You’ve been cooking on the traps in the studio and you’re listening to the playback now. It’s great, but there still might be room for improvement—more color, more spice. How? With the addition of a layer or two of hand-percussion instruments—simple ingredients like cowbells, maracas or tambourines—you can add new textures and rhythms to your music without investing your life savings. Depending on the genre and the groove, you can pack more drive, excitement, texture, or just good old energy onto your tracks for a fraction of the cost of a new cymbal or electronic drum machine.
Cowbells and tambourines are still the workhorses of the Latin, rock, and funk world, but over the past 15 or so years, jazz has imported percussion instruments from all over the world to broaden its sound spectrum. Eventually, these colors will find their way into more situations as musicians get tuned in to their expressive possibilities. For the present, let’s see what keeps some of the less exotic hand-percussion instruments—”toys,” as they’re called in the jazz world—working.
To begin, let’s isolate the instruments that will be most useful, and go from there. In ten years of playing many different styles of music, I’ve found five or six that are to hand percussion what the primary and secondary colors are to painting: essentially, your foundation. These instruments have the virtue of being both inex pensive and versatile. They are cowbell, afuche, claves, tambourine, maracas or shakers, and sleighbells.
With this basic pallet, you can cover many different styles, provided you exercise some taste, imagination, good time and technique. Knowing how to get the right sound is as important as putting it in the right place. If that’s 100% true for other instruments, it’s 200% true for percussion. The first consideration, of course, is does this instrument sound musical? So keep your ears open when you buy. Don’t assume that all cowbells or whatever sound alike. Hand-percussion instruments may look a lot alike, but you should be as particular in choosing one as you would a cymbal.
The number one toy in musical usefulness has got to be the cowbell. Latin music isn’t Latin without a cowbell. Rock and funk have used it extensively. Jazz and reggae have waxed and waned on it, but it’s still a voice to be reckoned with in the percussion world. You can find a musical part for it in almost any groove where volume is not your number one concern. It won’t work in bop or ballads, but in many rock, funk, reggae, or big band tunes, you can make use of the cowbell’s inherent fire and drive. When you look for a bell, consider the music you’ll be playing most, and what kind of bell sound will be most complementary to the other instruments and your drum sound.
You want a sound that will deliver musical authority but will not conflict with the rest of the band sound in terms of timbre and pitch. You can modify the sound with tape, moleskin, foam, or a combination of how you hold the bell and how and what you hit it with. However, the bottom line is, it has to sound right for the band to begin with. You’d think that would go without saying, but I’ve heard people playing awful sounding bells, primarily I think, because they didn’t take the bell seriously as a musical instrument. It is however, and when played with fire and precision, it can really push a groove.
A variety of sounds can be derived from a cowbell: You can choke the tone if you hold it in your hand, or you can open it up by relaxing your grip. You can hit the mouth dead on or at several places along the center or side to vary the pitch. You can glance the stick off at the tip, or use the shoulder to lean on the mouth to vary intensity. You can play straight quarter notes for get-down drive, or more complicated off-beat rhythms for a sly funk feel. Whatever you do, in whatever style, it’s a good idea to be a hair ahead of the beat. The tension created by a good bell part is one of the keys to making people want to dance. Listen to Latin music to get a feel for how these masters of the cowbell use it. Here are three useful cowbell rhythms. The first derives from the mambo, but it can be used in funk, fusion, or rock forms. It sounds best on medium to fast tempos.
L = low note, mouth of cowbell with shoulder of drumstick
H = high note, center of cowbell with bead of drumstick
These are variations on the cha-cha cowbell part which can work well on rock tunes.
This is a bell part that’s found in several different African rhythms; it propels the music like a stone skipping over water. It’s a very effective counterpoint to any music that emphasizes the downbeats.
What most cowbell rhythms have in common is that they’re composed of two measures that are repeated as a phrase and not varied much, if at all. The first 1 is usually a low note struck on the mouth of the bell. Thereafter, the high and low pitches generally alternate on the quarter-note pulse.
It should be mentioned that the cowbell functions well as an alternative to a hi-hat or cymbal ride. Let’s say you’re building up to a big crash on 1 and you want an immediate change of texture that maintains the excitement but doesn’t obscure the vocal. The cowbell is tailor-made for this situation.
A tambourine is probably the next most useful toy you can buy. A mainstay of rock, folk, Gospel and samba styles, it can be creatively applied to a good many more. A tambourine with a head is more versatile than one without, but again, consider your situation. If you’re not playing sambas or classical music, you won’t need the head because you’re mainly after the jingle sound. But do your ears a favor and try a bit of tambourine research. Listen to what Airto can do with a tambourine. He sounds like an entire samba band by himself.
If you anticipate playing a complicated pattern over a long section, check out the new Rhythm Tech tambourines. They’re designed to expedite playing and the design does make a difference. A note of caution should be inserted here: Don’t assume that your chops on a tambourine, cowbell, or afuche are automatic because you’ve been playing traps. You’ll be using different motions and therefore different groups and combinations of muscles that may not be in the same shape as your expectations. Practice using these instruments before going to the gig or studio, or you may find yourself cramping up and/or dragging the time in the middle of a take.
Tambourines are useful to push a groove because they have a unique characteristic: They alternate precise and sloppy sounds. You get a pronounced accent on the beats you hit with your hand, and jangling fills between those accents. The tambourine has a cool timbre, so it cuts across lower tones and warmer timbres but it doesn’t seem to interfere with higher pitches. It’s relatively simple to play, but it adds a lot of energy. You can just play quarter notes in time and sound good. For these reasons, many bands have centered their entire venture into percussion on this instrument, but you don’t have to stop there.
You might consider, for example, the possibility of using two sounds at once to create a nice groove by using the tambourine to strike a cowbell—on quarter notes, or just on the & of 4, or whatever makes it feel right.
Using the rim of the tambourine to strike accents on the cowbell
You could play continuous 16th-note patterns on the tambourine and just strike your accents or downbeats on the cowbell.
Or you could play just the jingles with your fingers for a more delicate, precise, or subtle groove.
Hold tambourine with both hands, play 1 pair of jingles with middle fingers.
You can also mount the tambourine on a stand and play the rim with sticks to get an “aftershock” effect. The jingles will sound just a hair after you strike the rim.
An afuche can be a real asset due to its precision and durability. I’ve had one for almost ten years now, and it’s as good as the day I got it. Better, in fact, because the beads have loosened up, making it easier to play. The afuche has been used mainly in funk and jazz to create gravelly sounding grooves. It can also function as a precise sounding shaker. You can play fairly complex phrases with it or use it to provide a nonstop layer of texture. Beware of this toy though. It takes a little woodshedding to get it going. It’ll wear you out fast if you haven’t developed a good technique for playing it.
You should hold it as loosely as possible and cup the beads in your left hand (assuming you’re right-handed), press them against the “sound surface” and twist the handle back and forth with your right hand to move the body of the instrument. You can also hold the afuche steady with your right hand and use your left to move the beads. You can alternate these approaches and save one hand from doing all the work. (Relaxation is important on this instrument, since playing it can be hard on your forearm.)
Insofar as the afuche has the ability to sound precise, you can use it in subtle ways on quiet sections, but when you want to get louder, remember it can also sound sloppy because of the dragging motion of the beads. So you want to be pushing the time a bit or you’ll sound like you’re dragging. Playing patterns with a lot of space is one of the best ways to utilize this instrument. A fringe benefit: The spaces will allow your muscles to rest.
Next time, I’II introduce maracas and shakers, claves, and sleigh bells, along with some comments and technique suggestions for each. Then we’ll put them all together and come up with some truly “colorful” percussion patterns.