2013 was the year of the banjo. Led by bands like Mumford and Sons, the modern folk-rock scene has fully matured, and with it, a slew of instruments new to mainstream ears. Gone are the simple days of guitar, drums, bass, and microphone – sometimes a keyboard, but even that was a bonus. Now, every band has at least a dozen bearded dudes on stage, playing everything from banjo to didjeridoo to triangle (if the lead singer has a less-talented younger brother). Moog synthesizers, guitars with 24 strings, guitars with harps in them, sentient guitars that transform into General Motors vehicles- maybe not that last one, but the reality is that weird instruments are taking over our music. If you aren’t a musician, sometimes it’s tough to figure out exactly what the guys are playing on stage or if the sounds are even coming from instruments at all. As festival season gets closer, here’s a guide to identify some of the odder instruments on stage.
Alright, so the ukulele isn’t THAT weird. It’s more of a gateway drug to weirder instruments. They are simple, cheap and easy to learn, plus they sound like the beach. Ukes come from Hawaii, and owe their modern resurgence to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, that 600 pound guy who sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours” and Ingrid Michaelson’s “You and I” are also songs played to death by budding ukulelists.
The mandolin is a staple of American bluegrass music, and with the exploding popularity of modern bluegrass, this little guy is showing his head in more and more places. Boasting eight strings in pairs of two, the mandolin offers an interesting, fuller sound. It has its roots in Italy, a descendant of the lute, a stringed instrument popular in the renaissance. Boyd Tinsley of Dave Matthews Band uses the mandolin a lot, as does Marcus Mumford. You’ll be sure to see these on stage at any festival.
Ever seen a guitarist walk up to the mic and stick a fat straw in his mouth before playing some especially funky riffs? Before auto-tune, there was the talk box. Talk boxes allow a musician to shape the sound of the guitar, as if it were speaking through their lips. This causes a cool effect where the instrument sounds like it’s actually talking. This was made famous by Peter Frampton way back in the day, but is showing a resurgence in the live music scene, aided by the ubiquity of auto-tune and vocoder effects in pop music.
The Appalachian dulcimer is a truly American instrument, created in the 19th century by immigrants settling in the mountains. It is related to the zither, which means something to people who know what a zither is…but no one knows what a zither is. The dulcimer has three to five strings, tuned to only two notes, making it incredibly simple to learn and play. This hasn’t shown up as much lately, but it was played by Cyndi Lauper and Brian Jones (The Rolling Stones), so the precedent is there. With the growing addiction to folk music in the mainstream, expect to see some crunchy dulcimer jams in the next few years.
This is the pinnacle of modern musical achievement. Every band of the future will have at least 3 dedicated players, who will drop fat kazoo beats over a mellow dulcimer groove. Write it down: 2014 will be remembered as the year the electric kazoo finally got some love.