Small Percussion: Perfect Gift for Musicians

Third Coast Percussionist (photo by TADASHI OMURA)
Third Coast Percussionist (photo by TADASHI OMURA)

Check out trumpeter Lee Morgan and alto saxist Wayne Shorter play small percussion on this killing performance by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. They’re playing Dizzy Gillespie’s tune, Night in Tunisia. Gotta be one of the best versions around.

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.

Jymie Merritt’s burning fast bass solo is accompanied by some precise hits from all the small percussionists (starts @ 4:00).

The next several posts will focus on the small percussion instruments below and will include videos explaining techniques for these small instruments you can easily toss into your gig bag.

It can feel awkward to stand in front of an audience with your horn in your hand, only playing for solos and a head or two. It feels weird to stand there doing nothing but nodding your  head. If I can, I step to the side. If the playing is really good, and I’m really into it, I want to contribute in some way. In my quintet Swang, small percussion was almost always an option, not only for me as a trumpeter, but for Sophie on clarinet, and Lee Ann on vocals. During a couple performances, I’ve sat on a cajón and play that when I’m not playing guitar or trumpet. It’s a lot of fun.

Small percussion work takes practice, which is just doing it, at home, with recordings  (I’ll list some in the coming posts) is the most fun way to practice. The playing techniques are simple for the instruments, but a challenge to do with rhythmic precision, and a tight rhythm section. You can really screw up the groove if you don’t know what you’re doing. Be open to just stopping if that starts to happen. In fact, unless you’re at home practicing, to stop playing is often your best option. Be sensitive to the other players, especially whoever’s providing other percussion instruments, like a drummer. Talk about it. Get some pointers and/or suggestions. Respect the Groove.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be posting videos covering the basics of the instrument: techniques, typical rhythms, and probably a bit of history. I’ve listed them roughly from easiest to most challenging:



For anybody with a tight budget, you can get egg shakers for about a buck apiece. There are other versions, too, all of which sound great. My personal favorite is a line of shakers called the “One Shot” because you can precisely control the sound. I’ll post a video about those soon, too.

Many shakers to choose from.



Like many of these instruments, it comes from Africa, but has been embraced by lots of south american and Cuban music. Wonderful sound. I have the tiny one ($20) fits into a gig bag and has great projection. You can also get one that is operated with your foot.

Many cabasas to choose from here.


GonBops Rosewood ClaveClave

It’s the name of an instrument, a rhythmic concept, and a specific pattern, covered in the first post, soon to follow.

King Clave (Latin Percussion) ($27)

Rosewood Clave ($22):



A very cool sound, a little more difficult to play correctly than the instruments you’ve seen so far. Worth the effort, though. Some come in plastic, which are great for band directors or people who are hard on instruments, but the wood ones, like the one pictured, sound best. Several to choose from. Around $20.


To play this correctly you don’t ring it like dinner’s ready (although you can). It sounds coolest if you muffle it. I’ll show you how in an upcoming video. This is one of my favorite percussion instruments when it’s played right. Thought there are many to choose from LP makes a great one. Some can be pretty poor quality, giving you a tinny sound. I have small, medium and large triangles from LP, like this one.

In the coming weeks, posts will focus on how to play these small percussion instruments. Stay Tuned!

Want to learn more about the best ways to practice? Get an e-mail with a discount code when The Practice of Practice is published (June, 2014). To learn more about the book, check out a sample from The Practice of Practice.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Hey those really are some cool instruments, i have some info on percussion instruments on my blog! you should check them out and tell me what you think! 🙂

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