Rock Perspectives

Playing Rock Tambourine

by David Levine

Although there are many different types of tambourines they can be basically broken down into two groups, 1) those with heads, 2) those without. The most widely used tambourine in the pop field is the headless, or rock, tambourine. Commercially available rock tambourines range from 6 to 12 inches in diameter and have either single or double rows of jingles.In choosing a tambourine pick one that is balanced; feels right, and sounds good. It should have a clean, relatively high-pitched sound, and some after ring. I like an eight to ten inch double row tambourine: it provides enough volume to cut through a big band while being light enough to handle. Try out a few instruments, each will be a little different. I also suggest that you put tape over the heads of the nails which will prevent them from falling out, leaving you with a jingle-less, headless tambourine.

The main purpose of the rock tambourine is to reinforce the 8th or 16th note pattern that the drummer plays on the ride cymbal or hi-hat, and to accent the pattern the way the drummer uses his snare and/or bass drums (for example on 2 and 4.), repeating the basic pattern to free the drummer from his time keeping role and at the same time adding the characteristic color and maintaining the groove.

The rock tambourine can be used in almost any type of rock music, though it fits some styles better than others. If a percussion part is not provided the percussionist should use his ears to decide whether tambourine, another instrument, or, perhaps nothing, will add most to a particular piece.

There are two basic techniques that are used in playing rock tambourine. The first produces the 8th or 16th notes (depending on the tempo) by holding the tambourine in the right hand and moving it back and forth. (See illustration 1-a.) By making this motion the beats l,+2,+3,+4,+ will be played when the left side of the tambourine comes in contact with the left hand. To produce accents on the off-beat 16th is a bit more difficult. Cup your left hand and hold it in such a position that the fingers will hit the right side of the tambourine at the top. By moving the hand across the top of the tambourine the heel of the hand will hit the left side. (See illus. 1-b.) The idea is to keep the tambourine moving from side to side while the left hand crosses over the top to play the accents. To do this fast and accurately requires practice.


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The second way of playing produces much the same results, though the technique is quite different. In this method of playing the left hand will play all the accents on the left side of the tambourine while the right hand moves the tambourine in a rotating motion, like opening a door knob, (see illus. 2-a.) In this way the 1,+, etc. will occur when the left palm intercepts the arc of the tambourine at the top, and the e’s and ah’s will be accented when the heel of the hand hits the bottom. (See illus. 2-b.) The basic idea here is to move the left hand to hit the top or bottom of the tambourine while the right hand keeps the pulse going. This technique is harder to master but is more showy and allows the rhythms to be played at faster tempos. •


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The following examples will help develop the techniques I’ve discussed. Practice at various speeds using both playing methods.


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Using either technique figure out how to play these patterns:
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All of the above may be used in actual playing situations. One particularly effective pattern is to play 16th notes, accenting all the +’s while drummer is playing straight rock time (accenting 2 and 4.) This gives a double-time feel. Other patterns that I frequently use are:
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Try playing pattern L using the first technique and hitting the tambourine lightly on your chest to accent the down-beats.

Always remember to play under the drummer, to reinforce his beat, and to help keep the beat and groove going at the same time.

Reprinted from Percussive Notes magazine, an official publication of The Percussive Arts Society. (Vol. 14, No.3)


Illustrations by Jean Higgins