From the Back of the Band: Six Musical Instruments on the Cusp of Rock Stardom

Is this rock's next great instrument?
Is this rock's next great instrument?
Photo by Arnold Mejia

Some musical eras are defined by the instruments that moved from the backing band to center stage as they unfolded. Electric-guitar sales boomed in the 1960s, thanks to Clapton and Hendrix. In the 1980s, synthesizers were popular enough to make one-hit wonders out of groups like A-ha and A Flock of Seagulls.

The instruments of the moment are banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Thanks to bands like Mumford and Sons, Of Monsters and Men and Trampled by Turtles, these twang-tastic stringed instruments are no longer just for Appalachian jam sessions. They're being strummed and plucked all the way to the top of the music charts.

Somewhere, Woody Guthrie is smiling.

Before long, though, these instruments will be back on the shelves collecting dust until another set of troubadours comes along to make them hip again. So what instrument is now poised to make the leap from supporting act to headliner?

MUSICAL SAW The musical saw makes a mournful sound. There are no bouncy Wham-like songs befitting this staid instrument. Which is perfect, because we live in serious times with serious events occurring around us daily. The musical saw is ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.

I never understood why emo bands didn't rush out to find the best musical saw players available to support the pouty lyrics they sang. This is yet another reason Jeff Mangum is a singular type of genius. His Neutral Milk Hotel songs are crushingly sad because many feature a musical saw bawling its eyes out behind Mangum's enigmatic poetry.

A musical saw player, Christi Mikles, visited our home recently. She was passing through town on her way west with the band she was accompanying. I sat in the kitchen one morning, waiting for my bacon to fry, listening to her skillfully bend the notes on her instrument from the other room. I imagined its heartbreaking story while I sipped my black coffee. It was one of the most sublime moments I've had this year.

HARP Associated with winged cherubs on high, it's time for the harp to make like Aretha and Whitney and go secular. If you think the instrument can't drop from the heavens into a grittier earthly realm, think again.

Not too far from here, right up I-45 in Dallas, harpist Rizpah Fitzgerald is drawing new fans to this ancient instrument by giving it some modern flair. She's a classically-trained, award-winning harpist who's played Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, but her most exciting project might be her a duo with guitarist Eric Faires.

Dubbed Rizpah Eccentrica, it showcases her virtuoso harp playing and strong vocals on pop songs like "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and "Umbrella." If you've never associated words like "shred" and "wail" with harp, watch Fitzgerald take on Bob/Dylan/Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower."

WASHBOARD I'm a bit biased about washboard. It's an instrument my daughter plays. She plays it so ferociously, I swear I can sometimes see sparks flying from the damn thing.

There are tons of washboard/rubboard players laying the backbeat down for zydeco bands, but if it's going to scrape its way to front of the stage, it's going to take some innovation. No one is trying harder to make this instrument a centerpiece than New Orleans' Washboard Chaz Leary. He played at this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and is in at least four different bands, lending his sound to jazz, blues and western swing styles.

I'd like to see washboard head from roots music to the mainstream. The washboard seems so metal. Because it is. Literally. I predict one day a resurgent Marilyn Manson will hit the stage with a gargoyle-shaped washboard hanging from his neck, wearing finger picks fashioned into gnarly demon claws. Then, Guitar Center will need to clear a wall for its collection of washboards retailing for $200 or $300.


UKULELE The uke has been trying to break through for decades. Back in the 1960s, Tiny Tim made it popular with "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." In the 1990s, it supported Israel Kamakawiwo's astonishing voice on his version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

Still, it never had much staying power as a main instrument. Even the likes of Eddie Vedder couldn't do it, though he tried mightily on 2011's Ukulele Songs. But Houston's own Jimmy Raycraft, former front man of The Dishes and member of Beans Barton and the Bipeds, might be up to the task. He handles the jumping flea (literal Hawaiian translation of "ukulele") better than anyone I've ever seen and is something of an expert on the instrument.

ACCORDION Does accordion need a makeover? I've got two words for you -- Weird Al. I personally love Weird Al, but it's time for accordion to enjoy more rock and less schlock.

If there's an Yngwie Malmsteen of accordion out there in the wide world, it may be YouTube-famous squeezeboxer swissdaddycool. He's posted dozens of modern-rock hits to his channel, mostly shot in black in white at a secret location that seems to be his European living room. Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Deep Purple, some dude named Chopin...he covers them all.

ELECTRIC GUITAR Quirky instruments aside, isn't it time for the next guitar god to come down from the musical halls of Olympus to shred among mortals? Jack White's getting long in the tooth, folks.

Austin's Gary Clark Jr., who just joined the Rolling Stones onstage in London's Hyde Park, is a front-runner here and seems likely to evolve into the kind of guitarist people could compare with immortals like Jimmy Page and Eddie Van Halen. It would be nice to see him lead a new revolution of plugged-in axe grinders against the current battalions of acoustic musicians.

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