While I was doing some research on an Ongoing History of New Music program on the endless battle between tech and music, I rooted around in the backgrounds of some popular instruments like guitars, drums, and synthesizers.
As often happens with the internet, I was dragged down a series of ratholes that led to some strange devices designed to make music in unconventional ways. Maybe someone can take this list of the weirdest musical instruments and put together a truly avant-garde orchestra.
When Louis XI of France — a brutal sort who ruled from 1461 to 1483 — wasn’t subjugating his peasants and vassals to all sorts of misery, he found himself in need of amusement. He challenged Abbé de Baigne, his master of royal music, to create a piano-like instrument using a selection of pigs. De Baigne had no choice but to say, “Hold my beer.”
The result was the Pianino, also known as the Hog Harmonium, the Schweineorgel (pig organ), and the Porko Forte. Each pig was laid out on a flat surface, smallest to largest. Above the hind end of each porker was a spike connected with a piano-like keyboard. Pressing a key poked the corresponding porker, causing it to oink in its natural voice. It was thus possible — almost — to play a tune by poking each of the pigs in a melodious manner. Louis was pleased and didn’t seem to care that the pigs were greatly annoyed.
What’s interesting is that the invention of the Piganino preceded the invention of the piano by 200 years. This was also perhaps the first instance of an instrument that used sampling and sequencing. It is not PETA-approved. It did, however, inspire Monty Python’s mouse organ. (It’s not real, by the way.)
Benjamin Franklin is celebrated as a prolific inventor — bifocals, the lightning rod, the Franklin stove, to name a few — but he’s less remembered for his creation of what’s been called the most dangerous musical instrument in the world. Franklin travelled to London in 1761 where he witnessed a performance by a musician who “played” a set of wine glasses, each tuned to specific notes by the water they contained. Benny loved the sound but thought that the setup was rather impractical. It needed an inventor’s touch.
Upon returning to the colonies (this was pre-1776), Franklin tinkered with the wine glass concept until he came up with a device built around an iron rod that had rotating glass bowls, each fitted inside the next and held together with cork. The bowls were tuned to vibrate at different pitches and because of the way they were mounted, the device was capable of producing chords as well as individual notes. The iron rod was attached to a wheel that was powered by a foot pedal. It was played by the musicians dipping their fingers in water and touching the edge of the glass bowls.
Unfortunately, the glass armonica soon began killing people. Allegedly, anyway. Because was so difficult to play, it was said to overstimulate the brain, causing dizziness, anxiety, hallucinations, and all manner of muscle cramps. When a German player named Marianne Kirchgessner died in 1808, people were quick to blame the glass armonica. Soon, a child’s death was blamed on its spooky sounds. Others believed that the instrument was a “summoner of spirits” that would snatch the souls of listeners.
Still, about 5,000 units were built before the glass armonica went out of fashion by about 1830. Because Franklin never patented it, he never made a cent. But if you know where to look, you can still find one. Please be careful.
For centuries, the guitar has had six strings, although there are variations that have more or even less. In 1984, jazz guitarist Pat Metheny spoke to Linda Manzer, a Canadian master luthier (guitar marker) who had an excellent reputation for her handmade creations among musicians such as Bruce Cockburn and Paul Simon. Metheny’s request was a little different: “Built me a guitar with as many strings as possible.”
The result was the Pikasso guitar which originally featured 42 strings arranged in four sections and multiple sound holes, plus a pickup that interfaced with a Synclavier synthesizer. It’s mounted on a stand — it’s impossible for a guitarist to hold it in the traditional way — and constructed in a wedge shape, which makes it possible for the player to see all the strings.
In another case of “Hold my beer,” another luthier created guitars with 49 strings. What did Manzer do? Built a 52-string guitar.
Prince Midnight is a YouTuber and a luthier of a different sort. When his Uncle Filip died back in the 1990s, he donated his body to the local medical college in Greece. After being used to teach future doctors the finer points of the bone structure of the human body, Uncle Filip’s remains ended up in a wooden box in a cemetery. When the family didn’t want to pay rent on storing the bones anymore, Prince Midnight decided to repatriate the remains. When they arrived, he decided to honour his uncle by turning his skeleton into a playable electric guitar. Why? Because it was Uncle Filip who first introduced him to metal.
After consulting a couple of guitar makers, Prince Midnight went to work. The result was the Filip Skelecaster. It’s a bit tricky to play — all the strumming happens inside the rib cage and it’s tough to keep in tune — but if there’s a more metal guitar out there, I haven’t seen it.
Next to the Filip Skelecaster, this has to be the most badass musical instrument I’ve ever since. Also known as the zeusaphone, thoramin or musical lightning, the singing Tesla coil produces musical tones by modulating plasma in the form of electrical sparks. Imagine practising on one of these things in your bedroom. As unwieldy as these things are, Bjork once performed with one on a song called Thunderbolt.
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