Experimental musical instrument

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Gage Averill playing an experimental hydraulophone pipe organ made from a piece of sewer drainage pipe and plumbing fittings in 2006 Gage Averill playing hydraulophone.jpg
Gage Averill playing an experimental hydraulophone pipe organ made from a piece of sewer drainage pipe and plumbing fittings in 2006

An experimental musical instrument (or custom-made instrument) is a musical instrument that modifies or extends an existing instrument or class of instruments, or defines or creates a new class of instrument.[ citation needed ] Some are created through simple modifications, such as cracked drum cymbals[ clarification needed ] or metal objects inserted between piano strings in a prepared piano. Some experimental instruments are created from household items like a homemade mute for brass instruments such as bathtub plugs. Other experimental instruments are created from electronic spare parts, or by mixing acoustic instruments with electric components.


The instruments created by the earliest 20th-century builders of experimental musical instruments, such as Luigi Russolo (1885–1947), Harry Partch (1901–1974), and John Cage (1912–1992), were not well received by the public at the time of their invention. Even mid-20th century builders such as Ivor Darreg, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry did not gain a great deal of popularity. However, by the 1980s and 1990s, experimental musical instruments gained a wider audience when they were used by bands such as Einstürzende Neubauten and Neptune.


Video of a hydraulophone; song is "Huron Carol"; "Une Jeune Pucelle"

Experimental musical instruments are made from a wide variety of materials, using a range of different sound-production techniques. Some of the simplest instruments are percussion instruments made from scrap metal, like those created by German band Einstürzende Neubauten. Some experimental hydraulophones have been made using sewer pipes and plumbing fittings. [1]

Since the late 1960s, many experimental musical instruments have incorporated electric or electronic components, such as Fifty Foot Hose 1967-era homemade synthesizers, Wolfgang Flür and Florian Schneider's playable electronic percussion pads, and Future Man's homemade drum machine made out of spare parts and his electronic Synthaxe Drumitar.

Some experimental musical instruments are created by luthiers, who are trained in the construction of string instruments. Some custom made string instruments are employed with three bridges, [2] instead of the usual two (counting the nut as a bridge). By adding a third bridge, one can create a number of unusual sounds reminiscent of chimes, bells or harps [3] [4] [5] [6] A 'third bridge instrument' can be a "prepared guitar" modified with an object – for instance, a screwdriver – placed under the strings to act as a makeshift bridge, or it can be a custom made instrument.

One of the first guitarists who began building instruments with an extra bridge was Fred Frith. Guitarist and composer Glenn Branca has created similar instruments which he calls harmonic guitars or mallet guitars. Since the 1970s, German guitarist and luthier Hans Reichel has created guitars with third-bridge-like qualities.

Modern-day low voltage electronic experimental musical instruments, can be found at Bentmonkeycage in California. These glitched instruments are used in movie soundtracks, Live DUBNOISE performances, DJ performances, and recording. The electronic unengineered circuitry within the device can be manipulated with simple body contacts, light sensitive photocells, infrared signals, and radio waves (as in a theremin).



Luigi Russolo and his intonarumori Russolointonorumori.jpg
Luigi Russolo and his intonarumori

Luigi Russolo (1885–1947) was an Italian Futurist painter and composer, and the author of the manifestoes The Art of Noises (1913) and Musica Futurista. Russolo invented and built instruments including intonarumori ("intoners" or "noise machines"), to create "noises" for performance. Although none of his original intonarumori survived World War II, replicas are being made.

Léon Theremin was a Russian inventor, most famous for his invention of the theremin around 1919–1920, one of the first electronic musical instruments. The Ondes Martenot is another early example of an electronic musical instrument.

The luthéal is a type of prepared piano created by George Cloetens in the late 1890s and used by Maurice Ravel in his Tzigane for luthéal and violin. The instrument can produce sounds like a guitar or a harmonica, with strange tick-tocking sounds. It had several tone-colour (not exclusively "pitch") registers that could be engaged by pulling stops above the keyboard. One of these registers had a cimbalom-like sound, which fitted well with the gypsy-esque idea of the composition.

Partch's chromelodion Harry Partch Institute-6.jpg
Partch's chromelodion

Harry Partch (1901–1974) was an American composer and instrument builder. He was one of the first twentieth-century composers to work extensively and systematically with microtonal scales, writing much of his music for custom-made instruments he built himself, tuned in 11-limit just intonation. His adapted instruments include the adapted viola, three adapted guitars, and a 10-string fretless guitar. As well, he retuned the reeds of several reed organs and designed and built many instruments from raw materials, including the Diamond Marimba, Cloud Chamber Bowls, the Spoils of War, and a Gourd Tree.

Christian Wolff removes prepared objects Christian Wolff prepared piano performance 2007 Feb.jpg
Christian Wolff removes prepared objects

John Cage (1912–1992) was an American composer who pioneered the fields of chance music, electronic music and unorthodox use of musical instruments. Cage's prepared piano pieces used a piano with its sound altered by placing various objects in the strings. He was the first to use phonograph records as musical instruments (in his 1939 composition Imaginary Landscape No.1). Cage also devised ways to perform using sounds which were nearly inaudible by incorporating photograph cartridges and contact microphones (his 1960 composition Cartridge Music). Ivor Darreg (1917–1994) was a leading proponent of and composer of microtonal or "xenharmonic" music. He also created a series of experimental musical instruments. In the 1940s, Darreg built an amplified cello, amplified clavichord and an electric keyboard drum.


Kraftwerk is known for their homemade synthesizers in the early 70s. In the 1960s, Michel Waisvisz and Geert Hamelberg developed the Kraakdoos (or Cracklebox), a custom made battery-powered noise-making electronic device. It is a small box with six metal contacts on top, which when pressed by fingers will generate a range of unusual sounds and tones. The human body becomes a part of the circuit and determines the range of sounds possible; different people will generate different sounds.


Neola stringed musical instrument Neola stringed musical instrument.jpg
Neola stringed musical instrument

The neola is a tenor stringed musical instrument invented in 1970 by Goronwy Bradley Davies, Llanbedr, Wales. Plastics and aluminium were used in the design and the invention was recognized in a British Patent (registered 16 August 1972) and a Design Council award. The name "Neola" was registered for the instrument. [7] [8] The invention is intended as a tenor, replacing an instrument in the viol family that has been surpassed by the more recent violin family. The strings are tuned to G2, D3, A3, and E4, an octave below the violin, and the instrument may be performed similar to a violoncello. ‘Cello players would need to adapt their technique to accommodate the shorter string and body length, and use of the thumb position would not be the same. The design specifications are well suited to industrial manufacture, retaining consistency in quality. This is not the case with traditional instruments since the choice of fine materials and the skills of the luthier are essential in producing instruments with superior sound qualities.

In the mid-1970s, Allan Gittler (1928–2003) made an experimental custom-made instrument called the Gittler guitar. The Gittler guitar has 6 strings, each string has its own pickup. The later versions have a plastic body. The steel frets give the instrument a sitar-like feel. Six individual pick ups can be routed to divided outputs.

Z'EV and Einstürzende Neubauten made several percussion instruments out of trash. No Wave artist Glenn Branca began building 3rd bridge zithers with an additional movable bridge positioned on the just intoned knotted positions of the harmonic series. Hans Reichel (Born 1949) is a German improvisational guitarist, luthier, and inventor. Reichel has constructed and built several variations of guitars and basses, most of them featuring multiple fretboards and unique positioning of pickups as well as the same indirect playing technique as Branca's instruments. The resulting sounds exceed the range of conventional tuning and add interesting effects, from odd overtones to metallic noises. Later he invented his Daxophone, where he's most famous for. His Daxophone consists of a single wooden blade fixed in a block containing a contact microphone. Normally, it is played by bowing the free end, but it can also be struck or plucked, which propagates sound in the same way a ruler halfway off a table does. These vibrations then continue to the wooden-block base, which in turn is amplified by the contact microphone(s) therein. A wide range of voice-like timbres can be produced, depending on the shape of the instrument, the type of wood, where it is bowed, and where along its length it is stopped with a separate block of wood (fretted on one side) called the "dax."

American composer Ellen Fullman (born in 1957) developed a Long String instrument in the early 1980s, which is tuned in just intonation and played by walking along the length of the long strings and rubbing them with rosined hands and producing longitudinal vibrations.

Bradford Reed invented the pencilina, a custom-made string instrument in the 1980s. It is a double-neck 3rd bridge guitar that is similar in construction to two long, thin zithers connected by a stand. Wedged over and under the strings in each neck is an adjustable rod, a wooden drum stick for the guitar strings and a metal rod for the bass strings. In addition, there are four bells. The pencilina is played by striking its strings and bells with sticks. The strings may also be plucked or bowed.

Uakti (WAHK-chee) is a Brazilian instrumental musical group active in the 1980s known for using custom-made instruments built by the group. Marco Antônio constructed various instruments in his basement out of PVC pipe, wood, and metal.

Remo Saraceni made a number of Synthesizer type instruments with unusual interfaces, his most famous being The Walking piano made famous in the film Big.

In the 1980s, the folgerphone was developed. It is a wind instrument (or aerophone), classifiable as a woodwind rather than brass instrument despite being made of metal, because it has a reed (cf. saxophone). It is made from an alto sax mouthpiece, with copper tubing and a coffee can. Although it uses sax parts, it is a cylindrical bore instrument, and thus part of the clarinet family.

In India, the new instrument based on harmonium style was developed by Pt. Manohar Chimote with the combination of keys and sympathetic strings to create the tone most suitable for solo playing. This was named as "Samvadini". It is based on just intonation tuning system and played in one key. It is exclusive solo instrument with great potentials. His follower Jitendra Gore now plays this solo instrument.

1990s and 2000s

Two electrocardiophones and one electroencephalophone, which use brain waves to generate or modulate sounds. Electrocardiophones with electroencephalophone softub4.jpg
Two electrocardiophones and one electroencephalophone, which use brain waves to generate or modulate sounds.

The bazantar is a five-string double bass with 29 sympathetic and 4 drone strings and has a melodic range of five octaves invented by musician Mark Deutsch, who worked on the design between 1993 and 1997 ( US 5883318   issued March 16, 1999). It is designed as a separate housing for sympathetic strings (to deal with the increased string tension) mountable on a double bass or cello, modified to hold drone strings.

Ken Butler makes odd-shaped, guitar-like instruments made out of trash, rifles and other material. He also builds violins in eccentric shapes.

Cor Fuhler (1964) is a Dutch/Australian improvising musician, composer and instrument builder, known for his pioneering extended piano techniques. He created the keyolin in the 1990s. The keyolin is a 2-string violin played via a mechanical keyboard, which controls pitch, vibrato, glissandos and partials. A customised bow, played upside down, controls timbre and volume.

Iner Souster (born in 1971) is a builder of experimental musical instruments, visual artist, musician, fauxbot designer and film maker who lives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Souster builds most of his instruments from trash, found, and salvaged materials. Some of his instruments are one-string string instruments, or thumb pianos. One of his more complicated instruments is the "Bowafridgeaphone" (bow a fridge a phone).

Leila Bela is an Iranian-born American avant-garde musician and record producer from Austin, Texas.

The Japanese multi-instrumentalist and experimental musical instrument builder Yuichi Onoue developed a two string hurdy-gurdy like a fretless violin, called the Kaisatsuko, as well as a deeply scalloped electric guitar for microtonal playing techniques. [9]

Solmania from Japan, and Neptune are noise music bands that built their own custom made guitars and basses. Solmania modifies their instruments with extra droning strings. Neptune built guitars out of scrap metal and make electric lamellophones. The bass is built using a VCR casing and another one of their instruments has a jagged scythe at the end of it. They also play on custom made percussion instruments and electric lamellophones. Neptune began in 1994 as a student art project by sculptor/musician Jason Sanford. In 2006 Neptune signed with Table of the Elements, an experimental record label that also has performers such as Rhys Chatham, John Cale, and Captain Beefheart on its roster.

The Blue Man Group also experimented with home-made percussive instruments, made from PVC pipes and other materials. A specially-constructed studio was needed for the recording of their first album.

In the mid 1990s, Californian nu metal band Motograter invented the eponymous instrument in place of a bass guitar. The Motograter is made out of 2 large industrial springs mounted on a metal platform, producing unique chunky guitar and bass tones with a strong "RRRRRR" sound. The Motograter's sound is loosely comparable with a slow running cutting/drilling device.

Founded in 1998, The Vegetable Orchestra use instruments made entirely from fresh vegetables.

In the 2000s, Canadian luthier Linda Manzer created the Pikasso guitar, a 42-string guitar with three necks. It was popularized by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, who used it on the song "Into the Dream" and on several albums. Its name is ostensibly derived from its likeness in appearance to the cubist works of Pablo Picasso.

In 2000, Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer developed the hang in Bern, Switzerland.

In 2003 the Tritare was created by Samuel Gaudet and Claude Gauthier in Canada. Experimental luthier Yuri Landman built a variety of electric string resonance tailed bridge and 3rd bridge guitars like the Moodswinger, Moonlander and the Springtime for indie rock and noise rock acts like Sonic Youth, Liars, Blood Red Shoes as well as electric thumb pianos, electric drum guitars, and spring drum instruments.

Basic's sea organ, which creates sound from sea waves by using tubes built under the marble steps Sea organ Zadar 1.jpg
Bašić's sea organ, which creates sound from sea waves by using tubes built under the marble steps

In 2005, architect Nikola Bašić built a Sea organ in Zadar, Croatia, which is an experimental musical instrument which plays music by way of sea waves and tubes located underneath a set of large marble steps. Concealed under these steps is a system of polyethylene tubes and a resonating cavity that turns the site into a huge musical instrument, played by the wind and the sea. The waves create somewhat random but harmonic sounds.

Instigated by composer-researcher Georg Hajdu in 2006, Stephen Fox (clarinet maker) of Toronto, Canada, began building a new class of clarinets, called BP clarinets, able to play the Bohlen–Pierce scale of 146.3 cents per step. [10] To date two available sizes are played by a small but growing number of professional clarinettists in Canada, the US, Germany and Estonia, with two more sizes under consideration.

Starting in 2006, Ice Music Festival celebrates musical instruments made of ice.

In 2010, composer Alexis Kirke and technologist Tim Hodgson turned the University of Plymouth's Roland Levinsky Building into a form of musical instrument to be played by the rising sun, as part of Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival. Light sensors were placed across seven floors of the building and fed by radio network into a computer music instrument analogous to a Mellotron. As the sun rose the "Sunlight Symphony" played in the reverberant space of the Roland Levinsky Building's open plan foyer.

For her 2011 album Biophilia, Icelandic artist Björk developed an instrument based on a Tesla Coil and a second instrument described as a cross between a Gamelan and a Celesta, dubbed the "Gameleste."

In 2013, a research team of McGill University came up with digital musical instruments made in the form of Musical Prostheses.

In 2014, Andrei Remyannikov of Russia developed the RAV vast drum.

Builders not mentioned in the text


Bowafridgeaphone made by Iner Souster Bowafridgeaphone.jpg
Bowafridgeaphone made by Iner Souster


Logos Foundation, STEIM, Sonoscopia (Porto) and iii (The Hague) are organisations that focus on the development of new instruments. Besides producing instruments themselves, these organisations also run active artist-in-residence programs and invite artists for developing new art works, workshops, and presentations. Yearly the Guthman Instrument Competition takes place at Georgia Tech.

See also


Related Research Articles

Double bass Acoustic stringed instrument of the violin family

The double bass, also known simply as the bass, is the largest and lowest-pitched bowed string instrument in the modern symphony orchestra. The Double bass has a similar structure to the cello.

Electric guitar Electrical string instrument

An electric guitar is a guitar that requires external amplification in order to be heard at typical performance volumes, unlike a standard acoustic guitar. It uses one or more pickups to convert the vibration of its strings into electrical signals, which ultimately are reproduced as sound by loudspeakers. The sound can be shaped or electronically altered to achieve different timbres or tonal qualities, making it quite different from an acoustic guitar. Often, this is done through the use of effects such as reverb, distortion and "overdrive"; the latter is considered to be a key element of electric blues guitar music and rock guitar playing.

Guitar Fretted string instrument

The guitar is a fretted musical instrument that typically has six strings. It is held flat against the player's body and played by strumming or plucking the strings with the dominant hand, while simultaneously pressing the strings against frets with the fingers of the opposite hand. A plectrum or individual finger picks may be used to strike the strings. The sound of the guitar is projected either acoustically, by means of a resonant chamber on the instrument, or amplified by an electronic pickup and an amplifier.

Mandolin Musical instrument in the lute family

A mandolin is a stringed musical instrument in the lute family and is generally plucked with a plectrum. It most commonly has four courses of doubled metal strings tuned in unison, thus giving a total of 8 strings, although five and six course versions also exist. The courses are typically tuned in a interval of perfect fifths, with the same tuning as a violin. Also like the violin, it is the soprano member of a family that includes the mandola, octave mandolin, mandocello and mandobass.

String instrument Class of musical instruments with vibrating strings

String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when a performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.

The fingerboard is an important component of most stringed instruments. It is a thin, long strip of material, usually wood, that is laminated to the front of the neck of an instrument. The strings run over the fingerboard, between the nut and bridge. To play the instrument, a musician presses strings down to the fingerboard to change the vibrating length, changing the pitch. This is called stopping the strings. Depending on the instrument and the style of music, the musician may pluck, strum or bow one or more strings with the hand that is not fretting the notes. On some instruments, notes can be sounded by the fretting hand alone, such as with hammer ons, an electric guitar technique.

Extended technique Unorthodox methods of singing or of playing musical instruments

In music, extended technique is unconventional, unorthodox, or non-traditional methods of singing or of playing musical instruments employed to obtain unusual sounds or timbres.

Found objects are sometimes used in music, often to add unusual percussive elements to a work. Their use in such contexts is as old as music itself, as the original invention of musical instruments almost certainly developed from the sounds of natural objects rather than from any specifically designed instruments.

Electric violin

An electric violin is a violin equipped with an electronic output of its sound. The term most properly refers to an instrument intentionally made to be electrified with built-in pickups, usually with a solid body. It can also refer to a violin fitted with an electric pickup of some type, although "amplified violin" or "electro-acoustic violin" are more accurate in that case.

Prepared guitar

A prepared guitar is a guitar that has had its timbre altered by placing various objects on or between the instrument's strings, including other extended techniques. This practice is sometimes called tabletop guitar, because many prepared guitarists do not hold the instrument in the usual manner, but instead place the guitar on a table to manipulate it.

Outline of guitars Overview of and topical guide to guitars

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to guitars:

Music store

A music store or musical instrument store is a retail business that sells musical instruments and related equipment and accessories. Some music stores provide additional services for a fee, such as music lessons, instrument or equipment rental, or repair services.

Yuri Landman

Yuri Landman is a Dutch inventor of musical instruments and musician who has made several experimental electric string instruments for a number of artists including Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, Liars, Jad Fair of Half Japanese, Liam Finn, and Laura-Mary Carter. Besides his musical activities he is also a graphic novel artist.

Bradford Reed

Bradford Reed is an American multi-instrumentalist, experimental luthier, and member of the avant-garde band King Missile III. In the 1980s he invented the pencilina, a custom made string instrument.

3rd bridge

The 3rd bridge is an extended playing technique used on the electric guitar and other string instruments that allows a musician to produce distinctive timbres and overtones that are unavailable on a conventional string instrument with two bridges. The timbre created with this technique is close to that of gamelan instruments like the bonang and similar Indonesian types of pitched gongs.

A third bridge can be devised by inserting a rigid preparation object between the strings and the body or neck of the instrument, effectively diving the string into distinct vibrating segments.

Bridge (instrument)

A bridge is a device that supports the strings on a stringed musical instrument and transmits the vibration of those strings to another structural component of the instrument—typically a soundboard, such as the top of a guitar or violin—which transfers the sound to the surrounding air. Depending on the instrument, the bridge may be made of carved wood, metal or other materials. The bridge supports the strings and holds them over the body of the instrument under tension.

Einstürzende Neubauten German band

Einstürzende Neubauten is a German experimental music group, originally formed in West Berlin in 1980. The group is currently composed of founder members Blixa Bargeld and N.U. Unruh, long-time contributor Alexander Hacke, plus Jochen Arbeit, and Rudolf Moser, who both joined the line-up in 1997.

Experimental luthier

Experimental luthiers are luthiers who take part in alternative stringed instrument manufacturing or create original string instruments altogether.

Music technology

Music technology is the study or the use of any device, mechanism, machine or tool by a musician or composer to make or perform music; to compose, notate, play back or record songs or pieces; or to analyze or edit music.

Music technology (electric) Musical instruments and recording devices that use electrical circuits

Electric music technology refers to musical instruments and recording devices that use electrical circuits, which are often combined with mechanical technologies. Examples of electric musical instruments include the electro-mechanical electric piano, the electric guitar, the electro-mechanical Hammond organ and the electric bass. All of these electric instruments do not produce a sound that is audible by the performer or audience in a performance setting unless they are connected to instrument amplifiers and loudspeaker cabinets, which made them sound loud enough for performers and the audience to hear. Amplifiers and loudspeakers are separate from the instrument in the case of the electric guitar, electric bass and some electric organs and most electric pianos. Some electric organs and electric pianos include the amplifier and speaker cabinet within the main housing for the instrument.


  1. "Hydraulophones, Amazing Woodwater Instruments Collection". Archived from the original on 2008-07-04. Retrieved 2009-09-02.
  2. "Moodswinger - Experimental electric zither musical instrument, unique and unusual". Oddmusic.com. Retrieved 21 April 2021.
  3. "PREPARATION MATERIALS" (PDF). 7 September 2013. Retrieved 2014-08-08.
  4. Prepared Guitar Techniques - Matthew Elgart/Peter Yates (Elgart/Yates Guitar Duo) ISBN   0-939297-88-4, California Guitar Archives, 1990
  5. "About the pencilina". pencilina.com. Retrieved 2014-08-08.
  6. "freesound :: view tag :: prepared-guitar". Archived from the original on 2008-05-31. Retrieved 2008-03-19.
  7. "Stringed Musical Instrument". lens.org. 1972. Retrieved 2014-08-08.
  8. [ dead link ]
  9. Yuichi Onoue's Kaisatsuko on hypercustom.com Archived 2015-11-08 at the Wayback Machine
  10. Müller, Nora-Louise, Konstantina Orlandatou, and Georg Hajdu. "Starting Over – Chances Afforded by a New Scale," pp. 127 and 171 in 1001 Mikrotöne / 1001 Microtones, edited by Sarvenaz Safari and Manfred Stahnke. Neumünster: von Bockel Verlag, 2015.

Further reading