Today I’m going to let off a little steam. I’m going to talk about what a friend calls “the most dangerous musical instrument ever devised”. And no, I’m not referring to Woody Guthrie labeling his guitar with “This Machine Kills Fascists”. I’m talking about the dreaded tambourine.
It’s a simple instrument, so it must be simple to play, right?
It seems that at every open jam, song circle, or folk festival, someone brings one along thinking that “it will be fun”. And it may well be – for the one playing it. But, for everyone else within earshot, it can be a song killer. The tambourine, by its very nature is a powerful rhythm instrument – and in the right hands can really fill out a song, but sadly it is rarely found in the right hands. It is a rare player that can maintain a steady tempo with a tambourine, and it is a rare musician who can ignore it when it is being played off the beat. At best, it is played a fraction of a second behind the beat, slowly turning every tune into a dirge. At worst, it is rhythmically “all-over-the-map” leaving everyone wondering where the next downbeat will fall.
I should clarify, tambourines don’t kill songs, people with tambourines kill songs. In fact, one of my greatest “festival moments” involved a tambourine solo. We were at The Lunenburg Folk Festival at a percussion workshop given by a professor of percussion from Acadia University. He came out on stage and sat down, pulling out a tiny tambourine with one lonely jingle on it. I’ll admit it, I rather sarcastically thought, “Here we go… forty-five minutes of this???” He then proceeded to bring down the house with an amazing tambourine solo and went on to enthrall us for the rest of the workshop.
So, in the hands of a trained percussionist the tambourine can be a wonderful instrument, but for the rest of us, we need to do everyone a favour and leave it in the store. And if it’s too late for that (as it is for me), then at least leave it at home.