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Handheld Percussion


Article from Sound International, February 1979

Shekeres, from Ghana. An alternative version of the Brazilian cabasa (below).

The extent of all instruments which come under the heading of percussion is vast and various, ranging from a pair of finger cymbals to tympani and tubular bells. In this first part of a series of articles on percussion, I propose to deal with the small hand — or finger-operated instruments. It would be impractical to deal with every conceivable small percussion instrument, as the range worldwide is very large indeed, so this review will concentrate on the most available and popular instruments in the range.

The rise in popularity of percussion in general has been largely due to the Latin American and African influence on contemporary music. In the rock field it started in the late Sixties with bands like Santana, who drew inspiration from the Afro-Cuban influence which had been filtering into American music from the Fifties. Mongo Santamaria had been featuring three percussion players in his jazz-fusion band while most of Santana were still at play school. Today good percussionists, like Ralph McDonald, Armando Peraza and Ray Barretto, are much in demand on the session scene in the States, and in this country we have some accomplished players like Maurice Pert, Frank Riccotti and Kris Karan. Most top session drummers now keep what is termed as an LA box, consisting of a basic range of small percussion. Since the average studio is now 24-track or more, a drummer can lay down a basic drum track on kit, and then some percussion along with the vocal tracks at a later stage in the recording.

The main manufacturers of small percussion are Latin Percussion (LP) and Carroll Sound (CS) who deal exclusively with percussion. Many drum manufacturers like Premier, Ludwig, Sonor etc, also keep a sizeable range in their catalogue.

The percussion instruments listed here are a selection of what I consider to be the best, most practical and the most effective.

Afuche/Cabasa — Originally made from a gourd with beads threaded on string around the circumference that can be shaken, turned in the cup of the hand, or played with the fingers. The modern Cabasa works on the same principle but is made of wood and metal and has a slightly louder, sharper sound. The stainless steel cylinder has linked ball bearings strung around the circumference in place of the original beads and is a bit easier to play than the original.

Vibra-slap — Originally the jaw-bone of an ass, but, since asses are not overabundant these days, Vibra-slap is the modern substitute. A sprung boot-shaped piece of steel with a wooden ball at one end and sound chamber at the other, it is played by striking the wood ball which creates vibration in the sound box. The sound is produced by rivets set on a small plate inside the sound box. LP now produce a new Vibra-slap called (wait for it) Vibra-slap II, which just expands the range of sounds by adding interchangeable sound chambers — one of metal with steel rivets and two wood sound chambers each sounding different. Last, but not least, a clip-on tambourine jingle to be attached to one of the wood chambers for a ching effect.

Wooden Agogos — A two-toned wooden instrument with two wooden sound chambers pitched high and low can be scraped with a stick along the grooved part like a guiro or struck rather similar to playing a cowbell.

Maracas — Everybody's favourite, from Edmundo Ros to Mick Jagger. They come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials. Wood maracas are probably the most popular and fillings are usually anything from dried peas to lead shot. LP make one model in plastic, one in hide, each one giving a different distinctive sound, the hide being the drier of the two.

Wood blocks — Back in the 1930s, drummers used temple blocks or sculls on the front of the drum kit and these temple blocks played a very important part in the drummer's repertoire. Today wood blocks are a modern substitute. Ranging in size, they produce a hollow-like sound rather more mellow than claves. Like claves, they are usually made from rosewood. Originally these instruments came from China and have been the most used percussion accessory along with tambourines and cowbells. Similar to wood blocks, tone blocks can be found in the Ludwig catalogue and are made from ebonite. The pitch may be varied by moving adjustable pins towards each other to raise it, or away to lower it.

Triangles — These need no introduction from me except to say there are many different types and sizes, and Carroll Sound make a set of eight beaters, all of different thickness for a contrasting sound from one triangle. Highly recommended are Sonor triangles for ring and perfect pitch.

Cowbells — Originally, as the name implies, used to hang around the neck of cows in countries like India and Switzerland. They are now very popular in all types of music, including classical, rock, Latin, Jazz and, yes, even punk. There are many makes, types and sizes and all prices ranging from something like New Era which start at around £2 up to the large LP and Carroll Sound Almglocken which can be as much as £30. Most cowbells can be mounted on the bass drum but it is recommended that larger sizes be usually hand held. An interesting range of tones can be produced by dampening the bell with the hand and striking it in different places. Carroll Sound make a wide-throated cowbell called Almglocken, the frog mouth and classical shape giving a really rich sound. These range in size from about 2in to about 8in across the mouth.

Tambourines — The only thing all the different makes have in common is a row of jingles and this can vary from four to twenty. A variety of materials are used including plastic, metal and wood; some are headless, others are headed (usually with plastic heads these days) and some are tunable. Tama have a good range of tambourines of wood and metal and retail at about £5 to £12. LP and Ludwig also have a very good range but are a little bit more expensive. Jingles on the good makes are usually nickel silver and give the best sound.

A useful tip if you plan to play tambourines a lot is to wrap a piece of cloth around the part you hold and tape it round with something like gaffer tape, since long vigorous playing can produce some nasty blisters. As with cowbells and other instruments mentioned here, there is an art to playing a tambourine properly but so many lead singers just use it as a prop to bash when they are not singing or for throwing at the audience. I remember seeing Roger Chapman smash five tambourines in the space of three numbers at a Family gig once — all good fun if you can afford it.

Caxixi — A bit more obscure, rather like maracas in style of playing and sound. Beads or shot are housed in a woven basket with a gourd surface end. At the top is a handle and it is generally played by shaking up and down. LP again import these into the country and there are four sizes. This is one of the few percussion instruments that has not changed or been factory produced. These are still hand made from places like South America and they look very ethnic. If you live in the trendy part of Camden Town, they look good on the wall alongside the potted plants!

Samba Whistle (Tri-Tone) — A three tone whistle which has three sound holes like a primitive flute and when a finger is depressed over any hole, the tone changes. LP are again famed for their model which is machine tooled and makes a nice necklace if you get sick of playing it! A drummer friend of mine brought me a three-toned whistle back from North Africa recently and, although it is very crudely made, it sounds really good and is a lot cheaper. Unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge nobody is importing them over to the UK as yet.

Talking of prices and importing, most of the instruments of this type with South American or African origins can be bought in these countries for silly prices in comparison to the high prices charged over here. I had the good fortune to spend a lot of time in Africa a few years ago playing in a touring show and noticed that if you went directly to an African State and ventured into the homelands or villages, you could buy lots of African instruments (like talking drums, shakers and such) for about a third of the price charged in European shops, so if you are ever on tour or on holiday, bear it in mind.

Claves — Very simply two round pieces of wood about 6in long, usually made of a hard type wood like rosewood, which produce a nice wooden click/clop type sound. Some makes are louder or better than others. Highly recommended are the Sonor rosewood claves or the same from Ludwig.

Agogo Bells — From Bahia in Brazil, these two-toned bells are pitched approximately a third apart and played with a variety of strikers. These bells can also be mounted on a bass drum like a cowbell. They have a sweeter sound than a cowbell but not perhaps as sweet as finger bells. Also like cowbells, when hand-held, the hand can alter the tone and ring of the bells. When turned towards you, struck once and held against the upper part of the leg as soon as struck, they can produce a 'wah' type sound.

Ka-Me-So (or Shaker) — Similar to maracas and is long and cylindrical in shape like a torpedo and can be played in a variety of ways to produce long rolls when slowly tipped from one end to the other as the shot rolls down the cylinder, or short sharp maraca-type sounds by shaking abruptly in a vertical position.

Cairo — Similar in shape to the Ka-me-so with evenly spaced grooves which are scraped with a small stick to produce a hollow scraping sound.

Flexitones — A metal frame with a sprung metal plate with two beaters (one either side) which vibrate against the plate while the tone or pitch is controlled by bending the metal plate. A difficult sound to describe in words so I won't try, but very unusual and original — take my word for it.

These are just a few of the instruments that can be used for a basic small percussion box. There are, of course, many others and if you require something more specialist like horses' hooves (two blocks of hollow wood and a small striker board), or a baby cry (type of whistle), these are also available. In future articles I hope to look at the various aspects of percussion like congas, bongos, mark trees, gongs, crotales, timbales and other percussion instruments.

(FOOTNOTE: Most of the instruments mentioned can be hired from good hire companies that deal with percussion and drums.)

Peter Randall is an ex-pro drummer now working as a salesman at Henrit's Drumstore in Central London.

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Publisher: Sound International - Link House Publications

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Sound International - Feb 1979

Donated & scanned by: Mike Gorman


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Feature by Peter Randall

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