Isn’t that the greatest name for an instrument? The didgeridoo is essentially a long wooden pipe of various lengths and types indigenous to Northern Australia. There are no valves or holes or anything so pitch adjustments are all made from the players voice and throat, although it mostly produces a drone. One of the cool things about the didgeridoo is that people have modernized it and I have seen performances on instruments made from PVC pipes. Here’s a good example of a modernized didgeridoo.
This is one of the original keyboard instruments, so as a pianist, there’s always something special about the harpsichord. It couldn’t sustain notes or changes volume, so pieces written for harpsichord typically contain many notes and move quite fast. It’s old enough to be a true Renaissance instrument as well, another geek crossover zone.
The autoharp is neither automatic nor a harp. Technically, it is a type of zither with many, many strings and bars to hold down specific chords. I actually own an autoharp, and used to play it at camp because I never could get decent on the guitar. Zither’s are just cool in general, and autoharps have been used in everything from folk music to Led Zeppelin. Hey, if Dean Winchester’s favorite band used one, it must be awesome!
Another old, even older than the Harpsichord, possibly 2000 years old, hammered strong instrument, the dulcimer is one that I always wished I learned, but didn’t. Versions of the dulcimer exist around the globe in a variety of cultural folk music, but they are especially known in Celtic music. Dulcimer’s seem like they might be easy enough to learn, but people who are proficient can do amazing things. Check out the video for an example. Also, a cimbalon, a type of dulcimer, was used to create the creepy, chromatic sound we hear for Gollum in Lord of the Rings.
I love instruments that are easy to make a version of, as noted above, and these can be made from beans and paper towel rolls, which I did at Girl Scout Camp one year. That was especially fitting since we also sang John Denver songs and he liked rainsticks. Traditional rainsticks are made from hollow cacti. I used to love standing in a store and slowly tipping a rainstick back and forth. What? Just me? Oh well. Geek musicians like rainsticks, too, just ask Marion Call!
The original idea of the calliope was to press keys to send steam through locomotive whistles to make notes. They used to be found on riverboats and in circuses, especially in carousels. It’s nearly impossible to tune one properly (you know, like a banjo), and the slightly out-of-tune sound became kind of a calliope trademark. It’s also named after a Greek Muse (for you Greek mythology and music intersecting geeks, like me!).
More Greek references, not just in mythology, the Lyre is actually an ancient Greek instrument used back in 1400 BCE on Crete. It can have a variety of numbers of strings to produce different tunings and chord possibilities. It’s also another member of the zither family. How often do I get to use zither twice in one post?
What makes this oddly stringed instrument awesome. Well, my favorite feature is that It plays microtones, notes between the usual twelve. It is also able to be tuned to specific sounds and songs with the precision of the movable frets. Finally, George Harrison could play it, and he’s my favorite Beatle (and he shares my birthday!) and it’s in Norwegian Wood, one of my favorite Beatles’ songs.
The mandolin is an instrument that was not only played in the Middle Ages as a lute, but survived to remain popular today in bluegrass, Celtic, and modern folk music. It’s like a cute baby guitar. It’s also the main instrument you hear on Maggie May (classic rock geeks) and was played by George Harrison and featured in Led Zeppelin music, so, those, as I mentioned, as continued bonuses.
Khene or Khaen
This is an instrument from Thailand that is essentially an intersection between a harmonica and an accordion. It also just looks awesome. Here’s a friend of mine showing off his improv skills on this crazy thing.
There, those are my favorite kind of crazy instruments. Have you got a favorite? Alternately, anyone selling their old accordion on the cheap?