Is the era of weird instruments over?
By Gary Gomes
First of all, allow me to point out that some instruments we now take for granted in music didn't exist at all not too long ago. Pianos were not in common use until the 1800's. Saxophones were invented in the same century. The technology to produce Hammond organs didn't exist until the very late 1800's and despite the nostalgic value of the instrument, there was only one specialty manufacturer of tone wheel organs in the world today and it is not Hammond. Electric guitars were invented as early as the nineteen- thirties, but didn't become commonly accepted for about 10 years, and the modern electric developed largely by Fender and Gibson (despite earlier creations by Rickenbacker) weren't commonly used until the '50's. The mainstream sound of the electric was only developed in the mid-1960's. Electric basses-the 1950's. The drum kit--in its current form-1920's.
Synthesizers were developed in the 1960's, but really only became affordable to most musicians in the 1970's (more so in the 1980's). With digital technology, the first commercially viable digital synth was a Casio. There has not really been a major musical instrument creation since the 1990's. As a matter of fact, we seem to be content with recycling and refining classics and charging outrageous prices for them.
We live in a conservative era for musical instrument innovation, despite the appearance of new types of keyboards and the like. There is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes people run out of ideas, or want to re-investigate older technologies that have fallen into misuse, such as the current interest in modular synthesizers and vintage electric guitars and amplifiers that may have been overlooked in their day. Silvertone and the recently re-issued Supro amplifiers and Dan Electro and vintage, discontinued brands are good examples (these are not commercial endorsements, just to be clear, and this list is not exhaustive).
Ondes Martenot, used by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood, among others
But I can recall thinking to myself--what happened to the oddball instruments that used to be such an integral part of the musical experience? What triggered this reaction was the lowly tambourine, once a staple of nearly every band in creation, now exiled to diehards like Stevie Nicks. Or maracas? Or trumpets, or French horns, cellos or oboes, or even flutes and solo violins (the last has become more common). These were once used to add color or variety to sound. Have digital instruments or effects replaced them all?
The answer: not really. Many of those textures have only rarely been used in popular music in the last thirty years and sometimes, they can't even be heard, because the mix on most new recording is so dense and bass heavy, and the guitar distortion overwhelms the higher frequencies--an overgeneralization, but a fair one.
Harpsichords, Trumpets, Theremins, Ondiolines, Ondes Matenots, Trautoniums, Manzellos, Strictches, Klaghorns, Krumhorns, the Electro-Acoustic Sarangi-Arp were all utilized at some point in the sixties and seventies. Sometimes they played integral parts in musical compositions in both popular music and jazz. Vivian Stanshall, at Paul McCartney's direction, used a trumpet mouthpiece and a tube spinning around his head to record the weird trumpet ending the the Bonzo Dog Band's "I'm the Urban Spaceman."
Chances are, you recognize some of the musical instruments mentioned above. Trumpets are pretty common-a standard musical instrument. Theremins, Ondiolines, Ondes Matenots, Trautoniums are all based on heterodyning principle of music production, in which one breaks a electrically generated field to produce sounds. Synthesizers take away that immediacy--even the original patch kind--because the voltage is contained in a box and triggered by an external controller of some kind, whether a keyboard or dials or lever or even guitars. Manzello and Striches will be familiar to follower of the late, incredible Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who would play these two unusual members of the reed family simultaneously. The Klaghorn was used once on the first Jethro Tull album; Krumhorns on the most complicated rock albums I ever heard, those of Gryphon. Where are the jazz bagpipes Rufus Harley?
Crumhorns, courtesy of the Iowa State University Music Department
French horns and a solo trumpet were used by The Who and the Nice respectively--other bands had similar multi-instrumentalists--like Jack Bruce with Cream and Mike Rutherford of Genesis on cellos. Also, experimenting with musical instruments, like playing inside the piano (Emerson), using toy pianos (NRBQ) and adding slinkies to cymbals (United States of America) have disappeared.
The major rush of odd instruments seemed to have occurred between 1966-1975, the height of the psychedelic to progressive era. Musicians like the Association (early) and Gentle Giant employed recorders (a type of old style wooden flute) with aplomb. Of course, instruments like sitars and tablas, thanks to the Beatles, were used liberally; Santana, Weather Report and others made made use of Latin percussion and Portuguese instruments. Jazz players like Don Cherry and Han Bennink, used instruments from Mongolia and the Alps. There were even allowances for bizarre, unconventional brands of keyboards and guitars. Groups like Kaleidoscope, Inset Trust, the Incredible String Band used all sorts of unusual instruments. Now everything seems very standard.
I sort of chalk this up both to the experimental nature of the times and the energy that was invested by young musicians and producers who were looking for new sounds on an almost daily basis. It wasn't really the invention of synthesizers that produced this failure of nerve. It was the need for the producer to control the music in every aspect for commercial consumption that led to this.
This phenomenon was not novel in the late 1970's. Studio musicians were hired to produce hit records in the 1960's to both cover up for musicians who could not play that well, or just to speed up the process. For example, the Byrds' "Mr. Tambourine Man" used only Roger (Jim) McGuinn on lead guitar since he had been a session player previously. The other Byrds were not on that track. It's common knowledge that both the Beatles and the Stones used session musicians to some (sometimes a major) extent –the Beach Boys certainly did. However, some musicians that were capable of playing were masked because of eccentricities. Drachen Theaker of the Crazy World of Arthur Brown had to be buried under horns because he had some difficulty keeping rock solid time.
Theremin, as heard on the Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations" & 100's of horror/sci-fi movies
This pressure for perfectionism slipped a bit in the late 1960's and early 70's as some groups began to put out rougher hewn albums. But the complexity of the arrangements and the choice of musical instruments began to standardize. Click tracks were used to keep drummers under control. Even unusual instrumentation in jazz began to wane. The advent of minimalism and the subsequent development of neo-romanticism began to replace more experimental works. Of course, there are always outliers, and this article is being written from a very broad overview.
However, the work of music is getting more controlled. Revolutions, even experimentation, by definition, cannot last forever. But it would be nice to hear some unusual instruments and popular music that did not have all the rough edges eliminated. It would be nice to hear an ocarina solo on a hit song again, like on "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, or even a nose flute (RIP Rahsaan Roland Kirk!).
The freedom of the internet is not enough; there Is freedom to do anything. We need to reclaim that freedom to elevate new, radical means of musical expression. The last real break with musical form and tradition happened with free jazz In the 1960's (sorry but techno failed to use a lot of technological innovation to the same extent as guitarists have, instead mostly being the sonic equivalent of a strobe light. and rap was just an expansion of poetry set to music). Everything else has been recycling. Let's try something new, in the words of Slonimsky.
Dedicated to the memory of David Bowie, Keith Emerson, Pierre Boulez and many others.
Also see the other parts of Alien Instrument series- Rise of the Synths and Loving/Hating guitarists
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