Few minor instruments in music have attained the same love and adoration that the infamous cowbell has garnered over the years. It’s simple, it’s goofy, but it also hits the spot in a way that not many other smaller musical apparatus can lay claim to.
The instrument – with its earthy tone and direct attack – has been used infrequently since it first came to prominence on Buddy Holly’s “Heartbeat,” released in 1958. Since then, the peculiar object has been utilized by many artists, as well as being covered in pop culture like on the hilarious SNL sketch which brought it to the forefront in the ‘00s.
You’ll be tapping your foot to the ear-pinging clunk of these ten tracks – all of which use the cowbell like it were an integral part of their core, and in doing so, shine a light onto this underutilized percussive instrument.
10. Kings of Leon – Red Morning Light
Let’s face it – Kings of Leon’s “Red Morning Light” is already one hell of a tune, but the inclusion of a head-rattling cowbell during the mid-song breakdown just adds to its southern badassery. The Followill boys deliver the goods on this scintillating barnburner, blazing their way through three minutes of gin-soaked rock music. It just so happens, though, that their ingenious use of the cowbell is one of the highlights of the track.
9. Bachman-Turner Overdrive – Hey You
This anthemic gem of a song by Bachman-Turner Overdrive is a joyous slab of rock that features a stunning riff, singalong vocals, and driving drumbeats. However, there’s also some effective cowbell lurking in the mix. It actually acts as the beat for the track’s infectious chorus, propping up the rest of the instrumentation with its instant attack. BTO had some fantastic records, but none make use of our favorite percussive instrument as well as “Hey You” does.
8. Run-DMC – King of Rock
When influential hip-hop outfit Run-DMC went down a rockier road with their 1985 record King of Rock, they made sure to explore one of the genre’s most underutilized instruments: the cowbell. On the song, they almost make it the focal point by having it clunking under the trio’s rhyme-spitting trade-offs. They may have better songs in their arsenal, but there’s no denying just how effective the cowbell is on this hard-hitting cut.
7. The Beatles – A Hard Day’s Night
While Buddy Holly may have been one of the first to use the cowbell in modern pop music, it was The Beatles who made it a cool thing to incorporate. And they certainly did that with their 1964 cut “A Hard Day’s Night.” Ringo Starr smacks the idiophone object like it was going out of fashion, switching up the pattern of it for the verse and bridge sections. This inventive playing style is how you utilize the instrument to perfection.
6. Wild Cherry – Play That Funky Music
They don’t come much funkier than Wild Cherry’s 1976 banger “Play That Funky Music.” Besides the iconic vocal melodies and groove-laden guitars, there’s also a nice dollop of cowbell thrown in on the percussion section for good measure. Drummer Ron Beitle uses the instrument sparingly on the verses, but decides to go all-out for the chorus with some excellent stick work. It could be argued that the cowbell’s the best part of the percussion on this one – no mean feat either considering how multi-layered the drums are.
5. Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper
Blue Oyster Cult truly were one of the greatest rock groups of the ‘70s, but their career-defining track “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” will forever take precedent over everything else. Why? Because it was a critical and commercial success, even with the band’s risky last minute decision to insert a cowbell into its main framework. It also served as the inspiration for the Will Ferrell-led SNL sketch ‘More Cowbell,’ proving that the instrument’s late addition to the song’s arrangement was a very welcome one indeed.
4. Led Zeppelin – Moby Dick
“Moby Dick” by Led Zeppelin is a groove rock masterclass, and while the killer guitar refrain plays a prominent part in the first section of the track, it’s all about that insane John Bonham drum solo. He may have dazzled you so much with it, though, that you could have missed the rhythmic use of the cowbell. Yes, the drumbeat that opens and closes the song features some rollicking swathes of the instrument to satisfy your cowbell urges.
3. Grand Funk Railroad – We’re an American Band
Grand Funk Railroad waste no time in introducing the cowbell on their awesome track “We’re an American Band,” in fact, it’s the first thing the listener hears upon booting it up. Taken from their 1973 album of the same name, “We’re An American Band” is one tantalizing slice of hard rock, made all the better by the metronomic use of the cowbell. It doesn’t have to be fancy, it doesn’t have to be flash – It just needs to be struck with conviction, and that’s exactly what they did on this fierce cut.
2. Mountain – Mississippi Queen
This sleazy two-and-a-half minute composition by hard rock badasses Mountain was laboured over long and hard during its recording in 1969. Not content with how the sessions were going, producer and bassist for the band Felix Pappalardi only gave the track the green light once he heard drummer Corky Laing begin to use the cowbell to lead it in. From there, the instrument permeates this blues-infused firecracker. If the distorted riffs and husky vocals don’t do it for you, then the on-point cowbell pounding will. “Mississippi Queen” is simply fantastic, and that’s partly due to the satisfying cowbell usage.
1. War – Low Rider
Is there a cooler song in existence than War’s “Low Rider”? The slinking bassline, the hazy vocals, the catchy harmonica – all coming together in funk harmony. However, the use of the cowbell can’t be overlooked either. Found on their 1975 LP Why Can’t We Be Friends, “Low Rider” is made even more infectious by the inclusion of the percussive instrument. Some artists use the cowbell sparingly – War throw caution to the wind by integrating it into the song like it were a core instrument. And you know what? It works a treat.