Weekly Feature

Still from James Houston's Radiohead cover

The World’s Weirdest Musical Instruments

August 21, 2008
by Liz Colville
Some of them have unpronounceable names; others make some surprising sounds. Many have rarely been glimpsed or heard by the average person. The following multimedia collection honors the world’s strangest music makers.

A Cornucopia of Musical Oddities

What do the Bonang, Nondo and Bowafridgeaphone have in common? You’ve probably never heard of, or heard from them before. Oddmusic is a great place to introduce yourself to uncommon instruments, with a guided tour of dozens of instruments, beginning with the HAPI drum, which, according to the site, gets its strange sound from a “tuned vibrating tongue of steel.” Audio and video clips are available for many of the instruments on Oddmusic’s list.

Oobject, which has been called the “Billboard Chart for Gadgets,” counts down 15 unusual musical instruments and links to Web sites where you can learn more about each one and hear samples. Among those on the list are balloons, travel didgeridoos, saws and the fluba.

Weird Instruments, Weird Musicians

As spotlighted in the magazine Make, the Spanish troupe of musicians known as Les Luthiers pride themselves on their homemade instruments, of which there are an impressive number. Using household objects (including a toilet seat and, separately, a toilet bowl), the group has made a name for itself through live performances that are as funny lyrically as they are visually. Visit their Web site for a photo tour of their instruments (in Spanish).

Yes, Play with Your Food

Vegetables may be the most lauded food group, but they also happen to be a popular material for instrument construction. One worthy example of collective vegetable music-making is the Viennese Vegetable Orchestra. “Using carrot flutes, pumpkin basses, leek violins, leek-zucchini-vibrators, cucumberophones and celery bongos, the orchestra creates its own extraordinary and vegetabile sound universe,” the VVO states on its homepage. A section of the site features videos of some of their performances.

Cheese is generally regarded as a delicacy, not a percussive surface. Regardless, the Dutch improvisational drummer Han Bennink was happy to play the food, mainly of the Dutch variety, as part of an installation called “Cheese Kit Diptych” by the artist Walter Willems. Watch Bennink in action in a YouTube video.

From Organic to Electronic

Instruments that use surprising electronic devices are making more of an impact as engineers and musicians push the boundaries of what we call music. In 2006, a blog at Make magazine spotlighted two of these strange creations: a midi blender and a disk drive guitar. The blogger pondered how one could actually “rock” these instruments in a live environment, but one commenter dubbed the modified disk drive “cool-ish.” Watch the videos on the Make site.

In the same vein, there’s an HP Scanner that plays Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”

And in another clip, several pieces of obsolete computer equipment get together to play Radiohead’s “Nude,” conducted by James Houston.

Finally, blending an age-old toy with a somewhat more modern instrument, the Matryomin is a Japanese-made Russian matryoshka doll that can be made to “sing” using the technology of the theremin.

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