The cowbell has been with us for something like 5,000 years now, from humble beginnings in Africa, where early herdsmen hung small bells made from pottery around the necks of their livestock to help keep track of their whereabouts. A millennium later the Chinese made the first metal bells, and the oldest known metal cowbell dates back to roughly 2000 BC — but this technology would not spread to Europe until the sixth century AD.
By 1400 or so, German shepherds and cowherds regularly used bells coded in different pitches to mark various animals within their flocks; in fact, the word “bellwether” originally meant the head sheep or cow that would lead the others. For centuries the cowbell was just what its name implied, neither more nor less.
And then the Jazz Age happened, and the modern drum kit evolved right alongside it, with its pedals to allow the drummer to play cymbals and bass drum and snare all at once. And no kit of the 1920s was complete without some random noisemakers — wood blocks, weird little cymbals, triangles and yes, cowbells.
The infusion of Afro-Cuban vibes into American jazz in the ’40s and ’50s brought all sorts of funky hand percussion into vogue, and by the time of the rock & roll era, the cowbell had become a trusty, if sparingly-used, tool in most every drummer’s bag of tricks.
Now largely associated in the popular consciousness with “classic rock,” the cowbell nonetheless appears across a wide range of popular music styles, played in all sorts of ways. So today Honk Journal presents its Ultimate Cowbell Playlist, highlighting some of the obvious cowbell hits (“Don’t Fear the Reaper,” “Honky Tonk Women,” etc.) but also some under-the-radar stealth cowbell jams (“New Gold Dream,” “Compared to What,” and so on). It’s fifty songs long and lasts just shy of three and a half hours — and it is chock full of cowbell from end to end.
What are your favorite cowbell classics? Honk Plus subscribers sign in and comment below!