Comedian Will Farrell recalls how, whenever he would hear the classic Blue Oyster Cult hit “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” he would hear the cowbell in the mix and wonder, “I wonder what that guy’s life is like?”
He assumed the other musicians would look down their noses at him and his primitive percussion instrument, teasing him and the small part he’d play in the recording session. Farrell co-wrote a skit for “Saturday Night Live” that lampooned the cowbell by elevating it to an exaggerated importance in the song’s arrangement. Guest host Christopher Walken played the role of the record producer, continually interrupting the proceedings to demand “more cowbell!” The sketch now ranks among the most popular in the show’s 40-year history.
Thousands of years ago, shepherds needed help keeping track of the whereabouts of their livestock as they wandered the meadows and hillsides. The most effective method was to tie a bell around the animal’s neck, and when it moved its head, the clapper would strike the inside of the bell, alerting the shepherd to the animal’s location.
Different sized bells, made mostly of wood or metal, would produce different tones, which came in handy to indicate various characteristics such as an animal’s gender or age.
The use of bells in making music dates back to the Iron Age in sub-Saharan Africa and in Medieval Europe when church bells became commonplace. Eventually, the lowly cowbell earned a place in the pantheon of primitive percussion instruments used in a variety of musical genres. Alpine bells — a full set representing two or three octaves of notes — were used in Europe as a novelty act or tourist attraction in the Northern Alps.
Since the dawn of the 20th Century, cowbells were often heard in salsa and other Latin American styles, and increasingly in popular music — folk, country and rock ‘n’ roll.
Classic rock of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s offer numerous instances of songs that prominently feature cowbell. The Beatles made several tracks on which you can hear the cowbell as a pivotal percussion element: “You Can’t Do That,” “I Call Your Name,” “Drive My Car.”
Other notable examples:
The Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Woman” starts out with a cowbell.
Led Zeppelin’s very first song, “Good Times Bad Times”
The Who’s “Slip Kid”
Creedence Clearwater Revival has two: “Down on the Corner” and “Born on the Bayou.”
Hugh Masekela’s catchy instrumental piece “Grazing in the Grass”
Santana’s “Evil Ways”
“Mississippi Queen,” Mountain
“Fool For The City” by Foghat
“Hair of the Dog” by Nazareth
Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band”
“Funk #49,” The James Gang
“Stuck in the Middle With You,” Stealers Wheel
Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman”
“Low Rider” by War
“Time Has Come Today,” The Chambers Brothers
“Rock and Roll Hoochie Coo,” Rick Derringer
“Stone Free,” Jimi Hendrix
“Funkytown,” Lipps Inc.
“She’d Rather Be With Me,” The Turtles
“Dance the Night Away,” Van Halen
And, of course, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult.