Innovation has spawned many children in the musical instrument family. It’d also be fair to say that it has many step-children. Some of these are very practical, but never found their niche. Some are not practical, perhaps because they are too expensive to build, are too hard to play, or are too specialized for the general music playing public. Some just are. We thought it would be fun to take a look at some music’s odd instruments.
By Robert Lindquist and Jake Kelly
One keyboard instrument at NAMM 2013 garnered a lot of attention, and instead of being the newest technological breakthrough, it was a throwback. An in the deep recesses in your mind, you know that Bach, Beethoven, and the Beatles would have loved to get their hands on it: the Wheelharp from Jon Jones and Sonssounds. It’s less like a harp and more like a violin only far more complex, allowing polyphonic strings parts to be single musician – acoustically!
The Wheelharp looks like it may have been created by a Victorian madman, with the base of a harpsichord and a cylinder shaped string arrangement that resembles the paddle wheel of a steamboat one would be seeing cruising up the Mississippi River in the 1800’s.
Did the Wheelharp miss it relevance by a couple of hundred years?
With the integration of sampling and electronically synthesized sounds, you would think that any sound that can be produced by striking, plucking or blowing would have a technologically created counterpart; and in fact there is.
But it is not nearly as fun. After all, it is in the soul of the musician to share the music the mind, even if it means inventing a new device to make it real.
Setting the way-back time travel machine to 1962, we find ourselves in Birmingham, England. As the troops are assembling for the first offensive of the British Invasion of the musical variety, creative minds are at work developing what would be come known as the Mellotron.
The Mellotron is recognized as the first keyboard capable of playing back recorded samples…and it should be noted that this was decades prior to hard drives and flash memory. This beast used short segments of magnetic recording tape and tape playback heads (one for each key!) to reproduce sounds. Releasing a key after once played, the mechanism would then need to reset itself to the beginning of the tape, making repeated notes an interesting challenge.
And while it was quite musical in the right hands, it’s said that anyone who could play it well also needed to be an equally qualified mechanic to keep it function properly—especially with touring bands.
But before we get too far along, perhaps we should touch on the granddaddy of all musical oddities, The Theremin.
The Theremin looks like a simple box with two antenna extending from it. The player controls the volume and pitch of the monophonic instrument by floating their hands near the antenna. Since the device is sensitive to hand movement, vibrato (subtle variation in pitch) and tremolo (variation in volume) can be achieved by the player wavering their hands. The sounds produced are weeping and ethereal with a vocal-like quality, and quite musical in the classical sense. Music Trivia: The Theremin, often mistaken for a moog, was featured in Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, and Led Zep’s Whole Lotta Love.
Perhaps the only thing stranger than the Theremin and the cult following it maintains, may be those that specialize in playing this instrument. So much so, that there’s a movie about the greatest Theremin player of all times in the works.
As multi-track recording blossomed in the 1960’s, many groups and artists were looking to diversify their sound and explore new sonic territory. This experimenting led to the music that became the soundtrack for the psychedelic era.
The sitar was one of the olds made new again in contemporary music of the time, but the instrument is bulky and somewhat difficult to play. Perhaps with the mantra “nothing worth while is easy”, many rock musicians learned the instrument; some even as going as far to traveling to India to learn to play it from the master, Pt. Ravi Shankar.
Still some musicians found learning the distinctive instrument too daunting of a task.
In steps Nathan Daniels, who had already made a name for himself with the inexpensive (but tone-worthy) Dan Electro guitars and amplifiers some which were also sold under the Sears Silvertone label. Under the Coral brand name, the company releases the Electric Sitar.
With a special bridge designed by Vincent Bell and 13 sympathetic strings, the Electric Sitar could sound similar to the conventional sitar but with a body, neck, tuning and string configuration of a standard electric guitar.
The configuration worked so well that few people realized that the sitar music from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was played on the Electric Sitar by session master Tommy Tedesco.
The guitar immense popularity led to many innovative players, which has further led to evolution or refinement of the instrument to facilitate these playing styles.
In the later part of the 1960’s Emmett Chapman was playing a tapping technique on the guitar which many are more familiar with…and often falsely tribute to…Eddie Van Halen’s playing a couple of decades later.
In the early 70’s Chapman developed the Chapman Stick. The Stick appearance is, well somewhat stick-like, resembling a fretted electric guitar fingerboard that is wide enough to accommodate the combination of treble (guitar-like) and bass (electric bass-like) string groupings.
However, unlike the guitar, the instrument is not intended strummed or plucked at all, rather tapped or “hammered on” with both the fingers and thumbs of both the left and right hand. In this manner, chords, bass lines and melodies can be played simultaneously: not too differently than how one would play a piano.
In capable hands, beautiful and complex music can be executed. In less capable hands…not so much. And, sadly, the instrument doesn’t even look good hanging on the wall with a Indian blanket or serape behind it.
Extending the range of the conventional guitar goes back to the origins of the instrument, but the design took a tremendous leap forward (even if it never became mainstream) with the advent of the Harp Guitar produced by Dyer which was most likely manufactured by the Larson Brothers.
The Dryer Harp guitar, as manufactured around 1920, had a body that resembles a conventional guitar with a huge arm-like extension off the upper bout over which are suspended 5 or 6 bass harp (non fret-able) strings.
This large extension of the body, not to mention the sympatric vibration of the harp strings, gives the guitar a huge sound which must have been amazing to both the player and the listener in the era before the large Dreadnaught body style was manufactured.
In more recent history, the late Michael Hedges had good use of his Dyer Harp guitar and his requisitioned Steve Klein Electric Harp Guitar which uses the luthier’s ergonomic body shape. Interestingly,
Hedges playing on the Harp Guitar incorporates much of the same finger-tapping style used by Emmett Chapman mentioned earlier.
It should be noted that many manufacturers of that era manufactured harp guitar of various design, including Gibson who made beautiful carved top harp guitars, but most players prefer the flat-top Dryer model.
Another interesting take on the guitar is the Double Guitar. Once again, a playing style dictated the design of the instrument. This time the playing style is Michael Angelo Batio’s wizardry.
The Double Guitar is a twin neck instrument, but this time the necks mirror each other jutting off in opposite directions. It could be thought of (and mostly is) a left-handed and right-handed guitar merged together at the lower bout.
While this guitar does not extend the range of the instrument (thought Batio later took acquisition of a 4-neck guitar that incorporated two 7-string necks), Batio primarily uses the Double Guitar to highlight his flashy style, self-accompaniment, and two handed harmony.
While it may seem like everything has been tried, new ideas pop up all the time…sometimes only to quickly die off. It’s Darwinian world out there, and it is us the players that make the natural selection.
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