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.”
5. Uilleann Pipes/Bagpipes
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”
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
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.”
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?
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.