Instruments rarely heard in pop music
May 12, 2011 2:58 PM   Subscribe

What popular songs or songs by popular bands use instruments not commonly associated with rock/pop/alternative music?

Some examples I'm thinking of:

harpsichord on The Black Keys' Too Afraid to Love You
flute on Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath
clarinet on Van Halen's Big Bad Bill is Sweet William Now
xylophone on Violent Femmes' Gone Daddy Gone
and accordion from a previous question
posted by hoppytoad to Media & Arts (52 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Zach Condon of Beirut plays the ukulele (among other instruments).
posted by LuckySeven~ at 3:04 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Tool's Salival live version of Pushit features a tabla. Please ignore the ridiculous pretentious nonsense in the Youtube comments. Tool tends to have that effect on its fans.
posted by Harry at 3:10 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Gogol Bordello features both the violin and accordion.
posted by FakePalindrome at 3:11 PM on May 12, 2011

Neutral Milk Hotel features the musical saw.
posted by troublewithwolves at 3:13 PM on May 12, 2011

The (no-it's-not-really-a-theremin) Electro-Theremin/Tannerin in the Beach Boys' Good Vibrations
posted by brainmouse at 3:15 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Glockenspiel in Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning"!
posted by caoimhe at 3:19 PM on May 12, 2011

Mandolin on Losing My Religion by REM.
posted by dobie at 3:21 PM on May 12, 2011

The jurassic 5 uses kazoos in concrete schoolyard. God, they're awesom!!!
posted by TheBones at 3:25 PM on May 12, 2011

and they're awesome.
posted by TheBones at 3:26 PM on May 12, 2011

In 1980 or 1981, A Taste Of Honey had a #1 hit by covering Kyu Sakamoto's Sukiyaki; that song had some gorgeous koto playing in it.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 3:35 PM on May 12, 2011

While perhaps not really contemporarily popular, Kate Bush (the Grand Dame of pop/alt) used a bewildering variety of instruments, including full orchestras, and notably the bouzouki, on a great many of her songs.
posted by elendil71 at 3:38 PM on May 12, 2011

I just came home from a show by The Luyas which featured the French horn and the moodswinger. Does Rasputina's cellos count? Now I want a French horn & cello band.

Oh, and Adam Green's "Bathing Birds" from his album Minor Love has a clarinet. Disclaimer/brag: I'm friends with the clarinetist.
posted by knile at 3:44 PM on May 12, 2011

Joanna Newsom is an alt harpist.

Ben Harper plays the Weissenborn lap steel guitar.

AC/DC uses bagpipes in some of their songs - I recall it in "Its A Long Way To The Top (If Ya Wanna Rock And Roll)", and possibly in "Highway to Hell"

They Might Be Giants are notorious for their use of accordion

Both Rasputina (as noted above by knife) and Apocalyptica rock out with the cello

Cornershop uses a number of Indian instruments, most notably tabla, as well as sampling, etc.

Beatles, according to wikipedia, used "Indian instruments such as the sitar in "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" and the swarmandal in "Strawberry Fields Forever"."

Stevie Wonder used the clavichord in a number of songs, most memorably "Superstition"
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 3:48 PM on May 12, 2011

Pretty much every Arcade Fire song.

There are so many examples in the Beatles songs that it's hard to know where to begin. The book Beatlesongs will tell you every single instrument on every Beatles song.

Nirvana's Unplugged album has cello on every song.
Cream - "Wrapping Paper" also has cello.

Bush - "Glycerine" features strings (string quartet?).

Sufjan Stevens - "Chicago" has a prominent trumpet.
posted by John Cohen at 3:50 PM on May 12, 2011

Kate Bush...used a bewildering variety of instruments, including full orchestras

There are any number of singers/musicians with careers stretching over decades who will have, at some point, done one or more albums with a full or mini-orchestra (like Lou Reed's Berlin) or a folk album (like Springsteen's Seeger Sessions with trombone and tuba).

The Legendary Pink Dots have made use of the clarinet, bass clarinet, and I'm pretty sure most times I saw them Nils was playing a bassoon.

Pussy Galore used "a drum kit that incorporated pieces of metal (street signs, automative springs, the gas tank from a large American-built car, and later, Steve Albini's cock ring)". And Einstürzende Neubauten have made a lot of their own instruments from scrap metal. They have also used a shopping cart as an instrument and on 'Thirsty Animal' they attached microphones to the frontman's torso and also the stomach of a dog.
posted by K.P. at 4:06 PM on May 12, 2011

The North Mississippi Allstars usually have an electric washboard solo in their set. I'm sure it turns up on their studio albums, but i'm not certain where.

Freelance Whales use several odd instruments on their album, including a Harmonium.

As noted above Arcade Fire also uses lots of non-standard instruments. The one that stood out to me in their live show was a Hurdy-Gurdy, which had also shown up in a recent episode of House. (he requests and finds a hooker who can play the Hurdy-Gurdy)
posted by topher74 at 4:09 PM on May 12, 2011

Jonny Greenwood from Radiohead plays the quite rare ondes martenot.

CocoRosie, along with Newsom, also does alt harp, along with children's toys, etc.

Sleepytime Gorilla Museum invents many of their own instruments, along with having a violin player in a hardcore band.

Dave Matthews, Cake and Ben Folds have all utilized the vibraslap. Cake also of course has trumpet, DMB had a sax player.

Medeski, Martin and Wood use a melodica pretty frequently.

The cello I guess is pretty ubiquitous these days, but Damien Rice, Cursive, Portland Cello Project, etc...

Tilly and the Wall use tap dancing instead of a drummer.
posted by Lutoslawski at 4:31 PM on May 12, 2011 [2 favorites]

Beck: Odelay - This album has a lot of unusual instruments going on. If you look at the musical credits, Beck alone plays the organ, acoustic guitar, bass, harmonica, percussion, celeste, drums, electric guitar, keyboards, electric piano, vocals, clavinet, producer, slide guitar. Saxophone, trumpet, and turntables are also featured.

The popular single "Loser" from a previous album uses a sitar. His more recent albums also feature some strange instruments, but I don't think they ever really reached a mainstream audience the way Odelay did.
posted by keep it under cover at 4:44 PM on May 12, 2011

^I know not all those listed instruments are unusual at all, the ones I might consider unusual for alternative rock would be the organ, celeste, clavinet, slide guitar, saxophone, trumpet, and turntables. Should have edited better.
posted by keep it under cover at 4:47 PM on May 12, 2011

Neko Case used a "found" piano orchestra, a gust of wind, peepers and bird song and a little home-made music box thingy on the songs from Middle Cyclone.
posted by peagood at 4:49 PM on May 12, 2011

For some reason it's thought that's a banjo on the Hollies' Stop Stop Stop but it's really a Turkish Cümbüş. Also, Brian Jones' dulcimer in Lady Jane.
posted by Rash at 4:57 PM on May 12, 2011

Amiina also use a variety of unusual instruments -- saws, glockenspiels, melodicas, kalimbas, glass harps, mandolins, etc.

Oh yeah; speaking of mandolins, Rod Stewart's hit Maggie May has a pretty famous mandolin riff in it.

Others: Andrew Bird is a mean whistler, Beck (glockenspiel, sitar, banjo, melodica, etc), and Jeff Buckley (esraj, dulcimer, tabla).
posted by LuckySeven~ at 4:59 PM on May 12, 2011

Rick Nielsen plays a mandocello in the Cheap Trick song of the same name.
posted by cropshy at 5:16 PM on May 12, 2011

The Ben Folds Five song "Smoke" features a melodica, as well
posted by downing street memo at 5:50 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

Cake's "Guitar" features a saw player.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:00 PM on May 12, 2011

Joe Jackson's "Geraladine and John" features a melodica, and I think a couple other of his tunes do, too.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:01 PM on May 12, 2011 [1 favorite]

John Entwhistle played French horn on several Who tunes.
posted by ZenMasterThis at 6:02 PM on May 12, 2011

Here's the Decemberists with a hurdy gurdy and a bouzouki. They have an accordionist.

The Hooters named themselves after their term for the melodica.
posted by hydrophonic at 7:00 PM on May 12, 2011

Kazoos in Red Hot Chili Peppers' cover of Rollercoaster of Love.
The sitar in Pepper by the Butthole Surfers.
The mandolin in Losing My Religion by R.E.M.
The spoons (naturally) in Spoonman by Soundgarden.
And then there was a certain notable use of the cowbell...
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:20 PM on May 12, 2011

The radio version of Donovan's Jennifer Juniper uses a bassoon.
posted by carmicha at 7:43 PM on May 12, 2011

Los Campesinos use glockenspiel on this track.

Cat Power plays an autoharp on this cover.
posted by Gilbert at 7:47 PM on May 12, 2011

Jane's Addiction, "Jane Says": steel drum
Sonny and Cher, "I Got You Babe": oboe
The Beatles, "When I'm Sixty-Four": bass clarinet
Biz Markie, "Just a Friend": tack piano
posted by hydrophonic at 8:32 PM on May 12, 2011

Camper Van Beethoven's cover of Pictures of Matchstick Men - violin
posted by SisterHavana at 9:50 PM on May 12, 2011

Anvil in The Beatles' "Maxwell's Silver Hammer." And they used an oboe on "Baby, You're a Rich Man."

The Who sang "cello, cello, cello, cello" in "A Quick One, While He's Away" because they couldn't afford cello players.

Blue Man Group plays instruments made out of PVC.

Smoke detector in the B-52's "Rock Lobster."

Pianosaurus used toy instruments.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:17 PM on May 12, 2011

I understand that David Bowie used a stylophone in "Space Oddity".

The aforementioned Kate Bush used an entire consort of violas de gamba in "Bertie". She also used didgeridoo on the same album (played by Rolf Harris, who of course is famous for using the wobble board and didgeridoo in his own music).

Little Boots is well-known for using the Tenori-on, but she only uses it live, sometimes (mostly it seems to just sit on a stand looking shiny these days, presumably because she has a proper band).
posted by mathw at 2:23 AM on May 13, 2011

The Low Anthem use clarinets on several songs, and in live shows use feedback from mobile phones which call each other, set to speaker.
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:48 AM on May 13, 2011

A trashcan is employed as a percussive instrument in the Red Hot Chili Peppers "Breaking The Girl."
posted by kuanes at 4:25 AM on May 13, 2011

Mumford and Sons using the banjo springs to mind.
posted by numberstation at 6:36 AM on May 13, 2011

Tambour drone in 'On The Road Again' by Canned Heat.
posted by ovvl at 8:09 AM on May 13, 2011

Murder By Death is a fantastic indie rock band (southern/western influences) with (electric) cello!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 8:20 AM on May 13, 2011

flute on Jethro Tull's Locomotive Breath

You can hear Ian Anderson playing his flute on any number of Tull songs but the wikipedia Balalaika page says he plays that instrument on two songs from the 1969 album Stand Up: "Jeffrey Goes To Leicester Square" and "Fat Man".
posted by Rash at 8:49 AM on May 13, 2011

Led Zeppelin used a mandolin in Battle of Evermore. Probably elsewhere too, but that's the first that comes to mind.

The weirdest I can think of though is Pink Floyd. They used a dog for Seamus. Even in concerts they'd bring a dog up on stage and play music that made that dog howl.
posted by valadil at 8:52 AM on May 13, 2011

I don't know if the specific song is popular enough, but Tori Amos played a bizarrely altered piano (IIRC she stuck like, feathers and other random things in it) for "Bells for Her" and of course the harpsichord on Boys for Pele.

Already mentioned, "Good Vibrations" and Jonny Greenwood's Ondes Martenot were the first things I thought of too.
posted by ifjuly at 9:05 AM on May 13, 2011

And they're not popular, but post-punk group Savage Republic used a cumbus on Customs (IIRC the backstory and title for the album came from the fact they couldn't get their instruments through Greece's customs or something and had to use what was available, I could be mangling that story though...) and Goblin infamously used a bouzouki on the Suspiria soundtrack.
posted by ifjuly at 9:09 AM on May 13, 2011

And I think my husband told me Brad Fiedel used found items, pipes and junk, to make some of the sounds in the Terminator theme.
posted by ifjuly at 9:14 AM on May 13, 2011

The Magnetic Fields uses a toy piano pretty often-- check out "It's only time" on "I".
posted by travertina at 9:22 AM on May 13, 2011

Ooh, and a typewriter on "I Don't Really Love You Anymore" on the same album. (which is so chock full of non-pop instruments that the presence of an electric guitar sounds exotic. )
posted by travertina at 9:27 AM on May 13, 2011

Anto Thistlethwaite was in The Waterboys and now plays with The Saw Doctors. He plays the tin whistle a lot, thought mostly the less-exotic sax.

And I always thought that the Turkish band Fanfare Ciocărlia was playing some crazy imported horns, but Wikipedia says they are normal horns and clarinets being played by, apparently, madmen.
posted by wenestvedt at 10:01 AM on May 13, 2011

Devotchka uses unusual instruments including a tuba and a theramin.

posted by lpsguy at 10:12 AM on May 13, 2011

Cello, violin, and accordion are common enough in (indie) rock that I would definitely not call them 'rarely heard'.
posted by statolith at 10:29 AM on May 13, 2011

"The Pump Song" on Mickey Hart's Rolling Thunder album I think, uses a water pump.
posted by tommyD at 10:47 AM on May 13, 2011

Richard Thompson has used Phil Pickett's crumhorn and shawm skills on occasion. Possibly the most famous "odd" instrument in rock would be the Ocarina (it looks like a clay heart), responsible for the (quite dreadful) solos to "Wild Thing" and "California Dreamin'". Sounds much better in the theme to "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly"...
posted by nicktf at 12:01 PM on May 13, 2011

« Older How do you resist the urge to nag your partner? Or...   |   Why, when brought out of sleep, are our Macs... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.