Last time we discussed how the use of hand-percussion instruments can add color and spice to the music you create. We outlined a few of the items that make up the percussionist’s “pallet,” including cowbell, tambourine, and the afuche. This time, we’ll add shakers and maracas, claves, and sleighbells to that pallet. Then, we’ll examine how all of these instruments can be combined to enhance the texture and appeal of your artistic creation.
Shakers and Maracas
Pushing the time a hair is necessary for shakers and maracas, since their sound comes slightly after the attack. You can use shakers to create a nice layer of energy, or maracas to create more complex patterns. Be very aware of the time, though, as it sounds really strange when a layer of “energy” is dragging along even a little behind the beat. Consistency is an important concern here as well. It sounds like a hole has opened up in the band’s sound if you stop before the section changes, so don’t pick up or put down these instruments unless you mean to. A half-hearted shaker or maracas player detracts from the stage presence of a band, and the sound just won’t do in the studio. On the other hand, a percussionist playing shakers confidently and in sync with a group adds a lot visually and aurally.
When choosing a shaker, pay attention to the various “weights.” Depending on the size of the shaker, the material of the shell, and the material inside the shell (sand, BB’s, popcorn), you will get different sound densities. At times you’ll want a heavy, intense sound, while at other times, you’ll want a feather-light whisper. Therefore, consider the mood of the music and its dynamic range before you jump in with a shaker. Maracas also come in various weights and qualities, so check them thoroughly before you buy a pair. Having the top of the maraca fly off the handle and hit someone in the first row may not be the effect you want.
Claves are a subtle instrument that add a spicy precision to your rhythm if played well. The trick to getting the right sound out of a pair of claves is cupping the hand holding the one to be struck. By keeping as much of your hand off the clave as you can, you allow the wood to vibrate freely. In addition, the cupped hand creates a resonating chamber for the sound. You’ll also get a more musical sound if you pull the sound out of the clave by drawing back as soon as you strike, rather than trying to pound the sound out of it. I usually check a pair of claves to find how their sound is matched. Usually, one bar is slightly lower or flatter than the other, and this is the one to use as the striker. The bar you hold in your cupped hand is the major sound producer.
Claves were originally used to play the clave (“key”) rhythm in Cuban music, but they’ve been found to be useful for a wide variety of musical situations. They’re great for creating tension in “atmosphere” music like film scores, and they’re also great for funky off-beat accents. In many contemporary funk tunes, you’ll hear claves on only one or two notes in a two-bar space. It propels the music in a sophisticated, “less-is-more” kind of way. If you choose to use them this way, it’s likely you’ll want to put them on a 16th-note or 8th-note offbeat, but you could as easily put a clave beat on 2, for example. This would require a little forethought so you could leave the snare beat out when you lay down the drum track. But the planning would be well worth the effort in terms of the final mix. It might be just the thing to spark an otherwise mundane rhythm track.
Sleigh bells on a stick with a handle can round out your basic percussion colors. You can use them in a spacious rhythm, say, on every other 3, or you can play quarter notes, or 16ths for a steady background “layer.” Sleigh bells are great for an out-of-time atmosphere, or a crescendo or fermata builder. They’re effective for cooling the dynamics after a very hot section that leads to a breathing space in the music. You can also get some nice effects by using the bells with a shaker to alternate on quarter notes, or more complex rhythms.
Now, knowing how these instruments sound and how to use them, the next question we should consider is, when do you use them? This is largely a practical matter, given your particular taste and situation. Some musicians or types of music don’t leave much room for percussion sounds, but if you’re playing rock, jazz, reggae, big band, Latin, fusion, funk or Brazilian influenced styles, chances are you’ll have a use for the extra lift percussion provides. Let’s assume you’re planning to record a new piece and you’d like to add some new colors. How do you decide what goes where?
Start by considering the mood of the music. How does it open? Where does it go? How does it close? Where are the subtle parts? Where are the intense parts? Do they need a boost, or are they too busy to allow one note more? The groove under the vocal may be just the spot for claves, or the bridge might like a driving quarternote feel on the cowbell. You can use the percussion to emphasize the change in rhythm from one section to another, or intensify a chorus. Most hooks are best left to the traps, as a matter of clarity, but if you hear it, use it; very often even one well-placed note of a different color or timbre is the perfect accent.
It’s possible to use one instrument to set up one mood and another to contrast it. For example, you can play a groove on the traps which is perfectly complemented by the clave playing just the “e” of 2 and 3 every other measure.
But when you get to the chorus, you might want to substitute the shaker or the cowbell, depending on the intensity needed and how complicated the drumset part is.
If you want more texture under the vocals, you could use the afuche to play a steady 16th-note fill. If you want a contrast between hot and cool at the end of a solo, splash the downbeat with the sleighbells and sustain at a low volume until the vocalist’s reentry.
You might consider the virtues of playing one time against another, or cutting or doubling the time. For instance, quarter-note triplets against a 4/4 rhythm can be very effective. With whatever time or color you use, you must also consider the timbre of the instruments you’re working with at the moment. For instance, if you’re backing a bass solo, you want a relatively high-pitched instrument that cuts but doesn’t interfere with the clarity of the low end of the bass. You want to add to the solo, not obscure it. So you might use the afuche as a shaker. It cuts and keeps the energy going, but doesn’t muddy the bass sound.
Conversely, if you’re playing with a sax or flute player who favors the top end of the instrument, you should try to find a timbre which fills in between the band and soloist. This will maximize the overall sound and minimize any conflict of timbres, so everyone can be heard clearly. In the studio, you don’t want to get in your own way either, so watch how the timbres blend, and mix the percussion “down” behind the traps. Leave some space in the drum part if you plan to add percussion, so you have some room to work with. You can get great textural effects with a layer or two of “smart” percussion notes. This layering will give your music more forward motion and an “arranged” sound.
You should also consider feel. If the groove is light and swinging, it might be best to find a part with a lot of space in it, rather than use a complicated part that will make the groove “heavier” than you want. The art of playing percussion is the art of finding just the right accents to make the colors stand out and emphasize the spirit of the music. Of course, there’s no point in playing something light on a tune where the feel is deliberately ponderous. You can do some studio magic to balance things that wouldn’t normally be heard live, but you need to consider the reason for doing that. If it makes musical sense, go for it, and remember the element of surprise—be on the lookout for putting the “right” sound in an unexpected place. This can be a very effective technique, especially in the studio.
An obvious way to get a quick percussion education is to listen to Brazilian, African, Latin, reggae and funk music to get an idea of how percussion instruments are used in these contexts. Knowing a few of the basic formulas derived from these styles will enable you to hear a lot of applications in your own music, and will give you a foundation for extending your percussive imagination further. You will develop an ear for using these instruments effectively, instead of for effect.