Eager to create fresh sounds and unique compositions, musicians are turning to old or rarely used instruments to add breadth to their live shows and recordings. There is a wide array of instruments being resurrected from primitive tools to even combining different instruments into one to create something completely new. Here are just some of the instruments making a comeback.
A Musical UFO
Personally, I am a huge fan of hang drum because there is no right or wrong way to play it leaving you free to experiment and come up with your own tones. The hang drum, pronounced “hung” which translates to “hand” in Bernese, is played with fingertips, thumbs, and/or the heel of the palm.
Although relatively new, having been developed in Switzerland in 2000, the hang drum meshes traditional instruments from around the world like the steel pan, gongs, Gamelan (Indonesian percussive instruments), drums, and even cowbells. Looking like a small UFO, this instrument is comprised of two hollow steel shells bonded together. The top or Ding side contains eight tone fields that form the “tone circle” creating a sound similar to a gong. On the bottom or Gu side there is a hand-sized hole that can be played like an udu (a Nigerian water jug) to make water droplet sounds or can be used to modulate the sound of the Ding.
Cranking It Out
The 1,000 year old hurdy gurdy is probably one of the oldest and most obscure instruments making a comeback. The name hurdy gurdy is thought to be derived from the term “hurly-burly” meaning noise or commotion and the instrument itself looks like something concocted in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab.
Sometimes called a “wheel fiddle,” the most unique aspect of this instrument is the fact that it uses a hand-cranked wheel to rub the strings much like the fiddle of a violin. Three different sets of strings, Melody, Drone and Buzzing Bridge, each produce very different sounds. The Melody is a wooden keyboard that alters the pitch of violin sounds, the Drone produces a continuous sound like a bagpipe, and the Buzzing Bridge or dog as it commonly called because it sounds like a barking dog. This complicated instrument originally required two people to play it and could only be used for slow music, but today, you hear this now solo instrument used by musicians in folk, dance, contemporary and world music because of variety of sounds it can produce.
A Partch-work of Instruments
Partch: Plectra & Percussion Dances, among this year’s Grammy Nominees for Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance and Best Classical Compendium, uses not only the compositions of the revolutionary Harry Partch, but also utilizes some of the 27 instruments Partch designed himself in the 1950s and 60s.
These instruments were specifically made to allow for tuning and scales more suitable to singing versus the standard instrumental-focused, twelve-tone equal temperament that had been used for centuries. Some of his inventions, like the Chromelodeon, have as many as 43 tones in a single “octave.” Many of Partch’s designs, some looking like they belong in a Dr. Seuss tale, were modified versions of existing instruments like viola, cello, organ, marimba, guitar, gongs, and xylophone mixed with common items like wine bottles, bowls, eucalyptus branches, aircraft nosecones, artillery shell casings, hubcaps and even light bulbs.
Looking Back to Move Forward
When looking for a new sound you don’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel, but you can repurpose or modify existing historical instruments to create a fresh and unique sound all your own. Or if all else fails you can do what these guys did…