Affordable Instruments for Creative Music
by Aaron Pond
Instruments are vital to music – voice, drums, blades of grass, notched hollow reeds.
In fact our systems for harmony, melody, and other schemata derive largely from our instruments and the musical knowledge they embody. Music is produced by the interaction of these technical extensions of the self with the rich stew of a particular human environment.
In the evolving and combustible tradition of Creative Music, defined by the collective exploration of our inner natures, what is required of instruments is vastly different than in the forms of classical, jazz, or pop. In it, we are free.
In this music the instrument is anything that sparks emotion and curiosity. The best instruments are the ones whose manipulation is endless, which come to envelop the player’s thoughts, and whose capability expands with increasing dedication. The best instruments are the ones you want to play, the ones that inspire people around you.
Most often though, we play the instruments we have, or can have. This is a guide to finding the instrument which might speak to you. And most importantly, finding an instrument that you can afford to experiment with. I won’t be covering the ins and outs of instrument maintenance in this guide; I will be recommending instruments that only need infrequent professional repair and servicing, if any at all. Every instrument I recommend is worth spending dozens of hours with. The price tag tells you nothing about an instrument's true value.
These struck reed instruments are indigenous to central and southern africa where countless designs have popped up since the spread of metallurgy through the region. They consist of boards with which metal tines (or reeds) are attached, which are then struck with the thumb and sometimes the forefinger. In simple terms, this is a glockenspiel for the hands. Highly portable, the boards can be attached to resonators as part of the instrument but can also be placed upon them separately. Common resonators for the DIY crowd are air conditioning vents, styrofoam, tinned fish cans, and hollowed out gourds.
Playing them can create trance like states, especially if one uses them for intricate polyrhythmic playing. Common traditional uses are for entertaining oneself on night watch, accompanying long walks,courtship, and spirit possession. Newer uses include transcendental meditation and new age music.
The traditional Shona mbira is more difficult to play due to the heavier tines, but produces a deeply satisfying tone and has a peculiar “chunning” that is unique to each maker. The times themselves must have their timbres tuned as well as their fundamental pitch. The westernized kalimba contains a standard tuning with a more fixed timbre, its also easier to retune.
Acquiring an mbira or kalimba with an in-built electronic pick up, can make the sound powerful enough to play with louder instruments, not to mention open a whole field of electro-acoustic experimentation.
Quenas (medium difficulty)
End-blown Andean flute with 6 or 7 holes. It can be a bit hard to get the hang of, but patience rewards you with a gorgeous-mellow sound. The holes are larger than most other flutes and can make it difficult to pitch bend, it requires a slow steady stream of air, which makes it unsuited to a lot of multiphonics. The timbre variation is primarily achieved through manipulating the noise to resonance ration through your embouchure and breath. It can be used for a budget-shakuhachi effect, but also has a rich side of its own to explore.
Recommended brand: Tyrone Head
Fipple flutes (easier)
Defined by the mechanism of their resonation, fipple flutes are considered some of the easier flutes to get a sound on.
The embouchure is simple, simply placing the sharp end of the flute in your mouth and breathing out, going up the octave just means using faster air. A combined vibrato tremolo is produced by warbling the air pressure. Multiphonics through fingerings and splitting partials (playing between the overtones) are also easier to achieve on fipple flutes, though I’m not sure why.
The ease of playing fipple flutes also lends itself to playing multiple of them simultaneously, it's easy to stick 2 in one’s mouth or one in each nose for a striking visual effect. Their playing techniques are also fairly universal across most varieties found all over the world, allowing one a difference melodic and harmonic keys with minimal memorization. Playing microtones is also similarly snappy by gently rolling one’s finger off the tone holes.
Penny whistles, plastic recorders, kavals, slide whistles, Native American courting flutes, all fall under this category.
Probably the best of all the plastic brass instruments. Its iconic look, small amount of resistance on the low notes, durability, and shockingly decent mouthpiece all make for a convincing cheap instrument.
Though a cheap-metal slide-trombone you found on craigslist might serve you better for less. Fully chromatic, microtonal, loud as hell, and capable of making unholy noises. It is definitely one of the best instruments for creative music that has ever existed.
I was a fool for picking the (french’d) horn.
The interface of this instrument is fairly straightforward, a chromatic breath powered keyboard instrument, whose sounding mechanism (plastic reeds) can be as cheesy or as creative as the player. Though it has a reputation for cornball, like its cousin the harmonica, the legacy of this instrument is rich. This German free-reed instrument is based on some of the most fascinating tools for ceremonial music in the world. Indigenous to East and Southeast Asian aerophones such as the Chinese Sheng, Japanese Sho, and Thai Kaen, were used to guide spirits to the afterlife, extreme durational dance performances, opera, “reciting” spiritual texts, etc. In many ways, the Melodica is a sturdier and more “westernized” version of these. (Though the reeds do not sound nearly as good.) For $50 you can have an amazing drone instrument and harmonizer that can also cut through the mix as a melodic instrument.
J-Sax (by Manuel Joe Perez III)
The jSax is an approximate hybridization of the soprano saxophone and soprano/alto plastic recorder. It’s manufactured in the key of C, and its advertised pitch range spans 1.5 octaves (from Middle C (C4) to G5). It replicates many of the core modalities of saxophone playing due to its inclusion of a plastic reed, lever-based ligature mechanism, and key layout that mimics the ergonomics of a saxophone. The hybrid nature of the instrument comes from its form factor and key mechanisms. Borrowing from the recorder, the right hand keys have removable keyhole covers for the index, ring, and pinky fingers. The fingering mixes in these keyholes for right hand notes while generally following traditional saxophone fingering shapes. The mouthpiece, neck, and (notably) silicone bell are all detachable.
The jSax’s hybrid and plastic nature make the instrument an excellent choice for exploring in an idiosyncratic and spontaneous way. Its effective range can be pushed to ~3 octaves with overblowing, careful voicing, and (perhaps) a stronger reed than what’s provided in-box. The instrument is extremely responsive to changes in key height which, when combined with partial keyhole covering, enables flexible microtonal playing across almost the full effective range. The detachable bell enables the adventurous performer to seal the bottom of the cylinder against the stomach, effectively creating a back pressure chamber that can be relieved by lifting any finger and delivers a de-tuned aural punch!
Balloons (by David Grollman)
Balloons...Balloons can be so expressive. Rubbing them, blowing into them, tapping them with your fingers like a drum. Blowing them up and letting the air out while you stretch the opening to change the pitch. Using your open mouth to change the sounds as the air escapes. Or blowing into them like a double reed instrument, stretching the opening to change the pitch. You can wet your finger and rub a blown up balloon. The friction creates wonderful sounds. They can sound like a singing voice, a scream, a rumble, a popping sound. It’s really up to you as the player to experiment with them.
One thing about balloons is that they can be very affordable as a way to make sound. You can go to your local dollar store or party store and get a bag of 12” balloons for a couple of dollars and just start playing. Let the balloon guide you. Have fun with them and explore all the sound possibilities.
PLACES TO FIND INSTRUMENTS
The free library maintains a robust collection of string instruments and some drums and percussion. They are available to rent for free. Which is really fantastic.
Wonderfully eclectic music shop just over the city line in Lansdowne.
A small collection of drums, marimbas, kalimbas, mbiras, and whistles. Fun place to be.
Has a small collection of drums, whistles, and mbiras and other traditional african instruments. It’s a small shop, so new items come in frequently.