10 Weird Instruments Heard in Rock Songs
The instrumentation employed by the so-called “typical” indie or alt-rock band is fairly predictable: vocals, a guitar or two, bass and drums. There are plenty of exceptions to this rule, but even so, it's rare when something beyond a violin, cello or some unorthodox percussion instrument rounds out the bill. Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. The following 10 instruments are all unusual but not unheard of. Some have occasionally turned up in songs since the days of classic rock, while others are extremely rare or even one of a kind. But all have on thing in common: They’ve appeared on albums you may well own.
Also known as a “pianica,” “blow-organ” or “key-flute,” the melodica is a small, lightweight instrument with a keyboard that's played by blowing air through a mouthpiece on the side and pressing down on the keys to produce the desired tone. Featured in songs from bands as varied as New Order and Gang of Four, the melodica is perhaps best known among younger alt-rock fans for its use by singer and so-called “melodica maniac” 2D from Gorillaz in the cartoon band's hits 'Clint Eastwood' and 'Tomorrow Comes Today.'
A vocoder is an audio effects processor that merges two sounds, taking a vocal input's tempo and pitch changes and mirroring them with the signal of a synthesizer or other sound source. The result sounds quite similar to Auto-Tune, the vocal effect that has been (over?) used extensively in recent years by superstars like Kanye West and Lil Wayne. The vocoder was likely first used in popular music by electronic pioneers Kraftwerk, but here, we suggest the wildly psychedelic Apples in Stereo pop gem 'Can You Feel It,' off 2007's 'New Magnetic Wonder,' for a taste
How many instruments can you name that can be played without ever being touched? The theremin falls into this group; it's basically made of two metal antennas which sense the position of the player's hands. One hand controls oscillators for frequency, while the other adjusts amplitude (volume). The resulting sound has been described as eerie, spooky and somewhat psychedelic. In the case of the Pixies' 'Velouria,' it's never the center of the tune, but it instead appears on the periphery, creating a distinct sci-fi vibe that matches the subject matter perfectly.
A Russian folk instrument characterized by a triangular body and three strings, the balalaika rarely turns up in popular Western rock music. While it's perhaps easy for the inexperienced player to create a sound from the instrument simply by strumming it, performing with proper technique — let alone achieving mastery — is much more difficult, especially due to a shortage of teachers. That said, it has turned up on the occasional song. One that's especially worth mentioning is the instrumental tune 'Balalaika Gap,' which appears on Camper Van Beethoven's 1985 album 'Telephone Free Landslide Victory.' True to its title, it features some impressive balalaika jamming.
You've probably heard of the didgeridoo, the instrument developed by indigenous Australians more than 1,500 years ago. It's played using rather complex method of continuously vibrating one's lips to produce a drone while using a special breathing technique called “circular breathing” that allows uninterrupted performance. Finding examples of the didgeridoo used in rock music isn't easy, but listen for the flat, steady drone at the beginning of 'Before You' by the neo-psych collective the Brian Jonestown Massacre. Can you hear it?
Jack White helped spawn a resurgence of the marimba — prominent on classic rock albums by the likes of the Rolling Stones, Steely Dan and even Captain Beefheart — by featuring the instrument on the White Stripes album 'Get Behind Me Satan,' most notably on the track 'The Nurse.' Considered a percussive instrument and actually a specific type of xylophone, it consists of a set of wooden bars, laid out like the keys on a piano, that are struck with mallets to produce various musical tones. 'Get Behind Me Satan' went on to win a Grammy.
Few instruments are rarer than the Ondes Martenot, one of the first electronic instruments ever developed. It dates back to the 1920s and boasts an eclectic history, having shown up everywhere from 20th century classical compositions and film and TV scores to French popular music and contemporary rock from the likes of Tom Waits, Gorillaz and Muse. But the most notable Ondes Martenot performer these days is Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, who is a dedicated student of the difficult instrument and is one of only a handful of musicians considered a master. Greenwood plays on several Radiohead tunes, most notably the 'Kid A' tracks 'How to Disappear Completely' and 'Idioteque.'
Everyone from indie acts Modest Mouse and the Flaming Lips to biggies U2 and Oasis have used the polyphonic tape replay keyboard, better known as the Mellotron. Essentially, this instrument uses prerecorded analog tape loops to produce various sounds — strings, brass, a choir, etc. — when each key on the keyboard is pressed. 'Muscle Museum,' the third single of Muse's 1999 debut album, 'Showbiz,' is a soaring, mid-tempo epic written around a memorable Mellotron line.
Phish drummer Jon Fishman has become famous for “soloing” with, of all things, a vintage baby blue Electrolux vacuum cleaner during live Phish gigs. The vac is on reverse, so that it blows rather than sucks, with the end of the hose pressed firm against his mouth. Thanks to a small crack Fishman creates a squeal of varying pitch as the sound escapes. Although the vacuum may or may not have turned up on a Phish studio album, it made its recorded live debut on the 2001 collection 'Live Phish Volume 1.'
The Winton Musical Fence
Perhaps the rarest musical instrument in the world, this one-of-a-kind installation piece was designed and constructed by Graeme Leak, a percussionist and instrument builder from Gotye's Australian homeland. It consists of five massive metal strings attached to fence posts and connected to a wooden resonant chamber that produces pleasingly odd sounds when struck. Gotye made a pilgrimage to the fence, which is located in the middle of nowhere, while recording his breakthrough ''Making Mirrors' and recorded its sounds to turn into the looping bass featured on his tune 'Eyes Wide Open.'