As much as we focus on the standard instrumentation of the western world – whether those found in a standard rock outfit or a philharmonic orchestra – the world of instrumentation is huge, and includes a tremendous variety of instruments that have incredible character and sound. Whether you're a strings player or a percussionist, here are five instruments that you might never have thought about playing.
The hurdy-gurdy is a haunting, spooky string instrument that can also take on a tremendously comical quality. The hurdy-gurdy is operated by cranking a lever that gives power to the instrument while simultaneously pressing different buttons that produce different tones. Hard to master but beautiful to hear, the hurdy-gurdy is starting to make a comeback in modern classical and folk music. If you want to hear an example, check out Stephan Groth, the hurdy-gurdy player in German medieval folk band Faun.
The Japanese koto, sometimes referred to as the Japanese table harp, is a plucked string instrument that produces elegant, stirring, and graceful music. The koto is a standard in many Japanese orchestras, and is frequently given solo parts, particular in music that reflects romance or is meant for relaxation. The koto can be played with a variety of string types, depending upon the preference of the player. While few koto instructors are to be found in the west, those with a passion for eastern music may find it well worth the effort to study it in an exchange program or during a sabbatical. To hear this beautiful instrument, have a listen to koto player Michio Miyagi.
A Finnish string instrument, the kantele is taught as a standard in Finland to young students in much the same way American children are taught the recorder. Centuries old, the kantele has a clear, high, and yet melancholy tone that suits folk music exceptionally well. The kantele has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, with Finnish musicians delving deeper into their musical roots in order to reconnect with the ancient traditions of their forebears. Want to hear more? Check out kantele player Ulla Katajavuori.
The oud is a centuries-old lute-style instrument originating in the Middle East. It is played in nations across the Middle Eastern region, North Africa and the Mediterranean basin, including Persia, Turkey, Somalia and Armenia. Don't let its appearance fool you, though – the oud hosts eleven to thirteen strings grouped typically in pairs, and takes many years to master. To hear this soulful, beautiful instrument, have a listen to master oud player Naseer Shamma.
If you've ever seen the film “The Forbidden Kingdom,” you'll be familiar with this plucked string instrument that Golden Sparrow is occasionally heard and seen playing throughout the film's journey. The pipa originates in China, and has a bright and yet fraught tone to it. Held upright, the pipa is usually plucked with either long nails or finger plucks that players attach to their fingers. To hear an example of the pipa, check out pipa player Liu Fang.
All of these instruments represent innovation and rich history from all over the world. Whether you fancy studying world music intensively or want a unique instrument to accentuate what you already produce, consider one of these!