Percussion may be the most overlooked element in recorded music (especially for the non-drummers out there). But try taking a listen back to some of your favorite recordings and it is more likely than not that they will feature percussion in some form.
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While percussion may often be relegated to the auxiliary pile in our brains, it can actually be critical to the groove, feel, and vibe of a song, as well as a powerful tool when songwriting, arranging, and recording. So whether you’re just picking up the drums or if you’re looking to add some spice and groove to your music, percussion might be just what you’re looking for.
Let’s dive in and take a look at a few of the most common percussion instruments and how you can use them to make your songs more compelling.
We’ll start with a plain drum groove as a basis for our percussion instruments:
Basic Drum Groove
PRO TIP: You can record a demo of all of these percussion instruments we’ll be discussing with the free Spire app for iOS to see what variations you like best in your music.
The tambourine may be the first thing to come to mind when we think of percussion, and for good reason. From The Beatles to today’s Top 40, you can find the tambourine at almost every turn. That’s because the tambourine is an extremely powerful and flexible instrument—it can be used to play along with and reinforce a rhythm, accent certain beats with one-off hits, and even be used to make a rattling sound effect. When used tastefully, it brings a lot to the table. And simply put, nothing compliments a drum set quite like a tambourine does.
Let’s give a listen to a tambourine complimenting our drum groove:
Drum Groove + Tambourine
Note how the tambourine ups the cadence of the groove without having to change the drum pattern. While the tambourine outlines 16th notes, the hi-hat on the drum set accents each 8th note. This sense of hierarchy leaves the most important notes of the groove to the hi-hat while the space is filled by the tambourine—the groove would sound a lot different if the 16th note rhythm were being played on the hi-hats!
The shaker is another quintessential percussion instrument. Smoother than the tambourine, it can be used in many of the same contexts when a lower-key sound is called for.
Now here is a shaker playing along with the drum groove:
Drum Groove + Shaker
Note how in this case the shaker has a similar effect as the tambourine but with a different timbre. We can think about how these different sounds might work in different contexts; perhaps a shaker could build to a tambourine as a song progresses and calls for more clearly defined accents.
Best of all, you can usually pick up an egg-style shaker (that’s what’s recorded here) from your local music store for less than $5—you could even make your own out of household items. This is something every songwriter and producer should have in their arsenal.
Claves are a percussion instrument originating from latin music that have since made their way into many kinds of pop music. They consist of two wooden sticks that make a “click” sound when struck together.
Here is a pair of claves playing along with our drum groove, accenting each quarter note downbeat for the first two bars, and then playing a clave rhythm for the last two:
Drum Groove + Clave
Hear how the claves add a driving feel to the groove when playing along with the downbeat, and then how they give it a vastly different feel when playing the clave rhythm. The claves may not have as many obvious applications in pop music as other percussion instruments, but they are an excellent choice to add a driving force to your song or to change up the feel.
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If you don’t have an actual pair of claves on hand, you can also make do with a pair of drum sticks or other wooden sticks that you might have around. Try them out and you may be surprised!
The vibraslap is a percussion instrument that makes a recognizable rattling sound when hit (think that rattling sound at the beginning of “Crazy Train”). It can in a sense be considered more of a sound effect than an instrument, as unlike other percussion instruments, there isn"t a clear transient upon impact, meaning that the vibraslap is less rhythmic than other percussion instruments. Nevertheless, the vibraslap is a common go-to for drummers and producers to add its signature sound to recordings.