Guitar, drums, bass, vocals. That's what most bands need to pull off a great song. But sometimes, the situation may call for something more. You know, like a hurdy gurdy! Check out these examples of famous musicians who said "damn the guitar, hand me a Conundrum!" Or something to that effect.
Jonny Greenwood (Radiohead) - Portable Radio
There are any number of weird tricks you can employ to produce unique sounds on record while you're in the studio, but recreating that sound on stage can be a little more complicated. In situations like this, it's important to not overthink things. Nobody knows this better than Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood. When it comes time to approximate the radio-being-tuned sounds featured on the Radiohead classics "National Anthem" and "Climbing Up the Walls," Jonny skips the fancy samplers and foot pedals in favor of a more basic approach. He just hauls a damn portable radio on stage and starts flipping around the channels.
According to Jonny, "I spend about 20 minutes (during soundcheck) tuning in some local radio stations before the show. There's always the danger that Huey Lewis and the News are going to turn up in an inappropriate part of the song, but that's all part of the fun, I suppose." Huey Lewis and the News? Fun indeed! To see Jonny and his radio in action (for a few seconds anyway) check out the video below.
Rick Nielsen (Cheap Trick) - Five Necked Guitar
What guitar to use on stage? Such a quandary. When recording, most guitarists use several different guitars throughout the course of an album. But is hauling all of those guitars around with you really feasible? Well, it is if they're all connected to each other. Back pain be damned, Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen regularly takes the stage with a five, count 'em, five necked guitar.
36 strings, 4 six string guitars and one 12 string. Why would he go through the hassle of hauling this kind of axe on stage? I have no earthly idea. Any information that would give any insight as to why is nowhere to be found. At least not on the internet. I suppose I'll just have to rely on some Cheap Trick scholar to let me know in the comments section (after calling me a douchebag and/or failure, of course). I do know this much though, wielding a five necked guitar does look pretty damn cool. See below for proof.
Elvis Costello - Tack Piano
Up to this point, the instruments themselves haven't needed much explanation. But what the hell is a tack piano? In short, it's a regular piano that someone with a whole lot of free time to kill and access to at least one piano that they don't mind inflicting permanent damage on has altered by adding tacks or nails to the hammers at the precise point where the hammer strikes the string. The result gives the instrument a more percussive sound. It's also a fantastic way to destroy a perfectly good piano. Often, the tacks or nails used to modify the hammers fall off and land in the inner workings of the piano. If this happens while playing, expect some problems.
The tack piano has been used several times in popular music. There are no doubt plenty of available videos of people playing a tack piano, but seriously, it doesn't look any different than a regular piano, so what's the fun in that. Instead, enjoy this video for Elvis Costello's "So Like Candy." Listen for the tack piano during the chorus and near the end of the song and, most importantly, check out Elvis' mountain-man beard and luxurious mullet. It was a dark time for Elvis Costello.
Brian Wilson - Theremin (sort of)
If you're wondering how the theremin works, you need only look at the picture accompanying this paragraph and the answer becomes obvious. It works by magic! The illusionist looking chap in that photo is Leon Theremin, the inventor of the instrument. The theremin consists of a cabinet with a vertical rod protruding from the top and a loop that protrudes from the left side. To play it, you move one hand close to the vertical rod (tee hee hee!) to adjust the pitch and the other hand close to the loop to adjust the volume. Notice that I didn't mention ever touching the damn thing? See, it's magic!
Interestingly, the song most commonly credited with popularizing the use of the theremin in modern music did not feature a theremin at all. At least not a real one. The Beach Boys classic "Good Vibrations" seems to prominently feature the instrument, but the sound is actually being made by an electro-theremin, an instrument built in the late 1950's by trombonist Paul Tanner to mimic the sound of a real theremin. So, in lieu of a Beach Boys video, check out this clip of some hero playing The Super Mario Bros. theme on theremin. Geek-tastic!
Sting - Hurdy Gurdy
As if recording an entire album of songs recorded on the lute wasn't enough, leave it to Sting to whip out something like a hurdy gurdy on stage. Resembling something along the lines of the bastard love child of a violin and a wooden battleship, the hurdy gurdy is rarely used in modern music. You can probably chalk that up to the fact that it amounts to a slightly more difficult to play version of the fiddle.
Most people who aren't Sting would just play the damn fiddle, thereby saving themselves the trouble and embarassment of having to track down, learn, and be seen with a hurdy gurdy. It works by turning a hand crank which powers a wheel that acts much in the same way a violin bow does. Individual notes are played using a keyboard which holds down certain strings. Its sound is similar to someone playing a fiddle while someone else plays bagpipes, which is what most people opt to do when that particular sound is called for.
To see Sting and his hurdy gurdy bring the pretentiousness level of the Academy Awards to unprecedented new heights, check out the video below.
Tom Waits - Conundrum
So far, all of the instruments mentioned have been the kind of thing that, with enough cash, you could easily buy for yourself. Not so with the Conundrum, unless Tom Waits decides to sell you his. Built especially for him by a neighbor during the sessions for the Bone Machine album, the Conundrum is the kind of thing that, if placed in the average musician's living room, would keep guests from feeling comfortable visiting for years to come. Made up of a huge iron cross with pieces of found farm machinery parts hanging from it, Waits describes the sound of the Conundrum as "a jail door closing behind you" and says it looks "kind of like a Chinese torture device." And that's pretty damn accurate.
Used most prominently on the Bone Machine track "In the Colosseum," the Conundrum sounds less like a percussion set and more like someone's home-based blacksmithing business is bleeding into the recording. Against all odds, it is quite possibly the most perfect percussion sound imaginable for a song called "In the Colosseum." Unfortunately, a video for that track was nowhere to be found, but please, check it out on your own if you've never heard it. The Conundrum was also used with ultra-creepy results on "The Ocean Doesn't Want Me," a spoken word piece about a failed suicide. And why not end this article on a happy note like that? Check out the video below.
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