Unpopular Instruments in Popular Music: 9 Sonic Oddities

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Tired of the traditional dominance of guitar, bass, and drums in pop music? Here are 9 instruments that have made it into popular music that you either didn’t know about, can’t pronounce, or wouldn’t be able to play without removing from a living creature first.

The Glass Harmonica

The Glass Harmonica was invented in 1761 by none other than Ben Franklin. When Franklin saw his friend Edmund Delaval perform music by rubbing his fingers around the rims of glasses containing different water levels, he was enamored with the sound, but also determined to help streamline the process.

Franklin’s invention, which he called an “armonica” after the Italian word for harmony, threaded 37 wine glasses of varying sizes around a horizontal iron spool, which could be operated by foot control. This eliminated the need for individually measured water levels, and produced tones by rotating the glasses themselves, rather than the fingers above them. It also allowed the performer to play the glasses like a piano, with up to ten fingers producing multiple notes at once.

Where You’ve Heard It: Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss all wrote music for the glass harmonica, but the instrument faded from public performance when it became harder to hear in bigger concert halls with bigger audiences. (There was also that whole rumor that its sound drove people insane. German musicologist Friedrich Rochlitz wrote in 1798: “There may be various reasons for the scarcity of armonica players, principally the almost universally shared opinion that playing it is damaging to the health, that it excessively stimulates the nerves, plunges the player into a nagging depression and hence into a dark and melancholy mood, that it is an apt method for slow self-annihilation…” Ouch.)

In the last half-century, the glass harmonica has been featured in recordings by Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, and even in a live “Unplugged” cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” by the band Korn. It can be heard early and prominently in the 1997 Bjork song “All Neon Like”.

The Chapman Stick

“Stick Man": Chapman Stick legend Tony Levin (Image via flickr user Steven Rieder)

“Stick Man”: Chapman Stick legend Tony Levin (Image via flickr user Steven Rieder)

In 1974, Emmett Chapman appeared on the nationally-televised game show “What’s My Line?” to showcase a guitar/bass hybrid he invented in 1969, called The Chapman Stick.

Chapman’s original Stick consisted of 10 strings—5 bass and 5 guitar—with the bass strings tuned in upward 5ths, and the guitar strings tuned in upward 4ths. Unlike normal guitars and basses, The Chapman Stick is played mostly via percussive two-handed tapping, and is worn almost parallel to the torso.

Where You’ve Heard It: The Chapman Stick has long been a favorite instrument in prog rock, with Tony Levin setting the gold standard in the outfit King Crimson. However, Levin’s playing might be better known–if lesser recognized–by his decades-long performing relationship with Peter Gabriel. In this 1987 concert video of “Shock the Monkey”, Levin can be seen starting the song on keyboard and switching to his Chapman Stick midway through the song.

(Bonus: Check out this fan’s YouTube video of a Peter Gabriel medley featuring Levin Chapman Stick lines up close.)

The Theremin

Whatever Léon Theremin was hoping to find in his experiments as a young engineer for The Soviet Union’s Red Army, it wasn’t one of the world’s first electronic instruments.

When Theremin invented the instrument that became his namesake, he was actually trying to build a machine that measured the density of gases. He noticed that the sound emitted by the machine varied depending on the proximity of his hands to it. Calling on his childhood cello lessons, Theremin was able to find notes and familiar melodies by moving his hands just so through the machine’s electromagnetic fields.

The Theremin may be the only musical instrument in the world one plays without ever touching it. The performer’s hands manipulate the instrument’s tone by moving along one vertical antenna (to control pitch) and a second horizontal antenna (to control volume). After a hands-on (or “off” rather) demonstration for Lenin, Theremin and his machine were sent on a national tour of Russia as a symbol of the country’s electrical engineering might.

Where You’ve Heard It: Everybody knows the most famous Theremin part in pop music history belongs to The Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”, right? Not quite.“Good Vibrations” actually made use of the Tannerin, an instrument developed by trombonist Paul Tanner specifically to sound like a theremin without being as difficult to play.

True theremin sounds can be heard most often in film soundtracks from the 40s. Alfred Hitchcock’s “Spellbound”, Billy Wilder’s “The Lost Weekend” and a host of sci-fi films featured the eerie instrument in their scores. “Doctor” Samuel Hoffman eventually played theremin on over 20 Hollywood film scores, getting his first gig simply because he was the theremin player in Los Angeles’ musician’s union.

You’re probably more familiar with Jimmy Page’s theremin-powered noise-gasm breakdown in Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”.

In recent years, recordings of theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore have resurfaced, showing the full depth and beauty of the instrument when played properly. Rockmore was originally a violin virtuoso, but an arthritic problem in her bow arm ended that career prematurely. Thanks to the theremin (and modifications made to it by Theremin himself based on Rockmore’s suggestions) Rockmore gained a second chance at a performance career.

The Omnichord

Introduced by the Suzuki company in 1981, the Omnichord was marketed as a sort of electronic version of an autoharp. It was also marketed as an instrument for people who couldn’t play instruments.

Instead of using fingers to form chord shapes, Omnichord performers just press buttons for major, minor, or 7th chords, and use their other hand to swipe or “strum” a touchplate, thus playing the chord. A newer version of the Omnichord—called a Q Chord—includes additional effects, voices, and MIDI capabilities.

Where You’ve Heard It: David Bowie opened 2001’s “Concert for New York City” with an Omnichord, and Brian Eno has used it in his “Passengers” collaboration with U2. In the last five years, bands Grizzly Bear and My Morning Jacket have both appeared on David Letterman supporting new highly-touted albums with Omnichords in tow. Watch the video for My Morning Jacket’s “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream Part 2” and note how the Omnichord’s built-in rhythm track provides the basis for the entire song’s rhythm.

The Ondes Martenot

Apparently, it was very trendy for World War I-era European radio operator/cellists to invent weird instruments. Like Leon Theremin, Maurice Martenot aimed to translate the wildly unpredictable radio oscillations he heard into something musical. He came up with the Ondes Martenot, something like a cross between an organ and a theremin, patenting his instrument in the same year as Theremin, 1928.

A performer can play the ondes martenot either by sliding a metal ring worn on his or her right index finger along a wire (producing an unbroken glissando effect), or by playing the keyboard directly behind the wire. Each key is slightly moveable and will produce vibrato when wiggled. The wire runs along the bottom of the keys, perpendicular to them; each section corresponds in note to the key directly above it. The performer’s left hand operates a series of volume and timbral controls.

But wait, there’s more (weirdness)! The ondes martenot’s sound can also be augmented by switching its speaker output to one of three different speakers. The Résonance speaker makes use of a spring reverb. The Métallique speaker uses a small gong as a diaphragm to produce a more ethereal sound. And the Palme speaker is actually laced with 12 tuned strings to produce sympathetic resonance.

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  • rclere

    a Jackass calling himself a journalist…. unpopular according to who? you? I doubt you could play a swine-ette… oh if ya don’t know what that is, it is an instrument you might like… ya stretch a rubber band across a pigs ass and pluck it with your teeth…

  • SurlyWaiter

    I encourage the reader to search the internet for videos of: Frank Jolliffe, Bob Culbertson, Peter Pringle, and Thomas Grillo. The Chapman Stick and Theremin can be played at a very high level.

  • Mr Beards

    The French Connecton isn’t digital, it’s analogue. It is, after all, made by a company called “Analogue Systems”.

  • Durchfall

    Whoa dude relax. I thought the article was pretty interesting, and informative. What’s your problem with it?

  • rclere — David Weiss, the editor of SonicScoop here. We’re glad to have many voices in the comments, but I’ll ask moving forward to please keep your comments respectful to others, or else we’ll delete them. I’m leaving this one up for the moment because, like Durchfall below, I’m interested to know your issues with the article. Thanks — David

  • Durchfall, I share your curiosity!

  • Justin Colletti

    Thanks for the catch, Beards. This has been fixed.

  • ManFromGlass

    This article is a great introduction to some cool instruments for those drawn to thinking and playing outside the box. I am one of the founders of the Glass Orchestra who for the past 36 years have been performing on half a ton of glass instruments. As a composer I am drawn to unusual instruments and would love to read another instalment on non-traditional instruments, either acoustic or electronic. Good stuff! Btw – we own 2 glass armonicas and I have not gone mad yet from playing them . . . . . I don’t think . . .!

  • josh

    He’s offended that the instrument he’s holding in his profile picture was called “unpopular.” Mr. Madden’s choice of the word unpopular was to juxtapose it with their usage in popular music. He’s using the word to mean that these instruments are lesser known not that they are in disfavor. To say that the Chapman stick is largely an unknown instrument is simply true and isn’t an affront to the instrument and its players. As for Mr. Madden’s journalistic integrity: Mr. Madden’s articles along with those of fellow Sonic Scooper, Justin Colletti, are usually my favorite in audio and I started reading here when they stopped posting on Scientist. The article is well researched and well written and is essentially celebrating these instruments so dubya tee eff, man?