BY PHIL HOOD
Domesticated cows have been around for 10,500 years, or about as long as humans have been farming and living in groups of significant size. But those cows had to wait 5,500 years to get the first bells around their neck. That’s when the first pottery bells were made in Africa, and used for, among other things, tracking animals.
Modern metal bells came along much later, beginning in China 4,000 years ago. They finally reached Europe around 1,500 years ago when Italian monks began casting bells. By 1400 AD, these metallophones found a place in architecture as bell towers sprouted in European cities. And by the 1600s the musical potential of bells began to be widely accepted. Bellmakers and brothers Francois and Pierre Hemony of Belgium made instruments that could play five pitches.
But what about the bell that interests us most, the metal cowbell? Archaeologists have unearthed specimens dating to 2000 BC, but the first written mention of cowbells is from the 15th century in Germany, where the term bellwether (a belled sheep that leads a flock) originated. Over time, bells of various pitches were used to denote different animals: high pitches for young calves, and the deepest bell for the lead cow, the “bell cow.”
From there it was not exactly a straight shot to Blue Oyster Cult. The 20th-century use of cowbells kicked off in 1904 when a pair of classical composers utilized them in compositions. Gustav Mahler captured that country feel in his Symphony No. 6 (listen for the cowbell at 16:40), and Richard Strauss used them in his Alpine Symphony.
The cowbell began appearing in jazz just as the modern drum set was coalescing into its current form in the 1920s, which is also when first percussion tables were appearing. Cowbell use got a stylistic kick in the butt when Dizzy Gillespie began spotlighting Cuban musicians in the 1940s. The impact of the cowbell, which has an important role in the clave, led to its integration in R&B and rock and roll.
Cowbells are usually made from sheet steel, and as such are lighter than cast bells. Cowbells for musical application are made in the US and other countries by companies such as LP, Pearl, Meinl, Gon Bops, Rhythm Tech, and others. LP estimates they have made more than a million of them in the US. The Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company in East Hampton, Connecticut is the last US firm making traditional cowbells for the ranching market. They also make sleighbells and other traditional bells.
A Drummers Playlist
The cowbell can play many roles, from basic timekeeper as in “Don’t Fear The Reaper” to more versatile, coloring instruments in salsa and jazz. This DRUM! playlist spotlights innovative classics such as Max Roach’s treatment of the bell on Bud Powell’s classic “Un Poco Loco” in 1953, up through the classic rock era, and later use by Prince, The Beastie Boys, LCD Soundsystem, and others.