25 Weird Instruments In Rock
Whenever songwriting inspiration is hard to come by I’ll often reach for an instrument I don’t normally use. Now I don’t have access to the wide range of noisemakers that major bands do – and thankfully they do like to push the boundaries as this list of weird instruments in rock illustrates.
Read on to check them out (and watch the YouTube clip of the song)…
Balalaika in Rasputin by Boney M
You can make lots of sounds with unusual instruments, but can you make music? That’s the challenge. The balalaika is a folk instrument in Russia that has three strings, but it’s up front role in Rasputin was a stroke of genius. Camper Van Beethoven also broke one out in ‘Balalaika Gap’.
Melodica in Clint Eastwood by Gorillaz
Instruments that seem more like a toy than a serious music creator are common in this list – the melodica is a small plastic keyboard that you blow through, but it still has an impressive resume in rock. Other than the Gorillaz, Oasis (Champagne Supernova) and Cake (The Distance) have also brought this “toy” to the fore.
Hurdy-gurdy in Gallows Pole by Led Zeppelin
You won’t find the hurdy-gurdy on the original recording of this track, but when Page and Plant re-recorded it for No Quarter they reached for an instrument more commonly thought of as being played by a minstrel on a street corner accompanied by a monkey in a funny hat.
Bouzouki in Put You In a Song by Keith Urban
Ah, the bouzouki, as a tasty as a dolmades… oh, you mean that other kind of Greek delicacy? Yep, the bouzouki is a Greek mandolin-like instrument. Apparently Keith Urban bought one on the way to record this song. When he got there he fired off a few riffs with it and the rest is history!
Penny Whistle in You Can Call Me Al by Paul Simon
The penny whistle isn’t exactly the “rockest” of the wind instruments, but it scored a gig with world music champion Paul Simon. Apparently it was given a run in this song by Jy Morris Goldberg, a South African who was living in New York at the time.
Ondes Martenot in Idioteque by Radiohead
What the hell is a Ondes Martenot? Turns out it’s one of the first ever electronic instruments, looks like a kind of keyboard and has been used by the likes of Tom Waits and Muse, but apparently Jonny Greenwood is a real fan of this oddity. He’s used it on a bunch of Radiohead tracks – and this is one of the best.
Mellotron in Muscle Museum by Muse
You may know it as a polyphonic tape replay keyboard…, nah, you probably don’t. Most folk call it a mellotron and it’s a weird kind of sampler. U2 and Oasis have also featured it, but this Muse track shows it in the best light.
Spoons in Spoonman by Soundgarden
Spoons seem to belong in those weird novelty acts of the 50s, so for Soundgarden to give them a run – in a song apparently inspired by a Seattle musician called Artis the Spoonman – is pretty impressive.
Harpsichord in Too Afraid To Love You by The Black Keys
The harpsichord is basically a piano when the strings are plucked rather than hit, and while it was big in classical music (rock me, Amadeus!!) you probably don’t expect to find The Black Keys breaking one out. The Yardbirds also used on in For Your Love (interestingly the song that is said to have made Eric Clapton decide to leave them based on the direction their music was taking!). Golden Brown by The Stranglers is another well-known example.
Maracas in You Can’t Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones
Including percussion in this list opens a real can of worms, but we’ll give the maracas their moment in the sun with this classic. Wandering around shaking maracas can look a little, shall we say, effeminate, but I guess Mick didn’t mind!
Bagpipes in It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock N’ Roll) by AC/DC
This is one of my favourites on the list. You could go all Mull of Kintyre with bagpipes, but that’s too traditional. For AC/DC to break them out – and have Bon Scott actually playing them is about as awesome as it get – and the bagpipe part in the song is awesome to boot.
Glockenspiel in No Surprises by Radiohead
The glockenspiel is more at home in the orchestral setting, but this metal-keyed xylophone has been featured by an eclectic bunch: Thom Yorke obviously, but it also features in U2’s I Will Follow and I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend by, wait for it, The Ramones!
Ocarina in Wild Thing by The Troggs
I’ve commented on the use of the ocarina in this song before (http://www.thecavanproject.com/wild-thing-ocarina-solo/), and it still ranks as one of the finest non-traditional solos in the rock genre.
Triangle in Spinal Meningitis (Got Me Down) by Ween
Not sure what’s weirder here: a song about meningitis or the use of a triangle as a prominent instrument. Maybe even more surprising is how well the triangle actually works in the song.
Sitar in Behind The Sun by Red Hot Chili Peppers
There’s a fair bit of sitar action – lots of late 60s bands who’d done the pilgrimage to India for enlightenment (see: The Beatles) came back with a sitar. I like this one because it’s more recent – and Hillel Slovak did a great job with making it sit in the mix very effectively.
Clavioline in Baby You’re A Rich Man by The Beatles
The clavioline is a keyboard, perhaps best described as an early forerunner to the synthesizer – and it sounds pretty good.
Kazoo in Crosstown Traffic by Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix went old school using a comb with a piece of cellophane rather than a plastic kazoo for this one – and in the process making a instantly recognizable sound.
Xylophone by Gone Daddy Gone by Violent Femmes
This is a great case of a quirky instrument really making the song – and being so out front that you can’t miss it. Bass player Brian Ritchie rocks the xylophone on this track, including giving it a couple of solo runs!
Didgeridoo in The Dreaming by Kate Bush
Seems wrong that I can’t think of an Australian song featuring a didgeridoo and have had to turn to Kate Bush. I guess Rolf Harris rocked one, but not sure that counts.
Viola in Heroin by The Velvet Underground
It’s a stretch calling the viola unusual, but it’s certainly not as common as other stringed instruments in rock. Turns out John Cale was classically trained with the instrument so let’s be thankful he didn’t give it up completely when he became part of the Velvet Underground posse.
Marimba in The Nurse by The White Stripes
A bunch of bands have used the marimba (kind of like a wooden keyed xylophone) including the Rolling Stones and Steely Dan, but let’s give credit to Jack White for bringing it in the present with this track.
Harpejji in If I Rise by Dido
A what? A harpejji is a 24-stringed instrument that sounds a bit like a guitar but is played like a keyboard! You can buy one for about $4000 from http://www.marcodi.com if you so desire.
Musical Saw in Love Is the End by Keane
I haven’t included the use of non-instruments (like banging garbage cans or cardboard boxes) in this list, but the saw is a bit different. There are a fair few examples of it being used in popular music – Mercury Rev, Tom Waits and Sarah McLachlan are amongst those known to have wielded the musical saw in the studio!
Theremin in Good Vibrations by The Beach Boys
I remember having a go at a theremin in a music store years ago, and even then I wondered how the hell you’d use it in a band environment. The Pixies pretty much nail it by giving it as an atmospheric background role rather than making it stand out too much. Toss in ‘Velouria’ by The Pixies and you’ve got some serious music being made by this contraption.
Tubular Bells in Tubular Bells (Part 1) by Mike Oldfield
Title gives you a clue to the instrument, doesn’t it! The most recognizable part of this epic instrumental is the intro with the tubular bells. Mike Oldfield was a fan of the unusual, a a bit of a multi-instrumentalist himself – he also used a flageolet, flutes, mandolins and various organs on the record.
Rainstick in Bombs Away by Eels
The last one is a bummer – because I can’t find a video for it. Check out the track on Spotify (or your streaming preference) and you’ll hear a rainstick. This is a percussion instrument made from a dried and hollowed cactus husk filled with beans or pebbles. Certainly fits the unusual bill I’d say…
If you’ve got more examples please don’t hesitate to leave comments below and I’ll try and find clips to include in future lists!
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syntheaxe Drumitar played by Roy “Futureman” Wooten of Bela fleck and the Flecktones.
What about Earth, Wind & Fire using the Kalimba?
The original Jam band the “Sons of Champlin’ uses the Vibraphone played by Geoff Palmer.
I sold my Theremin. I hadn’t touched it in years.
You’ll only want it now you’ve sold it!! I’ve had plenty of things that lay around for ages not being used, then suddenly found a use for once I’d got rid of them!!
The Suzuki Omnichord, such as the OM-200m used by My Morning Jacket on Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt. 2.
Touch Me I’m Going To Scream Pt.2 (Live on Letter…: http://youtu.be/j3PciCWIGLE
What about the motograter designed and built by Motograter?
Hate to nit-pick, but the Theremin wasn’t used on Good Vibrations. The instrument used was the Electro-Theremin (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electro-Theremin).
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Maracas: I think you meant the Stones’ “Sympathy For the Devil”, not “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”.
Cowbell in Don’t fear the reaper by Blue Oyster Cult
They Might Be Giants song “James K. Polk” features a solo on singing saw. A really fine solo and a really great song about an obscure US President who did some smart stuff – the best being choosing not to run for re-election.