In literature, “onomatopoeia” is a word that’s employed to mimic any audible sound not pertaining to any spoken language. Examples include buzz, crack, pop, whoosh, etc. Inserting these “meaningless” words into a piece of prose, however, does have the effect of capturing a more-convincing snapshot of reality.
But this doesn’t just work on paper; it can also work in music, whereby the original units of music–say, a guitar note or piano chord–can be used to recreate sounds other than the ones originally intended. These examples of instrumental onomatopoeia are ultimately made all the more resonant–and more closely reflective of the multi-facetedness and varying dimensions of reality– by such extra-musical inclusions. Here are ten examples that really ring.
10. “Through the Fire and Flames” by Dragonforce
Sound Mimicked: Retro videogame sound effects
Mimicked by: Molly Hatchet-guitars on speed
Being that this band is so steeped in fantasy, role-playing, dragons, swords, and the like, it makes sense that the sound they’d vie for would be something out of an old Sega or Atari game. Listening to the furious solos gives you, if not a headache, the distinct feeling that you just completed a level in Mega Man. Or protected a village from a rampant hobgoblin.
9. “Hot for Teacher” by Van Halen
Sound Mimicked: An idling Harley-Davidson
Mimicked by: Alex Van Halen’s Drum Kit
Imitating a Harley-Davidson perfectly fits the song’s major themes: rudeness, rebelliousness, and downright sleaziness. While David Lee Roth makes come-ons to a teacher twice his age, and Eddie shreds and taps away at his red-and-white-striped guitar, Alex taps at his snare as if it had a built-in muffler.
8. “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band
Sound Mimicked: A cat-call/whistle
Mimicked by: Steve Miller’s squawky guitar
You hear it during the first verse section right after Miller purrs the line, “Some people call me Maurrrrrice…” as a sort of way of reaffirming the promiscuous nature of the song, which deals heavy in booze, dope, and sexual mischief. The groove is as mellow as can be, and a perfect accompaniment to those times you feel like being that thing he mentions after “joker” and “smoker.” Midnight-something-or-other…
7. “Quadrant 4” by Billy Cobham
Sound Mimicked: Plasma rifle blasts
Mimicked by: Tommy Bolin’s technically-virtuosic guitar playing
Steve Stevens, guitarist for Billy Idol, has admitted to being influenced by Bolin (and this song in particular) in his own solo stylings, namely in the song “Rebel Yell,” wherein he plays a toy ray gun through his guitar pick-ups. Bolin, however, didn’t need props or gimmicks to make his guitar emit sounds that Buck Rodgers would be proud of. His playing style was a highly technical, virtuosic one, skirting every line between jazz, prog, metal, and beyond. Emphasis on the beyond: in the song “Quadrant 4,” from drummer Billy Cobham’s album Spectrum— on which Bolin plays guitar with zero restraint–it is through the wildest scale-melting noodling, and the right combination of effects pedals, that he makes his guitar sound like it’s charging up and blasting laser beams in rapid succession. It makes you wonder what his guitar looks like by the end of a recording session like that.
6. “Skin Graph” by Silversun Pickups
Sound Mimicked: A revving stock-car engine
Mimicked by: Brian Auburt’s heavily fuzzed-out guitar
Auburt is a noise-ologist; he is all about tinkering with gear to make sounds that a guitar isn’t really supposed to make. He is also a faithful Billy Corgan disciple, who had a similar penchant for stretching his guitar past the 21st fret, employing hundreds of dynamically-distorted layers of fuzzy effects and atmospheric squeals. Auburt, a like-minded fan of pitting harsh and mellow together in the name of musical ambivalence, combines the two especially well on the first track off of Silversun Pickups’ latest album Neck of the Woods. In it, contrasting verse and chorus sections are segued by a sound that resembles a NASCAR racer, accelerating around a sharp bend. And that’s exactly what it feels like when you go on a ride-along with this song.
5. “Of Lilies and Remains” by Bauhaus
Sound Mimicked: A life-support machine
Mimicked by: Daniel Ash’s avant-garde/mimimalistic guitar playing
As Peter Murphy whispers morbid poetry into what feels like the ear of a coma patient, Daniel Ash keeps us in suspense of recovery, playing a guitar note that sounds a bit too much like a life-support machine. And then, during what might be sort of a chorus, the patient’s heartbeat appears to escalate as the backbeat picks up, like a struggle to stay alive long enough to finish hearing the song.
4. “Love Cats” by the Cure
Sound Mimicked: Cats meowing
Mimicked by: Robert Smith’s guitar scratches
The “cats” appear at the very beginning and end of the song, a conceptually-befitting artistic choice on Robert Smith’s part. As the song is very much about two smitten lovers, whose affections are comparable to those of cats in heat, replicating a couple of alley cats helps to paint a poignant mental picture. The jazzy upright bass, piano hooks, and “skatting” Robert Smith mark a genre the Cure seldom occupy but, with those distinctive coos and earnest vocals, there’s no denying the party responsible.
3. “Njosnavelin” by Sigur Ros
Sound Mimicked: Cello
Mimicked by: Jonsi’s bowed guitar
Also mimicked by instruments are the sounds of other instruments; here in particular, a cello, a stringed instrument that belongs more in an orchestra and less in a nightclub. To achieve this sound, you can go out and buy an e-bow for about a hundred bucks, which is a device that–standing in for a pick–emits a continuous vibration, which creates a sort of infinite guitar sustain. Or you could do what Jonsi of Sigur Ros–like many other guitarists before, during, and after him–does, and pull out an actual violin bow and embrace the electric guitar, like some beautiful symphony hall classicist. The result speaks for itself, as does your jaw hanging on the ground for you to trip over.
2. “Undercover of Darkness” by The Strokes
Sound Mimicked: Saxophone
Mimicked by: Nick Valensi’s guitar tone
The Strokes are all about the power of faithful interpretation; their songwriting formula has traditionally been this: frontman Julian Casablancas (whose vocals are a “faithful interpretation” of Lou Reed’s) writes the song melodies entirely on the keyboard, which is then interpreted by the band’s two guitarists, Albert Hammond Jr. (rhythm*) and Nick Valensi (lead*). Such interpretation skills have been made apparent on songs like “12:51,” in which Valensi plays a single-note guitar hook in a tone that resembles a keyboard line from any given Cars album.
In this song from their latest album Angles, Casablancas has confessed to the song’s being directly influenced by the sax-heavy Clarence Clemens/Jackson Browne song “You’re a Friend of Mine”; listen in particular to the low-level tone of that guitar lick Valensi plays in the verse, the thick, scratchy timbre of which sounds not unlike the actual saxophone Clarence Clemens riffs on in the original track.
1. “NYC” by Interpol
Sound Mimicked: Subway squwalls
Mimicked by: Reverb-soaked guitars
This song is both conceptual and experiential; the feeling recreated is literally the sum of all the parts: the slow-chugging guitar riff mirroring the rhythmic lull of a train arriving at its destination, the under-lubricated high note squeals of a second guitar sounding like a mal-attended break system, all thematically tied together by a downtrodden Paul Banks singing, “The subway, it is a porno. The sidewalks, they are a mess. I know you’ve supported me a long time; somehow I’m not impressed. But New York cares.” A very distinct feeling is created, of a lonely New Yorker shuffling through the alienating familiarity of a public transportation system that always runs on time.