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BY TAKU HIRANO | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!

As a percussionist, I get to play instruments from all over the world. These instruments are not only very different from one another in origin, but their histories are as interesting and varied as the sounds they create. With my career path, I now perform many of these traditional instruments in nontraditional settings. 

In addition to the major instruments that make up my percussion rig (congas, bongos, timbales, and cymbals), I am constantly asked about the specialty instruments in my palette of sounds and why I chose them.

When I play rock and pop music, I spend a large portion of my time holding and shaking instruments, as opposed to striking them, whether for timekeeping or creating sound effects. Handheld percussion is integral to my arsenal, and because of that I have spent a lot of my time learning the techniques and nuances of all sorts of “small” instruments. No other group of instruments produces sound in this way, and I embrace that.

Here are a few instruments I often use, whether onstage for a television performance with a pop star, or touring the world with Fleetwood Mac. I first learned how to play many of these in traditional settings, later adapting them for nontraditional use.

Brian Friedman Photo

SHAKERS

The shaker family encompasses a large group of percussion instruments that are hollow vessels filled with some sort of small, loose objects like beads, seeds, or metal shot. They are commonly tubular, although modern manufacturers have made them in every geometric shape possible, even in the form of eggs and fruit. Since as far back as high school, I have been making my own shakers out of plastic Easter eggs and soda cans filled with beads, uncooked rice, or popcorn kernels. To this day, shakers are an essential part of my percussion arsenal and I keep many different types on hand.

On tour, where I’m competing with amplified instruments, I tend to use tubular aluminum shakers, as well as plastic shakers filled with large shot to maximize volume. For more delicate situations or in the studio, I use plastic or wood shakers filled with fine shot, or even sand. The variations are endless, so I really pay attention to each shaker’s volume, texture of sound, and precision and articulation.

Some shakers produce a “washy” sound, which may be nice to provide a soft texture. Other shakers are abrasive, biting, or super-precise, which is great to cut through and provide a timekeeping role. For me, the shaker is akin to a drummer’s hi-hat—I use it to mark time, and it’s also capable of adding artistic flurries or swishes. I often suggest that percussionists collect many different types and constantly experiment.


drum percussion shekere

SHEKERE

The shekere is a dried gourd or calabash covered in a string netting of beads or cowrie shells. It traces its origins to West Africa and has been traditionally used in folkloric music in Nigeria, though variations of the instrument exist across West Africa under different names.

The instrument made its way to Latin America with the slave trade, and it became ingrained in the folkloric and sacred music of Cuba, where it is called chekeré or aggué, and in Brazil, where it is called the xequerê.


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What makes the shekere such a unique instrument is that not only is it a beaded shaker, but in some ways it’s also a drum. Striking the bottom of the gourd with the heel of your hand creates a bass tone, and the rhythms and patterns in traditional playing incorporate a combination of bass tones and shaking. In traditional Hawaiian music, a gourd drum called the ipu heke’ole—virtually identical to the shekere, but with no bead netting—is also played with the heel-strike bass tone.

As far as a nontraditional settings, you can hear percussion master Bill Summers playing the shekere with Herbie Hancock as a member of the breakthrough 1970s funk-fusion band The Headhunters.

I use a shekere on tour with Fleetwood Mac in the song “Second Hand News,” as it provides a nice alternative to a shaker. Though not on the original recording, I found the thick sound and low pitch blend nicely beneath the sixteenth-note guitar strumming that occurs throughout the song.


QUIJADA/VIBRASLAP

The quijada is a percussion instrument made from the jawbone of a donkey, horse, or mule. The jawbone is held in one hand and struck with the other, creating a buzzing sound as the loose teeth rattle in their sockets. This instrument is used as a rattle sound effect, as well as a timekeeping device, struck to the beat or even scraped along the teeth with a stick.

Though it is now mainly found in Latin America, the quijada originated from West Africa and was brought to the Americas by slaves. It was first introduced in Peru and is still a mainstay in Afro-Peruvian musical ensembles, but it’s also used in Argentina, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. 

A modern, mechanical version of the quijada was invented by Martin Cohen, the founder of Latin Percussion, in 1967. Patented as the Vibraslap, it is essentially a jawbone that wouldn’t break. It consists of a bent metal rod connecting a wooden ball to a rattle “box” with suspended metal “teeth.” The curved portion of the rod is held with one hand, and the ball is struck with the other, causing the loosely fastened metal pegs to rattle. 

The Vibraslap can be heard on many rock recordings, including “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne, “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith, “Orange Crush” by R.E.M., and “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix (where it was performed by Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones). 


CHAJCHAS

Chajchas, also referred to as chapchas or uñas (Spanish for “toenails”), are rattles made from the hooves of goats or sheep. This instrument originated in the Central Andes region of South America and is used in the folkloric music of Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. The hooves are strung on a loop of fabric, allowing it to be worn as a bracelet or anklet and used in ceremonial dances. 

Chajchas are a mainstay in my palette of sound effects as they make a great hollow rattle sound, reminiscent of rattling bones or even a babbling brook. I like to connect multiple loops together to make a massive cluster, creating an even thicker sound.


TAMBOURINE

The tambourine is a mainstay in rock and pop music, and thus is an important part of my personal percussion arsenal. These jingled frame drums are universal, with histories not only in Western classical music, but also gospel, New Orleans second line, and American folk music. Versions of the instrument can also be found throughout history from around the world, including traditional music in Italy, Greece, Persia, Brazil, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and India. Modern-day tambourines can be played with or without a drumhead, and their frames are made from a variety of materials, including wood or plastic. 

For rock and pop gigs, I try to have several options with me. In situations where I need to really cut through and mark time with precision—such as R&B and pop—I tend to use headless tambourines. The cutting sound of steel or brass jingles striking against a hard plastic frame allows for maximum clarity and articulation.

For classic rock gigs, I like to use headed tambourines. I’m able to slap the drumhead as I would in a gospel or New Orleans second-line situation, but also have a warm jingle sound amplified with some resonance. This makes strikes on backbeats and shaking, especially with ulnar rotation (the arm motion of turning a doorknob, as opposed to shaking from the wrist) much fuller and washier.


MARACAS

Maracas, often played in pairs, are used in many genres of Latin music, especially in the Caribbean. Originally known as tamaracas, these rattles were used in religious ceremonies by indigenous tribes in South America, where gourds filled with pebbles and held by their natural elongated necks were used by shamans and healers in Brazil and in the Andes region. Today, modern versions made of leather, wood, or plastic and attached to wooden handles are used in many genres, from salsa to rock. 

Maracas may not be the first instrument to come to mind when thinking of rock and roll, but these instruments have been hiding in plain sight on so many classic rock recordings. They can be heard, for example, on The Rolling Stones’ “Not Fade Away,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Brown Sugar,” and Mick Jagger often played them live, bringing them to the forefront. Stones drummer Charlie Watts has been quoted as saying that it was Bo Diddley maraca player Jerome Green who inspired Jagger to learn to play the instrument properly, including stopping the maracas, the toughest part. 

Personally, I found myself using maracas less after my early years of playing salsa and Afro-Cuban jazz. When I got the Fleetwood Mac gig, I began watching old footage, and I noticed that vocalist/keyboardist Christine McVie played a pair (both held in one hand, and often hitting them on the backbeat into the other hand) on the live performances of her hit song “Everywhere.” 

Digging deeper into their vault, guitarist Jeremy Spencer often played maracas on the song “Oh Well” with the original lineup of Fleetwood Mac led by Peter Green. (This early lineup was also responsible for the original recording of “Black Magic Woman,” later covered by Carlos Santana.)

On tour, I now play a pair of traditional calfskin maracas bound together at the handles on the song “Everywhere” to fill out the sound of McVie’s triple-bound wood maracas. Since she is busy singing and playing maracas away from the vocal mic, I double her to create a thick sound that not only sonically compliments her timekeeping, but also visually compliments her playing onstage. On “Go Your Own Way,” I devised a quadruple-maraca contraption with four plastic maraca heads mounted to a handle. This gives me the maximum volume that Mick Fleetwood wanted over three electric guitars, but with minimal strain, as I play it like a shaker. 

LEARN THE ORIGINS AND EXPERIMENT

As you can see, there is quite a bit of history of shaking and rattling in rock and roll. I always tell students to learn every bit of history about a given instrument—its origin, the context in which it was initially used, and the techniques associated with it. Then branch out and begin experimenting. In my formative years and as a professional, for example, I have spent hours playing and experimenting with a simple egg shaker. The bottom line? Be creative in your choices, and be bold—it’s the rock and roll attitude.