Monday’s Music Moves Me: Unusual Instruments

Michele’s assignment for this week is “songs using unusual instruments.” As I see it, there are two kinds of unusual instruments: instruments that are just strange and instruments that you don’t usually associate with a particular genre of music. I think I managed to get a few samples of both.

  1. Rolf Harris, “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport” I was watching an old episode of To Tell The Truth and Rolf was one of the contestants, and when the panel chose him he put on a demonstration of the “wobble board,” a sheet of thin wood that made a “whoop whoop whoop” sound when shaken back and forth. That’s what you hear at the start and all through this old song.
  2. Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield, “His Holy Modal Majesty” Al Kooper, in his Blues Project, Blood Sweat & Tears, and solo days, played the ondioline, which Wikipedia tells us “is an electronic keyboard instrument, invented in 1941 by the Frenchman Georges Jenny, and is a forerunner of today’s synthesizers.” He plays it at the beginning of the piece, which as far as I can tell is an improvisation in Mixolydian and Dorian modes, for all you music theory fans out there.
  3. Blood Sweat & Tears, “Just One Smile” In the fugue that starts at the 3-minute mark, you have Al Kooper and Fred Halligan on the organ and guitarist Steve Katz playing the lute. At least that’s what the album jacket said.
  4. John Twomey, “Stars and Stripes Forever” As I remember, John Twomey called himself a “manualist,” someone who plays his hands. I remember watching this on The Tonight Show and laughing to the point of loss of bladder control on this one.
  5. Peter Frampton, “Show Me The Way” Same old Peter Frampton, 40+ years after he first made this song popular, with much less hair and hearing aids in both ears, demonstrating that he still has it when playing the “talk box.”
  6. Roxy Music, “Virginia Plain” Andy Mackay, Roxy Music’s saxophone player, demonstrates his facility with the oboe, which is not all that unusual in popular music (you hear it at the beginning of “Traces” by Classics IV, for example) but you don’t usually hear it in the context of a rocker like this one.
  7. Tannahill Weavers, “Atholl Highlanders March/Hey Johnnie Cope” The Great Highland Warpipes, commonly called the bagpipes, don’t play nice with other instruments as a rule: they’re loud and, like most double-reed instruments, are hard as hell to tune (which is why symphony orchestras tune to the oboe). Somehow, though, Colin Melville was able to work with the rest of the Tannahill Weavers. A couple of other unusual instruments at play here are the Irish bouzouki, played by Leslie Wilson, and the bodhran, the drumlike instrument played by Phil Smillie for about half the song.
  8. The Chieftains with Van Morrison, “Raglan Road” The Chieftains play traditional Irish music on traditional instruments, including the uilleann pipes (a bagpipe played across the lap and worked with a bellows), played by Paddy Moloney. Other unusual instruments include the Irish harp and button accordion.
  9. Deborah Henson-Conant, “The Phoenix” The harp is a beautiful instrument, and Deborah makes it even more beautiful. You usually hear the harp in symphony orchestras, but here she’s playing jazz on it, and doing an excellent job. Many of her harps are made by Lyon & Healy, which is located in Chicago in an anything-but-glamorous neighborhood.
  10. Starbuck, “Moonlight Feels Right” A particular favorite video of mine and a great song besides, it’s one of the only songs I know of that has a marimba solo (played by the late Bo Wagner).
  11. The Beatles, “Within You Without You” No discussion of unusual instruments would be complete without including a song by George Harrison, who developed a love for Indian music during The Beatles’ stay in India when they were studying Transcendental Meditation with the Maharishi. Among the instruments on this track are the sitar, which George learned to play at the feet of Ravi Shankar, and the tabla, dilruba, tambura and swarmandal, played by a group of London-based Indian musicians.
  12. Hiroshima, “One Wish” Hiroshima is a jazz band from Japan that integrates the koto, a Japanese stringed instrument, into their music.
  13. The Who, “Join Together” At the beginning of the video, you can see that Keith Moon and Roger Daltrey are playing Jew’s harps (also called jaw harps or juice harps), which produce that twangy sound. Pete Townshend and Jon Entwhistle are playing chord and bass harmonicas, respectively. In truth, all those instrument sounds are made by a synthesizer, but they could be done by the instruments I mentioned, so I’m going with it.

And that’s Monday’s Music Moves Me for October 22, 2018.

Monday’s Music Moves Me is sponsored by X-Mas Dolly, Callie, Cathy, Alana, Michelle and Stacy, so be sure and visit them, where you can also find the Linky for the other participants.

21 thoughts on “Monday’s Music Moves Me: Unusual Instruments

  1. I almost lost it (in a good way) listening to the “manualist”. I came so close to “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”, a fav of my childhood, but then I did some reading on line and I had no idea that Rolf Harris had – well, there may be some doubt as to all of his crime convictions but let’s just say that it is apparent he did some terrible things to young people and leave it at that. Anything with sitar or bagpipes is fine with me and I love bagpipes so, I didn’t even think of them as an “unusual instrument”. I used to work with someone who played them. So, so cool!


    1. Many of the instruments, in and of themselves, aren’t strange. The sitar isn’t unusual in India, but there weren’t many British invasion bands who used it like The Beatles did. The oboe is used a lot in popular music, usually as an orchestral instrument, but Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay uses it like a saxophone. The bagpipes are so loud that the only other instruments that go with it are other bagpipes, drums and military band instruments, not guitars and bouzoukis. For that matter, the bouzouki used by the Tannahill Weavers is based on the Greek and Turkish one, but was modified to be played with Irish music (I talked about it during the A to Z Challenge: And how often do you hear jazz played on the harp? So, I went a couple of different ways with this one: instruments that are flat out strange and instruments that are out of place (i.e. out of their usual milieu).

      I feel badly for Rolf Harris, but at the same time I’m amazed that there are people who think they can get away with anything because they’re rich and/or famous.


  2. John, I have finally made it down the list and I am so happy to land on your post first thing this morning (well, it’s afternoon but it’s my morning). Where to begin… Well, I knew you would kick ass with this theme and I have so enjoyed learning all that you presented here.
    The Wobble board is new to me as is “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”. I was thrown by the title as I had no idea what it meant and I wanted to find out more. I hadn’t realized it was such a gloomy theme and I was especially surprised that it charted so high, not only in Australia but in the UK and the US too!

    My favorites here are the song featuring the ondioline and the marimba. Starbuck’s “Moonlight Feels Right” was one of the first songs I thought about when thinking about this theme. That marimba solo is absolutely beautiful! I have always loved this song and every time I hear it, i like it more and more.

    I also love almost any song with a talk-box. I think the first time I ever really became consciously aware of the talk box and sparked an interest in the use of “different” or “unique” instruments was with Peter Frampton’s “Frampton Comes Alive: album back in 1977.

    Thanks for including Roxy Music’s song. I never heard “Virginia Plain” before and at first I couldn’t place the band. It sounded familiar but I couldn’t name a song by them, until I checked out their discography. And then I remembered their songs “Love is the Drug” and a song that makes me swoon every time I hear it, “More Than This.” I had no idea who did that song, only that I love hearing it. Was interesting to see how successful they were in their home country but not at all here in the US.

    Another song that was cool to learn had such a neat unique instrument in it was The Chieftan’s “Raglan Road”. I loved seeing the uilleann pipes in action and Van Morrison was awesome. I have always liked Irish music, especially the Celtic varieties. Bagpipes are way cool and I’m looking forward to exploring them more as I get into this series.

    The harp was enjoyable. I have a friend who plays harp and she goes to nursing homes and retirement homes and plays for the residents. That is such a beautiful instrument.
    Sorry to make this comment so long but you just had such great instruments and good music here…
    So glad you ended your set with that one of my favorites by the Who. It was cool to see them doing their harmonica magic and hearing that classic twang that has been cemented in our musical memory of the song. You know me, I love the harmonica. I often say it’s my favorite instrument…until I hear some amazing sax, that is. 🙂 Or the electric violin played masterfully…

    Great stuff here John. I have really enjoyed your playlist and the education. I could say more but I have to head out for this MRI and see what’s going on with my stupid shoulder… arrgh. I’d so much rather stay home and listen to music! Thanks for rocking this theme!

    Michele at Angels Bark


    1. Any opportunity I have to put that video of “Moonlight Feels Right” into a post, I do. It was taped at Chastain Park here in Atlanta, so I feel a sense of “being there.” Starbiuck is from Florida, and I think Bob Blackman (the singer) lives here now.

      I first read about Roxy Music in 1972, and while I wasn’t into glam rock at the time, they were pretty unique. When Brian Eno was with the band, he would run the whole band through his synthesizer and really do some interesting stuff with the sound. I also remember that “Virginia Plain” was a brand of cigarettes over there…

      When you’re looking at bagpipe music, a YouTube user named Jim Ramsay has a lot of it, mostly shot live. You might also want to check out some of the Highland dance videos. I have some experience with piping…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. so you played bagpipes? That’s very cool. They have such an interesting sound. Did you wear a kilt at any point?? 🙂
        Speaking of, I was in Walmart the other day and I saw a guy walk past in a kilt! I did a double-take. You don’t see that very often…


  3. First thing that came to my mind was one of my favorite groups, The Incredible String Band. I think their name infers a lot. Looking at some of the album credits there are an amazing number of different instruments that they use in their music. They not only used an array of instruments from other cultures, but also instruments like the harpsichord. The were hugely diverse and weird and incredible.

    Here’s a short tune that uses what I think is like a hurdy-gurdy or something like that.


  4. John,

    I’m glad you referenced where some of these unusual instruments came in on the songs with my hearing issues. I did a feature on Peter Frampton in recent months. It’s interesting to see how much the man has changed since the 70s. I hadn’t realized he wears hearing aids in both ears, though. Starbuck ‘Moonlight Feels Right’ is one of my favorite oldies, too. It was nice to listen to it this morning. The Beatles track you shared I do not remember at all but this is one of the later albums just before the band broke up and by that time I sorta fell away from listening to their stuff. It has an interesting sound. Hiroshima has a lovely vibe with ‘One Wish’. Is this an all instrumental band? It’s a very relaxing mewsic. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the guy playing his hands is a hilarious number. If I’m not mistaken I might remember seeing this before and it’s great for a good laugh. I always wished I could do that with my hands but never could. lol Thanks for sharing such an interesting array of unusual mewsical instruments with the 4M gang!


    1. The Beatles song (really George and a group of Indian musicians) was on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which is, as you say, a later album.

      Hiroshima is about half vocals, half instrumental. Obviously I prefer the instrumentals, but their vocal songs are nice, too.

      John Twomay was on a lot of shows after his initial appearance on Johnny Carson in the early ’70’s, so I’m pretty sure you have seen him. He had a quirky sense of humor to go with his unusual talent…


  5. I love unique instruments and one of my favourites, aside from the Sitar, is the Zither and I have a whole CD by Alex Karas (spelling??) who made The Third Man Theme famous. Actually one of my favourite memories is when I was in Prague on the St. Charles’ bridge and a man was playing the zither. I asked him to play this theme, which he did and I just soaked up that moment while looking at the scenery. I bought 2 of his CD’s one being. Christmas CD. I just bought a CD, when I was in Vancouver, from a street musician who played an electric mandolin..very cool. By the way, I also watched the original airing with The Manualist and laughed but had no bladder issues:). He is actually quite excellent but I still laughed today.


  6. You did a great job finding songs for the theme. I haven’t heard that Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport song in years, I had forgotten about it 🙂 Have a great week.


  7. Well, totally love your first tune… I haven’t heard that one in like forever and it’s too cute! Didn’t know they used one of those and I’m sure the rest of then are just as cool, but because my time is limited just stoppin’ by to say hello my friend. Keep it rockin’… I listened to BS&T dIDN’T KNOW they used one of those… so cool!!!


    1. Al Kooper had the right talent in BS&T and their first album (“Child Is Father To The Man”) had a lot of experimental stuff on it. The fugue (!) in that song was one example. As far as I can tell, it was the only time Steve Katz played a lute…


  8. I don’t know how unusual the zither is, but I remember the unique sound from “Third Man Theme.”


  9. Lisa and I saw Dougie MacLean in concert last week, and got to see him play the didgeridoo and guitar simultaneously on his song “Singing Land”. I think that qualifies as an unusual instrument in an unusual situation. 🙂 I don’t remember the didgeridoo on the recording I have, but maybe he made a later recording with it.


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