A to Z songs that were made great by the cowbell
By Kayla Macleod
16th October 2017
I remember being in school ensemble and either being handed the triangle or a cowbell and thinking why do I always get the boring instruments. Boy was I wrong, the cowbell is actually really really cool and I'm going to give you proof of why. But before that I would like to firstly acknowledge the efforts and contributions of Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live in helping raise awareness of the cowbells undervalued potential. So originally the cowbell is named after the bell that is hung around a cow’s neck to indicate it’s whereabouts but can also be used as a percussive instrument that is usually hit with a wooden rod. Although cowbells first appeared in American hillbilly music in the 1920s, they have also been used as an instrument in more recent popular music as seen below.
A little less conversation — Elvis Presley
As you will see for a lot of these incredible songs, the cowbell is used to count in the other instruments which can be seen in ‘A little less conversation’, although you can hear the cowbell various times throughout the song.
Beds are Burning — Midnight Oil
This iconic Australian song uses the cowbell very simply in the background. It gives a very earthy and dry vibe as they are singing about the dessert and Australian outback.
Cross-eyed and Painless — Talking Heads
Probably the fastest use of the cowbell heard out of all the songs and one of the highest pitched cow bells. Talking heads used a lot of quirky percussion instruments in the album.
Don’t fear the reaper — Blue Oyster Cult / Honourable mention Down under
This 2000 hit song became even more popular after being seen on Saturday Night Live with Will Ferrell playing a very cowbell rhythm on every beat.
Every other freckle -alt-J
The most recent and popular song on this list, I thought it was important to give examples of current music that is using the cowbell to enhance the song. In this song the cowbell plays only small amount on the off beat rhythm after the chorus.
Funky Town — Lipps Inc.
For me this was definitely the first song that came into my head when I thought of the cowbell. This iconic song uses the cowbell throughout the entire piece in a rather untraditional fast tempo rhythm, helping make the song as popular as it is today.
Got to give it up(Part 1) — Marvin Gaye
There is starting to become a theme of funk throughout the songs I select. Marvin Gaye uses the cowbell very simply for rhythm and this can be seen in many of his other songs.
Honky Tonk Women — The Rolling Stones
This song encompasses the roots of cowbell music, in the opening few bars it is simply cowbell with a very traditional hillbilly style rhythm.
I heard it through the grapevine — Credence Clearwater Revival
This song has a very simple melody and the smooth incorporation of the cowbell as well as the tambourine adds another layer to this great song.
Jolene — Dolly Parton
Country artists are known to slip a little cowbell in every now and then, and Dolly very subtly incorporates the cowbell into her percussion.
Killing in the name — Rage against the machine
Cowbells in hard-core rock music kind of contradict its nature, but you can’t deny they work! This song uses two different pitches of cowbell in the beginning helping it become an iconic rock anthem.
Love Shack — The B-52’s
I could have filled this list with B-52 songs, the cowbell is associated with their trademark sound, it adds a very happy and upbeat rhythm to the song.
Moby Dick — Led Zeppelin
John Bonham, drummer of Led Zeppelin always had a cowbell attached to his drum kit, as said by rolling stones magazine. It’s only at the beginning of the song we hear the cowbell and it establishes its lighter tone for the remainder of the song.
Nightrain — Guns ’n’ Roses
If one of the biggest rock bands uses the cowbell, you use the cowbell. No question.
Oye Como Va — Santana
Ok switching it up a little here, cow bells in Spanish music, surely not! But if you think about it, Spaniards love their percussion, maracas, castanets should I go on? It just works.
Play that funky music — Wild Cherry
Do yourself a favour, go listen to the song! Cowbell +Funk=Perfection.
Queen — Bohemian Rhapsody
As if a song this complex couldn’t have a cowbell thrown in there somewhere. Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the best songs of all time and it’s made even better due to the cowbell.
Rock Lobster — The B-52’s
Another B-52 song that needed a mention, the cowbell happens just after the well known bass riff and helps the song from becoming overflowed with synth.
September — Earth, Wind and Fire
Disco meet your best friend, the cowbell.
The Tide is high — Blondie
This is the greatest beach anthem of all time. Blondie wanted to keep the songs Jamaican origins so she hired three traditional Jamaican percussion players and created a new string and horn arrangement to give it an authentic sound. That included the cowbell obviously.
U2 — The Unforgettable fire
Irish rock band U2 incorporate the cowbell into many of their songs, with this being the most distinctive, in the chorus playing the beat while the drums play the offbeat.
Van Halen — Dancing in the street
Val Halen also uses the cowbell in the other hit song ‘Jump’. The cowbells are used in very small sharp beats.
Work It — Missy Elliot
Missy sampled many other songs to create this song, a very common technique in rap and r&b music. In the background percussion you can hear Run DMC’s song ‘Peter Piper’, which includes very high pitched cowbells.
Xanadu — Rush
Ok, I obviously really struggled to find an x, but skip the very long intro and you will get to some absolute banger cowbell beats.
You spin me round (like a record) — Dead or Live
So, I think I've realised through this list that the 80’s were the glory days for the cowbell. Dead or Live hit the nail on the head (or rather the cowbell) with their fast pace percussion trills.
Z — ok I give up, what song names start with z, let alone one with a cowbell in it, I'm out!