What is a Hi Hat?

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
A foot pedal operated hi hat in its closed position.
A foot pedal operated hi hat in its closed position.

A hi hat or high hat is a set of two cymbals, mounted on a stand and played either by using a foot pedal attached to the stand or with sticks, brushes, or the fingers. These cymbals have two positions: open and closed. Sticks can be used in either the open or closed position, or a combination of both. These cymbals have an indeterminate pitch and are characterized as unpitched percussion.

A hi hat is just one element of a drum kit.
A hi hat is just one element of a drum kit.

This type of cymbal is a standard part of a basic drum set or drum kit, which also includes a bass drum, floor tom, mounted toms, a snare drum, and a crash and ride cymbal. The drum set was invented in the early 20th century to allow a percussionist to play more than one instrument at once. A set is most often associated with rock, jazz, and pop music, but there are also orchestral pieces, for example, the scores for films and musicals, that use it.

The hi hat part is one of the essential elements of a groove, along with the specifications for bass drum, snare drum, and possibly other cymbals. One common technique is to feature this cymbal on the backbeat or on the second or third beat in a waltz, but there are many other approaches depending on the musical style and the inventiveness of the performer. Right-handed players generally place a single one to their left and play it with their right hand, while using the left hand on the snare, but this is not universal. Some players have integrated a second hi hat into their set up, placed either in the center or to their right, in order to incorporate the sound without having to use cross-sticking.

These cymbals are capable of a range of sounds, and there are some general categories denoting the style they were designed to go with, such as rock, metal, fusion, and sizzle. There are also more particular descriptions of individual sounds. Some of the words used to characterize the stick sound are crisp, splashy, pure, bright, dark, penetrating, cutting, warm, dry, focused, sizzling, simmering, and deep. They are also often described by the characteristics of their "chick" sound — the sound they make as they're being closed — which may be solid, clean, clear, crisp, cutting, and/or bright.

Hi hat cymbals are sold in matched sets. They are usually made of a bronze alloy that often contains 80% copper and 20% tin, and sometimes silver. These cymbals are available in a variety of diameters, including miniature models.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to wiseGEEK about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Discussion Comments

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Rock music drummers often tend to use hi hats on every beat to give the music a strong sense of forward momentum with a strong driving beat. If they want to make the song sound even faster, they can use 16th notes, which is basically playing the hi hat constantly, only stopping to hit the snare or cymbals. Imagine it as like a snare roll except played on the hi hat. If you look at a lot of indie or post-rock songs from the early 00's you'll hear this type of beat a lot.

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    • A foot pedal operated hi hat in its closed position.
      A foot pedal operated hi hat in its closed position.
    • A hi hat is just one element of a drum kit.
      A hi hat is just one element of a drum kit.