Music is ancient. Humans have been making music with their voices and with instruments for approximately the last 37,000 years. During that time, musical instruments have evolved from cave men banging rocks and sticks together to the Zeusaphone. The Zeusaphone is an instrument based on Nicola Tesla’s invention the Tesla coil. This instrument uses high frequency, low voltage electricity to create both music and a spectacular light show.
If you want to learn to play a musical instrument you can stick with the old favorites such as piano, guitar, and even voice. Lessons are available to take you from beginner to “ready for the stage” with these popular instruments.
What if these instruments just don’t quite catch your interest? Are there other options? Check out these unusual instruments and see what it takes to step outside the music box.
The ukulele is typically considered as a Hawaiian instrument. This is not exactly the true origin of this little guitar like instrument. The ukulele is an adaptation of a Portuguese instrument called a machete de braga or simply a machete. In August of 1879 Portuguese immigrants from the island of Maderia docked their ship Ravenscrag in Honolulu. To celebrate their safe arrival the Portuguese immigrants brought out their machetes and played in the streets. Three of the immigrants were cabinet makers. These three craftsmen, Manuel Nunes, José do Espírito Santo, and Augusto Dias, are credited with the creation of the ukulele. An appreciation of the instrument quickly caught on, even with the Hawaiian royal family. The interest of the royalty gave rise to the tradition of making the ukulele out of Koa wood, which is endemic to the Hawaiian Islands. Koa wood is typically associated with royalty and Hawaiian pride. Soon after the machete made its way to Hawaii local craftsmen adapted the instrument and created a slightly different tuning that made the instrument easier to play. The word ukulele literally translates to “jumping flea” in English.
The ukulele has enjoyed and on and off popularity during its relatively short history. Currently it is very popular among school children and adults. The ukulele is a relatively easy instrument to learn to play. The ukulele is inexpensive when compared to most other stringed instruments. It is small enough to be easily transportable, and it is fun!
The humble harmonica traces its roots all the way back to ancient China and an instrument called the Sheng. The sheng is one of the oldest Chinese instruments dating back to around 1100 BCE and is the first documented free-reed instrument. The development of the harmonica then takes us from ancient China to Nineteenth Century Germany. A young German named Christian Fredich Ludwig Buschmann is credited with the invention of the first harmonica. He is also credited with the invention of the accordion but there are some arguments against that one. The original harmonica was created as a pocket tuning device for a much larger musical instrument invented by Buschmanns’ father called a terpodion.
Matthias Hohner, a German clockmaker by trade, started making harmonicas in 1857. His business originally consisted of himself, his wife and one employee. Currently Hohner is still the most widely recognized harmonica maker in the world. The company has expanded greatly and now makes guitars, ukuleles, banjos and kazoos.
What kind of music is played on the harmonica? Most people associate the harmonica with music that is uniquely American such as blues and American folk music. While the harmonica is a large part of these music styles it is not limited to them. The harmonica is an amazingly versatile instrument and can be played in many different styles. The harmonica is a wonderful instrument for people that want to learn to play an instrument but don’t have a lot of money to spend. Good harmonicas are cheap, exceptionally portable, and again just plain fun to play!
The banjo got its start in Africa. It came to America from African slaves in the 17th century that tried to re-create instruments from their homelands. The original instrument from Africa was called the banjar and consisted of a hollowed out, half gourd with an animal skin stretched tightly over the opening. Three or four strings, made of horse hair or gut, were strung on a flattened stick and tightened with smaller sticks at the end. There were no frets in the early days of the banjos’ existence. In the southern plantations the materials needed to build a banjar were readily available and the instrument was very popular among the slaves. Early in the 1800’s some whites began to learn to play the banjo and the instruments popularity began to grow.
Over the last 200 years the banjo has continued to develop and change. Currently there are three main styles of banjo, the plectrum banjo, the tenor banjo and the 5 string banjo. Each style of banjo lends itself to different styles of music and different techniques. The 5 string banjo is an excellent place to start learning and the “up-picking” style will allow the musician to transition to other popular styles easily.
The chromatic autoharp is a stringed instrument that has keys, called dampers, which stop the sound coming from any other strings besides the ones wanted for the cord being played. Although the name autoharp may cause people to assume this instrument is a harp it is actually a corded zither. The story of the invention of the autoharp is actually quite interesting and has its fair share of intrigue. In 1882 Charles Zimmerman, a German immigrant living in Philadelphia, was awarded a US patent for an instrument he called an autoharp. Unlike modern autoharps, Zimmerman’s design was symmetrical and the felt covered bars moved horizontally on the strings instead of vertically. It appears that Zimmerman never commercially manufactured his patented design. At that same time K.A. Gütter in Germany was given a British patent for an instrument he called a Volkszither. After a trip to Germany, Zimmerman returned to Philadelphia and began to manufacture an instrument that closely resembled Gütter’s volkszither design under the patent he was originally given for his autoharp design. While Gütter’s design became very popular, Zimmerman is usually given credit for the invention of the instrument.
Modern day autoharps have either 36 or 37 strings and can be strung in either the diatonic or the chromatic scales. The diatonic autoharp is excellent for chordal accompaniment and can even be used to play some fiddle tunes by skilled players. The chromatic autoharp can be used to play many bluegrass and folk melodies. The autoharp is relatively easy to learn as a rhythm instrument and many students find a great deal of joy in learning to play more complex melodies.
Unusual Musical Instruments
Learning to play a musical instrument is good for you. It helps you stay healthy both mentally and emotionally and it keeps your brain working quickly as you age. Consider learning to play one of these unusual instruments as a way to set your inner musician free. The ukulele and the harmonica are excellent choices for those that need an inexpensive instrument that can go anywhere easily. The banjo and the chromatic autoharp are great choices for those that can handle a larger instrument and really want to devote themselves to mastering a unique new skill. Whatever instrument you choose, remember that becoming a virtuoso does not happen overnight. Musical instruments take practice and a good instructor can make the process of learning to read and play music even more enjoyable.