Weird Musical Instruments – Unusual But Usable Ways To Float Your Notes!

There’s one night in L.A. that I’ll never forget. It probably sticks with me not just because of the company and the surroundings, but the possibilities that filled my head from that day forward. It was my first glimpse into what weird musical instruments could add to a song…

My friends Laura & Mini had just laid down tracks for a song they called “The Hands of Time”, and they wanted some sort of a different drum track. Something unexpected, and a little hypnotic.

shrink wrapping pallets

It just so happened that I’d just stumbled onto a new sound recently and thought it’d be just the ticket. At the record company where I worked during the day I had to occasionally wrap large pallets of records (yes… RECORDS!) for transport on the big trucks. To keep them stable we’d wrap them with large swath thick plastic wrap. About 15 times around and those boxes weren’t gonna move anywhere.

The week previous I’d finished a roll of this industrial wrap and just for fun hit the end of the empty tube, which was quite hard and unyielding. Lo and behold – it gave up a rubbery, bouncy sound… like an Udu drum, only warmer.

I offered my services as “Pallet-Wrap-Roll-Hitter-Dude” and they accepted. Guess they were open to experimental as much as I was. Either that or their curiosity just got the best of them!

Soon enough, there I was – the mic was hooked up; the tape machine ready… it was “go” time.

“Hit it.”

cardboard roll drums

The first time through was okay, but I thought the sound wasn’t clear enough, sharp enough. I had another idea…

“Can I have a bowl of water?”

Everyone assuredly thought I was certifiably crackers at that point, but Laura went and got the water. I wet the edge of the roll a bit, letting the dampness sink in.

“Roll it again.”

Sure enough, this time the sound was much more cutting; the water had given the edge more suction with my hand and provided a clearer transient and even more volume.

Each time we recorded, I’d dip my hand in the bowl of water to “re-seal” the edge. Each time it gave clarity to the rhythms.

A couple takes later, with varying rhythms, and we were done. A successful, fun night of experimental music making!

Unusual AND Usable!

instruments Lab

What follows here today are new music inventions that I think really work for live music or recordings. I would bring any of these instruments into a session without hesitation, especially if they came with the player associated with them… so I wouldn’t have to learn it and play it as well as engineer and produce it!

There are hundreds more experimental music machines out there. I perused at least a few dozen in researching for this article. I found most to be interesting, but not that great for actually using in a modern, popular music track.

Also, I often come across what appears to be the largest drawback in new music instruments: that they mostly work in only one, or few, keys. And many don’t even follow Western Music keys (i.e. “Equal Temperament”) at all – they just make noises.

So if you’re like me and appreciate new inventions, but would prefer they actually be continuously appropriate to ongoing music production, then you’re in luck – have I got five new instruments for YOU!

1) The Apprehension Engine!

Mark Korven is the first musician up. He’s a film music composer with his own home studio.

He got tired (as I have too!) of the ubiquitous, same-ol’, overused synth patches that get thrown in to scary movie soundtracks. You know… the ones designed to creep you out when the girl falls while running… as she ALWAYS will!

One can only take so much of the same old cliche noises before the itch for something new becomes a full-blown rash of hives, so Mark asked his friend Tony Duggen-Smith for help. Tony’s usually working a more traditional role as a guitar luthier and guitar maker by day. But Mark’s request allowed him to branch out into the night… into the dark… into his soul’s shadows!

Weird instrument called the apprehension engine

Because he’s used to working with wood and metal, he was able to construct something totally… well, OTHER. Because of that, what the world now has is the greatest horror-sounds-producing instrument the world has ever known. Mark and Tony refer to it as the Apprehension Engine. The masses just call it the Nightmare Machine. One listen to its music and you’ll know why – it’s creeeeeepyyyyyy!

Go listen to the ominous “music” of this new instrument in THIS VIDEO!

I especially appreciate the use of the Ebow. I’ve used it for years for special effects and guitar beds and can totally see why Tony thought of it for scary music composition. Long, droning resonances full of glass-shard-like overtones shattering upon our ears make for a disturbing effect – just what you want for horror!

Somewhere, Christopher Lee is smiling.

With fangs.

For those of you who actually do soundtrack work, Tony IS actually producing these as real instruments for composers to purchase. They are currently working on an “Apprehension Engine 2”, which should amp up the chill factor to 13 sometime soon. Contact him for your own machine at

2) The Swiss Hang Drum Takes Over the World!

The Swiss are a wonderful group of people. I lived there for six months and I never met an Alpine Horn blower I didn’t like. I found they like their music quite eclectic. My host families, for example, listened on any given day to Spanish Pop, Classical, German rock, Latin dance, and (of course) a good smattering of American Billboard hits.

weird handpan instrument fans

It appears that eclecticism reaches into the inventor’s lab too. In the year 2000 Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer, citizens of Bern, Switzerland, developed the first prototypes of the Hang, which is the Swiss-German word for “Hand”. It has a sound similar to a steel drum, but is played in a totally different fashion and sounds much softer and warmer. To hear what I mean, LISTEN HERE.

The instrument is basically two half-shells of formed sheet steel that are glued together at their rims, and have tone dimples that are hammered into them that you activate with your fingers. You can also slap the steel for percussive accents, so it’s a very musical, usable piece, although to play many keys you’d need several Hangs that are produced in different keys.

The instrument has become so popular (probably because it’s easy to play from the get-go) that today there are more companies making these types of instruments. They can’t call them “Hangs” because it’s a copyrighted term, so the more widespread term for them has become “Handpans“.

For those of you in America who would like to incorporate this instrument and its hypnotic sound into your music, contact the American Handpan company “Pantheon Steel” at THEIR WEBSITE HERE and ask about their now famous “Halo”. Something tells me… you’ll be hooked!

3) You’ll Dig This One!

Sometimes, just being a well-rounded guitar slinger is not enough. You wanna go that… extra mile. The one Robert Johnson took… down to the Crossroads.

I don’t know if Justin Johnson (no relation to Robert… that I KNOW of) has sold his soul, but he sure has bought his share of music gear, or at least had somebody make it. I’ve seen him play a lot of guitar, but the most memorable and cool-sounding thing to ME that he’s done is this bizarre amalgam of guitar accouterments and… a shovel.

Weird Shovel Guitar

Yup. A shovel. Whudah thunk??

The groove he lays down on THIS SONG is so contagious, so cool, so unrelenting… I just wanna pick up my shovel and learn it! Right now!! But, of course, I don’t haaaaave a shovel guitar, soooo….

Ohp, wait a second… I think I have one like that in the garage. Now, with a little ingenuity and scrap guitar parts…

Who’s with me?! Meet me in the woodshed!!

4) The Ice Music Festival in Luleå, Sweden!

If you haven’t experienced the long, long, looooooong, dark winter nights of the high north Scandinavian countries, then you have no idea just how depressing it can get. Folks need something to keep their spirits up, their creativity flowing and their hopes for spring alive.

Tim Linhart & his weird instruments

Enter the Ice Music Festival!

Tim Linhart, formerly a simple ice-carver, had the idea for hand-carved instruments made of ice years ago, when he knew nothing of music. Since then, he’s learned a lot, from a lot of very good musicians. He provides for them the instruments, and the hand carved Ice Hall for the audience to sit in, and they take it away and do the rest.

For an excellent peering into the chilled cavity of tone, GO HERE. Don’t forget your gloves.

There, now didn’t you feel like you were practically there? Seeing your breath? Stomping your boots? Numbing your bum?!
I would record any of those instruments and their players in a heartbeat. They sounded great!

One thing that separates Tim from many other ice music festivals is that he demands that the instruments actually be tuneable to Western tonalities. He wants to be able to hear famous pieces and songs that we all know and love, not just meandering new-age-sounding trance beds. I’m with him. There’s a time for “Hearts of Space” ethereal music, but after a while you just wanna… well… pick up Justin’s shovel and JAM!!!

The Yabahar!!

weird instrument called the Yaybahar

Okay, straight up… this is my favorite one. Wow. The sound of this thing is mind-blowing.

To take an amazing, beautiful trip to the islands with me and listen to Görkem Şen play this wild, out-there mind trip, CLICK HERE.

I have to also hand it to Görkem for the cinematography. I don’t know if he actually lives in this house he’s filming in, but if he does… HOW COOL IS THAT??!!! The view of the ocean alone is worth the price of admission!

My favorite parts of the instrument are the bowing technique he uses on the upright fretboard. It’s obviously in a Turkish scale but still… that could easily be modified to a Western scale sensibility. Or a Western scale neck could be swapped on it. The proof of its compatibility is shown when plays excerpts from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony near the end.

One thing’s for sure: with all that natural reverb coming from the coils and sounding bowls, I wouldn’t be adding any Lexicon halls any time soon!

And You Thought the 60s Were a Trip!

Hope you enjoyed this little jaunt around the world today, listening to an aural smorgasbord of my favorite out-of-the-box, tasty, tonal treats. Maybe one o’ these guys will see this article and come to Detroit to lay some tracks down.

You KNOW I’d be writing about that session! 😉

psychedelic music floats us away

Music can definitely take us on some funky brain trips. Do you play an obscure instrument? Do your musical preferences walk on ‘the wild side’? Are you trapped in a tower high above the sea and forced to make fantastic, aberrant musical sculptures to pass the time away?!

Whatever your preference, let us know. Share your eccentric wealth with us, and we’ll waft through your performance like yellow, rubber, bendy-men… on our way to the Plasticine Porters Convention.

for after all… we don’t all have to take the same approach to appreciate the same gift. Music speaks… through anything.

Now, go… make… sounds!!


Teaj in the storm fields

2 Replies to “Weird Musical Instruments – Unusual But Usable Ways To Float Your Notes!”

  1. It’s probably a combination, Daniel, of being naturally curious, being a big fan of very creative artists, and having a penchant for finding new and different paths to achieve a certain end.

    For example, check out the off-the-beaten-path software I use to make out-there sounds and synth patches that I wrote about in THIS POST. Once you try it, it’s hard to go back to the “normal” ways of creating!

    I haven’t witnessed Rob yet. I’ll look him up!

    Thanks for stopping by!!

  2. Wow, really interesting post!!
    I like how you using water, I am a drummer and I never thought that will work. I’m really curious about how you come up with these ideas?
    BTW, I’ve seen a YouTuber who also made a guitar with a shovel, his name is Rob Scallon, you can check him out, also a really talented musician.

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