Curiosity is at the heart of any musical endeavor. Composers, players, and instrument makers are always searching for a new sound, and sometimes the results are unusual, to say the least. Read on to learn about five uncommon musical instruments.
The vibraslap is a relatively recent creation. First manufactured by Latin Percussion in 1967, the vibraslap is a replacement for the jawbone, which is literally that: the jaw of a donkey, horse, or mule, which is struck against the palm of the hand or a stick, so that the loose teeth rattle together. Natural jawbones are brittle and difficult to repair, so Latin Percussion created the vibraslap as a sustainable substitute. It is an easy sound to pick out, and has been featured in many mainstream hits, from Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” to “Billionaire” by Travie McCoy.
The theremin is unique even among the instruments on this list for one reason: it is played entirely without touching the instrument itself. Equipped with two antennas which act as capacitors, the theremin detects its player’s movements and translates them into sound. One antenna controls the instrument’s volume while the other controls pitch. The tone is rather eerie, and is typically used to invoke “alien” or “paranormal” situations. It has also had a surprisingly robust role in popular music, including on the Beach Boys’ hit “Good Vibrations.”
This massive horn was designed by the inventor of the saxophone family, Adolph Sax, but never constructed during his lifetime. It is similar in most ways to more conventional saxophones, but at 7 feet tall is capable of producing much lower pitches. This sax is so huge that it must be mounted on a stand to be played. Though a handful of predecessors were produced in the 20th century, the first true subcontrabass saxophone wasn’t produced until 2012.
Invented in 1967, the same year as the vibraslap, the stylophone is a uniquely “futuristic” instrument. The built-in stylus is pressed against its metal keys, completing a circuit and causing the instrument to sound a note. Its tone quality is rather tinny and nasal, but charming and distinctive in its own way. Notable stylophone players include John Lennon and David Bowie.
Among the whole range of unusual guitar variants, the Chapman stick is in a league of its own. Equipped the 8, 10, or 12 strings, the Chapman stick is not intended for strumming around the campfire – instead, players place both hands around the neck and tap on the fretboard, without need for picking or plucking the strings. A massive pickup at the bottom of the body detects string vibrations and send them out to an amplifier as with an electric guitar. This allows guitarists to play the stick more like a piano, with each hand managing separate parts.
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