Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man... can you teach me how to play?
JUL 26, 2013 | BY ISAAC THORNLEY
Jack Ashford, pictured above, was the main tambourine player for the Motown label in the 1960's and 70's. http://www.waxpoetics.com/
It’s that finishing touch, that missing sound, that perfect dash of rhythm that always knows its place. The tambourine is the seemingly simple, yet complex, instrument that many people love without ever knowing it.
It’s an understated instrument. On its own its no more interesting than the triangle, or those two sticks you used to smack together in grade school. Its surface-level simplicity, however, belies the immense impact that the tambourine has had on many genres of music, from motown and soul to folk and rock.
Tambourines are an ancient instrument, traced back to Mesopotamia and the cradle of human civilization. They were brought over to Europe in the 13th c. with the Crusades.
My own recent fascination with the instrument began about two months ago when I was trying to push myself into a jam session with a group of people I had never met. Though my instrument of choice is the guitar without a doubt, I knew that to ask either of the guitar players to hand over their prize possessions would be too forward.
I picked up the unassuming tambourine, figuring that I could still make my musical presence felt even without the electricity and amplification of a guitar. I woke up the next morning hungover as usual, but this time with a gorilla hand-sized dark bruise on my thigh. I was slightly concerned until I realized that the bruise had formed in the exact spot the tambourine had been hitting.
Whoever said “music is contact sport” is right. No pain, no gain, no rhythm, or whatever. Since that infamous thigh bruise I’ve ventured to buy myself a tambourine. Only now I play using just my hands, leaving my soft fleshy parts in peace to jiggle to the beat of the drum.
The thing is: tambourine is hard. It looks simple, but it’s not. Listen to any song where the tambourine is prominent - my personal favourite is “Signed, Sealed, Delivered I’m Yours” by Stevie Wonder - and you’ll notice the amount of precision and nuance involved.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can’t be too heavy handed. It’s easy to pick up an instrument, and particularly a percussion instrument, and just want to bang and shake the hell out of it and make a lot of noise. But patience really pays off, patience that I don’t have... yet.