FM96 Top 10 Undercover Instruments
- #1 Van Halen Runnin’ With the Devil
- #2 Red Hot Chili Peppers Love Rollercoaster
- #3 AC/DC It’s a Long Way to the Top
- #4 Soundgarden Spoonman
- #5 Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven
- #6 Oasis Champgane Supernova
- #7 Cake Short Skirt Long Jacket
- #8 Neil Young Harvest Moon
- #9 Gorillaz Clint Eastwood
- #10 Queen We Will Rock You
The element of surprise is a beautiful thing, especially in song. So you’re listening to a song and just as you manage to grasp the beat or the melody…you’re singing and tapping along…suddenly, an unexpected sound peaks your interest. You may not even notice it first listen. What the heck was it? It might seem like it doesn’t belong. It may borrow a sound from a distant genre of music. It may be a sound that was an accident. A sound that’s only there because of human or artist error. The sound could be an equipment error. The sound could be improvised, or the sound could be meticulously planned. Was that really a Kazoo? A recorder? Something from your kitchen silverware or cleaning closet? What the hell is a vibraslap and why would anyone think to use an old car battery for a song? This weekend, a look at ten instruments that are undercover in Rock n Roll and the stories that tell why they were used.
#1 Van Halen - Runnin' With the Devil (Car Battery, Car Horn, Penny Whistle)
A staple in their early club set-ups, the backwards car-horn blare made using a few horns, a car battery and a footswitch. Eddie Van Halen, you put a patent on that yet? Also, David Lee Roth on the penny whistle at about 2:00.
#2 Red Hot Chili Peppers - Love Rollercoaster (The Kazoo)
Jimi Hendrix used a Kazoo on Crosstown Traffic. Frank Zappa, Beck and even David Bowie have used what’s said to be the easiest instrument to learn (although I’d vote for the triangle). Did you know there’s even a Museum. A Kazoo Museum. I’m going to South Carolina!!!! There’s also a Kazoo Funk Orchestra in Scotland. Some people exist to prove that this thing is not just a children’s instrument!
Check out this German band rockin’ the Kazoo The Snøffeltøffs – “High School Teen:”
Musicians Julian & Floridan spoke to Noisey about their love for the Kazoo, starting with their suggestion not to use a cheap plastic model, but an original tin Kazoo like the type you’d find in the 1930s.
#3 AC/DC - It's a Long Way to the Top (Bagpipes)
Bon Scott, you beauty. From Ultimate Classic Rock:
The story goes that producer George Young heard that the Scottish-born Bon Scott had been in a pipe band when he was younger and thought he could play bagpipes on the track. But Scott was a side drummer in the group and had never laid a finger on the pipes. Still, he managed to produce what you hear on ‘It’s a Long Way to the Top,’ including an extended solo in the middle and a call-and-response section with Angus Young’s guitar. After Scott’s death, Brian Johnson refused to sing the song with AC/DC. Is that out of respect for Scott or because he’s afraid of the bagpipes? Either way, fair enough.
#4 Soundgarden - Spoonman (The Spoons)
You see the spoons right at the beginning of the music video! This song is inspired by Seattle musician Artis the Spoonman who plays the spoons. He appears in the video and gets credit in the album notes. Read an interview with him HERE.
When we spoke with Artis in 2013, he said that he earned a flat fee of $1,000 for performing on the song, and another $7,000 to appear in the video. Describing how Soundgarden contacted him, he said: “In 1992, they had me do a tweener (a performance between acts) between them and Melvins. And their manager at the time, Susan Silver, she told me Chris is writing a song, ‘Spoonman,’ and would I like to record on it when it’s done. And so in ’93, almost a year and a half later, they called me and we went in the studio that day and recorded it. Went through four takes and that was that. Two hours. That was the recording session.”
#5 Led Zeppelin - Stairway to Heaven (Flutes / Wood Recorder)
On this song, John Paul Jones wanted a string section with keyboards and flutes instead of bass. He used wooden recorders in the intro….Man, they shoulda taught this in grade school. These kids are so much better than I ever was at recorder:
#6 Oasis - Champagne Supernova (Mellotron & Melodica)
Oasis was a band very much influenced by the Beatles, so it only makes sense to start here, with a lesson on the Mellotron from none other than Paul McCartney:
Here’s the story of how the Mellotron made it’s entrance on Oasis’ What’s The Story Morning Glory from Sound on Sound as told by Producer and engineer Owen Morris:
“In the meantime, given all of the computer-based work that I had done with Bernard Sumner and Johnny Marr, I always had Cubase running, and on Morning Glory we also got an old Mellotron in. Bonehead wasn’t going to play his usual strum-along bar chords on ‘Wonderwall’. So I went and picked out the root notes, showed him where they were, and then got him to play those with the Mellotron’s cello sound, which we all liked. After picking out a harmony for the bridge and chorus to build it, we were basically finished by dinner time. The only things that weren’t on there were the little piano line that comes in at the end — we knew the track needed something there to keep it going, and Noel would provide it a few weeks later — and the Kurzweil strings that I’d add during the mix.”
Later that week, after working on some other songs, Noel returned to his ‘Champagne Supernova’ guitar overdubs.
“There are two e-bows that run throughout the song, giving it a sort of violin effect, and he did all of those parts pretty quick,” says Morris. “Then he also did all of his picking parts pretty quick. This went on for about two hours. Noel would just sit in the studio next to his amps and play. He wouldn’t come into the control room to listen to what he’d done until everything was finished. So his guitar overdubs were all done fairly quickly.
“After that, there was a session when Liam felt inspired to do all of the Beatle-y ‘aaahs’ that would go over the guitar solo, to which I also added some Beatle-y Mellotron parts. Then, during another session, he had a go at singing ‘Champagne Supernova’. We did half a dozen takes, but what happened was that the high note of the song — at the end of the line ‘The world’s still spinning around, we don’t know why’ — was kind of burning his voice out. So he was getting croakier on each take, and by the time he got to the end he was sounding very Rod Stewart-y.
You’ll also notice a melodica appears in the video:
#7 Cake - Short Skirt Long Jacket (Vibraslap)
Dear Google, what is a vibraslap?
The vibraslap is a percussion instrument consisting of a piece of stiff wire (bent into a U-shape) connecting a wood ball to a hollow box of wood with metal “teeth” inside. The percussionist holds the metal wire in one hand and strikes the ball (usually against the palm of their other hand).
It achieves the sound you hear at the beginning of Ozzy Osbourne’s Crazy Train or during Aerosmith’s Sweet Emotion. If there’s a band that’s made the vibraslap part of their signature sound, it’s Cake, as demonstrated by frontman John McCrea Live on Letterman back in the day:
#8 Neil Young - Harvest Moon
Neil Young recorded this performance at MTV on February 7, 1993. A leather jacket, a Harley Davidson T-shirt, jeans, and boots, sitting hunched over his guitar. In the 14-song set, he found a way to have a broom used on stage for percussion.
#9 Gorillaz - Clint Eastwood (Melodica)
The melodica is a small plastic keyboard that you blow into, also used in Oasis’ Champagne Supernova and Cake’s The Distance.
Damon Albarn is hot for the melodica. The “riff” that came out of the melodica for this track in particular, brought images of Clint Eastwood and 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars to mind, that’s how it got its name.
#10 Queen - We Will Rock You
Queen guitarist, Brian May, dreamt of a song where he could invite the audience to participate and get involved in what would unfold. He was inspired by a chanting crowd at a Liverpool football game.
Need a little something extra for your song? Try your very own hands and feet out! Even the kids will catch on quickly…