Top 10 Weirdest Instruments Featured In Popular Rock Songs

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Almost everybody loves rock n’ roll.  Being in a rock band is every teenage boy’s dream: the lights, women, the roaring crowd, the fame, the women, the women, the recognition.  And women.  What they don’t seem to realize is that you don’t necessarily need to play a “standard” instrument to get there.  In fact, many of the popular rock songs that we all know and love feature some pretty strange instrumentation.

10.  The Harpsichord

harpsichord

The harpsichord may look a lot like a piano, but it sounds entirely different.  The piano produces sound by striking strings with mallets, whereas the harpsichord plucks its strings, producing an ethereal, twangy sound.  It’s easier to picture a man from the 1700’s in a powdered wig sitting at one of these than a rock musician.  I mean, where do you hide the pyrotechnics?

Can Be Heard In: “Too Afraid To Love You” by The Black Keys

The song begins with only drums and a keyboard, but the keyboard soon drops out and is replaced with the harpsichord.  It’s a rather odd selection for a rock song, but coupled with the singer’s rough, soulful voice, it makes an unforgettable combination.

9.  The Glockenspiel

glockenspiel

The glockenspiel is basically a xylophone with metal keys.  Like the harpsichord, it’s not that uncommon in classical music, but it doesn’t exactly scream “rock n’ roll” at the top of its lungs.  Radiohead’s Thom Yorke disagrees.

Can Be Heard In: “No  Surprises” by Radiohead

Listen closely or you might miss it– it’s those high-pitched “ping” noises.  It sounds simple enough, but it does a splendid job of setting the atmosphere, making the song much more mellow and surreal.  And all that was accomplished by smacking a few metal keys with mallets.

8.  The Maracas

sambaballenmaracas

Maracas can be heard in a wide variety of Latin music.  Traditionally they are made from a dried gourd filled with dried seeds and are played by shaking them along to the beat of the music.

Can Be Heard In:  “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones

The Stones must have thought that drums just weren’t enough percussion for their hit, because there are some maracas in the mix as well.  You can’t actually see the maracas in the video (perhaps they thought a non-band member shaking maracas in their midst would detract from the bad-boy band image), but if you listen closely, you can hear them very easily.

7.  The Melodica

melodica

The melodica is some sort of crossbreed between the keyboard, the flute, and the harmonica.  You play it by blowing into the mouthpiece and pressing the keys to alter the pitch.  Pressing a key moves a reed into position so that the air goes through it and produces that key’s specific note.

Can Be Heard In: “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis and “The Distance” by Cake

   

Two famous bands have used the melodica in their music: Oasis and Cake, and it can be seen in both bands’ music videos.  It produces a sound that is nothing like what you would expect, but you can clearly hear it during the parts of the videos where the instrument can be seen.  The melodica that Cake uses looks quite a bit different from the melodica above, but it is definitely a melodica.

6.  The Electric Violin

electricviolin

The violin is used primarily in classical music, but sometimes rock bands that have entire orchestras in songs will have violins as well. But The Who is a loud band: the loudest band ever if you believe their claims. For an instrument like the violin to be heard, they needed to take it one step farther: electric violins.

Can Be Heard In: “Baba O’ Riley” by The Who

   

When they played it live, Roger Daltrey (the lead singer) played the part on harmonica, but you can clearly hear the violin at the end of the studio version.  This is merely an assumption, but that probably had something to do with the Who not having a full-time violinist in the band.

5.  Bagpipes

bagpipes

When you think bagpipes, do you think irate Scotsmen in kilts and funny hats?  If so, you aren’t alone; that’s the image that comes to mind for most people.  But classic rock fans with a good ear just may think of AC/DC.  Or maybe they just watched the music video.

Can Be Heard In: “It’s A Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock N’ Roll)” by AC/DC

The video is of the band riding a parade float through a city, and there are three men with bagpipes on the back of the float that play along with them.  What’s even more surprising than the bagpipes being used in this song is that we see the lead singer, Bon Scott, playing them in the video.  It’s one thing to hire bagpipers (if that’s even a word) to play in one song, but Scott actually knew how to play them.  Adequately.

4.  Spoons

artisthespoonman

Believe it or not, spoons are often used as a percussion instrument.  This is done by holding two spoons in such a way that they click together when you smack one against a surface such as your other hand or thigh.  And if you don’t think that sounds very complex, just listen to the spoons in this song:

Can Be Heard In: “Spoonman” by Soundgarden

The song was inspired by a Seattle musician called Artis the Spoonman, who played his music with spoons.  The spoons that you hear throughout the song are actually being played by Artis.  It’s somehow more comforting that way, knowing that none of the members of Soundgarden actually know how to play the spoons.

3.  The Theremin

etherwavetheremin

The Theremin was invented in the early 1900’s by Leon Theremin, and is the only instrument in the world that you play without touching it.  It just looks like a box with two antennae sticking out of it, and you play it by changing the distance that you hold your hands from them.  It’s just about the closest science has come to true telekinetic powers.

Can Be Heard In: “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys

The Theremin that The Beach Boys use in this video is a little different (it lacks the antenna on the top) but it is still a Theremin and functions and sounds the same way.

2.  The Ocarina

ocarinas

Anyone who has played The Legend of Zelda knows what an ocarina is.  But for the rest of you, it’s very similar to a flute.  The main difference is that you change the notes of a flute by covering holes that effectively change the length of the instrument.  With an ocarina, this doesn’t happen.  The entire instrument resonates and covering the holes just changes the way that the resonating happens.

Can Be Heard In: “Wild Thing” by The Troggs

Unlike many of the other instruments on this list, the ocarina isn’t just featured in the song.  There’s a full-blown ocarina solo in the middle.  But even that doesn’t wear the crown for weirdest solo in rock music history.

1.  The Chainsaw

electricchainsaws

Wait a second.  The chainsaw is a power tool, not a musical instrument.  You don’t play a guitar solo with it; you use it to cut down trees!  But tell that to Jesse James Dupree, lead singer of the 80’s hair metal band Jackyl.

Can Be Heard In: “The Lumberjack” by Jackyl

As the music inevitably builds to the guitar solo, Dupree reaches down for his guitar, and pulls up a chainsaw.  Now, at this point any normal person would stop the song, yell at his band-mates for swapping his guitar with a chainsaw, and start the song over.

But this is rock n’ roll.  It’s an unstoppable, testosterone and drug-fueled, exploding sex tornado.  Dupree shrugs and plays the freaking solo on the chainsaw.

At the end of this song in Jackyl’s live shows, Dupree saws a stool in half with the chainsaw, smashes it, then throws the pieces into the audience, because there’s no better souvenir than a concussion.

Written By Kier Harris


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35 Comments

  1. Oh, great list! I’ve wondered what some of those sounds were. I’ve never heard of the theremin or ocarina. I like flutes so I enjoyed the entry about the ocarina.

  2. Only guys at TopTenz can come up with such amazing lists day after day. I can predict that in the coming years if this trend goes on TopTenz would rule the internet!!!Yeeehhhhh….

  3. Peter Boucher on

    1). Mellotron : A keyboard device that is played like a guitar (electric) and has a neck very much like a guitar has. (Look Up the late 1970’s glam/heavy metal band ANGEL or Greg Giuffria who was the keyboardist for them). 2), Crotales : A percussion instrument in some ways is performed like a xylophone (Look Up, Neil Peart, the drummer for RUSH), 3). Cowbells : Pretty obvious. Just listen to “Don’t Fear The Reaper” by BLUE OYSTER CULT from the 1970’s, 4). Transparent Plexiglass Violin : Two prime users of that instrument are Eddie Jobson of JETHRO TULL and the group U.K. from the 1970’s and Steve Morse, especially when he was with the rock group KANSAS for a short period of time and performing “Dust In The Wind”. 5). An 11 String Guitar (Made by Godin Guitars out of Montreal. The model is aptly named the A11). Look up the guitarist and singer STEVE EARLE or just go to the wikipedia. and 6). # 6 on your list, The Elecrtic Violin. Look up the name MARK WOOD of the TRANS SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA or just type in his name. He builds them and plays “Heavy Metal Violin”

  4. Depeche Mode also used the Melodica and possibly the Glockenspiel in some of their songs. @Peter Boucher: 3) cowbells aren’t even that rare. Listen to Suzy Q (Dale Hawkins) or Mississippi Queen (Mountain), for example.

    • Peter Boucher on

      @ ParusMajor. Yes, you got me there with the cowbell and again, Neil Peart of RUSH makes pretty damn good use of them himself. But when I hear the word cowbell, all I can think of is “Don’t Fear The Reaper” by BOC. Did you happen upon the episode of Saturday Night Live with Christopher Walken as host and the male cast members were dressed as BOC in the studio playing that song ? And Walken was freaked out because there wasn’t enough cowbell. The one line he says “I’ve got a fever right now, and the only way to cure it for me is MORE COWBELL”. Its on You Tube, FYI

  5. The Lovin’ Spoonful used a jackhammer on “Summer in the City.” Sons of Champlin used a vibraphone regularly in performance, notably for the solo on “Get High.” (1968)

  6. Ivory Joe Hunter, who produced the Martha and the Vandelas classic “Dancing in the Street”, pounded a crowbar on a concrete floor to give the song an unforgettable backbeat.

  7. The ocarina solo in Wild Thing comes a distant second to the sausage dog fighting a lion in the film clip!

  8. The Stranglers also used the Harpsichord on “Golden Brown”.
    Caribbean steel drums are also heard on “Jane Says”.
    Isn’t the drill on “Thieves” by Ministry more of a carpenter type drill than a dentist drill? A Dentist drill has more of a high pitched whine. Just nit picking.

  9. The most famous example of Theremin usage is by Jimmy Page on “Whole Lotta Love.” He also played his guitar with a violin bow. Eddie Van Halen uses an electric drill in key at the beginning of “Pound Cake,”

    • Peter Boucher on

      @ Steven, or you could switch around Jimmy Page using a violin bow on his Gibson ’59 Sunburst Les Paul and do the “This Is Spinal Tap” thing where “Nigel” (Christopher Guest) actually uses a violin itself to play his guitar during his cacophony of a guitar solo. The part that had me busting my gut with laughter is when he’s using the violin, he’s tuning the pegs of the violin as he’s doing the “solo”. That movie has to go down as the most overlooked and underrated comedies of all time. The only problem is, if you’re not up on 1980’s Heavy Metal Music, you might as well forget about watching it.

      • @ Peter B,

        Although I am a committed Zep fan and recognize not only Page’s composition skills but his innovations in the the studio (or Headley Grange, for that matter), I too find Spinal Tap to be an unrecognized classic. There is just so much detail, from the sustain of the Les Paul to amps: “this one goes to 11.” And the cameos are countless. Thank you for the reply.
        SR

  10. What about the jug on pretty much every 13th Floor Elevators song? Especially You’re Gonna Miss Me, I have never heard a jug used like that in any other rock song.

  11. Streaming serie on

    I think that The Maracas are the most exotic instruments used, as for me, they give me a latin feeling. 😀

  12. The Melodica was used first by a 80’s band named “The Hooters” they play it during the “And We Danced” They were actually cited as the first band to use it on a recording.

  13. The electric violin on Baba O’Riley is only on the studio version, during almost every live show, such as the one you have as an example of the EV, is Daltry on harmonica.

  14. Beatles, “Fixing a Hole” uses harpsichord. In fact Sgt. Pepper uses sitar, the harp and the tabla (LZ I also). The xylophone solo in “Moonlight Feels Right” by Starbuck is the Eddie Van Halen eruption on xylophone. Great list and sure there are more instruments that are missed.

  15. The band Motograter uses an instrument of the same name made from industrial cable and guitar pieces they invented that creates a unique bass sound on songs like “Down” and “Suffocate”

  16. Since when are Bagpipes weird? The author really needs to expand their musical repertoire since it was unusual to hear bagpipes in rock 30+ years ago but I would say it’s pretty mainstream now since Korn uses them in the intro to Chutes and Ladders and Dropkick Murphy’s have them in pretty much all of their songs since Scruffy Wallace joined the band.

  17. The mellotron (Strawberry Fields, Knights in White Satin, Semi Detached Suburban Mr James) isn’t played like a guitar..its the size of a small piano! It stands on the floor and is a sort of sampler that uses tape loops. (source: Paul McCartney interview).
    Good Vibrations used an ‘Electro-Theremin’. Essentially a theremin but modified with a calibrated horizontal scale for the pitch so that the notes could be played reliably and consistently. (source: Brian Wilson interview).

  18. I really liked this article, and the accompanying photos, especially the first (of the harpsichord).

    Another instrument that is not ubiquitous and may be a bit out of the ordinary is the celesta, a piano-type instrument similar to a glockenspiel but softer and more tranquil, hence the name, “celesta,” which means heavenly. It is a metallophone because of the metal bars inside.

    Velvet underground used the Celesta in the song, “Sunday Morning,” after band member John Cale spied the unassuming instrument at the recording studio one Sunday a.m. The impromptu decision to use the celesta in their song, “Sunday Morning,” captured the essence of the ethereal, sounding truly “heavenly.”

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