Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Mambo Cowbell

The first percussion instrument I ever bought was a cowbell. Damn I love those things!

It is actually surprisingly hard to play a cowbell right... in fact, about the only thing harder is the shaker I reckon. With congas, you can make a lot of varied and big sound very easily, but with cowbells, everyone can tell straight away if you are in time or not.

Using the Cowbell in Dance

Most of you will know that the cowbell is played on the "on beat", that is, every odd beat, so in salsa, that's 1, 3, 5 and 7. This is great to know as a leader... for example, if each spin of your partner takes two beats (which it usually does), then after four spins, you can go back into a basic, because you have just "consumed" two bars or one salsa basic. Too easy!

Playing the Cowbell

Well, the basic pattern is pretty easy. Hit it on every odd beat (1, 3, 5 and 7). However, you need to hit it with some flavour/passion, and sometimes even slightly earlier than the exact beat - otherwise it can give a very slow/laboured type of feel.

The cowbell (when played by the timbalero) can be used to speed up the tempo of the band... the cowbell is used to "drive" the song forward and faster. Have a listen to a mambo section... it is often lead by a fast-driven (and speeding up) cowbell.

For the musically challenged out there... here is the musical notation for the on beat (I hope you don't need it!):

Cowbell Variation #1

The first (and most common) variation to the basic cowbell is the following pattern:

This in effect is just the use of a slight "fill" between each main strike. The first fill is a single strike, whereas the remaining three fills are double hits.

A couple of things to note here: the emphasis is still on the main onbeat strikes - 1, 3, 5 and 7. The filler strikes are half notes... so just quick hits. Also, the pitch is different too... you should be hitting the side of bell for the filler hits, not the main body. You should be getting a noticeable difference in sound between the offbeat and onbeat/filler hits.

The Mambo Cowbell Pattern

After playing around for a bit with the cowbell, I quickly found myself playing the following pattern... particularly in the mambo section of salsa songs:

Again, note the difference between the short and long notes or hits. Some notes (such as on the 1 and 2) are long, whereas others are syncopated and fast, and should be played as such. This particular pattern kind of feels like a woodpecker or morse code (if you know what I mean), but just feels right! Try it out! Just don't screw it up in front of the band, or even worse, a few hundred angry salsa dancers!

How the Mambo Cowbell Pattern and the Clave Work Together

Here is a transcript of the 2/3 clave in time with the mambo cowbell pattern. Note how they tie in with each other quite nicely:

If we look at the 2/3 clave, the strikes on all but the "5" of the clave tie in with strikes (at the same time) within the mambo cowbell. So, when both are played at the same time, it works well.

Please note that if the song is a 3/2 clave, change the two bars of the mambo cowbell around (the same rule applies to conga patterns such as the Tumbao).

When starting patterns such as the Mambo cowbell on the 3/2 clave, it's pretty hard to hit the first note with perfect timing, as the first note is syncopated... it is on the "1 and". So, a good trick is to add an extra note when starting on the 3/2... so you will hit the cowbell five times in a row, just for the first bar, just to start at the same time as the rest of the band.

The Clave and Footwork

Another quick thing to mention at this point: notice that how on 2, 3 and 5 of the clave, I have mentioned that the salsa dancer's foot also strikes the ground? Interestingly enough, it doesn't matter if you dance on 1 or on 2, your foot and clave will always line up on beats 2, 3 and 5. And, it will always be in the sequence right foot (2), left foot (3), right foot (5). This is just from the followers perspective, but if you flip these numbers and feet around, you should get a similar result for followers' foot steps. And of course, if you use a 3/2 clave, then you get the same results again, just on different feet.


  1. Roberto T. Mexico cityJuly 1, 2009 at 10:25 PM

    Very useful.
    I have just started to learn percussion at 37.

  2. great article, picking it up listening to some music now. would help to have some audio examples and lessons on this.

  3. Thank you for sharing! Very useful info! :-)

  4. HELLO Looking into the Cow bells and my husband has been wanting one, and his birthday is coming up! ;) I've been told to purchase the (la ancha ) the wide one, but looking around I can't tell, they all look the same, is there a certain # or name for it? and by the way I enjoyed looking over your website, it is useful.