Music’s Craziest Instruments

We take a look at the instruments as wild as the musicians who play them

From squealing solos to screaming soul vocals, and since Spinal Tap turned it up to eleven, the history of music is littered with exhibitionists who not only focused their creative talents in to their art form, but also in to the instruments on which it was created.

Of all the ‘wild’ instruments out there, the double-necked guitar is perhaps one of the most easily recognisable (and rock ‘n’ roll) instruments to hit the stage.

Aside from appealing to the bigger-is-better ethos of rock musicians, this crowd-pleasing instrument also has a practical purpose. The design allows for both a 6-string and a 12-string neck, giving the player a greater tonal and melodic range, allowing an instant change in guitar sound.

Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page famously used the richer, more harmonically resonant tone of the 12-string on the verse parts of Stairway To Heaven, using the standard 6-string guitar neck for the intro and solo parts.

The electric guitar’s (sort of) cousin, the keytar, is another fine example of performance necessity being the mother of technical invention.

Essentially a keyboard that is worn like a guitar, the keytar allowed the keyboard and piano players to get a slice of the action front-of-stage. Players like Jan Hammer and Herbie Hancock used the new tools on their keytars, such as pitch and modulation wheels, to add an extra element of creativity and ‘human feel’ to their electronic music.

“The history of music is littered with exhibitionists”

Along with Todd Rundgren’s keyboardist, Roger Powell, Mr Hammer is believed to have helped develop an early keytar prototype, the ‘Probe’. However, there is a counter-claim that brother and sister team, Jeremy and Lesley Symons, invented the keytar in London, 1977, along with the famous Robert Moog. Moog went on to produce the unwieldy ‘Liberation’ keytar in 1980.

Of course, when it comes to electronic instruments they come in no purer form than the Theremin, which is played without physical contact by moving the hands through an electric field. The distance from one antenna determines pitch, and the distance from the other controls volume.

The device was accidentally invented by Russian, Léon Theremin, who patented it back in 1928. Since then the Theremin has been used on everything from world famous pop hits to movie soundtracks.

Here, we take a look at the modern day versions of the most electrifying instruments in good old rock ‘n’ roll.

 

KORG RK-100S KEYTAR

In contrast to most keytars on the market, the RK-100S is not just a midi-controller, but contains its own built-in sound engine, meaning that you can start playing it by simply connecting an audio cable to your computer or amp.

Its sound engine provides analogue synthesiser waveforms which power 200 programs for a broad range of sounds that will cover any musical genre. These sounds can also be played using the inbuilt arpeggiator.

Adding to its portability is the fact it can operate on six AA batteries, which means you can play it anywhere by plugging in a set of headphones or by connecting it to your amp with a standard audio cable.

Since the RK-100S is equipped with a MIDI output jack, it can be used to control an external sound module and there is also a USB port for connecting to your computer, allowing you to control a sound module on your PC or Mac or use the sound editor to finely tune the MIDI settings and parameters of the internal sound engine.

Sounds complicated? Well, it is a keyboard from the future after all, and Korg’s hi-tech and very lightweight design makes this instrument lightyears ahead of the bulky versions made popular in the 1980s by the glam metal bands and new wave musicians.

And, for all the budding performers out there, it comes in a variety of colours which you can match to your on-stage persona should you require.

So, the keytar is back with a bang and a major revival in its use has been sparked by creative artists such as Flight of The Conchords, The Black Eyed Peas, Snoop Dogg and Steely Dan.

Specifications

» 37 velocity sensitive keys

» 200 programs and 17 effects

» Two oscillator and noise generator controls

CALIBRE VERDICT

Although something of a 1980s throwback, the keytar is still finding popularity among modern musicians due to its versatility.

Price: £579

Where to buy: korguk.com

 

HAMMOND XK-3C

The Hammond organ burst on to the 1960s rock ’n’ roll scene after it was popularised by artists such as Booker T & The MGs and later by bands like the Small Faces and Procol Harum.

Deep Purple’s Jon Lord became inspired to play the Hammond organ after hearing American jazz musician, Jimmy Smith, and his 1962 track, Walk On The Wild Side. Mr Lord modified his Hammond so it could be played through a Marshall amp stack to get that growling, overdriven sound, which was to become his trademark.

This Hammond XK-3c is a modern update on its cabinet-based forebears and is packed with up-to-date tech and digital compatibility, whilst still retaining that bomb-proof build that Hammonds are famous for.

Specifications

» 61 note manual keyboard

» 96 digital tonewheels

» Digital vibrato EQ and tone control

CALIBRE VERDICT

Despite being one of the most traditional looking instruments, the Hammond is a dark horse due to its weight and build: mounted on its stand the pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll could get really wild with it!

Price: £2,630

Where to buy: promenademusic.co.uk

 

MOOG ETHERWAVE THEREMIN PLUS

The newest member of the Moog Etherwave Theremin family extends the Theremin’s gestural playing technique to the world of analogue synthesis and beyond. You can use this device to control separate synthesisers and effects units while playing the Theremin or simply use it as a stand-alone instrument when on stage or at home.

The story of this particular theremin began in 1954, when a young Bob Moog began building the instruments in his basement with his father. For the last 57 years, the company Bob Moog founded has sold more theremins to more professionals than anyone in history.

And, for anyone that likes a good shed-project to tinker away with, the Moog Etherwave also comes in kit form so that you can build it yourself.

Specifications

» Lacquered hardwood finish

» Three outputs & headphone jack

» Nickel-plated brass antennas

CALIBRE VERDICT

From early film scores to The Beach Boys using one in their song, Good Vibrations, the Theremin’s unique sound has captured the public’s imagination.

Price: £480

Where to buy: moogmusic.com

Posted in Audiophile, Technology

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