They are an essential part of pop music and rock and roll.
And yet they often go by unnoticed, and many people don’t know quite a few of them by name, though the sounds they make may be familiar.
They are the wonderful array of hand percussion instruments, sometimes called “auxiliary percussion” or simply “toys”. I would argue that both terms unintentionally undermine their importance to the music we love.
“Hand percussion” describes:
(Bongos, congas and other drums that are not typically hand-held are a topic for another day.) These are some that most people can name.
Number one would be:
Without it, rock and pop wouldn’t sound like it does. I would be willing to guess that it’s featured in at least half the songs of those realms, if not more.
No singer in a band is complete without a tambourine in their hand at some point. Almost as ubiquitous are maracas and various shakers. It’s easy to not even realize they are there, and yet they are providing a layer of sound that would render a song incomplete in their absence.
Right behind these two in familiarity and frequency would have to be the cowbell.
Yes, for most of you a certain SNL skit involuntarily comes to mind at this point. Sigh.
There is so much more to this wonderful instrument than an out-of-control Will Ferrell banging on it, with his belly hanging out…
And those two words from Christopher Walken that are instantly parroted whenever the instrument is mentioned.
And mt, I know you are just dying to include a picture or caption of some sort referring to it, but I am begging you to resist the low hanging fruit. Begging.
I have loved the cowbell, going back to high school jazz band, when I got to play it on a song where I wasn’t needed on the piano. One time I got so excited about playing it that I threw it across the room at the end of the song, puncturing the head of one of the timpani. I was told I had to pay for the damage, and I made good on it, 30 years later.
Seriously, the cowbell is one of the most versatile and important members of the hand percussion family and does an amazing amount of heavy lifting in countless songs, particularly in the world of rock.
You still want to say it, don’t you? Just don’t. I said no. You’re better than that.
There are other familiar hand percussion instruments such as triangle and woodblock that can usually be picked out of a lineup.
But then, we have many more that maybe don’t show up quite as frequently, or some that many know by name but can pass by unnoticed. And still others that may leave a listener thinking, “I know that sound, but what is making it?”
When they do appear in a song, they can make all the difference in the world, whether they get the glory or not.
Here is a list of some my favorites, along with examples of songs on which they can be heard.
I tried to steer toward more widely known songs and artists… but I couldn’t resist throwing in some deep cuts.
Güiro (pronounced “GWEE-ro”)
Adapted from an instrument that may have come from either Africa or South America, the güiro is said to have originated in Puerto Rico, with the Taino people.
It was used in the folk and dance music of Puerto Rico and Cuba for centuries before more widespread use throughout Latin America.
It was originally made from a hollowed-out gourd, and it has notches cut into one side. A ratchet sound is made by scraping a stick or wire brush along the notches. It is sometimes shaped like a fish.
- Spill the Wine – Eric Burdon and War
- The Man Who Sold the World – David Bowie
- Gimme Shelter – The Rolling Stones
- Oye Come Va – Santana
- Do it Again – Steely Dan
- Under the Boardwalk -The Drifters
- All I Wanna Do – Cheryl Crow
- Look Around – Sergio Mendes & Brasil ’66
- Mary Anne With The Shaky Hand – The Who
- Superfly – Curtis Mayfield
Its origins are in Africa, where the remains of a jawbone of a donkey, horse or zebra would be struck, causing the attached teeth to rattle. The instrument went with enslaved people to South America, where it was known as the quijada.
The vibraslap is a more durable, modern version, that began being made in 1967. It typically consists of a wooden ball attached to a metal rod, bent so that it can be gripped by hand.
At the other end of the rod is a wooden box with metal rods inside. When the ball is struck, the rods rattle and vibrate against the box, causing that distinct rattling, clattering sound.
- Sweet Emotion – Aerosmith
- Crazy Train – Ozzy Osbourne
- Funk #49 – James Gang (during percussion break)
- Never There – Cake
- Short Skirt/Long Jacket – Cake
- A Fifth of Beethoven – Walter Murphy (1:03)
- Green Tambourine – Lemon Pipers
- Feelin’ Alright – Joe Cocker
- Would? – Alice In Chains (0:30)
- All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix
- Bongolia – Incredible Bongo Band
In 2013, Steven Tyler told Howard Stern that for the recording sessions for “Sweet Emotion”, he played the vibraslap three times in the beginning of the song. On the fourth time, the vibraslap broke, and the sound was abruptly choked off. They just decided to leave it like that in the mix. If you listen for it, you will hear it.
Descended from the muyu, a wooden, fish-shaped eastern Asian ceremonial instrument that originated in China, temple blocks are a set of hollow, carved wooden blocks with a slit. They can come in a variety of shapes.
They usually come in sets of 4 or more to offer multiple pitches and are often tuned to the pentatonic scale. Their sound is more hollow and darker than a standard woodblock.
Technically not hand percussion, but I’m including them anyway, as they are hand-held adjacent. (Yeah, just go with it.)
- Slip Slidin’ Away – Paul Simon
- Dogs – The Who
- Xanadu – Rush
- I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – The Beach Boys (0:31)
- Beginnings – Chicago (end of song)
Claves (pronounced KLA-vayz)
Originally used in Afro-Cuban music, claves are two small, smooth solid wooden sticks that when struck together give a bright, penetrating click that can resonate through just about any mix.
Some modern versions are fiberglass, but a little goes a long way with those babies. I liken it to an aluminum baseball bat.
Magic Bus – The Who
And I Love Her – The Beatles
All Right Now – Free
Donna the Prima Donna – Dion
Don’t Ask Me Why – Billy Joel
Theme from Night Court (0:29)
Waiting on a Friend – The Rolling Stones
I’m a Man – Chicago
Beginnings – Chicago (end of song)
Agogo Bells, or Agogô
The agogo bells are two metal bells, attached by a U-shaped piece of metal. One bell is larger than the other, so two distinct pitches are produced.
Originally from Nigeria as a primarily ceremonial instrument.
They became commonly used in Brazilian music and may be the oldest samba instrument.
- Copacabana – Barry Manilow
- Love Rollercoaster – The Ohio Players
- Bluebird – Paul McCartney & Wings (0:58)
- Take Me To The Mardi Gras – Bob James
- Daft Punk is Playing at My House – LCD Soundsystem (2:50)
- Read My Body – Kiss
- Beginnings – Chicago (end of song)
Finger cymbals (or Zills in Turkish)
Finger cymbals have existed since ancient days and are believed to have originated in Asia. They eventually made their way to the Middle East and beyond and they have been used in many cultures throughout Asia and Europe for centuries. They’ve been a very important part of Middle Eastern dance.
Supposedly, belly dancers are judged more by their finger cymbal playing than the dancing itself.
You don’t hear them in pop/rock all the time. But when you do, it’s the perfect “ting” in just the right spot.
- I’m A Man – The Spencer Davis Group
- Lady – Styx
- Just the Way You Are – Billy Joel (0:49)
- I’m Gonna Make You Love Me – Diana Ross & The Supremes/ The Temptations
- Green Tambourine – Lemon Pipers
- Tin Man – America (0:40)
- Albatross – Squeeze
- Silly Boy Blue – David Bowie (played by Bowie himself!)
- Poetry Man – Phoebe Snow
- Around the World in a Day – Prince
Used in the music of many cultures, the instrument consists of a pair of concave pear-shaped shells joined on one edge by a string. The top of the castanet is tapped to produce clicks for rhythmic accents, or a rapid series of clicks that produce a rattling sound. They are traditionally made of hardwood.
The best-known usage is by the flamenco dancers of Spain, which may make this instrument easier to identify than some of the others.
- Be My Baby – The Ronettes
- Little Darlin’– The Diamonds
- La Isla Bonita – Madonna
- Logical Song – Supertramp
- Girls Talk – Linda Ronstadt
- Dance, Dance, Dance – The Beach Boys (first time at 0:23)
- Brown Sugar – The Rolling Stones
- Sandy – John Travolta (from Grease)
- Golden Years – David Bowie (0:22)
- Funeral For a Friend – Elton John (3:43)
- Musentango – Einstürzende Neubauten (Thank you, Phylum)
Ok, just about everybody knows this one because of its heavy usage on songs associated with Christmas. What can be overlooked is that on occasion, there are non-holiday songs that feature sleighbells, to great effect.
Some non-holiday examples:
- God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
- Dance, Dance, Dance – The Beach Boys
- School Boy Crush – Average White Band
- I Wanna Be Your Dog – The Stooges
- Charlie Freak – Steely Dan (starting at 1:49)
- Hazy Shade of Winter – The Bangles
- Chicago – Sufjan Stevens (starting at 3:27)
- The India Song – Big Star
- Good Vibrations – The Beach Boys (2:01)
- Airbag– Radiohead
Siren Whistle (or Acme No. 147 Siren Whistle)
It sounds like its name said it would. It’s commonly associated with clowns and the circus.
Or perhaps classic cartoons featuring cops.
But there are some songs that employ it. It’s loud and silly, and not for everybody, but it serves its purpose well.
- The Logical Song – Supertramp (2:56)
- Runnin’ With the Devil – Van Halen (2:09),
- Heroes and Villains – The Beach Boys (first time- 0:17)
- Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan (twice in the beginning and multiple times thereafter)
Here is a playlist of the songs mentioned. Some songs feature more than one of the listed instruments.
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