7 Awesome Percussion Instruments for Pop and Rock

The world of percussion is home to a near-infinite range of unique sounds, yet many pop and rock musicians seem to pay it no mind. Maybe it’s because they don’t know their way around percussion gear, or perhaps they simply don’t know how to put any to good use. Either way, since rock and pop music can benefit greatly from percussion in terms of rhythm, melody and even harmony, here’s a list of seven solid percussion instruments along with a quick rundown and examples of well-known tunes they feature in.


Originating in Cuba, claves look pretty straightforward, but there’s more to this pair of wooden sticks than meets the eye. Instead of simply knocking them into each other, you’re supposed to cup one clave in the palm of your hand in order to create a kind of resonance chamber and hit it with the other clave. If done correctly, this generally results in a hard staccato sound that works really well for syncopated parts, especially in situations where syncopated drums are too much and more primitive parts would leave too much room. You can of course also use claves to emphasise the beat, like Led Zeppelin does on Fool In The Rain starting from 02:43.


Based on the agbe – an African instrument made of a gourd strung with beads – the cabasa has a cylindrical shape and a grooved metal surface covered with steel-ball-fitted chains. This sharp-sounding percussion instrument is placed in one hand so you can use the other to grab the handle and force the tiny steel balls along the grooves. The sound can be easily changed up by applying more or less pressure or by changing the rotation. The cabasa can be used to enrich more complex rhythms or to subtly fill up any gaps in your guitar parts, just like Radiohead does throughout Paranoid Android. Have a listen and you’ll hear claves too.


While it’s a little less versatile in comparison to the cabasa, that’s no reason to turn a deaf ear on the vibraslap. This relatively young instrument was only invented in 1967 by Martin Cohen, founder of Latin Percussion – the company that patented it. It’s played by gripping the U-shaped section and forcing the little ball into the resonator block, which houses metal rods that shape a rattling sound. This sound is great for signalling the start or end of phrases, but also works as an alternative to a drum fill. The duration of the sound can be easily determined by either letting it ring out or cutting it off by grabbing the resonator. On Dance Little Sister, Terence Trent D’Arby added a sustained vibraslap at 01:27. If you’re into heavier stuff, listen to Sweet Tooth by the Intervals. You can hear them play a vibraslap at 03:19, which goes to show just how versatile this reinvented jawbone is.

Agogo Bells (and Cowbells)

You might’ve seen agogo bells before. They’re two, sometimes three little metal bells that are connected by a bent rod – imagine a kind of double cowbell. That said, the agogo sounds higher-pitched than a cowbell, but is also more versatile since it has two bells. You can easily garnish simple rhythms with it without overcomplicating the music. Listen to Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now) by C&C Music Factory and you’ll hear agogo bells kick in at 00:10. While they’re in the background of a rather crowded part, the sound never gets overpowering. Alternatively, you could also use a good-old cowbell to keep count in simpler parts. Just remember that cowbells pack more presence than agogo bells, so make sure you don’t give yours too big a role. One of the most famous rock songs of all time that features the cowbell is Honky Tonk Woman by The Rolling Stones. You can hear it lay down a light rhythm from the get-go, creating a recognisable intro without demanding too much attention once the sound of the rest of the band kicks in.


Like so many percussion instruments, the guiro hails from Latin-America where it was originally crafted out of – you guessed it – a hollowed-out gourd. These days, güiros are made of wood or plastic and feature a ribbed surface that you scrape with a stick or a purpose-made scraper that resembles brushes for drums. Needless to say, the güiro shapes a scraping sound, and since you’re free to scrape in either direction and you can stop scraping at any time to kill the sound, it supports seriously complex rhythms. You can even tap it with a stick or tines, or draw out lengthy notes. For Stacked Actors, Foo Fighters opted to add the sound of a güiro to every first and third count throughout the verses. By placing it in the background, the güiro creates a beautiful ambient sound.

Shakers & (Headless) Tambourines

If the song you’re writing basically begs for percussion but the instruments listed above are a little too far-out for your taste, there’s always the shaker and tambourine. Along with the cowbell, these are the most common pieces of percussion heard in pop and rock music – and for good reason. Shakers and tambourines are brilliant all-rounders that work well as sonic ‘stuffing’ without getting in the way of more important instruments, and you can effortlessly use them to play rhythms or accentuate the beat. One common trick is to play a shaker on every eighth count to reinforce the hi-hat while tapping a tambourine in sync with the snare drum. This way, you can add percussion to existing parts without overcrowding things, making the music sound more full and layered.

See also

» Claves
» Cabasas
» Vibraslaps
» Agogo Bells
» Cowbells
» Guiros
» Shakers
» Headless Tambourines
» All Percussion Instruments
» All Drums, Percussion & Accessories

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