribute the tension, and more or less, whatever you do to the top you’ve got to do to the bottom. They don’t always do what I want all the way, and some of that’s me, and some of that’s the bronze just responding to that gradual shaping, but not every cymbal—the way it comes out—you know, I can make it into what I want it to be. But sometimes the curvature, and how it looks and how it comes out after having spent several hours with it might be a little different, so I might set apiece aside for a different project or for a different customer.

The profile of a cymbal makes a big difference. People focus on weight a lot, and I think that’s something that you can determine a lot by, but how you hammer it makes a difference. Not just how much material you lathe off… When you do a lot of top-hammering you get more fundamental, and if you do a lot of bottom-hammering it really loosens the cymbal up and makes it really washy, and even floppy: if you hold it on opposite ends of the cymbal and to shake it, a heavily bottom-hammered cymbal is going to wobble a lot. If I just take one of my cymbals that have been heavily bottom-hammered and I put it halfway over the edge of my workbench it hangs off a little bit because it’s such a loose, relaxed piece of bronze. Well, if that were entirely top-hammered, it would be a lot more rigid. I don’t know, it’s just working with each individual piece at it comes and shaping it, and working toward a vision of what profile you want.

Some of that is knowing when to stop. My sisters are both artists. One of them is a painter and sometimes I’ve wondered, “So when do you know that you’re done?” And she said, “that’s really tough.” And sometimes with a cymbal if you don’t know when you’re done, you’ll take it too far, and you’ll stretch it out too much. You’ll make it too loose.

After that, sometimes I’ll apply patinas; and then the lathing strategy is what comes next. I have two main series. The first is what I call the Vintage series, and that’s a fully lathed top and bottom. I don’t lathe it to the point where it’s it lathed clean. If you see some of the pitting and those little dark marks that are part of the original surface like on your [Zildjian K] Constantinoples, for example, I have I have a lot of that on my cymbals and even some of the original surface on the high points between the lathe marks. If I get it down to the weight I want, I’m not going to keep on taking material off just making it a shiny piece of bronze. I’m making a cymbal that is what I want it to be.

Usually a [as Spizzichino said of his work] sort of ugly, lot-of-character kind of thing. Maybe not perfect edges. It definitely has that sense of being an individually hand-produced item, and that’s what I’m going for. That’s what I want.

Same thing with the Quarter Turk series. That’s my take—a little play on words—with the common term Half Turk. My Quarter Turk series is fully lathed bottom, and then I do a pin lathe across the top, and the I just do a little bit of band lathing if I feel like it, and then I lathe off a little bit of extra material near the edge on the top to make sure that it opens up and can crash a little bit.

DS: Very cool. I think that a lot of drummers, particularly if they have only experienced mass-produced cymbals from the big three or four, have not probably experienced a cymbal that has a lot of bottom hammering. Is that a fair characterization, you think?

RB: Yeah, I would say going back to of my days at Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, the director of the school, John Reuter had said that he would build somebody their first custom guitar, and they would get it, and it would have so many overtones and so much tonal color that people were so used to having a tight, overbuilt guitar that they would think that something was wrong with this new guitar, they got because there was so much more resonance, there was so much more going on than what they were used to from a heavily built acoustic guitar.

They just weren’t prepared to accept it, so bringing it back to cymbals, if you’re used to a punch-pressed… kind of think Star Wars® Storm Troopers: they all look the same, then that’s going to be your expectation. I guess I’m revealing what a nerd I am now keeping with the Star Wars theme, but you go over to the to the Rebel Alliance and everybody’s a different species and everybody’s clothes are a little different. There’s more character. It’s just what you’re used to having in front of you, and a fully hand hammered custom cymbal that hasn’t been punch-pressed, that’s been made by an individual… It’s just going to have individual character, and that’s what it is. And it’s going to be really unique and there’s going to be tonal colors that you’re not used to necessarily and it’s special. I wouldn’t even say better, but just different.

DS: Yeah, you would expect that they’d have more color and detail and texture to the sound than a mass-produced cymbal, but I think what is interesting about the ones that I’ve experienced is that they tend to have a wider range in feel. In terms of the feel of the stick against the cymbal, the amount they give, the amount they wobble, the amount that they flex. And also, I’d say the range of sounds that you can easily coax from them. I think that’s what people love about the old Turkish Ks or early handmade Zildjians, for example, that can be a ride, can be a crash, you could shank them really well, and I think those are some of the characteristics that I see in this new breed of yours and Matt’s and other makers’ handmade cymbals.

RB: Yeah, I would agree, again going back to it being an individual and not a clone. It’s going to have more of that character, and that might mean that you don’t like every single hand hammered cymbal that doesn’t necessarily appeal to your taste, but a lot of the stuff I’m making is a lot lighter. One person described the 22-inch hi-hats I made for Ramy Antoun (A&F founder) as being “papery” and “kind of 1950s,” and that guy meant that in an “I don’t like it” way, but I was like, “man, that’s the best compliment I’ve ever been paid! That’s what I was going for!” Yeah, the guy leaving the comment didn’t like it, but there are people who want that and that’s what I want, and again, I’m making cymbals that I like. And if you don’t like them, that’s okay. Go get a Z Custom! (Laughs)

DS: What are some of your Inspirations, since we’re talking about sounds and the approach, as far as what you’re what you’re trying to build? What are some of the cymbals that have inspired you the most, or who are some of the cymbal makers or lines of cymbals that inspire what you’re making?

RB: From afar, not having met them personally, Matt Bettis and Craig Lauritzen have really been great inspirations, and again, Craig being in Australia answering my emails, he’s been very kind to me in the past. But I would say just going back to Spizzichino: he’s the father of the movement. I’ve watched as much video that’s out there. I’ve tried to learn as much about as I could just from– you know how when you watch something over and over again, and you’ll start to pick up like, “okay I see what’s going on there,” and even I’m at a point where I can see hammering patterns.

DS: You’re way down the rabbit hole!

BR: (laughs) Yeah, and so I know what a cymbalsmith, how they got to that point and some of what their strategy was. I’m very grateful to the legacy of Robert Spizzichino.

DS: When I first became aware of Roberto, he was making these utterly beautiful cymbals that I was never really going to play because they were very thin and very jazz-oriented, and it’s exciting to see guys like you and Matt that are focused more on more commercial music-oriented cymbals that are not only something you take on a piano trio gig, but also something that you can lay into.

RB: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that’s where the range of what can be made really comes into play, both in in taper and in profile, and weight overall where there’s a level of customization.

DS: Yeah, I think the big companies have done a good job talking about weight, talking about types of finishes. They haven’t, as you said, done a good job talking about profile height, bell size and height of the bell, and as you say the hammering on the bottom. I think those are three really crucial areas that can make or break a cymbal or that can give somebody like you an opportunity to remake a cymbal that may not be doing everything its owner wants to do.

RB: I don’t take a lot of rehammer/relathe work, but saying that, I did get one in the mail yesterday from somebody that I they agreed to do. That just depends on really whether or not I feel like doing it.

This 18-inch Sabian Artisan cymbal I got is bright, and it does feel stiff for what this guy wants. And that’s not a criticism of that cymbal itself, but what the guy wants it out of it is a little different. He wants a little bit more trash, and he wants a little bit more of a looser cymbal, and so I’m going to do some bottom hammering on it to loosen it up. I’ll balance that a little bit with some top hammering and work some trash into it and then I’m going to thin it out and put a little bit more taper into it to get it to open up a little faster, and hopefully he’ll like it. But there’s definitely that aspect to doing some cymbal modification.

DS: What do you typically charge when you do modifications, or is it a one-off kind of pricing?

RB: It depends on what you want. If I’m gonna do some hammering I’m going to do lathing. I’ve packaged it, including return shipping for one ride cymbal, for $150. And that includes a rehammer, a relathe, return shipping, and packaging.

DS: That’s really, really affordable!

RB: Yeah, maybe I should raise my prices now that you said that!

DS: If I had a cymbal I loved 60-to-75 percent of, and wanted it to be that 25-to-40 percent better, I could keep going on the proverbial never-ending search for the perfect ride cymbal, or I could send it to you.

RB: I feel like it’s reasonable. It’s definitely not the same thing as making a cymbal from scratch. There’s a lot more blood, sweat, and tears in starting with a blank and going to a finished product than it is doing a rehammer and a relathe.

DS: Very cool. You sell primarily direct-to-consumer, right? You don’t sell through dealers for the most part?

RB: I sell direct-to-consumer on my website. People can message me and I can work with them on whatever idea is that they have. I do sell through Chicago Drum Exchange. And then I’m working with A&F and Ramy will have his Oddities cymbal concepts that will be available on their website exclusively. They’re his concepts, and I’m making them.

DS: Great, would you tell the listeners about how that relationship got started with A&F and how you to worked together in developing the Oddities line?

RB: You know it’s really cool. Ramy has been just one of the most encouraging, positive guys in the industry that I’ve worked with. Since he was a custom drum maker, I didn’t feel it was a conflict of interest and I had absorbed as much as I could about him and his company and how fast they have taken off. This spring will be officially two years for them, and so when you think of it that within two years, he’s got something like nine employees working for him. And they just continue to make more and more cool stuff. It’s all made in the US and it does a good job of harkening back to drums from one hundred years ago. I mean just everything about the company, it just bleeds cool.

DS: Doing it the right way.

RB: And I think people are really drawn to that, so I had actually written him an email not trying to get a partnership or anything, but I was asking him just to give me guidance. And my thought was hopefully this guy would write me back, and I could give him like three or four bullet point questions, and he’ll hopefully answer them.

Well, he called me, and we ended up talking on the phone for an hour. And my wife was gone at the store, and my kids are small so they’re really just loud human beings, and so I didn’t want to miss what this guy was saying to me, so I’m cooking dinner and I’m watching the kids by myself while my wife is out so I step out on the back porch. And I’m watching through the window dinner burning and my kids running around in circles and screaming, and I was like, “that’s okay. I don’t want to miss out on this conversation.” So in the course of that conversation, he just he gave me some guidance and was just really kind and helpful. Just I said, “I hope to own an A&F snare drum someday but it’s probably really not super close in my financial future though,” and he says, “Why don’t we do a trade?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me?!”

This is a totally cool guy. “Yeah, I’ll do a trade!” So I sent him the first pair of 22-inch hi-hats, and I made a 21-inch flat ride with rivets. Sometimes people will put together two ride cymbals and say that they’re 20-inch or 22-inch hi-hats. But I actually made and designed these (to be hi-hats) so the size of the bell, the hammering strategy, even the way the edges close together. Because at first they would close too tight and because of the size there was too much suction, so I had to mess up the edges just a little bit so that they would breathe and move and open up a little bit more easily.

So I sent him those and he loved them. And I sent him a 20-inch cymbal, which he actually didn’t like because it was it was too bright and heavy. He likes really thin stuff, so I took that back and he wanted the 21-inch flat ride. I’m still waiting on my snare, but they’ve got a long backlog so hopefully I’ll be getting my 6.5×14 pretty soon.

DS: What a great story.

RB: He was just so enthusiastic about the hi-hats and about the other stuff I sent him that after he got that first sample, he asked me what I would think about working with him on doing some A&F Oddities stuff. Since then I’ve made him the 24-inch square ride, the 18-inch square hi-hats, a set of bells, and some other stuff that’s coming down the line, so it just grew into a co-label partnership out of doing a swap.

DS: It’s really cool to hear you talk about him in that way, because as you say it’s a company that was started just a couple of years ago. It feels like a big company, the way that they run social media, the gravity that they have started to have within the industry, that he was so supportive of you and was willing to encourage you through working together. It’s really, really cool to hear.

RB: Yeah, I consider him a friend. He’s a great guy.

DS: And that’s really what the drum industry was built on many years ago. People who loved making music and loved making instruments, and that’s really where a lot of these companies whose last names are on the logos came from. It sounds like Ramy is one of those people.

RB: Yeah. Absolutely, and I think that’s one of that’s really one of my favorite things about the cymbal making is being a part of the drum community and having those kinds of interactions with people. It’s just really fun to be able to have. I’m loving what I’m doing. I’m loving the drum community and getting to be a part of it.

That’s Ray Byrne, the cymbalsmith behind Byrne Cymbals and the A&F Oddities Collection of cymbals. He transforms raw cymbal blanks into true works of art. Instruments that help drummers in turn create art themselves.

Listen to Drum Showroom Episode 22 here, and please subscribe and leave a review if you like what we’re doing. It would really mean a lot.

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