The “Old K” Myth: Fact or Fiction?

For decades, jazz drummers in particular have lusted after vintage K Zildjian cymbals, and over the last year, prices of these rarities have gone through the roof, fetching sums over a thousand dollars for ride cymbals in particular, although in the last month or so, prices have calmed down as the market seems to have been saturated. In addition, just about every cymbal company on the planet is now trying to recreate the old K sound and feel with new models. What has caused this phenomenon? Simple. It’s just another case of drummers trying to latch onto what they perceive as a legendary sound.

A Little History:

Let’s start at the beginning. In 1929, the American operation of the Avedis Zildjian Company set up shop in Massachusetts, leaving relatives in Istanbul to fend for themselves and continue their own cymbal-making adventures. The Turkish faction, led first by Kerope Zildjian (the “K” in K. Zildjian) and eventually by Mikhail Zilcan, a Zildjian relative-by-marriage, continued the manufacture of cymbals based on ancient traditions of wood-fired ovens, hand hammering and more, techniques that had been used for centuries in the making of cymbals. So, there were now two Zildjian cymbal companies. The Fred Gretsch Company of Brooklyn, NY became the exclusive American importer/distributor of K. Zildjian cymbals and remained so for decades. In 1977, Mikhail Zilcan passed away and shortly thereafter, the Avedis Zildjian Company acquired all rights to the name K. Zildjian, giving them the green light to finally make their own K. Zildjian cymbals, the now-collectible “first series” K’s.

But let’s not move too far ahead. During the swing era, drumming stars like Gene Krupa, Chick Webb, Jo Jones, Buddy Rich and many others enthusiastically used Avedis Zildjian cymbals, giving the Americans the edge. However, in the 1950’s as Gretsch drums became the brand of choice of the new breed of jazz drummers like Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, Chico Hamilton, Mel Lewis and others, K. Zildjian cymbals began to gain favor. The darker, trashier qualities of the Turkish K’s appealed to these young jazz drummers, as opposed to the brighter, distinctly machine-manufactured sound of Avedis Zildjian cymbals. As all the above-named drummers were Gretsch endorsers, it also made sense for them to use K’s, which were readily available in the Gretsch factory in Brooklyn. One need look no further than period recordings by Miles Davis featuring the young Tony Williams and John Coltrane’s records with Elvin Jones to experience the exotic, earthy, dirty and dark sound of K. Zildjian cymbals. Drummers still rave about the “Tony Williams ride sound” to this day. Let’s state right here and now that the “old K myth” primarily concerns it self with ride cymbals, although the K factory made a full range of sizes and models over the years; crashes, hi-hats, splashes, etc. In those heady days of bebop and round badge Gretsch drumsets, the “old K myth” was born.

Fact vs. Myth:

Myth: “Old K’s are all darker.”

Fact: Wrong! Certain lighter K’s were darker and the heavier ones were brighter. That’s just simple physics. You can find the same qualities in many old A. Zildjian cymbals as well.

Myth: “Old K’s were handmade and therefore better.”

Fact: Wrong again! If anything, the opposite is true. Old, handmade K’s are hit and miss at best. Truth is, for every magical-sounding old K ride, there were dozens that were awful. Bells were pressed incorrectly, holes were crookedly drilled, lathing was uneven and excessive hammering could have a negative effect on cymbal sound and endurance. Many of them were just plain duds. Phil Grant, former artist relations’ manager at Gretsch stated repeatedly that finding a great K ride in the Gretsch warehouse was often a time consuming task. Apparently, quality control was pretty much non-existent at the Turkish factory.

Myth: “Old K’s are only good for jazz.”

Fact: Yes and no. The brighter ones can be used comfortably on a blues or light rock gig, but do you want to chance breaking one, especially at the current prices? Besides, the darker qualities of lightweight Turkish handmade cymbals don’t really cut through rock music too well.

The Myth & Market Today:

So, is the “old K myth” fact, fiction, clever marketing or a bogus legend? Judging by the prices these coveted old manhole covers are commanding in drum shops and online auctions, there must be something to it. And why is it that larger cymbal companies like Zildjian, Sabian and even Paiste, known for their Swiss precision and uniformity, have spent untold sums developing and marketing cymbals that vaguely reproduce the old K sound? Simple; they see a viable market for K-like cymbals. Truth is, what they’re doing is flooding the market with a style of cymbal that appeals only to a relatively small group of purists. And then, there are the Turks.

Over the last eighteen to twenty years, Turkish cymbal makers, most of whom have direct ties to the old K factory, have taken up the gauntlet of faithfully reproducing the K sound, doing it the old-fashioned way: with wood fires, hand-hammering, hand lathing and all the centuries-old techniques we discussed earlier. Names like Istanbul Agop, Istanbul Mehmet (Istanbul used to be one company until internal strife tore them apart), Bosphorous, Anatolian, Turkish and Grand Master are available in relatively small numbers in the USA compared to the “big three” cymbal giants, but they have begun to make their mark, and some of the cymbals these newcomers produce is of excellent quality, although I’d argue that Bosphorus isn’t among them. I am not at all impressed with their offerings so far; too inconsistent both in sound, weight and quality. Maybe I just haven’t found the right one. Does that remind you of the old K’s? Conversely, some of the K-like offerings by the “big three” are impressive, but keep in mind they all use machine hammering and other mass production methods. Zildjian is not shy about bragging that their machine-made, computer controlled manufacturing techniques faithfully reproduce the K sound, but caveat emptor. Don’t be taken in by the propaganda on Zildjian’s web site stating that hand hammering is a “marketing ploy.” Hand hammering is an art form that Zildjian avoids for the sake of turning out product as quickly as possible to meet market demand. Hand hammering works just fine, thank you. Be aware also, it’s entirely possible that Istanbul Agop, Mehmet or Bosphorous also makes Anatolian, Turkish and Grand Master cymbals. We don’t know for sure and nobody’s talking. As of this writing, another Turkish cymbal maker has surfaced-Mastersound Cymbals, which are not yet available in the USA.

Forgeries:

There has been a lot of speculation lately on some of the online drum and cymbal forums that many of the so-called “old K’s” are forgeries. Floods of 22″ K’s have hit the market in the last few months, prompting some of us to question their authenticity. Even in their best years, the output from the K factory was relatively low. Where are all these “Old K’s” coming from? A recent post on a popular Internet drum forum by an amateur drummer/car salesperson, addressed a conversation he had with a Turkish-born customer not long ago. He was told (and I loosely quote) that “many of the cymbals American drummers think are old Turkish K’s are really forgeries being made in Turkey right now, and this practice has been happening for many years, even back in the 1950’s.” That’s food for thought, indeed. If a clever craftsman (i.e. con man) can make a bogus vintage style Fender Stratocaster and fool guitar dealers and collectors alike, faking an old cymbal must be a piece of cake. I have spoken to a knowledgeable cymbal craftsman who has assured me that it is absolutely possible to reproduce a cymbal that looks and more importantly, sounds just like an authentic old K. Consider THAT before you plunk down big bucks for what appears to be an old K ride cymbal.

After reading this article, do you still want an old K.? If so, stayed tuned for the next installment on buying one, plus the latest status of the K myth, heroes and villains, quotes from K experts, and the current and future influences of Oriental and Italian cymbal makers on this share of the cymbal market. You’re in for a few surprises.