The harmonica, recorder, and melodica are among the most popular instruments to learn in school, especially in early grades.
Students may branch out into orchestral instruments as well as the drums, guitar, and bass, depending on the courses they take on, but it’s fair to say there’s an upper limit to the types of music and instruments they’ll be exposed to.
Across the world, even in your own backyard, there are some weird instruments you may not know anything about, and possibly haven’t even heard of. In this guide, we look at the weirdest instruments ever.
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The theremin may not be the rarest of the bunch, but it certainly qualifies as weird. Although a theremin does detect your proximity to it, it’s an electronic instrument intended to be played without any physical contact.
The sound of a theremin could be compared to that of a female voice – especially that of an operatic singer. It’s not easy to control or get the pitch just right, which is why even the pros sometimes struggle, but that quality is also what makes slides and bends quite easy to perform.
The theremin was created by Leon Theremin in 1920, later patented in 1922. It has been used on songs like Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love,” Garbage’s “Cup of Coffee,” and The White Stripes’ “Little People.”
The term nyckelharpa itself means “key harp” or “key fiddle.” It has the appearances of an elongated violin and a neck that’s somewhat reminiscent of a sitar (somewhat of an oddity in its own right). Playing the nyckelharpa is somewhere between a violin and an accordion, as one hand bows and the other presses the keys situated beneath the neck.
Overall, its sound doesn’t differ much from that of a violin (except for perhaps the audible “clicking” that occurs as you depress the keys). But its bizarre appearance will certainly catch your attention and make it appear a more complicated instrument than perhaps it really is.
The number of strings and keys can vary from instrument to instrument. The nyckelharpa can be heard on traditional Swedish tunes, Nordic folk music, Scandinavian folk, and much more.
The Chapman Stick is an odd-looking instrument that’s kind of like a hybrid between a bass guitar and a piano. While it may strike you as quite unusual, it’s possible you’ve heard it before, especially if you’re familiar with King Crimson’s Tony Levin.
Instead of fretting notes with one hand and plucking or slapping and popping them with the other, the technique used to play the Chapman Stick is closer to Eddie Van Halen’s two-handed tapping method, also called double fretting.
While the Chapman Stick should be considered a bass instrument, the design makes it possible to play two parts simultaneously – for example, a bass line and a melody. See Tony Levin in action below.
The yaybahar certainly is a peculiarity. Its appearance? It looks like two large cables attached to two drumheads, with a supporting wooden structure.
Its sound, though, is more like that of the ocean itself. It’s capable of producing deep whale like sounds, has didgeridoo like characteristics, and even generates violin like tones.
The yaybahar is played a little like a stringed instrument, with one hand bowing and the other fretting.
The acoustic instrument was created by Turkish musician Gorkem Sen.
The wheelharp looks more like a barrel on its side than anything else. It is played much like a piano, except that the keys aren’t laid out on a flat surface, but rather on a half circular surface (would you expect anything less from a barrel like instrument?).
The wheelharp features a pedal that controls its projection. The further you press it down, the more volume it will produce.
The instrument has a very resonant, slightly obnoxious, and mechanical quality. It’s like a string orchestra but with a bit of grit – scrapes, scratches, and maybe even a bit of distortion.
The glass armonica looks a bit like a seashell. The instrument is made of a series of glass bowls that gradually increase or decrease in size (depending on direction).
This instrument can be played a little bit like you would play a piano, except that it uses friction to produce a sound (no pressing of keys required).
Its sound is like that of wine glasses filled with varying levels of water to produce different pitches. Its sound is resonant and rich, kind of like bells.
The glass armonica was one of the most celebrated instruments of the 18th century, and Benjamin Franklin himself took great joy in his.
The harp guitar may not be the rarest of instruments, but if this is your first time seeing it, you’re probably having a bit of a surreal experience just now (“what, is this thing real?”).
In addition to a relatively standard six-string neck, the harp guitar features six additional bass strings, which are intended to be played without being fretted (like a harp).
Playing a harp guitar, then, is a little bit like playing guitar and bass at the same time. But it does require that guitarists adapt their picking hand technique, moving fluidly between the “harp” section and “fretted” section of the guitar. This can take a while to master.
The harp guitar has been used by the likes of Don Alder, Andy McKee, Travis Bowman, Don Ross, and many others.
What is the largest and lowest pitched flute of any instrument in the flute family? Well, that of course would be the hyperbass flute! Naturally, you probably haven’t even heard of a “hyperbass flute” before this, though. I hadn’t.
Its appearance doesn’t need much of an explanation. It looks just like a flute, except considerably bigger and with curved sections.
Given that its notes are in a very low register, its tone isn’t especially impressive, at least not as impressive as you might think. Probably the most amazing thing about it is that its pitch goes well below that of a piano.
Sharing much in common with the contrabass, the weirdest thing about the octobass is probably its very existence!
This instrument was originally built by French luthier Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume in 1850 and is essentially a larger version of the contrabass, naturally with a deeper sound and lower notes.
Thanks to its sheer size, though, the octobass is played using levers and pedals. This thing is immense! So, the playing technique is also weird.
The stroh violin is the very essence of a hybrid violin and horn. You can tell exactly what creator John Matthias Augustus Stroh was thinking when he created this baby in 1899. He had a knack for attaching metal resonators to a variety of instruments, though, including most orchestral stringed instruments, and even ukulele, mandolin, and guitar.
To me it sounds a lot like an amplified electric violin. It has good projection, but its tone has a slight muted quality to it.
The stroh violin is played the same way a violin is played. You can see Lindsey Stirling using a stroh violin style instrument in her music video for “Roundtable Rival.”
The bouzouki, a long-necked lute instrument, originated in Greece. It has a fretted fingerboard, much like a guitar, mandolin, or banjo, and a round body (flat top). It sounds a lot like a lower-pitched mandolin and is a great addition to any folk or traditional ensemble.
The main types of bouzoukis include a model with three-course strings (known as trichordo) and four-course strings (tetrachordo). It’s the same basic idea as a mandolin or 12-string guitar, except that the bouzouki has more courses.
The bouzouki shines both as a lead or accompaniment instrument.
Bender Distortocaster Electric Guitar
Even those who aren’t familiar with the world of electric guitars have generally heard of the Fender Stratocaster. It’s one of the most replicated and emulated models (played by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to Eric Clapton), and most guitar manufacturers have a model that looks and sounds a lot like a Start.
Well, the Bender Distortocaster is like a melted Strat – this is what a Strat would look like if you applied the Twirl filter to a Strat in Photoshop!
There are only 46 of these made in UK guitars, with most belonging to collectors across U.S. and Japan.
While it certainly is a rarity and oddity, The Bender Distortocaster plays and sounds just as an electric guitar would. What makes it unique is that because the neck gets wider as it gets closer to the bridge, you can do some unusual bending, especially on the first string, that you might not otherwise be able to do on a standard electric guitar.
This two-stringed Chinese bowed instrument has a signature sound you’ve almost assuredly heard in generic Oriental music in the movies or on TV.
The Erhu’s exact origins are unknown, as it is thought to have evolved from multiple instruments. What we do know is that it made its first appearance during the Tang Dynasty.
The technique used to play the Erhu is much like that of any orchestral stringed instrument. As you might expect, there are plenty of famous Chinese pieces that feature the Erhu.
The sarangi is a bowed, stringed, short-necked instrument of Indian origin. The weirdest part about it is surely its appearance, which is somewhere between a violin, guitar, banjo, and Koto.
The technique used to play the sarangi is a little different than that of a violin, as it involves a lot more sliding. The bowed aspect of it is similar though.
Its sound is very resonant but not as unusual as you might suspect, exhibiting qualities of a viola. The notes do seem to blend into each other more than other stringed instruments, though, producing a bit of a drone like quality.
The cimbalom sort of looks like the inside of a piano. True to form, it sounds a bit like it would if you were to hit the strings inside of a piano. The cimbalom is played with mallets.
It has good projection and a sharp tone, perfect for cutting through a mix. Musical instrument maker V. Jozsef Schunda is credited with making the instrument in Budapest in 1874.
As you might be able to gather from the name, the hydraulophone (sometimes referred to as an “H2Organ”) involves the use of hydraulics and water (and sometimes other fluids).
The instrument is played a little like a recorder (except that you don’t need to blow air into it). Place your fingers on the appropriate holes, and the hydraulophone will respond in kind.
While it might seem weird, its sound is more conventional than you might expect (except for maybe the running water noises) – it’s somewhere between a pipe organ and woodwind instruments.
At first glance, the gravikord looks a bit like a harp. Well, it turns out that’s exactly what it is, except that it comes with 24 strings, features two bridges, and to top it off, it’s electric.
The gravikord has only been around since 1984 when Robert Grawi invented it, so it hasn’t exactly had a long history. It takes after West African instrument like the kora and mbira.
Given that it’s an electric instrument, you can add effects like reverb to make it sound especially atmospheric. Also see video below.
This one comes up a lot in “weird instrument” conversations, and it’s not hard to see why. Pat Metheny’s 42-string Pikasso Guitar looks like an experiment gone wrong. With two necks (one short, one standard), and strings crossing in every direction, it’s hard to imagine how this thing could possibly work.
In practice, it’s something like a harp guitar, but it seems Metheny opted for treble notes rather than bass ones. The deeper bass notes have been reserved for the more conventional guitar neck portion of the Pikasso guitar.
I don’t know whether anyone besides Pat Metheny could master this instrument, but in his hands, it sounds nothing short of glorious. The tune in the video below reminds me of some of the best video game compositions of our time.
The Pikasso can be heard on many recordings, especially those featuring Pat Metheny.
The akonting is probably more obscure than weird, because its appearance is like that of a banjo, and its sound is also somewhere between a classical guitar and banjo.
This instrument is the folk lute of the Jola people (from Gambia, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau), and it features a gourd body with two melody strings and one shorter drone string (again, kind of like a banjo).
The portative organ, also known as the organetto, features pipes attached to a keyboard, and is played much like an accordion or harmonium. Given its size, it’s surprising that it’s been designed to be held while playing it (naturally, the weight of the instrument had to be optimized).
Its sound is somewhere between a pipe organ and accordion, but you would be hard pressed to get its exact tone with any other instrument.
Portative organs were used widely throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, suggesting that it’s not weird as much as it is forgotten.
While any musician worth their salt will certainly know about the didgeridoo, the average person probably hasn’t heard of it, even if they’ve heard it in a song or two.
The didgeridoo is a huge wind instrument, and it is typically played with the heavy end laying on the ground.
While it is not possible to alter the pitch of the tone, you can play different rhythms based on your technique. Basically, it’s a drone instrument (which has a bit of a hypnotic effect on the listener).
The weirdest thing about it, though, is probably how skilled didgeridoo players use circular breathing to sustain drones for minutes at a time. This technique is understandably difficult to master.
You can hear the didgeridoo in songs like The Shamen’s “Evil Is Even,” Kate Bush’s “The Dreaming,” Olivia Newton-John’s “I’ll Bet You A Kangaroo,” and many others.
To this point, developer Artiphon has put together a couple of fun, hybrid instruments. One is the Orba, which is a compact all in one synth, looper, and controller. The other is the instrument that originally put them on the map, INSTRUMENT 1.
So, what is this thing supposed to be? A synth? A guitar? A keytar?
Well, not surprisingly, it is a MIDI controller, but it’s a bit of a different kind of MIDI controller, because it responds to how you play. You can strum, bow, tap, slide, or even drum, depending on your preferred playing style. It’s like an all-in-one keyboard, guitar, violin, and drum kit.
Given that it’s a MIDI controller, you can get any sound you want out of INSTRUMENT 1.
While it might not be for everyone, those who are interested in creating electronic music in a different way should get a kick out of it.
At this point, it’s not hard to find dozens of musicians who’ve created music using INSTRUMENT 1, and it’s worth checking out, just to see what they’ve been able to come up with.
Weirdest Instruments In The World, Final Thoughts
What will humanity come up with next? It will be exciting to see as technology continues to evolve. We’re already starting to see the melding of the organic with the machine, and the results are nothing short of surprising.
What are your favorite weird instruments? What do you like about them?