The genesis of most rock bands is pretty similar. Someone picks up a six-string, figures out they’re pretty good, seeks out some friends who can drum; sing; play bass and and maybe keys; and boom, you’re automatically at the top of the rock charts. But sometimes, a unique item gets interpolated into the band along the way, an instrument that lends a different texture and ends up nearly defining the entire group’s legacy. Despite their unconventional arrangements, these bands aren’t gimmicky. Just different.
Here are six bands that have become famous despite (or because?) of their unique instruments. We tried to overlook the easy stuff (it was highly uncommon for a ’90s alternative band to be led by a piano and no guitar, but it’s not like Ben Folds Five went out on that big of a limb). And no, a single track with a strange instrument like “Good Vibrations” doesn’t count – these bands weaved unusual instrumentation into their fabric, not just every once in a while.
When your band’s numbers start to creep above five members, the more esoteric instruments start to get picked up. At first, it’s more accessible sounds like accordions, mandolins, and strings, maybe a xylophone. But Arcade Fire has never been a band to settle for normal; Régine Chassagne is the resident hurdy-gurdy player. What is that? It’s a string instrument that is played by also operating a crank, common in European folk and occasionally Cajun French music.
How did a band led by a flute become so popular? No one really knows, but Jethro Tull has managed to live on via classic rock radio, still pissing off Metallica for beating them out for a Grammy in 1989 for the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance. To be fair to James Hetfield and company, Jethro Tull is neither of those things; they were led by a flute. But Ian Anderson and company have put out more successful records than plenty of “normal” bands.
Indie-folk is filled with the esoteric; it’s almost expected for a band to pull an instrument from left field to appease its audience. But Joanna Newsom playing the harp isn’t some kind of whim, it’s basically her whole persona filtered through one instrument. Delicate but precise, and never easily broken, it basically makes perfect sense that she would play this instrument, even if it seems incredibly antiquated for a modern artist to use.
Tilly and the Wall
Sometimes, indie-pop can be precious and twee to a fault, and it’s almost too saccharine. You would think a band like Tilly and the Wall, who have a tap dancer for a drummer, would be too far beyond that territory. But actually, their hooks and sweet melodies somehow manage to stay on the sane side. Yes, their percussion section consists of just a tap dancer, and yet it works: Tilly and the Wall are a great band.
You didn’t think we’d leave here without mentioning Blues Traveler, did you? They have not just a singer who plays harmonica; harmonica in fact leads the entire band. John Popper has a billion harmonicas in his vest! And they had multiple top-40 hits! And they’re still recording today! It’s a lot to digest, but man, it’s true – the hook DOES bring you back.
I’m From Barcelona
Remember that thing earlier about what happens when bands start growing in numbers? The Swedish (yes, Swedish, not Spanish, despite what the band’s name might lead you to believe) indie-pop group has 28 members. Twenty-eight! They have instruments like flutes, kazoos, clarinets, banjos, glockenspiels, omnichords, tubas, and one member is listed as playing “Heart and Soul.” It’s something you can’t define, but man, you need someone manning it in every band.