Having spent the past four years studying percussion, I’ve become increasingly critical and aware of its use in popular music. While it’s easy to add a tambourine to any rock song, there are some artists that go above and beyond in the realm of percussion use, something I’m always excited to hear. Here are some examples of artists who have managed to utilize percussion in an exceptional manner.
1. Iron & Wine – “Lovesong of the Buzzard”
Prior to The Shepherd’s Dog, Iron & Wine was pretty much exclusively a solo singer-songwriter whose songs featured very sparse orchestration, often only guitar and voice. However, with the release of The Shepherd’s Dog, the density of sound exploded, introducing an array of percussion, lap steel, stride piano, and strings to name just a few of the myriad instruments used throughout the album. “Lovesong of the Buzzard” is a marvelous example of Iron & Wine’s use of percussion, using multiple layers of instruments, including hand drums, tambourines, shakers, and hand claps. Most notable is the fact that almost no drum set appears on the album, and when it does, it’s never played in a traditional fashion, helping to further expand the number of colors used throughout the album.
2. Anathallo – “Bells”
It was really difficult to choose one song by Anathallo for this list. I mean, if you look at their list of members on Wikipedia, almost every single one of them is credited with playing auxiliary percussion. While every track on the album Canopy Glow has some sort of brilliant application of percussion, “Bells” is perhaps the most unique, as the entire underpinning of the song is produced by hand bells, which the band came across while in-residence at a Methodist church in Chicago.
3. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum – “Sleep is Wrong”
Okay, that’s enough pretty music for now. Sleepytime Gorilla Museum was essentially a collection of musicians really into Dadaism and dressing like a Pagan wedding, but beyond the unattractive name and really fucking weird dress code, they put out some seriously incredible music. Avant-garde experimental metal may not exactly be your thing, but on a list of bands that use percussion well, these guys have earned a spot. While they did use drum set and traditional auxiliary instruments, what really sets them apart is the fact that they built a lot of their own instruments, including what they refer to as a “popping turtle” (heard at 1:21), a “slide piano log”, which is essential piano strings strung across a seven-foot piece of wood and beat with sticks, plus tons of found metal including pots and pans and trashcan lids. All of these lend to the ground-shaking heaviness.
4. White Rabbits – “Percussion Gun”
“Percussion Gun”, despite its title, doesn’t really display the breadth of White Rabbits’ percussion use, but it’s fast and energetic and drummy, so I’m including it. With a drummer who barely ever plays a backbeat, and a second percussionist who uses even more drums, plus shakers, tambourines, and claves, White Rabbits’ music is notable for its heavy involvement of percussion, but “Percussion Gun” is especially cool thanks to the unrefined bashing that sets the groundwork for the entire song. If you’re looking for something that showcases their more intricate use of percussion, check out the song “Navy Wives” from the album Fort Nightly.
5. The Dear Hunter – “The Lake and the River”
This is a particularly great example for a couple of reasons. First off, the slow, one-by-one introduction of instruments at the beginning of “The Lake and the River” really brings focus to the unique qualities each instrument provides to the song. Listen carefully and try to pick out each instrument as it enters: first glockenspiel and guiro, with temple blocks very low in the mix. Then clave in the next phrase, followed by shaker, then tambourine. Each one adds a brand new interesting color to the palate, and their individual introductions helps to highlight that. Another reason I love this example is for the proper techniques displayed on the instruments. Anyone can shake a tambourine, but the complexity of the shake-roll used implies a trained percussionist is playing here. Plus the fact that the clave is properly playing a 2:3 son pattern (look it up on google) tells me these guys really know what they’re doing.
6. The Mars Volta – “Day of the Baphomets”
How do you use bongos in a song without sounding like Mission Impossible? Give them to someone who actually plays Afro-Cuban and Latin music. Marcel Rodriguez-Lopez, younger brother of Omar Rodriguez-Lopez opens “Day of the Baphomets” with an assortment of Afro-Cuban instruments, including cowbells, congas, bongos, and shekere, all under Juan Alderete’s absolutely astonishing one-take bass solo. While most of the rest of the song is taken over by Jon Theodore’s incredible drumming, 9:48 gives way to a monstrous bongo solo.
7. Little Tybee – “Hearing Blue”
While I’m adding this song to the Spotify playlist, you really should take the time to check out their in-studio video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAxyaZ6XvR4) to really appreciate how much is going on here. That wooden box you hear at the beginning is a Peruvian instrument called a cajon. A little further in, you get a glimpse of a tambourine-like instrument from Brazil called a pandeiro. Later on, drum set and marching-style snare playing is added, while percussive attacks on eight-string guitar and col legno (playing with the wood of the bow) is employed on Violin. In addition to the excellent application of percussion throughout the song, 4:22 utilizes bembe, a traditional Afro-Cuban 6/8 pattern.
8. The Dodos – “Fools”
The Dodos’ use of percussion is interesting in that Logan Kroeber essentially plays drum set, yet does so in a completely unconventional fashion. Opting to not use a kick drum, he arranges multiple toms around him, often using the rims. He also attaches a tambourine to his foot, and uses cymbal stacks for short, chocked sounds. This approach is partially meant to compliment the syncopated and percussive nature of Meric Long’s guitar playing, but also draws from Long’s study of West African drumming. “Fools” is a great example of Kroeber’s driving energy, and incredibly complex patterns.