We’re all familiar with the strange instruments used in the Saturday Night live sketch where Christopher Walken, as music producer “THE Bruce Dickinson”, proclaims “Guess what? I got a fever, and the only prescription is more cowbell!” right?
That sketch may have been fictional, but plenty of actual recording artists have, like “Dickinson”, found novelty instruments to be the order of the day on some of their songs.
Here’s a selection of tracks from the last 50 years made memorable by the unexpected cameos of unusual instruments.
DISCLAIMER: This list has no cowbell. Though we’re open to suggestions that it could do with more.
Slide Whistle: ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ – Bob Dylan (1965)
You’ve barely had time to process Paul Griffin’s electric piano before you’re hit with the wacky, plunging slide whistle on the title track from Dylan’s landmark 1965 album.
Coming so near the start it could be the intro to a kids cartoon, and the jovial mindset the whistle gets you into contrasts with Dylan’s cynical lyrics that denounce American culture and the seedy characters populating it.
Ocarina: ‘Wild Thing’ – The Troggs (1966)
The original version of ‘Wild Thing, recorded by Jordan Christopher and the Wild Ones in 1965, had whistling in the instrumental break. But the following year the Troggs heard the Ocarina – an eastern instrument dating back 12,000 years not to be confused with the Macarena – on a demo of the song.
They got one in for musical director Colin Fretcher to play for their cover of the song. Along with the band’s raw, simple sound – dubbed “caveman rock” – the distinctive noises helped the band receive widespread attention and reach number one on the billboard hot 100 in July 1966.
Kazoo: ‘Crosstown Traffic’ – The Jimi Hendrix Experience (1968)
Jimi plays a kazoo made out of a comb and cellophane to simulate car horns on the second single from The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s final studio album Electric Ladyland, riffing and soloing on the slapdash instrument in tandem with his guitar.
As with Dylan’s slide whistle, the novelty you hear at the start of the song compels you to give your full attention to the rest of music, and you’re rewarded with some classic Hendrix 9th chords and some of his best songwriting later on: “I’m not the only soul, who’s accused of hit and run/ tire tracks all across your back, I can see you’ve had your fun!”
Bagpipes: ‘Long Way to the Top’ – AC/DC (1973)
You probably expected to see this instrument and this song when you clicked on the article, but while it’s a predictable choice for this list, it’s also worthwhile one. Bon Scott played in a pipe band when he was younger – as a drummer – but always thought he could play the instrument himself.
AC/DC’s then producer George Young gave him the chance to prove it on this song, and his call-and-response solo with Angus Young’s guitar make ‘Long Way…’ one of the most iconic songs in Australian rock history.
Wine glasses/Glass Harp: ‘Shine on You Crazy Diamond’ – Pink Floyd (1975)
While the slow, stand-alone solos of Richard Wright (keyboards) and David Gilmour (guitar) are the main events, it’s the eerie, trickling glass harp that sets the dreamy, extraterrestrial mood of the intro to ‘Wish You Were Here’s 13-minute opener. Recently Gilmour has been using wine glasses to recreate the sound live, something you can see him teach other musicians to do here.
Steel drums: ‘Uh Oh Love Comes To Town’ – Talking Heads (1977)
The opening track on Talking Head’s 1977 debut album, ‘Uh Oh…’ sees upbeat steel drums float over a funky bass line to give the song a pop-oriented feel, unique to the rest of the tracks on the album and different to the sounds the band would pursue later in their career.
Theremin: ‘Velouria’ – Pixies (1990)
The Pixies always looked to do something different with rock, even in their more straightforward moments. On ‘Velouria’, the Theremin’s trademark extraterrestrial noises disrupt an otherwise standard rock love song, and make it as eclectic and underground as the Pixies other singles.
Chainsaw: ‘The Lumberjack’ – Jackyl (1992)
Yeah, as in the thing people use to cut down trees. Making music. Lead singer/almost amputee Jesse James Dupree managed to wrench acceptable B and E flats out of his “instrument”, in a half-minute solo that turns this otherwise basic 12 bar heavy boogie into a cult favourite.
The choice makes sense given the song’s about Lumberjacks, and the rhythm of the solo kind of makes it sound like a saxophone.
Glockenspiel: ‘No Surprises’ – Radiohead (1997)
Jonny Greenwood is already serenading us with his angelic guitar riff before a glock – which he also played on the studio version – makes this song a lullaby.
The piece created by combining the two instruments proves the perfect foil for Thom Yorke’s angry and disaffected lyrics about a job that slowly kills you and violent revolution.
Harpsichord: ‘Too Afraid To Love You’ – The Black Keys (2010)
In the 18th century, it was J.S. Bach making use of the harpsichord. In the 21st, it’s another Bach – Dan Auerbach – doing that (see what I did there?). In a track by track analysis of Brothers, the album on which this track appears, co-producer Mark Neill explained how the song was born out of a crazy idea about a harpsichord.
“In the Spring of 2009 we were talking about the instruments we were going to bring to the recording. I said I’d bring all this stuff, and I’ve got some magic tambourines, but I told Dan ‘Look, tell the management I want a harpsichord down there.’ And there was silence on the phone for a minute and then he goes, ‘Cool!’.
Much to my surprise, after much double-checking and goading, finally it did show up mid-way through the session from Nashville. Immediately I just turned the lights down in the studio and shoo’ed everybody out. Dan sat down, we talked a little bit, and then I shut up and he just started writing that song. It’s not a ballad, it’s, I dunno, it’s soul music! It’s beautiful.”