Adam Barnard

Strange vibrations: Picking up the world’s most unusual instruments

Move over throwback synthesisers, the strange kids are all about Grandma’s washboard. I hope. In preparation for the strangest day of the year, I’ve sampled a symphony of the world’s most popular obscure instruments. 

 

 

Let me begin by wishing you a happy Unusual Musical Instrument’s Day eve. Being a musician and having a deep understanding of what it’s like to have no money, one discovers quickly that all sorts of odds and ends about the place can be employed as musical instruments. I’ve been a drummer/percussionist around the Sydney scene for some thirty years, and I can tell you that Granny’s old washboard hanging on the wall is an absolute killer as a percussion instrument.

Back in the early 1900s, when jazz was still in nappies, the poorer folk, not having the wherewithal to afford proper instruments were quite resourceful and inventive, picking up just about anything and making music with it – washboards in place of drums, kazoos in place of trumpets, tea chest basses – and without realising it created a whole genre of music that is still played and enjoyed today. Purely out of poverty.

Speaking of washboards, check these guys out – The Washboard Rhythm Kings in 1933. Hot as hot gets!

And that “trumpet” player used a wonderful trick – he’s using a glass as a mute for the kazoo. You could be fooled into thinking it was an actual trumpet. However, back in 1900, elsewhere in the world, a clever fellow named John Matthias Augustus Stroh patented a new kind of instrument using “mechanical amplification”.

The Strohviol was and is a remarkable piece of gear, the forerunner to the famous brass-bodied Dobroyd resonator guitars favoured by blues and ragtime players of the Robert Johnson ilk, but in all actuality it was simply a violin, albeit a somewhat louder one! Using a conical resonator to create a rigid diaphragm, the Strohviol was not unlike a conventional record player of the time, and complete with gramophone horn. Quite a bizarre looking instrument. Here’s one in action, explained rather well by violinist Benny Brydern:

 

Now, take the violin and go nuts with it. Here’s a guy who’s invented a whole new beast called the Yaybahar. This wild-looking item was made by Iranian musician Gorkem Sen just a few years ago and is really quite amazing. A completely acoustic instrument employing the mechanics of strings, membrane and drums to create a hypnotic and other-worldly sound. A modern-day Theremin, if you will. I’m sure horror and mystery filmmakers would leap on this for their soundtracks.

But the weirdness doesn’t end there, dear reader. Let us blunder ever onward into the Mystical World of Wind and the Mighty Aeolus, or “Acoustic Wind Pavilion”, an incredible structure, Dali-esque perhaps, created by artist Luke Jerram. In essence, it’s a string instrument that uses nothing else but the wind. Aeolus, in Greek mythology, was the ruler of the Four Winds, and this remarkable instrument sings and resonates with the changing winds, creating haunting tones that, quite frankly, sound like something straight out of The Twilight Zone. Not something your average pub band would be playing on Saturday night! Here’s a clip from the Eden Project in Cornwall 2011, showing the Aeolus in all its glory. Marvellous stuff.

I guess we couldn’t finish without giving a nod to the good ol’ theremin, because as far as unusual instruments go, this one is right up there. The world’s first electronic musical instrument, the theremin, was created in the early 1920s by Lev Sergeyevich Termen, aka Leon Theremin. This fabulous electronic contrivance was, and probably still is, unique, in that the player doesn’t necessarily have to actually touch the instrument to play it. Pitch and volume are controlled by the magnetic fields generated by the human body – simply moving your hand in close proximity will affect a whole range of sounds.

Other kinds of theremin were produced, notably by Robert Moog much later, which had a strip on top along which the player would run a finger to alter pitch. Often heard in shlock-horror and sci-fi films of the 1950s and 1960s, the theremin has proved to be one of those lasting things, an entity unto itself. The Beach Boys famously used one on the track “Good Vibrations” and the instrument has become almost a thing of legend. Leon called it the “etherphone”, and in the 1920s and early 1930s would often perform publicly with a ten-piece theremin orchestra! A fascinating and quite brilliant man.

Have a listen to The Beach Boys and that theremin magic:

So it seems that if you have any creative bones in your body, a certain resourcefulness and a drive to play, then you can make music on just about anything. Some clever guy in the 1950s built an organ inside a massive cave that taps on stalagmites and stalactites to produce tones; there’s an instrument powered by a Tesla Coil; a glass harmonica; a water-powered organ; the list goes on. The only limit, it would seem, is your own imagination. So go on, invent something and give us a tune.

 

 

Adam Barnard

Adam Barnard has been a drummer/percussionist working with many bands around the Sydney scene for the last thirty-four years, playing jazz, blues, rock'n'roll, country and whatever else appeals to his imagination. He also repairs and restores drums, and he writes, sketches and makes films. He makes a pretty passable lasagne too.

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