13 bands who’ve made use of unusual instruments
“The Black & Red project was born in Australia in 2010 when I set out to find the greatest virtuoso of the didgeridoo,” says Killing Joke frontman Jaz Coleman of his latest musical odyssey. Of course it was, mad bloke. This is exactly the sort of behaviour you’d expect from the man, frankly, but he’s not the only rock or metal muso to have made use of unusual instruments.
The bedrock of guitar, bass and drums still provides the basic framework for the vast majority of rock music. Keyboards and electronic elements are also common, but there are always those willing to go that extra mile. From chainsaws to kazoos, here are 13 times rock and metal bands have added texture with unusual instruments.
Incubus – Didgeridoo
Jaz isn’t the only one who can dabble in didgeridoo. Incubus frontman and California hippy-type Brandon Boyd has been known to whip his didge out onstage, most notably when playing Redefine, the opening track from their 1997 breakthrough album S.C.I.E.N.C.E. The band were always big on layers, making use of electronica and scratching before such things were commonplace, as well as West African djembe drums and a vintage mellotron.
Soundgarden – Spoons
Originally written for the soundtrack to ’90s slacker romance flick Singles, Spoonman was one of the singles that propelled grunge icons Soundgarden to stardom. Not bad for a quirky song with an odd time signature that was inspired by and featured Seattle street performer Artis The Spoonman. You can check out Artis in all his cutlery-wielding glory in the video, while Soundgarden drummer Matt Cameron also clattered some pots and pans for the song.
Shining – Saxophone
The saxophone isn’t exactly unheard of in rock music. But in extreme metal? Not so much. Norwegian experimentalists Shining – not to be confused with the suicidal Swedes of the same name – really embraced the hard stuff on their 2010 album Blackjazz, essentially creating their own exclusive genre in the process. It seems there was something in the turn-of-the-decade water, though; Emperor legend Ihsahn had his own sax party on solo album After the same year, while over at the death metal end of the spectrum, Cephalic Carnage brought in saxophonist Bruce Lamont to guest on their own 2010 LP Misled By Certainty.
Korn – Bagpipes
Korn aren’t the only band to have used bagpipes. The likes of AC/DC, the Dropkick Murphys and Ensiferum have all summoned the skirl, but Jonathan Davis is perhaps the most prominent piper in the rock and metal pantheon. They appeared in a number of Korn songs – starting with Shoots And Ladders on the debut – and he often hauled them out live, too. In an interview with Loudwire, the frontman revealed that Star Trek inspired him to pick up the instrument. “The real reason I wanted to play bagpipes was that in Star Trek [1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan] when Spock died, and that motherfucker [Mr. Scott] played Amazing Grace… Everybody tears up, and I’m like, ‘I gotta play bagpipes.’ And then I was going to a high school that had a pipe band, so there you go.”
NOFX – Accordion
The accordion might not seem like the most punk rock of instruments, but it is surprisingly prevalent – if mainly on the Celtic and gypsy-punk side of things in the hands of The Mahones, Gogol Bordello and Flogging Molly. NOFX guitarist Eric Melvin is also a dab hand on the squeezebox, however. ‘We’re professional punkers we come from the suburbs / After 15 years we still having fun / Now we’re over 30 not looking so purty / At least we got a beat-up accordion,’ they sang on Theme From A NOFX Album (from 2000’s Pump Up the Valuum), complete with bad impersonations and an accordion solo.
Black Sabbath – Harmonica
While Black Sabbath have a reputation for being all about the riffs, they also had a lot of versatility and an experimental streak a mile wide. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath might be a mixed bag, but it saw them experimenting with instruments including a harpsichord, bongos and even a nose flute. We’ll go with the slightly more conventional harmonica, though, just because Ozzy’s wailing licks on The Wizard (from their eponymous debut album) are so awesome.
Ghost – Kazoo
Think a kazoo can’t be sinister in the wrong hands? Well, you’d be dead right, but that didn’t stop Ghost from channelling the unholy tones of the ‘Kazoo Of Destiny’ when they performed the unplugged version of Ghuleh/Zombie Queen during the reign of Papa Emeritus III. It was, quite possibly, the peak of preposterousness in a career built on such things.
Jackyl – Chainsaw
A number of metal bands have utilised chainsaws and other power tools as sound effects and visual props. Exhumed spring to immediate mind, but top marks go to Jackyl frontman Jesse James Dupree, who actually played one as an instrument-of-sorts on their ’92 minor hit The Lumberjack, delivering a passable chainsaw solo. Other delights from their debut album included Redneck Punk and She Loves My Cock, making Lumberjack the sophisticated one.
Eluveitie – Hurdy-Gurdy
The world of folk metal is crammed with unusual instruments, generally reflecting the cultural backgrounds of the bands in question: Chthonic employ the erhu and The Hu bring out the morin khuur or Mongolian horsehead fiddle. Swiss metallers Eluveitie are folkier than most, with a wide range of instruments at their disposal. They’re also one of the few bands on the planet to have a full-time hurdy-gurdy player in the talented Michalina Malisz.
Blood Ceremony – Flute
In terms of rock music, the flute is most commonly associated with beardy prog-folksters Jethro Tull. Canadian witch-rockers Blood Ceremony take the woodwind to spookier moonlit woods, making it an integral part of their fantastically horror and occult-obsessed blend of doom metal and psychedelic rock.
Green Day – Vibraslap
Green Day started straying beyond their original three-chord pop-punk remit on 1997’s Nimrod and even more so on the 2000 follow-up. The hard acoustic-flavoured Warning featured a full complement of horns, with Billie Joe Armstrong also providing mandolin and piano. Even better they also incorporated something called a vibraslap, credited in the liner notes to guest musician James Creepies. Not only does this have the greatest name of any instrument ever, it’s a modern-day version of using a donkey’s jawbone as a musical instrument. True story.
Apocalyptica – Cello
How metal can a cello be? In the hands of classically trained Finns Apocalyptica, very metal indeed. The collective started out as a Metallica tribute act, but soon branched out into their own epic metal compositions built primarily around cellos and drums. They’ve since got to play with their heroes, while the likes of Corey Taylor, Ville Valo, Joe Duplantier and Dave Lombardo have all guested on their albums.
Metallica – An Entire Symphony Orchestra
Timpani, piccolo, tuba, bassoon. They were all there as the world’s biggest metal band teamed up with the San Francisco Symphony for the original S&M performance/album back in 1999. They weren’t the first band to attempt something similar: Deep Purple had composed their Concerto For Group And Orchestra and performed it with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra three decades previously. Metallica’s effort was a peak of grandiloquent perfection however, as were last year’s 20th anniversary performances.
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