Spicing Up Songs with Hand Percussion

Hand percussion instruments can be seen heaped in a plastic crate in elementary school music rooms, under the bed of would-be auxiliary cover band members, and in the corner of Guitar Center’s drum section. They’re often mentioned in the context of a joke: “Can I join the band? I’ll play the tambourine!”

It’s true. Most kids don’t watch a band on television and walk away with a newfound dedication to learning the craft of the egg shaker. And while hand percussion instruments may not have the sex appeal of an electric guitar, or the fun factor of going ape on a drum set, they can play a critical part in most any genre. Even the slightest, most subtle usage of percussion instruments can transform a song from cool to legendary.

Using some classic examples from bands we all know, let’s examine how hand percussion has been used to add some flare to some of rock’s greatest songs.

Cabasa: “Paranoid Android,” Radiohead

OK Computer completely shifted the popular music landscape when it came out in the late 1990s. The media tagged Radiohead as the saviors rock 'n' roll so desperately needed (as they seem to do with a new band every decade or so) and tracks like “Karma Police” helped the album spread like wildfire and push the band to a broader audience worldwide. It is responsible for ushering in an entire generation of copycat Brit Rock bands and led many listeners love or loathe the band. It also features some of the most righteous cabasa usage you’ll ever hear. Taking a break from hovering over his monster pedalboard, guitarist Ed O’Brien employs a cabasa to compliment the guitar playing of Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood to give “Paranoid Android” a slinky, rhythmic feel, complete with changing time signatures.

Claves/Shakers/Guiro: “Stacked Actors,” Foo Fighters

A mix of sludgy rock intermingled with bossa nova verses, this song deserves to be mentioned solely for the departure it is from the usual Foo format. Various percussion instruments fill the space between a classic bossa beat laid down by Taylor Hawkins, and that makes the chorus sections even more dramatic when they turn into a full-on rock ‘n’ roll onslaught. The contrast between verse and chorus gives the song a palpable feeling of anticipation and the claves, shakers, guiro — and possibly another appearance by the cabasa — are at the forefront of the magic. Who’d have thought the Foos would add some Latin flavor to their tune?

Congas/Maracas: “Roll Right,” Rage Against the Machine

Rage Against the Machine is no stranger to unique sounds, and the usage of conga drums and maracas on the second verse and guitar solo section of “Roll Right” make the song take a dramatic turn that gives me goosebumps every time. Perhaps better known for aggressive anthems such as “Bulls on Parade” and “Guerilla Radio,” Rage tones it down a bit for “Roll Right” and shows you just how tight they are as a band, with intricate accents interwoven with Tim Commerford’s bass groove, Tom Morello’s guitar, Brad Wilk’s drumming and Zach de la Rocha’s vicious rhymes.

Tambourine: “With or Without You,” U2

A classic love song by a classic band, this is perhaps the most subtle example of percussion usage on this list. At first, Larry Mullen Jr. uses the tambourine as an accent when he hits the snare drum, and as the song builds, the tambo does as well, until it finally evolves into a full shake during the outro. You may not think it is that significant, but just imagine what this legendary song would sound like without tambourine. That’s not a world I want to live in.

Cowbell: “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult

It would be a criminal offense if I did not mention the most famous song of all to feature hand percussion. Combine a legendary guitar riff with some wicked cowbell, add a Will Ferrell skit, and what do you get? One of the most famous songs the world has ever known. Responsible for spawning legions of guitarists with its irresistible hook, this song puts the cowbell front and center and possibly kills the “Play Free Bird!” joke forever. Now, every jokester in the club feels the urge to shout “More cowbell!”

What percussion-laden songs do you love? Is there a particular instrument that inspires you or informs your songwriting and live playing? I hope these examples will provide some inspiration. Don’t be afraid to dust off those bongos or find that triangle. Adding some percussion to the mix - whether subtle or dramatic - can help take your music to the next level. Though some of the instruments are small, they are a force to be reckoned with, and you’ll always be glad to have them laying around.

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