Top 10 Unusual Instruments in Pop Music

5. Uilleann Pipes/Bagpipes

uilleann pipes

Uilleann pipes

The distinctive drawn-out melodic wail of the uilleann pipes, or the better-known cousin the bagpipes, are most often heard at events with an Irish or Scottish cultural connection. So it’s probably no surprise that the instruments have been used by several pop artists with Irish and Scottish heritage. Uilleann pipes — which are the bagpipe of Ireland and more compact than the Scottish version — were used on the U2 track “Tomorrow,” as well as “The Sensual World” by Kate Bush, “I Want My Tears Back” by Nightwish, and on songs by Clannad, Steve Wickham, and The Waterboys. The Scottish version of the instrument was used most famously on AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Want to Rock ‘n’ Roll).”


4. Unusual Percussion “Instruments”


Even bicycles have been used as percussion instruments.

When it comes to finding unusual sounds, rock musicians often think outside the box: or, in the case of Supertramp, for the song “Dreamer,” they used actual cardboard boxes. Among the most creative have been a crowbar, struck on the floor during the Martha and the Vandellas song “Dancing in the Streets”; hitting a chunk of steel with a hammer on “Big Bad John” by Jimmy Dean; a washing line of bottles, bits of metal and tin on “Goodbye Girl” by Squeeze; bottles thrown on the floor and bicycle wheels spun and hit with bottles and knives on U2’s “I will Follow”; a fire extinguisher and pepper shaker on “Oceans” by Pearl Jam; kitchen pots on Radiohead’s “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box”; a plastic water bottle struck by a toothbrush on “Tai’ Shan” by Rush; and a bicycle on Patrick Watson’s “Beijing.” Chances are, if it makes an interesting sound, one day it will wind up in popular music.


3. Glass Harmonica

Glass harmonicas

A mechanical glass harmonica (top) and water glasses (bottom)

Some of the most atmospheric pop songs incorporate a celestial wailing produced by the glass harmonica. This instrument comes in a variety of forms, but it refers to any instrument played by rubbing glass or crystal goblets or bowls. Benjamin Franklin’s mechanical version of the instrument was called the “armonica,” meaning “harmony.” One of the best-known uses of the instrument is on the beginning of the Pink Floyd track, “Shine on You Crazy Diamond.”It’s also been incorporated in the songs “Janie’s Got a Gun” by Aerosmith, “Heartbeats Accelerating” by Linda Ronstadt, “As the Dawn Breaks” by Richard Hawley, “Armistice” by Patrick Wolf, and of course by one of today’s pop music innovators, Bjork, in the song “All Neon Like.”


2. Melodica


A melodica

If they hadn’t called themselves The Hooters, the Philadelphia musicians who backed Cyndi Lauper before forming their own band could easily have called themselves Melodica. You see “a hooter” was the band’s nickname for the melodica, which is a cross between a wind instrument and a keyboard. The distinctive instrument got a featured role at the beginning and end of one of their biggest songs, “And We Danced.” Although that is probably the best-known use of the instrument in pop music, the melodica has also been played on songs by artists as diverse as R.E.M., Faith No More, Oasis, The Decemberists, Belle and Sebastian, Franz Ferdinand, The Kinks, Herbie Hancock, Animal Collective and Goldfrapp, among others. Who knew so many bands had hooters?


1. Theremin

theremin and tannerin

A theremin and a tannerin

Little-known fact, most of the pop songs that sound like they use the theremin are actually using sound-alike instruments. Why? Turns out that the device, which is played by running your hand through an electromagnetic field, is extremely hard to play. Case in point: “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys, possibly the most famous theremin-soundalike, used an Electro-theremin, or a tannerin, developed by trombonist Paul Tanner and inventor Bob Whisell in the 1950s. The device, which uses a sliding knob and manual volume control, is easier to use. Theremins or variations of theremins were used by Led Zeppelin on live performances of “Whole Lotta Love” and “No Quarter”; by Rush on “BU2B”; by Metallica on “Wherever I May Roam”; by Erykah Badu on “Incense”; by the Flaming Lips on “Race for the Prize”; by the Pixies on “Velouria”; and by Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones on two of the band’s albums: “Between the Buttons” and “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” For a difficult instrument, there are certainly plenty of musicians willing to give it a whirl.

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