The Power of the Tambourine
By Jason Brinkworth, originally for The Black Page Magazine
This month I want to discuss the importance of one of the most powerful instruments in any rhythm section: the tambourine. This instrument has a great history and can be heard in most music worldwide. The tambourine can be heard in music ranging from pop, rock, gospel and R&B to jazz, Latin, country and world music. The sound, texture and power that this seemingly simple instrument can bring to the music are one of a kind. I have always maintained that a song isn’t complete until the tambourine track has been added. It is the drummer’s icing on the cake. Listen to “How Sweet it is” by Marvin Gaye. This will help you understand. Jack Ashford is playing that tambourine right in the cracks of the groove, moving the song forward so easily. Pay attention to how loud it is in the mix – it is louder than the vocals! Also check out “Kissing my Love” by Bill Withers. The tambourine paired with James Gadson’s groove will run you over like a freight train.
“Mr. Tambourine Man“, Jack Ashford
The Motown backbeat was the Holy Grail of 1960s pop music, and Jack Ashford’s tambourine was at the heart of it. Many have speculated that the tambourine gripped in Jack’s right hand and struck against the heel of his left hand, making tremendous rhythmic sounds, was easily emulated. Those speculations have since been arrested by musicians and laymen alike. These players pay homage to a man who never set out to be a tambourine player; it was a gift brought to life by a jazz band and Marvin Gaye. Such a little thing, yet so earth-shaking in its impact, Jack’s tambourine was one of the dominant forces that gave Motown Records the sound it was noted for – that motown sound. The “Snake Pit” was the place where Jack recorded most often, but many other producers (other than Motown producers) also wanted the tambourine sound to challenge that magical Motown hit factory. Whenever he could, Jack would do outside dates for a long list of people. The list is so long some have even been forgotten.
At first, playing the tambourine can seem pretty simple: We hold it in one hand and hit in on the heel of our other hand. But do we hold it straight up and down to let the jingles move free? Do we play it flat for a more staccato sound? Do we use more wrist or arm when we play? There are many things to consider, depending on the sound we need.
Also if we need to play a straight 1/8 or 1/16 note pattern, can we play it evenly? This is much harder than you think. Try playing straight 1/8 notes along with a slow song like John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room.” Even though the tambourine is only on the & of 1, try 1/8 notes. Not so easy, hey? Should you use more of the wrist or the whole arm for this tempo? Are all of the notes even? We aren’t playing a shuffle feel, are we?
We can also practice a mid tempo pattern along with “Bring Me Some Water” by Mellissa Etheridge, and a fast pattern to “Bleed it Out” by Linkin Park. Also try triplets, swing, shuffle, and any other pattern that we may need to play along with. We need to really focus on being even and consistent. The tambourine does find its place within the groove and this is only discovered through commitment and practice (like anything).
Our biggest resource is just listening to music, hearing where the parts are, and how they move through the arrangement of the song. You can find great videos of tambourine players like Jack Ashford online. Also check out Bekka Bramlett. She is a monster vocalist and tambourine player from Nashville with many tricks up her sleeve.
Aside from the handheld tambourine, many players have used tambourines on their kit. John Bonham used a hat trick on top of his hi-hats for some added spice. Billy Ward has taken this even further with his left foot tambourine antics. Players have also used tambourines mounted on cymbal stands to add in the parts from the kit. Nathan Followill from Kings of Leon uses the tambourine this way, as does Larry Mullen Jr. from U2.
The Drummer’s Nightmare – Here is the scenario: You are on a gig with a cover band playing a casino lounge in Somewhere, North America. The band is doing a variety of material and is made up of talented people who love playing music. As you move through the sets of pop/rock/country tunes, you find that there are definite moments that the groove is really struggling to find a pocket. Of course, as the drummer, you put all of the blame on yourself as this is our department. But, wait. Suddenly, you make an unbelievable observation.
Ok, before I start into this, I want to make one thing clear. This is an experience I would like to share with you and not a shot at the vocalists out there.
Back to the story: It turns out that the lead vocalist, who also happens to be a “tambourine player”, feels the need to randomly shake the tambourine while (s)he is not singing. To make this even better, (s)he holds it up to the microphone just to make sure the band and audience can hear their performance. So you get through the set and you sit and chat with the vocalist about the tambourine circus just witnessed. You are surprised when their justification for playing the tambourine is because they are bored, I repeat, bored when they are not singing, Wow! In a reasonable manner, you try and explain that once any musician starts participating in rhythm on stage, they are holding a very valuable piece of the groove puzzle.
Boredom? And the singers wonder why their tambourines go “missing” during a gig and magically appear at the end of the night. This is not all singers, mind you. I have played with some who really understand the value and power of a tambourine. They might play on the counts of 4 in verse 1, built to 2 and 4 in the chorus, possibly an 1/8 or 1/16 note pattern in a solo section, and maybe even layout in the bridge. A tambourine player has to support the song and the arrangement, just like the rest of us.
Whether you are a lead vocalist or a drummer, if you want to play the tambourine—for reasons other than boredom—start listening to the parts on songs your band plays. Or go back and listen to a bunch of your favorite songs and really zone in on the percussion. Whether it be a hand drum part, a cowbell, or shaker and tambourine, pay attention to what this adds to the feel and groove in the music. You will be very surprised at how the band will respond to your newfound skill, and you will get to keep the tambourine for the whole night.
Now grab your tambourine and play along to all of the Motown songs you own!