Friday, October 28, 2016

I AM DRUMS Web Show Debut on LadyBird & Friends

A few weeks ago, I made my web show debut on LadyBird & Friends, hosted by rockstar librarian Betsy Bird!

The full show is up on YouTube, so watch and enjoy. Watch for our maraca and tennis ball jam during the credits.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 30 -- the Singing Tesla Coil

Our final weird instrument has many nicknames, my favorite being the Zeusaphone, as in the Greek God, Zeus.

The Singing Tesla Coil is a solid state Tesla coil that's been altered to make analog synth sounds and emit sparks of electricity based on the musical data it receives. MIDI data is sent in, converted to what's called a Pulse-width modulation (PWM) signal, which is then used to tell the Tesla coil what to do.

In simpler terms, it's a device that creates electrical pulses in sync with music. Imagine a musical performance where electricity is an audio-visual aspect of the experience.

Pay your respects to the people who made/make these things -- it takes a lot of talent and intelligence to pull this off.

The singing Tesla coil made its national television debut when the band ArcAttack performed on America's Got Talent.

That marks the finish line for 30 DAYS OF WEIRD INSTRUMENTS! I hope you've enjoyed this blog series half as much as I've enjoyed researching and writing it. I'm glad to have had you with me on this journey.

Please feel free to comment with additional weird instruments you've discovered, or send an email to with your thoughts. I've also included the full list of posts for all 30 instruments below.

Thank you for reading!

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Previous Weird Instruments:
Day 28 - The Singing, Ringing Tree 
Day 29 - The Harpitar
Day 30 - The Singing Tesla Coil

Monday, October 17, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 29 -- the Harpitar

Ahhh! Hybrid instruments!

In September of 1918, Popular Science featured R.E. Bates's creation, the Harpitar. Electric amplifiers would not exist until the 1930s, so Bates strung six strings over the body of a harp and made an instrument with the beautiful tones of the guitar and loud projection power of the harp.

It makes me wonder what he'd think of today's guitar pickups and amplifiers.

A modern version of the harpitar can be seen and heard in this wonderful video performance from musician, Andy McKee. The original didn't use a double neck like this one, so it's a great example of how the instrument evolved.

Tomorrow's instrument will be our final post in this series! I can't believe we're almost done!

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Previous Weird Instruments:

Friday, October 14, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 28 -- the Singing, Ringing Tree

We're heading to the town of Burnley in Lancashire, England to visit today's weird instrument.

The Singing, Ringing Tree is a wind powered sound sculpture made of galvanized steel pipes that harness the wind to create music. The three meter high structure was part of a Panopticons arts and regeneration project, a series of twenty-first century landmarks symbolizing the renaissance of of the East Lancashire area.

It looks like something an alien race might have left behind, and sounds fascinating, haunting, and eerie all at once.

Monday's instrument is two instruments smashed into one.

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Previous Weird Instruments:

Thursday, October 13, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 27 -- the Whamola

The Whamola is a bass guitar named after the whammy bar and viola. How those two instruments factor in to this bizarre thing is anybody's guess, but the final product is very cool.

The Whamola is a direct descendent of the washtub bass, and uses a single enormous string struck with a drumstick to make sound. A pulley system is placed on the back to loosen or tighten the string to change its pitch.

I had the distinct pleasure of seeing this extremely rare instrument in concert about ten years ago when Primus bassist, Les Claypool (credited with increasing the instrument's exposure and notoriety), played it in concert.

The below video showcases its sound quite well, assuming you can handle the equally outlandish outfits worn by the band.

Tomorrow's instrument would probably tell you to go climb a tree.

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Previous Weird Instruments:
Day 26 - Microtones and the Microtonal Guitar

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 26 -- Microtones and the Microtonal Guitar

Today's post was one of my favorite to research. It is also the hardest one to write, because what Turkish classical guitarist Tolgahan Cogulu is exploring here is a little hard to understand.

Let's start with the scale most readers of this blog will be familiar with.

See the picture above? It shows the typical scale in American popular music, which consists of 12 notes/tones -- C, C#, D, D#, E, F, F#, G, G#, A, A#, and B. Each of these twelve notes, or tones, are an equal distance apart (this distance is often referred to as "one half step"). Anything outside of those tones is considered "out of tune".

So what if someone intentionally used the tones in between?

That's what microtones are. Imagine the note exactly halfway between G and G#, and you'll have an idea of what this means.

Which brings us to Tolgahan Coulu's microtonal guitars. He has adjustable and fixed models, with the former having movable frets and the latter having fixed frets. These are guitars he designed specifically to play compositions with microtonal "in between notes".

The below video gives a great example of his fixed fret microtonal guitars, and why a fretless guitar does not suffice for what he is trying to accomplish. It also includes some phenomenal playing by the man himself.

Tomorrow's instrument will change the way you see low notes.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 25 -- the Wheelharp

The Wheelharp is made of 61 keys and strings on a handmade instrument designed and built by Jon Jones. The name comes from a spinning wheel inside that vibrates the strings, and is designed to essentially give one person the ability to control the full chromatic scale., who've partnered with Jon Jones & Sons to produce the instrument, says on their website that "...musicians, composers, and studios that seek to create the natural sound of classical string instruments while avoiding the frequently sterile quality of digital string synthesizers and samples, or for those looking to foray into new sonic territory, the Wheelharp presents a truly exciting opportunity.

What a beautiful instrument, but if you plan on owning your own you'd better be ready to pay extra for the loving, handmade craftwork, as this thing will run you just shy of $15 grand.

Tomorrow's instrument will change everything you know about scales.

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Previous Weird Instruments:

Monday, October 10, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 24 -- the AlphaSphere

Here's another one for the electronic musicians... the AlphaSphere!

This is one of those instruments that's pretty cool to look at, and must be a ton of fun to play. It's an electronic instrument designed by Adam Place, founder of Bristol, UK company nu desine (sic).

The idea was to expand the boundaries of electronic musicians by giving them something that plays like a musical instrument. In terms of appearance, it looks like a drum pad and rolled up into a rotational sphere.

Renowned musicians that have used the Alphasphere include Talvin Singh and Enter Shikari.

Looks like a lot of fun, and goes for a little over $800, which is a steal compared to the price tag on our next weird instrument. Speaking of which...

Tomorrow's instrument is more than happy to take the wheel for a while.

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Previous Weird Instruments:

Friday, October 7, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 23 -- the Musical Stones of Skiddaw

Today's post brings us to Skiddaw Mountain in Northern England. Hornfels, a type of stone found at the mountain, are said to have a superior tone and a long, sustaining ring.

This brings us to the Musical Stones of Skiddaw, a collection of lithophones built over two centuries from hornfels taken from the Skiddaw mountain. The first was made by an inventor named Peter Crosthwaite around 1785, after he discovered the hornfel stones while walking around the Skiddaw area in North Cumbria, England.

The video below does a good job of showcasing the uniqueness of these stones.

From the looks of it, the stones don't seem to have been altered much. They haven't been smoothed or polished, just carefully selected and placed on a xylophone.

Monday's instrument likes to roll up electronic musicians into a neat little ball.

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Thursday, October 6, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 22 -- the Octobass (or Octobasse)

What do you get when you take an upright bass and make it so large that you need a platform to play it?

The Octobass!

This low end beast was invented around 1850 by French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume. It towers above the player at a gargantuan three and a half meters tall (that's roughly eleven and a half feet).

It presents an interesting challenge to the performer in that the fret board is too high to play by hand, and climbing high enough to reach it makes one unable to bow the strings. This problem is solved with a series of levers and pedals that correspond to particular notes. Pull a lever or press a pedal, and a contraption at the top presses down the corresponding note on the fret board.

The Octobass's lowest note is said to be C1, the lowest C on a traditional piano.

What better way to witness the Octobass in action than playing the iconic bass line from Jaws!

Tomorrow's instrument has a will of hardened stone.

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Wednesday, October 5, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 21 -- the Great Stalacpipe Organ

I'll say it again... anything can be a musical instrument.

Take the Luray Caverns near Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, home of the Great Stalacpipe Organ. A keyboard console controls a series of mallets that strike specific stalactites shaved down to produce specific notes.

It was designed and built over a three year period beginning in 1956 by Leland W. Sprinkle, and has since made it onto a good number of records. When played, it can be heard without additional amplification throughout the entirety of Luray Caverns.

YouTube has a nice "Ripley's Believe It or Not" video about it, so check it out for a little more background.

Tomorrow's instrument towers above the competition.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 20 -- the Pikasso Guitar

Sure, you could bring up the "Rock Ock" 8-Neck Guitar from earlier in this blog series and ask what's so weird about today's instrument, the Pikasso Guitar.

And I could respond by asking you to look at this thing. Just look at it.

It's a visual mind bender. It's a psychotropic experience inside a musical instrument. It might not have as many necks as the Rock Ock, but it's far more practical and the design just boggles the mind.

The Pikasso Guitar was built by master luthier, Linda Manzer, after jazz guitarist Pat Metheny asked her to build a guitar with as many strings as possible. That ended up being 42 strings stretched across four necks and two sound holes. According to Linda Manzer's website (, it took two years to build and is under approximately 1,000 pounds of pressure when tuned to concert pitch.


Check out the video of Pat Metheny playing this bizarre stringed beast below.

Tomorrow's instrument is always performing for cave trolls.

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Monday, October 3, 2016

30 Days of Weird Instruments, Day 19 -- the Theremin

Don't you dare touch today's instrument! Not because it's against the rules so much as it's unnecessary.

The theremin is the only weird instrument in this series that doesn't require physical contact from the performer (referred to as the thereminist). It's an early electronic instrument patented in 1928 by Russian inventor, Leon Theremin, that came about due to his country's research into proximity sensors. It uses antennas to sense the position of the thereminist's hands, one of which controls oscillators for frequency while the other controls amplitude.

Versions of the instrument have been used in American popular music by the Beach Boys and Led Zepellin (though these are not all true versions of the theremin), and television shows and movies such as the Big Bang Theory and Ed Wood.

Speaking of movies, how about we check out Over the Rainbow played on the theremin?

Tomorrow's instrument has been stringing us along for far too long.

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