The drumset is a 20th century invention. Sure, in the very late 19th century a few crafty New Orleanians decided to earn double for playing the snare drum while kicking the bass drum with their feet, but the concept of a "drum set" as we accept it now — bass drum, snare drum, a few tom-toms of various sizes, foot cymbals and a few on stands, all played by a single drummer — came together with jazz and was standardized vis-à-vis the sounds and media images of rock n' roll.
As such, it's a bit surprising that the largest modern cymbal company is also one of the world's oldest businesses. Avedis Zildjian, the company's founder, was an alchemist, not an instrument maker. Though he failed to produce gold, his stew of copper, tin and silver had musical qualities pulchritudinous enough to earn the ear of the Sultan and a place in his court as the chief cymbal maker for his military bands. In 1623, Zildjian launched a private business and his secret recipe has passed to successive generations since. The current Zildjians, now headquartered in Norwell, Mass., are the 14th generation.
Modern drummers are accustomed to a wall of options at every music store: large ride cymbals from 18-24" diameters, medium size crashes (14-20") in any weight or finish imaginable, tiny "splashes" or other "FX" cymbals like china boys, bells and bizarre combinations of all of the above. So thick is the market with variety, advertisement, product placement and artist endorsements that it seems impenetrable, and indeed, unlike the drum market, which is rife with small custom companies, few independent cymbal makers exist.
Enter Justin Ottaviano, cymbalsmith. A high school acquaintance, I re-met Ottaviano first at the 2011 CT Drum Show where he stood amid a small forest of cymbals, chest-high, on stands. All measured between 18 and 22 inches but each was unique. A few of the pies, as cymbal collectors lovingly refer to them, were buffed to a golden shimmer, while others were brown with oxide. Circular grooves, like those on an LP, covered some but not all, as did variations of the distinct pocks of hammering. Some featured rounded, inverted bowl-like bells yet others were endowed with just a small bump. All of them however sang sweet and complex songs when tickled with the tip of a drumstick. These were elegant cymbals that came neither from Turkey nor Norwell but rather from Ottaviano's basement in Guilford, Conn.
Well, that's not completely true. I had an image of Ottaviano sweating over a steaming caldron of molten metal, forging cymbals like a medieval weapon maker. But when I visited the workshops located in his father's basement in Guilford (he has a second nearby in his basement), Ottaviano explained that he purchases bulk quantities of "blanks" — large discs of B20 alloy (80 percent copper, 20 percent tin) — from a Turkish manufacturer and then cuts, lathes, and hammers them into shape. It is a labor-intensive process, both in terms of time and physical energy.
Ottaviano began tinkering with store-bought cymbals when he was in middle school, which caught the attention of his grandfather who then introduced him to various metal-working tools that he owned, such as the lathe. Lathing shaves the top of a cymbal, transforming it from a blank into a lighter more resonant metal disc, and it also gives the cymbal its visual appearance. "There's so much you can do," Ottaviano explains, holding up a cymbal that was splotched with brown and copper. "Here some of the oxide came off and some didn't. I could have continued and removed more for a consistent appearance. When you lathe a cymbal you're putting metal against it. You could put a steel bar against it [at various pressures] to get different grooves, or just buff it for shine."
It is when Ottaviano shows me his collection of cymbal hammers, some with tips he modified, others weighted to the front or back, and one he forged himself, that he becomes most animated and indeed, it is Ottaviano's hammering process that separates his cymbals from the rest. Ottaviano, a sturdy, broad shouldered man, explains, "It takes me about three weeks to do a batch of eight cymbals. I probably hammer for two hours a session, almost every day. My back will never be the same!"
Though other companies offer "hand hammered" cymbals, Ottaviano notes a key difference, "At Zildjian or any other big company they have a big die mold and they'll put four or five blanks in, press them into shape, and then re-hammer them." Ottaviano's flat blanks are worked into shape, much like the first several centuries of Zildjian cymbals were, entirely by hand. First he creates the profile of the cymbal from the flat blank, making a slight slope from the center to the edges. Once he is satisfied with a cymbal's profile, Ottaviano hammers it more, this time to alter the sound and stick response, not the shape. He then plays it, hammers more, and continues the process until he likes the cymbal. "Maybe there's a harsh overtone or something … I'd hammer it. Hammering the cymbal on the top makes it stiffer, on the bottom makes it looser; really, you just have to mess with it." Once completed, each of Ottaviano's cymbals is a unique instrument.
Ottaviano's cymbals appeal almost exclusively to jazz drummers, who spend most of their time playing ride cymbals and do so in environments with enough subtlety and dynamic range to warrant an investment in a boutique product. Really, Ottaviano occupies a niche within a niche. Jazz accounts for roughly 3 percent of U.S. record sales, and within that number only so many of the musicians are drummers. But that works for Ottaviano because his cymbals have already caught the attention of several prominent jazz drummers and, as a one-man show, he's struggling to produce enough to maintain inventory at the several East Coast drum shops that carry his cymbals. (You can learn more about Ottaviano's cymbals at ottavianocymbals.com.) Though they sell for $700-$800 dollars, roughly $300 more than the most expensive Zildjian cymbal, Ottaviano is not even sure if, given the time and energy he's expended, he can claim to have turned a profit yet. Clearly however, that's not what is driving Ottaviano's hammer.
"Is this going to make me rich?" Ottaviano asks rhetorically. "Probably not. Sometimes when I'm hammering in my basement for three weeks straight I think to myself, 'Is this worth it?'" Yet, like many jazz musicians, Ottaviano seems to value the reward of honor within his field more than money. He continues, "It's worth it to me when I find out that guys are playing a Ron Carter gig with my cymbal somewhere in Europe right now."