Think of rock/pop music, and chances are you picture a guitar, electric bass, drums and maybe a keyboard or a wind instrument like a flute or saxophone. But in the last 60 years or so of pop music, especially rock ‘n’ roll, musicians have done their best to bring variety to their recordings.
You can thank George Harrison of the Beatles for bringing a distinctive Indian sound into Western pop music, though Eric Clapton’s Yardbirds deserve a little unsung credit, too. The Yardbirds hired a sitar player for their song, “Heart Full of Soul,” but the track went unreleased at that time. So it was the Fab Four track “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” (as seen in a video by a tribute band) that introduced western ears to the plucked instrument that looks a lot like a banjo with a long neck but produces vibrating and extended sounds. While most prevalent in the 1960s, the instrument has been used in recent songs, as well, such as “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty, “Behind the Sun” by the Red Hot Chili Peppers, “I’ll Just Hold On” by Blake Shelton, and “Gypsy” and “Gitana” by Shakira.
Another Indian stringed instrument, which is like a cross between a cello and a sitar, has been far less popular in western pop music. The ersaj (or dilruba) creates a haunting atomosphere in the song “Birds Flew Backwards” by Doves. It is also one of the instruments frequently used by Oscar-winning composer A.R. Rahman, who wrote the soundtrack for “Slumdog Millionaire.”
If you’ve ever been a kid, you’re familiar with a kazoo. The simplest instrument out there, it simply adds a buzzing quality to a musician’s own voice, as he or she hums into it. Jimi Hendrix immortalized the sound on his song, “Crosstown Traffic,” originally performing that section with a comb wrapped in a piece of cellophane. He used this trick to simulate the sound of traffic. Ringo Starr later had a high-profile guest — former band mate Paul McCartney — play the kazoo on his song, “You’re Sixteen.”
If we were talking about popular music of the 17th and 18th Centuries, no one would be surprised to hear harpsichord included on the list. But the instrument was at least 200 years out of style when Bread used the piano predecessor on the track “Everything I Own” and the Yardbirds used it on “For Your Love.” Chances are, though, they probably didn’t use 200-year-old instruments. Likely, neither did the Stranglers on their tune, “Golden Brown,” which has a harpsichord riff, as does “Too Afraid to Love You” by the Black Keys.
The xylophone is an easily-recognized instrument for two reasons: it’s used in many elementary-school music classes, and it’s prominently featured in countless “ABC” books, since it’s one of the few nouns in the English language beginning with the letter “X.” But the xylophone — and its cousin, the glockenspiel — have been used on a lot of songs for grown-ups, too. Both are percussion instruments that look like keyboards and are played by mallets. The main difference between a xylophone and a glockenspiel is that the xylophone is made with wooden bars, while the glockenspiel’s keys are made from metal plates or tubes. Xylophones were first featured on a rock song in 1962 on the track “Percolator (Twist)” by Billy Joe and the Checkmates. Much later, it was used by Lily Allen on “Everyone’s at It” and by the Violent Femmes on “Gone Daddy Gone.” The glockenspiel has been used more widely: on the U2 song “I Will Follow”; on the Jimi Hendrix track “Little Wing”; on Radiohead’s “No Surprises”; on Bloc Party’s “Signs”; and on The Beatles tune, “Only a Northern Song.” Maybe it’s because metallic sounds seem more like “rock.”