Before joining the percussion family, the cowbell was simply a “livestock locator” that produced sound when the clapper hanging inside struck the sides of the bell. Since a stick was needed to execute precise rhythms, the clapper was deleted from the percussion version of the cowbell. Usually manufactured from steel, cowbells are produced in a wide variety of sizes and thicknesses to cover a broad spectrum of frequencies, timbres, and sustain lengths. If you have a specific cowbell sound in mind, you can probably come close to finding it among the dozens of models available. One of the major percussion companies displays over fifty different cowbells on their website!
Although the “cencerro” is often associated with Latin American music, the distinctive sound of the cowbell is heard in other genres including pop, rock, funk, and disco. In contrast to the more active and syncopated cowbell rhythms in Latin American music, the cowbell parts in mainstream popular music are often very simple with an emphasis on the downbeat. The “rock cowbell” style common to mainstream music will be the focus of this article. Get ready for tips on tone production along with exercises to develop your open/close cowbell chops.
Experiment with the cowbell to discover the timbral possibilities of the instrument. Discover an assortment of sounds by tapping on various places on the instrument and by striking with different areas of the beater. You can hear a significant difference between striking the flat surface of the bell with the end of a stick, and using the side of a beater across the “mouth” of the instrument. Explore timbres produced by implements such as bundled rods, brushes, and yarn-wrapped mallets. For the rock style of cowbell, I suggest a commercially available “cowbell beater” or a 1 5/8” diameter dowel cut to a length of approximately nine inches. A 3S drum stick chopped to the proper length can be also be used for this method of playing.
Most cowbells include a device built onto the closed end of the bell that allows for attaching the instrument to a stand. Applying tape to a mounted bell is a time-honored method for darkening the tone and/or reducing sustain. Another solution is to stuff a chunk of foam rubber into the bell; this allows you to quickly change from a muted sound to an open tone by removing the foam rubber. Although it is sometimes necessary to play the instrument in the mounted position, I prefer to hold the bell in my hand if at all possible.
To hold the instrument in your hand, place the cowbell in your non-dominant hand with the open mouth of the bell pointed away from your body. The instrument rests on top of your palm and the broad sides of the bell are roughly parallel to the floor. Your thumb and fingers grip the cowbell’s narrow sides. One of the broad sides rests against your palm. This grip allows you to place your palm against the bell for a closed (muted) sound, or lower your palm away from the bell (with fingers and thumb remaining in position) for an open (ringing) tone.
If a passage of music calls for a consistent muted sound, you can grip the bell (and apply muting pressure) with fingers on the lower side and thumb on top of the playing surface.
Check out my short video tutorial on rock cowbell.
The etude below will hone your ability to move between open and closed tones. Play the cowbell with the side of the stick striking across the edge of the mouth to bring out more fundamental and less highs.