When it comes to making sound, anything in the world can become an instrument. The quality, timbre and tone of the sound, as well as how you apply it to an arrangement and record it in the studio is what makes the sound musical and artistic. In a recording situation, using a self-made instrument can be a compelling device that serves the character and colour of the song and can make your recording more intriguing for your listeners. Using a self-made instrument in a live concert makes people curious and fascinated by the odd devices that you are playing on stage, which is one more advantage in catching the attention of your audience.
So what are some good self-made instuments that you can use? The most enchanting and peculiar devices for making that unique sound you want often come from the most unexpected places, even from the stars and planets with a technique called ‘stellar seismology’. It’s all a matter of exploration and experimentation when you want to develop your own kind of personal expression and self-made instruments are an excellent tool for any kind of music. Here is a short list of resources and instruments that musicians have discovered or created themselves that hopefully will inspire you to find or make for your own projects.
An easy and fun venture that you can try for discovering amazing percussive sounds is go to a local junkyard with an assortment of drumsticks and a portable recording devicefor sampling. All you have to do is walk around and hit various junk and record the sound as samples that you can later apply to your recording or live show with a sampler. Another place to find those fascinating beats, clangs, whams and whumps are in your own kitchen. In the song ‘The Earth Died Screaming’ by Tom Waits, he recorded the sound of a 2×4 inch block of wood whacking against a concrete driveway as an element to add to his already recorded drums and it gave the recording a wild atmosphere reminiscent of Pygmy or Indonesian tribalistic music. Another exceptional example of a self-made percussion instrument is the Monster Tubulum.
Scratching Rhythms into the Center Locked Groove of Vinyl Records
Nick Zammuto of The Books has invented a way to scratch beats directly onto the surface of a vinyl LP’s center locked groove. It is an unusual way to get that distinct analog sound for your beats where you can mathematically measure the time signatures and make your own. This is a really cool device for live shows, recordings, and for applying on your own records that you sell. Check out this instructional YouTube video where he expains how to make your own analog beats.
The One String Electric Guitar
Also called the Diddley Bow or Unitar is a fantastic instrument to use in a live show setting because it can create a powerful sound and at the same time mesmerize the audience visually. It can serve as a stage prop that has a variety of aesthetic attraction because you can make your own to look however you like. If you have watched the opening scene to It Might Get Loud you will see Jack White building and performing the Diddley Bow. Here is an instructional YouTube video you can use to make your own!
A Contact Microphone on Anything that Vibrates
Contact microphones are incredibly inexpensive, easy to apply and you can even build your own! If you have any device that creates an audible vibration, even the slightest of sounds, you can build your own unique instrument. My bandmate and music producer, Nikola Jeremic, has invented the Springaton which I’ve used on many of my recordings as well as in concert. It is basically a contraption with an acoustic resonance body and many metal springs that each have a different frequency of vibration and a contact mic. It works best if you can build one with springs that are tuned to complimentary tonalities in various octaves.
Another instrument you can build yourself and apply a contact mic to is the Didgeridoo, a wind instrument developed by Indigenous Australians. With any kind of instrument that you make with a contact mic you can also use effects pedals to enhance your sounds and also to loop beats and phrases. The most common wind instruments you can make yourself are flutes and whistles. Other than the drum it is the first known instrument on Earth. You can make your own flutes out of clay, wood, plastic and other materials. They can be practical and at the same time beautifully ornate and sculptural. People have even made their own bamboo saxophones!
Household items can be used to make your own sound elements without much work or making modifications. Such as the singing crystal glass which produces different sounds depending on it’s shape and with how much you fill it up. I’ve used this sound and sampled it as an atmospheric feature for the background of acoustic songs. Another spooky sounding instrument is the singing saw which is basically just a regular hand saw played with a violin bow. It is fairly easy to learn how to play and it’s always an attention grabber. It is somewhat like the crystal glass or theremin in the sense that it is capable of continuous glissando (gliding from one pitch to another) with an eerie ethereal tone.
Using the Body
Another fantastic unplugged self-made instrument is the human body. You can use it to make a wide variety of interesting sounds… such as beat boxing. My favorite is the mouth trumpet. Here is a TED talk with Tom Thum and the orchestra in his mouth.
Anything is Possible
When it comes to making your own instruments anything is possible. For example, a famous and revolutionary inventor of self-made instruments is Harry Partch. His instruments have changed the way musicians think about tonality and intonation during the past half century. Another great resource to check out for discovering what is possible with self-made instruments is The Anarchestra. The world of self-made instruments and new music is rapidly expanding, evolving and getting more attention.
Applying unusual sounds from strange self-made instruments is becoming more popular with independent artists and I highly recommend creating your own so that your recordings and live shows stand out amongst the crowd. Your inventions can create a feeling in your music that typical store bought instruments cannot. You will learn a lot about the nature of sound and music if you make your own devices and it’s really fun to name your instruments when they are ready to be played. Remember that every instrument that has ever made a sound on Earth was at one time a self-made instrument long before the development of factory production. It was only about 67,000 years ago that mankind invented the musical instrument and the art of ceremony and self-made instruments will always be relevant.