Last year at Free Press Summer Fest, we saw Stars haul out this little thingy that was basically a tiny keyboard with a mouthpiece you could blow into. It was the first time we'd ever seen a melodica played live. Since then, Rocks Off been kind of obsessed with weird, custom instruments.
Here are five of the most unusual.
The array mbira was invented by a guy named Bill Wesley, basing it on the design of a Zimbabwean instrument called the mbira. Did you ever run across one of those coil-spring doorstops when you were a kid and spend an hour or two plucking at it because it made such an awesome boinggggg?
Well, the array mbirra works on the same principle, with flat, rounded carbon springs bolted to the instrument and plucked in a similar manner. It kind of sounds like a snappier marimba.
Who Plays It? Imogen Heap (fast-forward to 2:20 to see her play it); Ry Cooder.
Based on the ages-old principle of filling many glasses up with different amounts of water to get a chromatic tone scale, the glass armonica is perhaps the most uniquely American instrument on this list because its standard incarnation was invented by none other than Benjamin Franklin.
Yes, just like the alpha-bro douche who hauls out his guitar at every party and plays Sublime covers to impress the frat girls, we can't help but imagine Franklin wheeling out this bizarre cross between a sewing machine and a pottery wheel and bellowing "Who wants to hear the latest Joseph fuckin' Haydn jam, bitches?" before sitting down and wailing away on this spinning column of glass bowls while nearby ladies swooned and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams rolled their eyes.
"Oh and by the way... I invented this thing. That's right." That Ben Franklin was one smooth operator.
Who Plays It? Tom Waits, Damon Albarn, one of the original authors of the American Constitution... ladieeeees.
The ondes Martenot almost became extinct. It was invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot, just in time for use in early sound films, and continued in production until 1988. Considering the only people who knew how to make them were the Martenot family and a few conservatories in France, no more were made until 2001, when the first off-brand versions called Ondéa were made. Production of the genuine article began again in 2008, and has continued since.
The ondes Martenot has an eerie, keening quality that made it ideal to appear in the scores of many early horror and science-fiction films and television shows. The instrument's setup is truly bizarre, with a keyboard, a smaller control panel in a drawer called a tiroir, and a little metal ring on a wire that goes around the finger of the player. Descriptions of its playing technique tend to involve a lot of words like "glissandi" and "oscillating" and "touche d'intensité," so it would probably be easier for you to just watch the video below.
Who Plays It? As you can see in this video, Radiohead will often haul out three or four ondes Martenots for their trademark choir-of-drowned-ghosts sound. Jonny Greenwood's There Will Be Blood soundtrack made particularly creepy use of them, and since Radiohead does it, of course, so does Muse on their song "Resistance."
The Moodswinger was designed by an experimental luthier named Yuri Landman. For those of you who don't know, experimental luthiers are the mad scientists of instrument-makers.
Masterfully weird noise-rock band Liars asked Landman to create an instrument for them, and this is what he came up with. It's a 12-string electric zither with an additional third bridge and, when Liars guitarist/drummer Aaron Hemphill uses it, provides a uniquely savage, distorted piano sound.
It's prominently featured on the song "Leather Prowler," although we couldn't find any good video of it being played live. There are only three or four in existence, so it's possible Liars don't want to take it on the road with them, where some strung-out yahoo lurking backstage would inevitably steal it.
Who Plays It? Hemphill, obviously. A band called The Luyas also has one.
Even if you don't like MuteMath's music, it has to warm your heart a little to see such passionate music dorks flipping out on all kinds of different instruments. While watching some live video some time ago, Rocks Off spotted lead singer and keyboardist Paul Meany shredding on this bizarre, homemade instrument.
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We don't know what he calls it, or if it even has a name. It's part digital guitar, part Theremin, and you can fast forward to the four-minute mark to see Meany go to town on it. We really recommend you watch the entire video, though, lest you miss Darren King's uncanny human tape-loop drumming.
Who Plays It? As far as we know, just this guy.