Armand Zildjian starts a lot of his sentences the same way: “I’ve got a cymbal that . . . ,” after which he describes the attributes of a particular cymbal in his private collection. His enthusiasm is evident as he expounds on whatever it is that makes the cymbal special to him, and after you’ve heard him talk about several different cymbals over the space of two hours, you begin to realize that this is a man who loves cymbals. And it’s not just his own cymbals that he gets excited about. Start telling him about your own favorite cymbal, and you’ll see his eyes light up as he nods understandingly at your enthusiasm.
To most of the world, the name “Zildjian” represents a manufacturing company. But to Armand it is his family name, of which he is justifiably proud. “You know what the name means, don’t you?” he asks. “It means ‘cymbal maker.’ ” Indeed, the name was bestowed on his family in the 1600s, in honor of the cymbals that were made by an alchemist named Avedis, who discovered the process for blending metals that is still used by the Zildjian company today.
The history of the Zildjian family has been well documented—how the “family secret” was passed down from generation to generation, how the company came to be established in the U.S. —but most of the family story centers around Armand’s father, Avedis (a great, great grandson of the original Avedis Zildjian). What of the man who has been running the company since his father’s death in 1979?
Born in 1921, some of Armand’s earliest memories are of the drummers who used to visit the Zildjian factory. “When I was a kid,” he recalls, “I loved the oncoming jazz thing. I used to skip school when I knew that my father had a drummer coming in. Whatever band was in town—Chick Webb, Gene Krupa, Lionel Hampton— they would always come out on the steam train that ran out to North Quincy. I was always dying to talk with them, or to see them play, or watch them test cymbals.”
It was fortunate for Armand that he was so interested in drummers, because when he reached the ripe old age of 14, his father put him to work in the factory. “I started out in the melting room,” Armand says, “while I was still going to school. I had to work on Saturdays and during the summers. Then I went away to school for a while, but whenever I came home for Christmas or summer vacations, I had to work in the factory. I could go out at night, but I had to work during the day. My father came from the old country, and he was a great believer in devotion to work. His work was also his hobby. It was everything to him, and now I’m thankful that I was brought up that way.
“Then came the war,” Armand continues, “and I was in the Coast Guard Navy in the Pacific. When I got out, it was the end of October, and I went back to work in the factory the very next day because my father needed me. He had been doing government orders for the army and the navy, for the British Admiralty, and even for the jazz bands that played for the soldiers. Everyone was screaming for cymbals; you could sell anything as long as it had a hole in it. We had to work hard to keep up with the demand, because making a Zildjian cymbal is a slow process.”
It was during this time that Armand observed a major change in the type of cymbals that people wanted. “Before the war,” he explains, “the snare drum was the dominant factor. The ride beat was just starting to develop with the swing bands, but the ride cymbal that both Gene [Krupa] and Buddy [Rich] used was a 14″, if you can believe that. A big hi-hat was 12”. We used to sell hundreds of 10″, 11″, and 12″ hi-hats. That sounds ridiculous today. But back then the sets would have 26″ or 28″ bass drums, with a 12″ hi-hat and a 14″ ride cymbal.
“Then, after the war, music seemed to change. The bass drums came down to 22″, then 20″, and then even 18″. But the cymbals started getting bigger. I remember when Gene Krupa wanted a 16″ crash cymbal to go on his right side. Our rolling mill would get stuck trying to pull that much metal through. It could take all day to roll 20 or 30 16″ cymbals, because we kept having to back the mill up, raise the rolls, pull the cymbals out, and start all over again.”
At that time, nothing pleased Armand more than being able to make cymbals for Gene Krupa. “This was in his heyday,” Armand says, “when Gene Krupa was God. Buddy Rich was maybe more technical and more talented, but he wasn’t Gene Krupa. I don’t know how else to say it. And of course, Gene was a hell of a nice guy. I had gotten a set of Slingerland Radio King drums just like Gene’s, and he’d come up to the house and show me things. In fact, I remember that my father once had the whole Krupa band over. We took them out for a lobster dinner.
“You can’t say enough about Gene Krupa. I think the biggest thing I ever learned from Gene was that he was a listener, which is very different than a lot of people today. He was just a wonderful man.”
When Armand came back to the company after the war, he was dividing his time between working in the melting room and filling orders. “I had to be there to do the melting at 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning,” he remembers. “Then, between each melt, I’d run down to the shipping room and do the orders. I’d match hi-hat cymbals by holding them in my hand, without having to use the pedal. Then I’d do the ride cymbals and crash cymbals. If a drummer came in who needed a set of cymbals, I’d help pick them.”
Max Roach recalls his visits to the Zildjian factory in those days: “Whenever I went there to pick out cymbals, Armand would walk through the shop with me and explain the cymbals. He would have me stand at a distance, and he would play the cymbals for me so that I could hear them. I could just describe what I wanted on the telephone—’something that roars,’ or ‘something that has a sharp ping,’ or ‘something that has a broad sound’—and Armand would send it to me.”
Armand, meanwhile, was having the time of his life. “I got to know virtually every drummer who was really worth anything,” he says. “Buddy Rich used to drive out in a Jaguar when he was with the Harry James band. We were all mesmerized. Then I met Louie Bellson. He had just been through the Benny Goodman band and was going into the Tommy Dorsey band. Boy, I’ll tell you, Louie was it. What a great guy. Those were really great times. We had a lot of fun and a lot of laughs. It made the work seem like nothing.
“Then came the Stan Kenton era,” Armand continues. “I picked all of Shelly Manne’s cymbals when he was with Kenton. I remember one night after a concert, Shelly and I stayed up all night talking about cymbals. That guy had a tremendous ear for cymbals and the most flowing ride beat. Then when Shelly left the band, Stan Levey came in. He was a big guy who used to be a boxer. When he joined the Kenton band, that’s when Stan wanted bigger cymbals. They were using 24″ ride cymbals and 22” crashes. Levey was the only guy I ever saw who could bust a cymbal bell. Kenton would call me from all over the United States and say, ‘That guy’s done it again. We need a couple of more ride cymbals.’
“Then other drummers came along, and cymbals got bigger and bigger to the extent that I have matched 18″ hi-hat cymbals and 26″ rides. Some of the cymbals were absolutely ridiculous, but that was the trend at that time. Now, I think the trend is changing back towards smaller cymbals. For instance, Lennie [DiMuzio] and I have been on a kick for five or six years about 13″ hi-hats. We think that they cut better. A lot of drummers like Peter Erskine and Buddy Rich are using them now, because they see that they’re easier to handle and they give a higher pop and brilliance.”
As the Zildjian business grew and Armand became more involved in the running of the company, he needed someone to help with the cymbal testing. Enter Lennie DiMuzio. “He was playing in a bar in Boston,” Armand remembers. “You could see that he was a damn good drummer. He knew what he was doing, and he was a very likable and affable fellow. Then I got Leon Chappini, who has a great ear for cymbals. Having drummers in the factory like Lennie and Leon is a great help, because whenever we have a problem or a new idea, we can run it through these guys and get their opinion on it.”
Armand is so quick to give credit to those around him that many people are not aware of his own abilities on the instrument. “He’s a hell of a cymbal player,” Max Roach says, “and I mean that. I’ve seen Armand do some uncanny things with the cymbals and a pair of sticks. I dare say that he would have been a great drummer if he had stuck to it.” Lennie DiMuzio is also quick to acknowledge Armand’s prowess on cymbals. “He has an incredible ride beat,” Lennie says. “Whenever Buddy or Louie would come out to the factory, we’d match them against Armand. I’m telling you, Armand’s speed was right in there. Of course, this was in the days when Armand was testing the cymbals, and he’d play for two or three hours a day in between doing the melting. He’s left-handed, and he developed an incredible ride beat with that hand. Shelly Manne used to flip over it. He would say, ‘I’m amazed at Armand’s ride beat. Too bad he doesn’t have the feet to go with it!’ Everybody used to make jokes about that. He never really played the drumset that much, but when it came to a ride cymbal, he could cut anyone. He was a one-handed wonder.”
A left-handed drumkit sits in Armand’s office today, and he finds plenty of excuses to get behind it and play some cymbals. He admits to having played a few gigs at one point in his life. “I used to belong to a golf club,” he recalls, “and whenever someone I knew was getting married, a friend of mine who played piano and I would play for free, just for fun. We might hire three horn players and a bass player, and that way the people would have a six-piece band for the price of a four-piece. By actually playing with a group, I learned quite a lot about controlling cymbals. To me, cymbals are like a weapon, and you have to know how to control them.”
It’s been a while since Armand played in public, but he did get behind the drums for a few minutes a couple of years ago when the Zildjian company hosted a party to commemorate its 360-year anniversary. Alan Dawson was at that party and remembers his surprise. “I was amazed at all the little impressive things he plays. He’s got some tricks with his hi-hats—Jo Jones/Buddy Rich-type things. I knew that he sometimes fooled around with drumsticks, but I didn’t know that he actually plays as well as he does.” Peter Erskine offers another observation: “There’s nothing like the look on Armand’s face when he plays the hi-hat. He hits the cymbal and just looks up at you grinning, ‘Doesn’t that sound great!’ ”
These days, Armand’s drumset contains a variety of cymbals—some of them personal favorites, some of them the result of experiments, and some of them just unusual. There’s a 30″ ride cymbal (“The biggest one we make,” Armand laughs), a couple of K crashes (“Those are beautiful cymbals”), a flat cymbal with a second hole about an inch away from the center hole (“That makes the sound even drier,” Armand says, “but it never caught on”), a “psychedelic” cymbal with swirls of color (“We thought about putting out colored cymbals years ago”), a small crash cymbal with the Zildjian name cut out of the metal (“We use that as a stencil,” he jokes), and a 19″ ride cymbal with three rivets in it (“This is my favorite; this cymbal will do anything. I’ve had drummers come in here and offer me three or four hundred dollars for that cymbal”). And at any given time, you’ll probably find prototypes of new cymbals on Armand’s kit, so that he can personally check them out.
And check them out he does. No cymbal is added to the Zildjian catalog unless it satisfies Armand’s personal standards. “When it comes to a new product,” explains Lennie DiMuzio, “Armand is right in the middle of it. He enjoys that, and it’s very important to him. He’s got a lot of music inside of him, and he knows a lot about sound projection, and about which cymbals are good for a particular job. His standards are not as technical as those of our engineers and he’s not as methodical as our production manager, but he knows sound, and when it’s not right, it’s just not right. And he’ll let you know that it’s not right. He has his own way of describing what it should be, and then we have to reinterpret that and translate it into something we can work with. Was it over hammered? Was the cymbal shaped improperly? Is the metal too thick or thin on the outer edge? Armand will describe what he feels and hears, and he’ll try to steer us in the right direction. We keep working on it, until we get it to where he feels comfortable with it.
“You know,” Lennie continues, “intelligence comes out in different ways. Some people can write it; some can speak it; some can think it. Armand can hear it.”
“What is a Zildjian sound?” Armand asks. “I’ve discussed this with a lot of drummers. It’s hard to say what it really is, but it’s very recognizable by a drummer or a musician who knows cymbals. I think that it should be something that’s pretty, and that has fire and attack when needed. It should have the pretty ‘ping’ for timekeeping, and that silvery hi-hat sound of Jo Jones. It should also have that cutting sound that today’s rock drummers need. Those things are all in there. I call it the Zildjian sound. I don’t think I could really put a label on it, and I’m not so sure that anybody else can either.”
A lot of Armand’s excitement about new products comes from his fascination with the metal that Zildjian cymbals are made from. “It’s 80/20, which means 80% copper and 20% tin,” Armand explains. “That’s like bell-metal bronze. If you know anything about metal, you’ll find out in a Rockwell test that Zildjian metal is tremendously tough. It’s like an unworkable metal. The big secret is in the joining of those metals so that you end up with something that you can work with. If you cast that kind of metal into a bell, that’s one thing. But we have to be able to temper it, hammer it, shave it, and make it vibrate like a cymbal. We know how to do that, and that’s why Zildjian cymbals all have that sound. I can hit one of our cymbals with my finger, and five minutes later, you can put your ear up to that cymbal and still hear it going ‘ummmmmm.’ Our cymbals are strong, too. People are always coming up to me and telling me that they’ve been using the same Zildjian cymbals for 30 years. The doggone things last.”
The three major lines of Zildjian cymbals—A’s, K’s, and Z’s—are all made from exactly the same metal, which is why drummers can mix and match cymbals from those three different lines and still have sounds that work well together. It also points to an interesting balance that Zildjian has achieved between maintaining tradition and keeping up with the times. “We always strive to find out how far we can take our process to go with what’s happening today,” Armand explains. “What makes me happy is that now we have all of the sounds.”
At one end of the spectrum are the K’s. For years, those were the cymbals made in Istanbul by Kerope Zildjian. In the late ’70s, the line was taken over by the Zildjian company in America. “If I were a drummer today,” Armand says, “a lot of my cymbals would be K’s. They were always the favorite of the modern jazz players like Art Blakey, Tony Williams, and Elvin Jones. People got in the habit of referring to that as the ‘dark’ sound, which is probably right, because they tend to have a lower pitch. The cymbals they made in Istanbul were a little flatter than the ones we make now, though. We use a similar bow shape on the K’s that we use on the A’s, but the K’s are hammered differently.
“The trouble with the Istanbul K’s,” Armand continues, “was that, out of 20 cymbals, you would probably only get three or four that would make it, and the rest didn’t sound so good. So we made the K’s consistent. We borrowed a lot of old K’s from some of the old players, and we worked for a long time to isolate the elements that they all had in common so that we could come up with a consistent product that had its own dark sound. I think that they make a beautiful contrast with the A’s on a set. One of the most important things for drummers to realize is that cymbal sounds can be mixed. A combination of A’s and K’s is just beautiful, if you get the right match. I’ve got a pair of 13” hi-hats that are real favorites of mine: a K on top and an A band cymbal on the bottom. It’s just a great sound!
“The A sound is sharper, and perhaps more in demand because it would satisfy most drummers today. That’s the Buddy Rich/Louie Bellson attack sound. But then, someone like A.J. Pero needs something even sharper than that, so now we’ve got the Z line.”
The development of the new Z cymbals from the same metal that the A’s and K’s are made from attests to one of the secrets of the Zildjian company’s success. On the one hand, the company is solidly based on 360 years of tradition. But on the other hand, they have kept up with changing times by always keeping an open mind when it comes to doing something different. “I would have thought that Armand would be a little more traditional minded,” Peter Erskine says. “But even though Armand loves to talk about the good old days, I would have to categorize Armand as a pretty forward-thinking cymbal maker. Our discussions always center around a new angle or a new variation on a particular cymbal’s design. Armand always wants to provide whatever sound drummers are looking for as music continues to change. Somehow I see Armand as being behind the whole modernization of Zildjian. While the company hasn’t lost touch with the traditional side of cymbal making or the philosophy, it has also made bold moves involving cymbal designs.”
To Armand, the philosophy behind staying current is fairly simple. “You just have to follow music,” he says. “You have to listen to the people who are playing it and learn from them. Then, you’ve got to make your product go where they are going.” Simply put, if a drummer wants it, the Zildjians do their best to supply it. Of course, over the years, some drummers have had unusual requests. “Jo Jones wanted a broken cymbal on the bottom of his hi-hats,” Armand laughs. “I don’t know how many people ever knew this, but it was a great idea. We’d take a 13″ band cymbal with a big jag in it, and match it with a medium thin on top. He’d hit it, and it would go ‘buzzzzzz.’ He used that setup with the Basie band, and he made that set of hi-hat cymbals just sing.”
Many of the ideas behind various Zildjian products originally came from drummers. “When J.C. Heard was playing with Jimmy Lunceford,” Armand recalls, “he had a Chinese cymbal that he had put nails in. That got us started making swish cymbals. Then, when the big band era started to fade and the little groups came in, drummers came to us and said, ‘I need something that doesn’t have so much spread and ring, because I’m not playing with an eight-piece brass section.’ So we developed the mini-cup ride, which to this day I think is a gorgeous cymbal. There was a time when that was a red-hot cymbal. Everybody wanted one. Then we went into mini-cup hi-hats for a while. Then drummers wanted something even drier, so we came up with the flat top ride. We tried flat cymbals on hi-hats, too, and that led to the Quick Beat hi-hats.
“It’s just a matter of knowing where you’re going to use a cymbal. That’s why drummers who are going to be playing in a variety of situations should have an inventory of maybe 20 cymbals that they can call on. The other musicians in the band will notice when you use the right cymbal sound with them. I remember years ago when Sonny Payne was with Count Basie. He had some really old cymbals that were worn and tired. So I went to Birdland, or wherever they were playing, and said, ‘Sonny, try these cymbals and see what you think of them.’ He tried them, and the trombone section turned around and said, ‘ That’s the sound we want to hear!’ ”
One of Zildjian’s innovative designs came about as a result of Armand’s curiosity and a need that Billy Cobham had expressed. “One day I was coming out of the melting room,” Armand remembers. “Next to the hammers was a pile of 20” cymbals that hadn’t been hammered or shaved yet. I was always carrying drumsticks around, so I picked up one of those cymbals and started riding on it to see what it would sound like. It didn’t have a lot of spread, but it had a very cutting stick sound. Then Billy Cobham told us that he was looking for a cymbal that would really cut through. So we took one of those unfinished cymbals and just ran a cleaning wheel over it. We didn’t even buff it, so it still had its natural tempered color. It looked kind of earthy, so we called it the Earth cymbal. When we showed it to Billy Cobham, he flipped over it. It did exactly what he was looking for. That cymbal was basically the forerunner of the Z cymbals.
“The China Boy cymbal was something that drummers asked for. They wanted that sharp ‘twang’ sound. The swish cymbals and pangs weren’t sharp enough. But we had one hell of a job making that thing, because we had to turn the edge up more, make a deeper bed in the flange, raise the crown up more, and make it thinner on the edge. But that’s what you have to do to get that sound, and now that sound is being used in a lot of the bands.”
One of the major philosophical differences that separates the Zildjian company from most of the other cymbal companies is that, while other companies maintain that every cymbal in a certain size and model should sound exactly the same as every other cymbal in that size and model, the people at Zildjian are proud of the fact that each of their cymbals has a certain uniqueness. “I think it’s a way to show your own individuality,” Armand asserts.
“Our competitors say that the beauty of their cymbals is that, if you break one, you can get another one just like it. That’s like me saying that I have a blue suit, and when it wears out, I want another one that’s identical. Well, maybe I don’t. Maybe I’ll want to try something else. And just because I see you wearing a suit that looks good on you, that doesn’t mean that I want to wear the same thing. It’s just like hearing two drummers playing the same drumset. When we do the Zildjian days, we have six drummers, and not one of them sounds alike. Even when they play the same style of music at the same tempo, they’re not going to sound the same. But that’s the fun of it.”
While individuality in a product is good, at the same time, there has to be a certain degree of consistency so that customers will have some basis for knowing how a particular model sounds. Achieving balance between individuality and consistency would seem to be the type of juggling act that could drive someone nuts. “It does,” Armand laughs. “All I can say is that, by better manufacturing methods, we’ve narrowed that space. If we go down to the bin, pull out every 20″ medium ride, and ding them, each one is going to be a little different. But not as different as they were years ago. In the old days, before we had accurate cutting, if you went through 100 14″ cymbals, you’d find that they ranged from 133⁄4″ to 141⁄4″. Now, they’re all the same. Thickness is another thing. Years ago, we rolled to different thicknesses all over the place. Now, we’re a lot more consistent, but we allow a little bit of variation. If we’re rolling to, say, .060″, then the cymbals will all be .059″, .060″, or .061”.
“Back when I was doing the testing,” Armand continues, “and before we had the better manufacturing methods, we used to have what we called the ‘goody pile.’ I put different cymbals aside that appealed to me and that I thought were great. I found that this saved hours when drummers came by to pick out cymbals, because anyone is going to be confused after swatting cymbals for ten minutes. This was in the days when nobody cared what a cymbal looked like; they just wanted to listen to the sound. If the cymbal had little pit marks in it, that didn’t matter. Of course, you didn’t have the amplification then that you have today, so drummers were doing a lot of subtle things on the cymbals and hi-hats that would never be heard today. Now, the thing that people need is projection and cutting power.
“Back then, drummers were looking for pretty sounds. One drummer I learned a lot from was Cliff Leeman, who had a great ear. The cymbals he picked out were on the thin side but big. Louie Bellson was one of the first drummers to go for hi-hats with heavier bottom cymbals. Max Roach was another good cymbal picker. So the goody pile served us well for years, but then came the change that I was talking about. We just shook the business down into more sophisticated methods of getting quality control. So now, when a drummer comes in, we don’t have to spend two hours and go through 150 cymbals, because the quality control brings them much closer together.”
But even with the tighter quality control, Armand still believes very much in letting drummers have a variety of sounds from which to choose. And he also likes to allow for a lot of freedom when it comes to matching cymbals. In recent years, various companies have tried to turn the art of cymbal matching into an exact science, using various “formulas” and even computers in an attempt to create the perfect blend of sounds. But Armand has more faith in the human ear than in any type of formula. “At one time,” he says, “everybody was screaming that hi-hat cymbals had to be matched in thirds. I’m not saying that matching in thirds won’t work, but I am saying that you eliminate a lot of possibilities when you do that. Your ear will tell you a lot of things. You’ll hear something and say, ‘That sounds pretty. That sounds nice.” There was a time when people said, ‘The top cymbal should be the higher pitched one.’ I don’t think I ever agreed that that was a 100% true evaluation. Especially now, when drummers are using heavier cymbals on the bottom, the lighter cymbal on top is probably lower pitched.
“Before we came out with the New Beats, we did a million experiments, and I remember something we did with Max Roach that I thought worked out great. It was a 15″ medium on the bottom and a 14″ medium-thin on the top. That meant that the top cymbal was inside the bottom one when they hit. You could get them to just graze each other, and then when you would ride on that top cymbal, it would sound like glass. Boy, were they pretty. We did other things, too. We put a 13″ on top of a 14″, and we did it the other way around.
“What I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe there’s a set rule with anything. I remember the first set of hi-hat cymbals that I saw Gene use. He had a heavy K from Istanbul on the bottom and an A on top. It sounded good for his way of playing. And speaking of matching, let me tell you one of the strangest ones. Years ago, Tommy Thompson came from Cincinnati to play with the Boston Symphony. He was the greatest when it came to symphonic cymbals. He would play all the Berlioz stuff with 24″ hand cymbals. Most people couldn’t even lift the damn things, but he was about 6′ 3″, and he could handle them. Anyway, he was looking for a pair of 20″ cymbals. He came out to the factory one day, and I had some cymbals that had been returned by Stan Levey. One of them was a 23″ crash cymbal, so Tommy said, ‘Let’s cut this down to a 20″ and see what happens. So we cut it down, and that made it a little flatter than a normal 20″ cymbal would have been. Then Tommy came back to my house with me, and I had a 20″ ride cymbal on my set. He put a strap on it and hit it against the cymbal we had cut down, and it went ‘shinnnnnng.’ So we went over to Symphony Hall to try them out. We were the only two people in the place. He was down on the stage, and I was way up in the balcony. Those cymbals were a gorgeous match. To my knowledge, Frank Epstein is still using those cymbals with the BSO today.”
There’s a lot of musical distance between the Boston Symphony and Twisted Sister, or between the Buddy Rich big band and Rush, so it says a lot for Armand Zildjian that he has friends in all of those groups, and can honestly appreciate the different styles of playing that he encounters wherever he goes. And he goes to a lot of places. “When I was with Stan Kenton,” Peter Erskine says, “whenever we played anywhere near Boston, the Zildjian people would come out en masse to the club or concert. And Armand was always showing up when I was with Maynard Ferguson, too. In fact, Armand plays a little trumpet, and he’d always bring it along. When I was with Maynard, I think I heard Armand play more trumpet than drums.”
“Armand relates very well to the young drummers,” Lennie DiMuzio says. “He’s always going out to see our endorsers play, and he thinks that some of these young drummers are incredible. I know that drummers like Steve Smith blow him away.” Indeed, Armand is a familiar figure at clubs, backstage at concerts, and just about anywhere else that musicians can be found. “When it comes to hanging out,” Lennie laughs, “Armand is King Hang.”
“I love to go hear bands,” Armand agrees. “There’s a world of great players out there. It seems as though I’ve known Buddy Rich and Louie Bellson forever. Both of those fellows have certainly done a lot for the drum world. Roy Haynes is another drummer I’ve known for a long time. And then there’s Alan Dawson, who is the most underrated talent in drums today. The coordinated things he does are hard to believe. Also there’s Steve Gadd; that guy is an original genius. Then there’s Billy Cobham, Tommy Campbell, A.J. Pero, Kenwood Dennard, Vince Colaiuta—I heard Vince at the PAS convention and he just tore it to pieces. Over in England, there’s Simon Phillips—so many great drummers. I went to see Neil Peart recently. There were three musicians playing with a crew of 30 people. Things sure have changed. I remember when there were 18 musicians and one band boy!”
Another recent change in music is the emphasis on electronics, and as usual, Armand is paying a lot of attention. “We go to the drum shops and ask about what’s going on. It varies. In some places, it’s more acoustical, while other places have gone more towards electronics. Right now, electronic drums seem to be leveling off a little bit. Of course, acoustic drums never really left, but now it looks as if it’s going to strike a balance.
“I’m all for new things,” Armand continues, “and we’re looking at various ways to keep up with the electronic technology, but I have to agree with what Buddy Rich said in Modern Drummer. It’s a shame when the electronic thing kicks musicians out of work. I go to places like Berklee and North Texas State, and I see a lot of kids who are studying to be serious musicians. I just wish that the people in this country would get back into music again, and not just be interested in seeing a stage show with lasers and colors. There are a lot of great musicians out there. Look at Buddy: 68 years old and he’s riding a bus around the country. I just hope that the young musicians today will be able to maintain careers like that. I was talking to Louie Bellson about this recently, and I said, ‘Gee Louie, all these machines are being used in the studios.’ Louie said, ‘Yeah, but there’s one thing that they can’t put into the drum machines,’ and then he pointed to his heart.”
And perhaps that’s the real secret behind Zildjian cymbals: Armand puts his heart into them. He loves the cymbals, he loves the people who play them, and he loves the people who make them. “One of my favorite memories of Armand,” Louie Bellson says, “was one day when I was at the factory. Armand and I were talking, and a young fellow was trying out a cymbal nearby. Armand stopped talking to me and said, ‘Hey, wait a minute. Let me show you how to hit a cymbal.’ He went over politely and gave the young man a lesson on how to play a cymbal like a musical instrument, and how to get the ultimate out of that instrument. I never forgot that, because he did it with such class.”
The same attitude is evident in Armand’s relationship with the Zildjian employees. He treats everyone like family. No matter who he encounters—an executive of the company or a guy in overalls who’s mopping the floor—Armand greets the person warmly and will usually pause for a moment to chat about something— the person’s children, the weather, cars, you name it. “The people who work here like to see him,” says Lennie DiMuzio. “This has always been a family business, and Armand’s presence is important.”
The feeling also extends to the drummers who are part of the Zildjian “family.” Kenny Aronoff tells a typical story: “I first met Armand when I was asked to fill in for Tommy Aldridge at the Zildjian Day in Chicago. I had always been somewhat in awe of Armand, because when I was a kid, I loved Zildjian cymbals so much. I figured that Armand was a real straight-laced corporate businessman. But then I was introduced to him, and he gave me this big bear hug, a slap on the back, and said, ‘How ya doin’, Kenny baby?’ I was completely blown away. There was this incredible feeling of family, like we had been invited to his home for dinner.
The whole company has that atmosphere,” Aronoff continues, “and I think that Armand is the one who creates it. It starts at the top and works its way down through the ranks. I think that it’s reflected in people’s work—in the product they put out. If you have a good feeling about the person you work for, you’re going to do as much as you can to make the product good.”
To Armand, the goal remains the same: “We have to find out what the drummers are thinking, and then we have to get it for them. I’ve been a believer in that since day one. You’ve got to give drummers the sounds they want, and they know what they want. You’ve got to talk to them and find out what they’re looking for, and then you’ve got to give it to them. And when you do, they’re most grateful. I get tons of letters from drummers who say, ‘Thanks for what you did. That’s just the sound I wanted.’ To me, that’s how you keep your reputation, and that’s how I want to run it. When I was testing cymbals, I was the fussiest guy in the world. If the cymbal didn’t sound good to me, I wouldn’t let anybody have it. Once you earn a reputation, it’s far harder to hold onto it. So I’m not interested in the quick sale; I’m looking for the long relationship. I want satisfied drummers. I know so many of them personally, and I’ve had so many good times with them. It makes me feel good to know that Zildjian is part of their thing. That’s big to me.”