Music, at its heart, is simply 12 notes. We all know it is more than that, however. From our earliest ancestors, first learning to sing, to our present day smorgasbord of genres and sub-genres, the one constant has been evolution. Every so often, a new instrument is created that unlocks new possibilities for those same 12 notes. Let’s examine a few of them.
The Trap Kit
In the late 1800s, brass bands were the most popular form of live music. These bands would have multiple drummers. One would have a bass drum, one a snare, and so on. As time went on, bringing the music indoors to concert halls and other venues meant using less musicians. In 1898, U.G. Leedy began selling the first adjustable snare stand. William F Ludwig, Sr. offered the first bass drum pedal in 1909. These two particular items created the trap kit, which is short for contraption. By 1920, this was the preferred method. The rest is history.
New and ground-breaking instruments are one thing. An instrument played without the artist actually touching it is quite another. One antennae controls a frequency oscillator and the other antennae controls volume. The antennas are controlled by moving your hands around them, though not actually touching them. In 1928, Léon Theremin, a Russian physicist, patented the Theremin and soon sold the commercial rights to RCA. The signature sound started appearing in soundtracks and popular music. The Led Zeppelin concert film “The Song Remains The Same” shows Jimmy Page soloing on the instrument.
Going back much further that you would imagine, the first patent for a synthesizer was applied for in 1897. Called the Telharmony, it weighed 200 tons and was driven by 12 steam-powered electromagnetic generators. It had velocity-sensitive keys and incredibly could generate several different sounds at once. It wasn’t particularly practical. Many more tube-circuitry based synthesizer were created over the years but it wasn’t until the 1960s and Bob Moog that new voltage controlled synthesizers became compact and cheap enough for the general public to embrace.
The Electric Guitar
In the 1920s, Big Band music was all the rage. Pounding rhythm sections and loud brass sections totally overwhelmed the typical hollowbody guitar of the time. People had been trying to build amplified guitars for decades, but it wasn’t until Adolph Rickenbacker and George Beauchamp released the Frying Pan Guitar, a solid-body electric steel guitar, that they truly arrived on the scene in 1932. In the mid 1940s, Leo Fender and Les Paul working independently started creating prototypes we would recognize today. In fact, the Fender Telecaster, Fender Stratocaster and Gibson Les Paul are still among the most popular guitars in the world.
The use of a turntable as musical instrument goes much further back than is commonly thought. Composer John Cage published Imaginary Landscape No. 1 in 1939. It calls for two variable speed turntables. Creedence Clearwater Revival used the backspin effect on “Walk on the Water” in 1968. By the late 1970s, turntablism was entwined with hip hop. Afrika Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and others established the role of DJ in music. In 1983, Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” became the first pop single to feature scratching and other turntable techniques.
The Medici family fostered and promoted the arts and one of their most enduring creations is the piano. They employed Bartolomeo Cristofori as Keeper of the Instruments in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Cristofori invented and built the first piano sometime in the late 1600s. Word spread and others improved the design. Composers, such as Mozart, began using the versatile instrument as a composing tool. In the early 1800s, the piano moved from 5 octaves to 7 octaves and other improvements created a more powerful, sustaining sound. Hadyn, Beethoven, Liszt, and others began using the piano in its own right as more than just an arrangement tool. By the late 1800s, the instrument became extremely similar to the one we know today.
The Drum Machine
Making his second appearance on this list, Léon Theremin created the world’s first drum machine in 1932. It was too far ahead of it’s time, however, and drum machines didn’t truly gain traction until 1980 with the release of Linn LM-1 Drum Computer. Prince, Gary Numan, The Cars, and Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack for Scarface all featured the LM-1 or it’s baby brother, The LinnDrum. Also released in 1980 was the TR-808 from Roland. It took some time to gain popularity, but since then it has never abated. Still used regularly to this day, the 808 is probably the most widely-used piece of electronic music-making gear of all time.
The Electric Piano
Similar to the development of electric guitars, piano players were also coming out on the losing end of the volume battle in the early 20th century. The first into the breach was the Rhodes piano, designed by Harold Rhodes. It was created during World War II and used as therapy for wounded soldiers confined to bed. Harold was awarded the Medal of Honor for this. Soon after, the Wurlitzer electric piano was produced and became the first electric piano to appear on a record. It was Sun Ra’s “Angels and Demons at Play”. The Rhodes soon caught up, though. The Doors, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and The Beatles all used the signature tone of the Rhodes Piano throughout their career.
In 1935, Laurens Hammond and John Hanert began manufacturing the Hammond Organ. It was meant to be a cheaper option for churches that wanted a pipe organ. It wasn’t long before jazz musicians got their hands on it and unlocked the full potential of all the features it included. Drawbars, a shortened pedalboard, vibrato and chorus were all important features but the Harmonic Percussion system and the Hammond’s frequent sidekick, the Leslie Speaker, were truly ground-breaking.
Okay, so MIDI isn’t an instrument. It is a language. Released in 1982, it is the way to connect electronic musical equipment. It is what makes home studios possible and allows all digital music machines to be compatible. Still basically the same language from 1982, it now works over USB, Firewire, Thunderbolt, Lightning and other digital connector types. Without MIDI, the digital music revolution would never have progressed as much as it has now.
What other instruments changed music? Leave us a comment and let us know. Follow us here, on Twitter, or on Facebook to find out when we post new articles. Hit the like button below if you enjoyed it and don’t forget to check out Seismic Audio for the best deals on the best gear.