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Anatomy of an Instrument: The Cowbell

Laura  Barnes
Anatomy of an Instrument: The Cowbell

What do Salsa musicians, farmers and Saturday Night Live fans all have in common?

They’re all very familiar with the sound of the trusty cowbell, of course!

In the latest instalment of our ‘Anatomy of an Instrument’ series, MI Pro looks at how a device used to locate cattle ended up becoming the star of SNL’s most popular sketch.

What is a cowbell?
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A cowbell really is a cowbell. The percussive metal instruments that we are familiar with today are pretty much the same shape and designed as the ones farmers tie around the necks of cows and over cattle to be able to locate them as they move about.

Typically there are two different types of cowbell used in music – ones with clappers (known as tuned cowbells) and ones without. Tuned cowbells with clappers are usually heard within classical music, whereas clapperless cowbells are an important element of Latin-American and Go-go music. Agogo Bells are also similar to clapperless cowbells but are traditional to Yoruba music and comprise of two bells of different sizes joined together.

Cowbells are all made out of hard metal, so they’re strong enough to take a beating by a drum stick, or if it has a clapper, constantly struck on the inside.

In 1904 two composers, Gustav Mahler and Richard Stauss, both wrote new symphonies with cowbells included. Both men were familiar with German farming customs and allegedly, both wanted to bring that to their new compositions. Once used within a classical music setting, the cowbell became a staple and is still used today.

While tuned cowbells, or almglocken as they’re known in Germany, retained the clapper found in the traditional bells used for cattle, another branch of the tree, the clapperless bell, started to appear in American hillbilly music in the 1920s.

How do you play it and what does it sound like?

As mentioned, tuned cowbells are played much like other bells, ringing them by hand. A clapperless bell (those more commonly found in popular music) is played by either holding it in one hand or attaching it to a stand and striking it with a wooden stick or drumstick.

This type of cowbell can also be played with the foot by using a modified bass drum pedal, or even bowed with a double bass bow.

They can be played singularly to create a tempo keeper and in some genres they are grouped together. For example, in Cuban rhythms, two cowbells (known as cencerro) are attached to the edge of Timbales.

A clapperless cowbell can produce two distinctive sounds depending on whether the upper part or the edge of the instrument it struck.

Here are a few of our favourite cowbell videos:

And finally, you can’t have a cowbell video section without MORE COWBELL.

Should I stock them?

Cowbells come in a range of shapes, sizes and price points. As they are very prominent in Latin, funk and dance music, it would be wise to add them to your percussion and drum accessory lines.

If you’re looking to display some more unusual or classical instruments, perhaps a range of almglocken is for you.

Who makes them?

Some prominent cowbell manufacturers include:

Gon Bops
Percussion Plus

Read more Anatomy of an Instrument aritcles here.

Tags: cowbells , Anatomy of an Instrument , cowbell

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