What image comes to mind when you think of a tambourine in your song?
For some reason, when tambourine is mentioned in a production, people often think it’s a joke – like I’m playing off of Will Farrell’s cowbell reference or something. But honestly, I’ve learned that the tambourine is the most under-appreciated instrument in music production, and definitely something every songwriter/producer/engineer should have in their bag of tricks.
I can’t count the number of times this scenario has happened:
Customer: “I’m really liking the feel, but something’s missing. It just needs that extra little spark.”
Me: “How about a tambourine – it’ll add a lot.”
Customer: (smirking) “Tambourine? That’s pretty cheesy.”
Me: “No, just trust me on this one…”
5 minutes later:
Customer: “That’s it! It’s perfect!”
Whatever the reason, it’s often seen as cheesy, lame, corny, hokey, weak, girly…the list could go on. So we need to clear some things up. Here are a couple reasons why a tambourine can make your production shine.
1. Add energy
Probably the number one thing you can do to add energy to your song is incorporate the tambourine. The beauty of the instrument is that it can be incredibly subtle – it’s not like a crazy synthesizer or attention-grabbing electronic sound. But just that extra little rhythm can cut through and infuse the song with energy and liveliness – that “it” factor that makes the song really come alive.
2. Take a section to another level
Often producers get caught in dilemmas when moving from one section to another in a song. What should we add? What should we change? How can we make this feel different? It will amaze you how a chorus that’s been done twice already can get that “lift” to take it to a whole new level, just by incorporating an 8th-note or 16-note tambourine groove. Even though most listeners can’t place their finger on it, they’ll feel like it hits even harder.
3. Add emphasis
If you feel like a tambourine groove is sticking out, one of the best tricks is to just put a solid tambourine hit on the snare beats – most often 2 and 4. You’ll get the power and punch of the snare, with a little bit of high-end zing to bring the snare beat out even more. This emphasizes the snare in richer way than simply turning up the volume or adding other effects. And again, you’d be surprised how many of your favorite songs do this without you even realizing it.
4. Brighten the mix
For audio engineers, making the mix “pop” and “sparkle” can be quite the task. Especially in rock songs, you’ll have a lot of low end from kick and guitars, but often not enough higher instruments to even out the mix. This is an easy way to incorporate a higher sound without adding chords or a harmony line that can often result in “too much going on”. It’s kind of like how cymbals can make a chorus shine, without having loud, crashing cymbals all the time. Subtle, yet effective.
5. Get your groove on
For many styles, you just need to get that rhythm section grooving like James Brown doing Salsa at a Korean Karaoke Bar (I know, it would be epic). Like the shaker, congas, and other auxiliary percussion instruments, tambourine can add a powerful punch to the funk-fest. Try a nice 16th-note groove with added emphasis on the snare hits, and you’ll be inspired to give your music some danceability.
6. Make your song smile
One of my personal favorite reasons for using tambourine is that if brings a sense of joy and delight to a song. I think often times we forget how music should be uber-fun – something that we sing and laugh and smile to. So don’t be afraid to celebrate life by adding an energetic sound that lifts your spirits. And yes, the hippie flower children had it right on this one…so quit your Debbie-Downer recordings and spread some joy.
6. Add atmosphere
Don’t think for a second though, that tambourine can only be used for “happy” songs. Some of the most eerie and dark songs can be accented with a mellow, hollow tambourine hit. This is easily achieved by adding a good amount of hall reverb (or any other with a long tail) and turning the dry mix down, so that it sounds distant and intriguing. It’s all about the atmosphere, and you can certainly add to the mood with carefully-placed tambo hits.
7. Make your lead singer feel good
This may be a little tongue-in-cheek, I’m still not sure. But any lead singer who just sings can be the butt of many jokes from the band. And unfortunately many lead singers have massacred songs by picking up the ol’ tambourine during jam sections, thinking they’re helping out the song.
So two rules here: 1) Don’t play the tambourine unless the part should have a tambourine. Being bored, wanting to impress fans, or feeling awkward on stage while you’re not singing are all lame reasons to play. 2) If you’re going to play the tambourine (which should be encouraged, I think), please make sure that you’re practiced and comfortable playing – it does have a learning curve. So don’t kill the groove with offbeat (often too fast) or unsteady (swung when the groove is straight) playing, OK?
Now on a good note, I really do want to encourage singers (and their band members) to consider the tambourine as a great addition to live performances. If anything else, it does help the singer feel like a part of the band – contributing musically without doing anything vocally (and at the end of the day, the drummer gets final say in whether it works or not).
There’s probably more reasons, but this will do for now. Hopefully you experiment, trying different tambourine sounds and grooves. You’ll quickly find (like I did) how much it can add to a song, and why it truly is the most underrated instrument in music production today. Now sh-sh-shake it, baby.