Unusual things fascinate human beings. Be it a weird sound, object, or smell, our senses are drawn to the bizarre. In the world of music creation, there’s no shortage of instruments that look weird. But are they legitimately musical? Let’s satisfy our curiosity and discover genuine musical instrument weirdness in sound and vision, shall we?
A Musical Instrument is an object or artifact that, when played, generates resonating frequencies that create a musical sound. A musical sound combines two or more notes of a musical scale, creating a melody line or a harmonic chord.
There’s a lot of online interest in weird musical instruments currently. A quick Google search will suggest several websites that list weird musical instruments. There’s much to gawk at, both glorious and gimmicky. What we’re after is the real thing – authentic, bona fide-weird musical instruments.
The Erhu is a small Chinese bowed string instrument with Mongolian origins, dating back at least three millennia.
A stick-like wooden neck and a small wooden resonance chamber covered in python skin are strung with two silk strings, which are tensioned by chunky tuning pegs at the top of the stick.
The bow, made of bamboo or wood, is strung with the hair from a horse’s tail, which is intertwined with the silk strings, making the bow an integral part of the body of the erhu.
The two silk strings are tuned at intervals of a fifth and when bowed, the erhu sounds much like a violin.
To play it, the musician gently depresses the strings to stop the notes or create an effect – without the strings touching the vertical stick neck.
The python skin reverberates when the strings are bowed and a truly mystical sound is created – superlative glissando and vibrato.
Beauty that simple, ancient and light is bona fide weird!
Next, we have the Sarangi which is a strange rectangular wooden box instrument with three strings played with a bow or plucked like a guitar.
It’s a traditional Indian instrument, sublimely weird in its complexity and a very haunting sound.
The body is carved from a piece of wood and has three ‘stomachs’ or sound chambers which are usually covered in goatskin.
As many as 37 thin steel strings rest between the soundboard and three main gut strings.
The wooden bow is strung with horsetail hair and held horizontally.
When played, the sarangi sings like a human singing or meows like a cat, the steel strings resonating in sympathy to create an exotic, otherworldly sound.
The next strange instrument is called the Cimbalom and it looks like the inside of a baby grand piano – as many as 125 strings running the length of a wooden box resting on four legs.
As well as being an unusual instrument, it’s also an incredibly old one dating back to Hungary in the Middle Ages.
To play it, the musician strikes two cotton-tipped mallets on the strings, creating a distinctive percussive sound that sounds similar to a harpsichord.
The strings of the Cimbalom are grouped in threes, fours, and fives with each of these groupings are tuned to a corresponding pitch.
Two or three bridges divide the string groups, creating different ranges of pitch and it typically has a range of four octaves.
Its weirdness lies in its innocuous appearance belying its complexity and sonic imperiousness.
4. Pikasso Guitar
One strange string instrument you might not have seen before is called the Pikasso Guitar and it’s essentially four guitars in one, with four string sections and 42 strings!
The Pikasso Guitar, made by master luthier Linda Manzer for jazz guitar legend Pat Metheny in the late 1970s.
It boasts a wedge-shaped body, affording the player a good view of all the strings.
The weirdest thing about the Pikasso Guitar is that two of the string sections don’t have fretboards but are strummed, while chord shapes are formed in unison on the main fretboard.
It’s called the Pikasso Guitar because, like its namesake’s paintings, it looks really weird!
The Theremin looks innocuous but, there’s a weird monster lurking in its wood and steel body.
Invented in 1919 by Leon Theremin, the Theremin is unique in that the player doesn’t touch the instrument at all while playing it! Is that weird or what?
The Theremin generates radio frequencies from two antennae attached to its body that are controlled by the left and right hand of the player, modulating the pitch and volume of ‘invisible strings’ to generate an eerie sound that is useful and melodic when played with precision.
It’s been a favorite instrument for horror movie scores ever since the golden age of wireless.
6. Glass Harmonica
A beautiful and unusual instrument, the Glass Harmonica was invented in 1761 by founding father and inventor Benjamin Franklin.
It’s best described by imagining a full table of wine glasses of different sizes, filled to varying degrees with liquid, being played the way they are conventionally played, fingertips running over their lips to elicit a sweet melody.
Now imagine a man like Benjamin Franklin reworking the phenomenon where just the glass bowls of all the wine glasses are nested into one another and skewered on a revolving spindle, allowing a player to construct melodic lines and chords with nary a drop to drink!
It’s still being played today by lovers of sweet sonic weirdness.
If you first saw one of these being played and asked how a truck hubcap with a few dents in it could sound so magical, you wouldn’t be considered weird.
The Handpan is a weird-looking instrument but, its design is ingenious.
A convex-shaped semi-sphere of steel is strategically dented to create tone zones.
The player uses both hands and all digits to sound myriad notes to create a unique sonic landscape.
It’s a recent invention, very hip, very melodic, and it’s also meditative to the max!
Take a plastic tube, drill a set of holes in it, plug in a water pump, insert several pipes with electronic pickups attached to each and, you’ve got the weirdest water-powered musical instrument the world has ever seen.
Hang-on… The only water-powered musical instrument on the planet!
Invented by Canadian scientist and artist Ryan Janzen, the Hydraulophone looks like a weird wind instrument with all its finger holes, but it works more like a pipe organ.
Water is pumped into the body of the Hydraulophone where it moves through a series of pipes and out again through the finger holes.
The player attenuates the water jets with their fingertips, which modulates the water pressure, creating sound frequency variations.
These changes in frequency are sensed by the electromagnetic audio pickups attached to the inner tubes.
If that sounds weird, it’s because water is weirdly wonderful at times!
Here’s an example of hybrid musical instrument weirdness dating back to the 17th century.
The Nyckelharpa is a combination of bowed instrument and keyed instrument, which is why it’s called a ‘keyed fiddle’ in Sweden, where it was invented.
The Nyckelharpa is worn hanging from the player’s shoulders like an electric guitar.
The modern iteration of the Nyckelharpa has three melodic strings, a single drone string and twelve resonating ‘sympathetic’ strings.
Up to 37 keys are situated on the underside of the neck of the Nyckelharpa.
When attenuated, the keys activate ‘tangents’ that reach up and stop respective strings, creating the desired notes and chords.
It’s weirder than a hybrid Volvo – guitar hero stuff 350 years ago!
10. Chapman Stick
The Chapman Stick was invented in the early 1970s and is designed for electric guitarists who like to keep busy.
It’s essentially an electric bass guitar and guitar combined with the added feature of ‘texture’ generation via separate pickups for MIDI signals to be sent to trigger electronic instruments like synthesizers and sound modules.
With all those musical ‘mindsets’ running simultaneously, the Chapman Stick player will probably be the weirdest person on stage!
The Yaybahar was invented by Gorkem Sen, a contemporary Turkish musician, which sounds like a string quartet playing in the Grand Canyon – its echoes are stupendous and positively alien!
Combining a vertical cello-like fingerboard with two steel strings, two drum-head resonators and springs joining the vertical fingerboard and the drum skins, the Yaybahar can play most styles of music, from classical pieces to modern rock and pop tunes.
Its weirdness is legitimate.
The ultra-reverberant quality of sound generated by bowing the strings, hitting the drums, or tapping or brushing the springs, earns the Yaybahar the weird-cred many odd musical instruments don’t quite attain.
If the Starship Enterprise had an orchestra, the Gravikord would sit up front, on the lap of a pretty trooper.
Invented in 1986 by Robert Grawi, the Gravikord is a stainless steel tubing, nylon and synthetic fiber instrument with a dual-harp configuration sporting 24 strings.
Based on the design and playing style of the traditional African Kora, the Gravikord is an electric instrument with piezoelectric sensors.
It can be plucked or bowed to create a blend of sounds verging on the extraterrestrial. Weird indeed!
13. Great Stalacpipe Organ
In 1954, Leland W. Sprinkle toured the Luray Caverns, a cave system in Virginia, USA with his young son which is home to over 3.5 acres of stalactites.
He tapped one of the stalactites and discovered its resonant, musical properties which was when he got the idea for the Great Stalacpipe Organ.
Sprinkle returned with a rubber mallet and sought out dozens of suitable stalactites to form the ‘pipes’ of his organ.
He duly shaved his select stalactites to tune them to the correct pitch and fitted each stalactite with a rubber mallet.
An electric organ console was wired to the mallets on the stalactites and today, each stalactite is wired to an amplifier.
It’s the largest musical instrument in the world, which is its own kind of weird!
Originating in West Africa hundreds of years ago, the Akonting is a rustic three-string lute that can not only make people dance when it’s played solo, but it can also take a beating.
Fashioned from wood and animal skins and gut, the Akonting has two melody strings and a drone string.
The gourd body acts as a drum as well as a resonator box.
Used at tribal social gatherings, the Akonting earns its weird status because of its earthy and rugged construction, versatile musical characteristics and, sheer African charm!
15. Portative Organ
Drop into Lilliput and gather around a miniature pipe organ, small enough for a young woman to hold on her thigh! Weird, right?
The Portative Organ has its origins in medieval Italy and is made up of a keyboard, steel pipes and bellows.
The player presses the keys with one hand while the other activates the bellows to give the little beauty the necessary breath of the gods.
16. Indian Jaw Harp
One of the best examples of ‘pack small, play big’ in all the world of musical instruments, the Indian Jaw Harp is 1500 years old and takes the notion of transhumanism to another level.
A thin steel reed fastened to a metal or bamboo body is placed between the player’s lips and plucked rapidly.
The player’s mouth becomes the Jaw Harp’s resonator body, effectively fusing human anatomical functions with the physics of sound vibration.
The sonic possibilities of the Jaw Harp are impressive, from folk ditties to techno grooves.
Tiny, punchy, ancient and weird!
17. Musical Saw
When you visit the hardware store, you’re not looking for a musical instrument, are you?
Well, that’s all about to change… Ladies and gentlemen, the Musical Saw!
It’s so common it’s hidden in plain sight.
The fact that the Musical Saw moonlights as a unique musical instrument is astounding and weird and you can get up to three octaves out of a long carpenter’s saw.
You can bow a Musical Saw or hit it with a mallet.
By bending the saw blade, you can create a sweet but ghostly sound, fluid enough for any popular melody. Weird hardware!
Although it’s one of the more recognizable instruments on this list, the Didgeridoo is still an unusual instrument that goes way back to ancient times.
They’re not easy to play, but once you get the hang of circular breathing, these hollow tree trunks create a sonic drone that’ll send you into a trance in a flash!
Didgeridoos are a favorite at trance parties and all kinds of Burns – that makes them musically weird!
It can be traced back 12,000 years, making it the oldest musical instrument on our list the Ocarina is a small ‘flute vessel’ made of clay or terracotta with multiple finger holes.
Ocarinas are capable of playing a full chromatic scale and produce a sound redolent of bird song.
They’re ornate, compact and, weird in a delightful way!
20. Giant Pipe Organ
Downtown Chicago is home to a Giant Pipe Organ that fills the entire church.
It’s the size of a small cathedral with hundreds of tons of steel pipes soaring several stories high.
Equipped with five digitally-controlled keyboards, 8,343 pipes and 143 ranks and 204 ‘stops’, the giant Pipe Organ cost $3 million to build and has become a popular tourist attraction in the Windy City.
The sheer magnitude of musical capacity in the Giant Pipe Organ, not to mention the cost, makes it properly weird!
Summing up these Strange Musical Instruments
In a world obsessed with shallow sensationalism, these strange and magical musical instruments clearly demonstrate that weird doesn’t have to be gimmicky.
Having completed our musicological journey, you now have some heavy-duty weird music trivia to share at the next jam session, and perhaps, your eye on a genuine musical oddity you can get weird with!