A cowbell is a hand percussion instrument based on the real-life bells that herders used to ring around the necks of domestic cows. They are like idiophones, which means that they make sound by vibrating the whole musical instrument. Clappers—a hanging pendulum inside the instrument—are found in some cowbells. Classical music uses clapper cowbells, but rock, pop, and Latin music use clapless cowbells. The idiomatic cowbell sound comes from striking the metal bell with a wood cowbell beater (usually a regular drumstick).
Herdsmen utilized pottery cowbells that date back 5,500 years ago. Metal bells appeared considerably later, some 4,000 years ago in China. When Italian monks began casting bells around 1,500 years ago, they eventually arrived in Europe. Bell towers grew in European towns around 1400 AD, and these metallophones found a place in architecture. By the 1600s, the musical potential of bells had gained widespread acceptance. Belgium’s Francois and Pierre Hemony, bellmakers, created devices that could play five pitches.
Cowbells became popular in the twentieth century after a couple of classical composers used them in their works in 1904. In his Symphony No. 6. Gustav Mahler captured the country atmosphere, while Richard Strauss incorporated them in his Alpine Symphony. The cowbell initially appeared in jazz in the 1920s which is also when the first percussion tables were appearing. When Dizzy Gillespie began focusing on Cuban performers in the 1940s, cowbell use received a stylistic boost. The impact of the cowbell led to its inclusion in R&B and rock and roll.
Cowbells are often constructed of sheet steel, which makes them lighter than cast bells. Companies such as LP, Pearl, Meinl, Gon Bops, Rhythm Tech, and others manufacture cowbells for musical uses in the United States and other countries. According to LP, over a million of these have been produced in the United States. The Bevin Brothers Manufacturing Company in East Hampton, Connecticut, is the sole remaining manufacturer of traditional cowbells for the ranching industry in the United States. Metal clapperless cowbells are a common feature in Latin-American and go-go music. The tone of these cowbells varies by striking different parts of the bell. And also by damping with the hand that holds the bell.
Pairs or trios of clapperless bells are linked in numerous regions of the world (most notably in West Africa) so that they can be struck independently or clashed together. These bells are as famous as “agogo” bells in Brazil. The cowbell is known as cencerro and it is frequently played by the same person who plays the bongos. Two or three are frequently installed along with a pair of timbales in Caribbean music, and this style of cowbell may either be bowed with a double bass bow or played with the foot using a modified bass drum pedal.