Percussion Instruments Guide

Percussion InstrumentsPercussion instruments are defined as any instrument that is struck to create a sound. They are among the most studied and played family of instruments in the world. Percussion instruments are used in every style of music, from classical, jazz, folk, and rock to zydeco, salsa and merengue.

Believe it or not, you’ve most likely played a percussion instrument at some time in your life! Whether you shook a tambourine, hit a cowbell in your grade school music class, or played drums in a rock band, you’ve played percussion.

Percussion instruments provide the rhythmic heartbeat of music, and are also some of the most studied, easiest to learn, and hardest to master! Let’s look at some different percussion instruments from around the world that you can learn to play…

Melodic Percussion Instruments

  1. Piano
    Yes, piano actually is a percussion instrument! The piano is a percussion instrument because the sound is generated when a felt-covered hammer hits the strings. The piano is the most studied instrument in the percussion family. 
  2. Xylophone, Vibraphone, Marimba and Glockenspiel
    The technical name for this family of percussion instruments is “idiophones,” or body vibrators. Along with the piano, they are the other melodic members of the percussion family. Many of the idiophones resemble the piano keyboard in their layout, and are struck with sticks or mallets. They are commonly used in classical music, jazz music and in the case of the glockenspiel, marching bands!

If You Hit It, They Will Dance!

  1. Drums
    Drums make up the most diverse group of percussion instruments. The most common instrument studied in Western music is the drum kit, or drum set. Providing the rhythmic heartbeat in every rock band, the drum kit is a very popular instrument to learn. The drum kit is unique because it is played using both hands and both feet independently to create that heartbeat.The drum family is made up of many different instruments from all over the world. Along with the drum kit, many cultures have drums that are unique to their music. Many styles of music have unique rhythmic patterns that define them, such as salsa, merengue, Caribbean music and African folk music.
  2. Latin Drums
    Latin music incorporates many interesting drum types, the most recognizable of these being the bongos. The bongos are two small drums of different pitch, connected to one another, held between the player’s knees and played using the hands and fingers to tap out different rhythms.A close relative of the bongos, congas are a larger drum usually held on a stand. They are also pitched differently, and are used to drive Latin music with complex rhythms. Congas can be hit with the hands, for a rounder tone, or tapped with the fingers for a more percussive sound.
  3. African Drums – African music has a deep relationship with drums. Complex, driving rhythms are a hallmark of African folk music. Some of the percussion instruments used in African music include the djembe, doumbek, kinkini, talking drum and the log drum. Most are played using a combination of hands and strikers. Some, like the talking drum, can change pitch by squeezing the rawhide strips connecting the heads while striking it with a beater stick. – Many other cultures have drums unique to their music, such as the tablas in Indian music, and the cajon in Cuban music. Many were borrowed from traditional African drums and then modified to fit their new culture.

Shake, Rattle, and… Scrape!
Another group of instruments in the percussion family are those that are shaken. The tambourine is one of the most common and recognizable instruments from this family, but it also includes various shakers and maracas. Gourds are used as shakers in many musical cultures, as well. They can be covered with a net of beads, shells or seeds to create an instrument like the African shekere.

Also in this family are instruments that are played by being scraped with a stick. They can be made of wood, metal or plastic, and have ridges along the body of the instrument. The guiro, for example, is a Latin percussion instrument of this type.

Percussion instruments offer you a world of musical possibilities and are fun to play and easy to get started with. If you are a drummer, or hope to be someday, you should spend some time exploring the other members of the percussion family. Learning their unique rhythms and the styles they fit into will help you establish your skills and percussion knowledge.

Photo by Emporia State University