Whither Cowbell?

Remember cowbell? Its distinctive sound could be heard driving the beat in many iconic songs in the early to mid 1970s, from bands like Wild Cherry (with its funk-tinged “Play That Funky Music”), Grand Funk Railroad (“We’re An American Band”), Mountain (“Mississippi Queen”), War (“Low Rider”), and Blue Oyster Cult (“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”). The latter was the basis for the famous Saturday Night Live skit featuring Christopher Walken urging the band “It needs more cowbell!”. Cowbell was a rock music percussion staple. Even the Beatles used it (“Drive My Car”). So where did it go?

Mystery Solved
The answer is that it never went away, but your favorite music may not feature it as much today. The biggest reason may be the rise of the drum machine, which started to make major inroads into popular music in the 1980s. While some machines had a “cowbell” sound, they didn’t have the quality or range of sound produced by a real one. Percussion assumed a more mechanical role. It was taken over by bits and bytes, as opposed to a living breathing human. Bands like Kraftwerk moved percussion into a different realm, and it seemed like cowbell wasn’t part of that realm. Hip hop music also didn’t seem to use cowbell that prominently, as it tended to use the drum machine as well, but in a less dry manner than the techno pop bands like Kraftwerk. That familiar “clank” sound seemed to disappear into the past.

Global Influence
Thankfully, musicians had started exploring African and Latin rhythms and instruments, where the cowbell has a long and colorful history. The musical groups War and Santana (among others) were influenced by Latin rhythms, and introduced young rock music listeners to these great musical styles back in the 1970s. Today, Latin music has infused itself into mainstream western culture. Samba music has long drawn on its African roots with the use of cowbells, called agogos and gongues, which were used heavily in music that came out of Brazil. Additionally, rumba, salsa, and other tropical Latin musical types use cowbells extensively to mark tempo and to hold the music together. The cowbells used by most forms of Latin music are typically brighter in tone than the ones that were used by rock bands in the heyday of the rock cowbell era.  The timbalero (the guy who plays the timbales or bongos) is the focal point of a salsa or rumba song, since the song moves around the beat, or “clave”, as it is called. This is often to provide the rhythm for dancers, since these are forms of dance music. Music that borrows these beats does not always use the clave rhythm, but borrows the instruments and sounds of the Latin musical genres. We’re richer for it.

If you need a cowbell fix, you can head on over to the local classic rock station, and get your fill from Bachman Turner Overdrive (“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet”) or Nazareth (“Hair of the Dog”), but you might have more fun, and expand your musical horizons, if you explore salsa artists like Tito Puente (“Mambo King”), or if you check out what is happening in countries like Brazil, Puerto Rico and Cuba. Cowbell isn’t dead. In fact it’s better than ever. To paraphrase Christopher Walken, “get a fever” for today’s cowbell.

J.S. Brown writes in partnership with Drum Place, Drum Place is a fantastic resource for sheet music for drums and possibly even cowbells!