Cymbals are made of an alloy of copper, tin, brass, bronze or silver nickel and are subject to an oxidation process that causes them to tarnish over time. Whether this tarnish, or the addition of fingerprints, gunk, or dirt should be removed is a matter of preference and debate. Despite the many options for cleaning cymbals, there are fundamental tips that most drummers embrace. These tips include using products specifically designed by the cymbal's manufacturer, cleaning small sections at a time, and taking preventative measures to keep the cymbals as clean as possible.
There are two schools of thought regarding cleaning cymbals. One school is strongly against cleaning cymbals, believing the cleaning process can adversely affect the overall sound of the cymbal as well as remove the brilliant finish applied to the cymbal and decrease its overall durability. There are also those who prefer the darker tones of a dirty cymbal and say it is best to leave the cymbal alone. The other school of thought maintains that any surface finish that is removed from the cymbals during cleaning is minimal, and by removing grime and dirt, the sound of the cymbal is brighter and sounds the way it was intended when it was first produced.
For those who clean, the consensus is to go straight to the source. Most cymbal manufacturers have their own brand of cymbal polish or cleaner that has been optimized specifically for use on their cymbals. It's best to to go the manufacturer for advice on the best methods for cleaning cymbals first.
After consulting the manufacturer and purchasing a recommended product, it's best to wipe the cymbal clean with a damp or dry cloth before polishing. This prevents the surface from being scratched by dirt or debris during the cleaning process. When the cymbal is wiped clean, start to work cymbal polish into a small area of the cymbal with a clean, dry cloth. As with car wax, most cymbal polish dries quickly and a smaller area is easier to manage. By polishing the cymbal in small areas, less elbow grease is needed later to buff it out. Many products for cleaning cymbals will remove the logos off the cymbals, so it is important to work around the logos or cover them when cleaning.
Sometimes, simple water and gentle dish soap will suffice for cleaning cymbals. Another less abrasive method is to rub a lemon over the surface of the cymbal and let it sit for a few minutes before rinsing it off. If using either of these methods, the important thing is to thoroughly dry the cymbal after getting it wet.
It is best to take preventative measures to keep cymbals as clean as possible. Handle cymbals carefully to avoid getting oils from fingerprints on them. Just as a person might handle a CD or DVD, pick the cymbals up by their edges. Wipe them down after use with a clean, dry cloth and store them in cymbal bags or covers to protect them. By taking care to keep oil, dirt and dust off cymbals, an occasional cleaning may be all that is required.