Mastering any type of instrument is no small feat. But some people seek greater challenges than those offered by modern music. After the following musicians got bored with conventional instruments, they dug up old ones from ancient history or created their own from scratch.
If you’ve spent much time on the Internet, you’ve likely encountered the otamatone. Created by Novmichi Tosa, the otamatone is an electronic, note-shaped instrument with an adorable face. To play the instrument, the user presses down on the neck and squeezes the instrument’s mouth to create an obnoxious squeak or a booming groan (depending on the instrument’s size).
Despite creating one of the most annoying instruments on the planet, Novmichi Tosa and his art collective, Maywa Denki, are actually musical maestros. Check out Novmichi on Mr. Knocky, one of his other instruments.
The otamatone and Mr. Knocky are only a few of the insane musical gadgets used by Maywa Denki. Click here to see their performance with a symphony of their own bizarre creations.
Even with their nonsense philosophy, Maywa Denki injects a surprising amount of depth into their art. Their uniforms symbolize the small and medium-sized enterprises that once supported Japan during its economic growth. They call their shows “product demonstrations” instead of concerts, and their performances typically contain a healthy dose of ridiculousness with a dash of musicality.
9 Alexey Arkhipovsky
The balalaika is a traditional Russian folk instrument with an absurdly fun name. It’s essentially a triangular lute with three strings, and it comes in a variety of sizes from tiny to comically large. The instrument is typically plucked with fingers, giving off a muted tone.
But Alexey Arkhipovsky is far from typical. He strums the balalaika like he’s Eddie Van Halen to produce face-melting sounds. Critics can’t get enough of Arkhipovsky’s masterful playing, calling him the Jimi Hendrix of his generation.
8 Mike Silverman
The Magic Pipe
Mike Silverman (aka That 1 Guy) started off as an average freak of nature on the double bass. But he quickly got bored with it and decided to invent his own instrument. The resulting pile of scrap metal is something that Silverman has dubbed “the magic pipe.”
The pipe can be played with a bow like a normal bass or by plucking or slapping the strings. Or you can hit it with a stick. Really, it’s the user’s choice. The results can either sound like a freaky slap bass from the future or like an ominous orchestral drone.
7 Patrick Mathis
The barrel organ was the instrument of choice for old-timey street performers in the Victorian era. Playing the instrument was relatively simple: A hand crank pushed air through the organ pipes, which were then opened and closed using a pinned barrel. Players organized the pins on the barrel to create specific melodies, which were usually whimsical renditions of popular operas.
Toward the end of the instrument’s life span, the pinned barrel was replaced with sheets of paper. This made the instrument lighter and allowed for easier musical composition for aspiring songwriters.
Enter Patrick Mathis, a modern French organ-grinder who set out to do the same thing as his Victorian ancestors. But instead of creating cheap rip-offs of popular music, he composes extraordinarily complex works that rival the intensity of the originals. Click here for his rendition of “Smooth Criminal.”
6 Steven Wold
One-String Washboard Slide Guitar
Although Steven Gene Wold was born in 1941, his career in music didn’t really take off until 2006. Known as Seasick Steve due to his inability to keep his cool on the water, Steve’s custom string instruments add a sense of gruffness to his blues pieces.
For example, his washboard guitar uses a banjo neck and a single string to produce a brutal metallic tone. He also plays a cigar box guitar and a Frankenstein monstrosity that consists of a hubcap, a tin can, and a broom handle.
5 Martin Krendl
The cajon is a box with a hole in it. But the simple design is actually ripe with meaning because its construction symbolizes the fight against cultural repression.
In the 18th century, African slaves in South America were not allowed to have percussion instruments. Not wanting to abandon their heritage, the slaves grabbed random boxes and started pounding away. This paved the way for the creation of the cajon.
The cajon is gaining popularity among modern percussion studios, although Martin Krendl has a knack for bringing out the instrument’s strength by creating unique stand-alone melodies.
Krendl has a tricked-out cajon with an array of miscellaneous noisemakers attached to the box. He combines Latin American rhythms with his own vocals to create mesmerizing pop covers like this performance of “Rosanna.”
4 Hurra Torpedo
You may have heard of Hurra Torpedo from the early days of the Internet. But for the uninitiated, Hurra Torpedo consists of three Norwegian guys who cover 1980s pop music using kitchen appliances. Egil Hegerberg holds it down on the guitar, Kristopher Schau plays the freezer, and Aslag Guttormsgaard runs around smashing anything that he can find.
Their deadpan delivery and ill-fitting tracksuits have kept the band going for a surprisingly long time. They even had the chance to promote the Ford Fusion in one of the Internet’s earliest advertising campaigns.
3 Jeff Warner
The jig doll is considered to be more of a toy than an instrument, although it’s been used by buskers in the UK since the 18th century. The user holds the wooden doll over a vibrating stick, creating a rhythmic tap dance entirely from whimsy.
Enter Jeff Warner, an American folk singer whose specialty in old-timey instruments landed him a gig with the Smithsonian. He usually plays the banjo and the concertina, although the most captivating moments of his show always feature a jig doll.
2 Robert DeLong
Video Game Controller
Robert DeLong’s “Long Way Down” hit No. 3 on the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, which isn’t too shabby. DeLong is a live electronic artist who creates his own music on stage using joysticks, Wii remotes, game pads, and other equipment.
He attributes his knack for tinkering with electronics to his early PC gaming days when rudimentary computers required the use of command-line operating systems. Learning to install his own games (and even building his own text-based adventures) sparked DeLong’s desire to push the boundaries of digital creativity through his music—first as an indie drummer in Seattle and then as an EDM superstar.
1 Llyn Foulkes
There is no one on Earth quite like Llyn Foulkes. A modern Renaissance man, Foulkes has spent the past 50 years just missing mainstream success with his variety of paintings, sculptures, and performance art.
He even made it onto The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson as a musician, although he ultimately squandered his opportunity after getting into a fight with one of his bandmates. Nevertheless, the man has created an astonishing amount of art—with the invention of “The Machine” as his crowning achievement.
The Machine is essentially a monstrous drum kit with the standard snares and toms swapped out for more eccentric noisemakers. Held together by an old-fashioned car, the kit contains a variety of rubber horns, drums, cowbells, and xylophones. It also has a foot-powered electric bass.
In spite of the elaborate setup, Foulkes appears at ease as he sings his crooner style of music. But don’t let his relaxed demeanor fool you—Foulkes is a notorious perfectionist. His meticulous nature was the subject of a documentary in which filmmakers followed him for seven years as he struggled to finish two paintings.
+ Guilhem Desq
The hurdy-gurdy (aka the wheel fiddle) popped up in Europe about 1,000 years ago and originally required two people to play it. However, modern advancements have reduced the instrument to a more manageable size.
As you turn the hand crank on the side of the hurdy-gurdy, a wheel presses up against several strings, creating a drone that sounds like a bagpipe. From there, you push a number of keys on the neck, and suddenly, you’ve created a sound that’s reminiscent of medieval dance music.
Guilhem Desq upped the cool factor of the hurdy-gurdy by plugging his dragon-mounted behemoth into the nearest amp and cranking it to 11. The results added a heavy metal element to a sound that is normally reserved for Renaissance fairs.
++ Ben Walsh
Developed by Suzuki in the 1980s, the omnichord was designed to help those with no prior musical knowledge compose their own songs. With buttons to control chords and a tiny strum bar to play notes, the instrument has a small underground following that occasionally dabbles in pop culture—like that time the omnichord was used for the saddest episode of Adventure Time.
Ben Walsh is one of the key musicians behind Tom Tom Crew, Australia’s hip-hop circus. Although he’s probably better known for his eight-sided drum wheel, Walsh still takes time out of the show’s busy schedule of sweet flips and break dancing to sit down and jam with an omnichord. Many critics cite this as one of the best parts of the show.
Bryce Riley plays the mellophone, which is kinda bizarre if you’re not familiar with marching band. You can watch him tweet stuff @brycenator2323 or read his neat factoids on Tumblr at brycenator.tumblr.com.