The 13 greatest uses of cowbell in rock and metal

Sure, it’s the kooky outsider of rock percussion, but what exactly are the greatest cowbell appearances in heavy music?

The 13 greatest uses of cowbell in rock and metal
Sam Law

Donk! Donk! Donk! Donk! Donk! Donk! Donk! You know the sound. You’ve heard the tongue-in-cheek mid-concert calls to crank it up. Hell, chances are you’ve already even chuckled along to that legendary Will Ferrell-starring Saturday Night Live sketch where the retro-rock ubiquity of the humble cowbell was the butt of the joke.

Would rock be the same without an odd peripheral instrument effectively descended from a bovine early warning system? Well, probably yes. But that’s not going to stop us ranking its finest ever uses by the bands we love…

13Fu Manchu – Mongoose

We’re kicking-off with some big (cowbell)hitters. Legendary Orange County stoner rockers Fu Manchu were never shy of a hollow thud or two, understanding the potential to add lightness and mischief to otherwise weighty compositions. On this brilliantly driving cut from 2001’s seventh LP California Crossing, however, Brant Bjork’s positioning of the beat front and centre transforms it into one of their most compelling cuts.

12Every Time I Die – The New Black

On one hand, New York metalcore trailblazers Every Time I Die seem a little brutalist for effective cowbell deployment. On the other, their off-kilter, experimental sensibilities fit it pretty well. Waves of snarling riffage and Keith Buckley’s characteristically dynamic vocals roar through this standout cut from 2005’s Gutter Phenomenon, but when the volume drops as the track lurches into the chorus, there it goes, popping away in the background to add another layer of eccentricity.

11Led Zeppelin – Moby Dick

Not so much a song as a 1969 showcase for peerless Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, Moby Dick saw the godlike rockers effectively shorn of Robert Plant and reduced to a power trio before Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones would step away to let their sticksman do his stuff. So, of course there’s a cowbell clonking away in there. Conceptualised by guitarist/producer Page from John’s studio jams, the legend’s sprawling solo could (and often did) extend out for as long as 30 minutes in the live arena.

10Guns N’ Roses – Nightrain

'Loaded like a freight train, flyin’ like and airplane, feelin’ like a space brain one more time tonight…' At the heart of the driving riff propelling those lyrics, Steven Adler’s pounding cowbell mightn’t have the heft of the titular locomotive but, with Guns N’ Roses dragging the genre furiously into the future, it grounded the track, weaving in threads of the old-school stadium sound Guns would go on to channel to world conquering effect.

9Twin Atlantic – The Chaser

When Glaswegian rockers Twin Atlantic sought to access the heart and soul of ’70s rock on fourth LP GLA, they knew they were going to have to dig into some different instrumentation. Channelling T-Rex and their countrymen Nazareth (see later on this list…), the sheer OTT swagger of The Chaser was an obvious standout. Nestled in amongst Craig Kneale’s percussive overload, the cowbell is just one of several elements tying these forward-thinkers to the genre’s storied past.

8KISS – Calling Dr Love

Peter Criss reportedly recorded his drums in a bathroom to get the right sound for New York shock-rockers KISS' November 1976 classic Rock & Roll Over, communicating with his bandmates via video link. The Catman certainly seemed taken by the cowbell during the process – never more than on this stone-cold banger – lending the album a looser sensibility than on that more machine-tooled landmark Destroyer, released in March of the same year.

7Mötley Crüe – Live Wire

'You better turn me loose! You better set me free!' Drum purists take great pleasure in knocking larger-than-life Mötley Crüe sticksman Tommy Lee. When he’s not busy building his own onstage rollercoasters or making, er, home videos, however, it’s hard to deny that he occasionally smacked out some absolutely inspired sounds behind the kit. Bringing in a cowbell about halfway through Crüe’s 1987 classic Live Wire, of course he’s not using it ‘properly’, but rarely has that bonk had a more uber-memorable effect.

6Def Leppard – Rock Of Ages

'GUNTER GLEIBEN GLAUCHEN GLOBEN!' The cowbell is layered all over Def Leppard’s 1983 breakthrough LP Pyromania, and while some might argue that its use over the chorus on Foolin’ is the more innovative composition, few would argue that its appearance right up front on the unforgettable intro to Rock Of Ages isn’t the more iconic. The Offspring repurposed the cowbell further into the song when they nicked the prelude for 1998’s Pretty Fly (For A White Guy).

5Rage Against The Machine – Killing In The Name

Yeah, there’s a perverse glee in getting to drop the Los Angeles rap-rock firebrands on a list like this, but rarely has that distinctive sound landed with more menace and foreboding. Sparingly deployed, yet utterly unforgettable, Brad Wilks’ use of high and low-pitched cowbells at the pivotal point of Rage’s 1991 trademark has been the trigger for 1,000 mosh-pit kick-offs, spilling through the speakers with a rattlesnake’s sense of venom.

4Queens Of The Stone Age – Little Sister

Queens’ great cowbell con! As seen in the iconic music video, the cowbell sound on QOTSA’s 2004 hit Little Sister is actually played on a jam block. We’ll be damned, though, if a sound so obviously in line with the spirit of classic rock doesn’t merit its place on this list. Factor in Jon Theodore’s insistence on playing the track live with a real cowbell (and Will Ferrell’s decision to give the song a SNL sketch all of its own) and its place in the history books is guaranteed.

3Nazareth – Hair Of The Dog

Perhaps the best use of the ‘pure’ cowbell sound that demonstrated its sheer ubiquity in 1970s rock, the 1975 title-track from Dunfermline rockers Nazareth's sixth studio album unfolds sounding cheesy as hell, but all the more fun for it. It’s the steady beat as a massive riff swaggers into view before bursting fully into life. The track was even covered by GN'R on their 1993 covers LP The Spaghetti Incident – with cowbell present and correct.

2Don Broco – Everybody

What?! Don Broco?! At number two?! On this list?!?! On first glance, dropping Broco’s 2016 Technology single Everybody seems like a bit of a piss-take. But stop, listen, watch that music video and you’ll surely think again. Matt Donnelly’s playful use here is something far, far more creative than the standard steady beat. And it’d be a stingy bastard not to award extra points for the time Mike Shinoda over-egged the pudding for them on his Post-Traumatic tour as well as a mega-bonus for the utterly inspired/unhinged accompanying clip. Cowbells for cowboys? Yes please! A shoutout for the boys’ blend of cowbell into the synth-work on Greatness, too.

1Blue Oyster Cult – Don’t Fear The Reaper

For whom the cowbell tolls! Although it’s much faster paced than the archetypical ‘cowbell classic-rock’ sound so many know and love, the timeless composition, sheer prominence in the mix – and use of the trademark lightweight sound to offset the thematic darkness – makes Don’t Fear The Reaper a nailed on classic. The fact that it’s literally the more cowbell” song is almost beside the fact. DFTR remains a haunting, hysterical and ultimately liberating reflection on the hereafter, the transcendental power of love and the mysterious nature of eternity. And cowbells, obviously...

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