From the Back of the Band: Six Musical Instruments on the Cusp of Rock Stardom
Some musical eras are defined by the instruments that moved from the backing band to center stage as they unfolded. Electric-guitar sales boomed in the 1960s, thanks to Clapton and Hendrix. In the 1980s, synthesizers were popular enough to make one-hit wonders out of groups like A-ha and A Flock of Seagulls.
Photo by Arnold Mejia Is this rock's next great instrument?
The instruments of the moment are banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Thanks to bands like Mumford and Sons, Of Monsters and Men and Trampled by Turtles, these twang-tastic stringed instruments are no longer just for Appalachian jam sessions. They're being strummed and plucked all the way to the top of the music charts.
Somewhere, Woody Guthrie is smiling.
Before long, though, these instruments will be back on the shelves collecting dust until another set of troubadours comes along to make them hip again. So what instrument is now poised to make the leap from supporting act to headliner?
Photo by Audrey Meyer
The musical saw makes a mournful sound. There are no bouncy Wham-like songs befitting this staid instrument. Which is perfect, because we live in serious times with serious events occurring around us daily. The musical saw is ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.
I never understood why emo bands didn't rush out to find the best musical saw players available to support the pouty lyrics they sang. This is yet another reason Jeff Mangum is a singular type of genius. His Neutral Milk Hotel songs are crushingly sad because many feature a musical saw bawling its eyes out behind Mangum's enigmatic poetry.
A musical saw player, Christi Mikles, visited our home recently. She was passing through town on her way west with the band she was accompanying. I sat in the kitchen one morning, waiting for my bacon to fry, listening to her skillfully bend the notes on her instrument from the other room. I imagined its heartbreaking story while I sipped my black coffee. It was one of the most sublime moments I've had this year.
Associated with winged cherubs on high, it's time for the harp to make like Aretha and Whitney and go secular. If you think the instrument can't drop from the heavens into a grittier earthly realm, think again.
Not too far from here, right up I-45 in Dallas, harpist Rizpah Fitzgerald is drawing new fans to this ancient instrument by giving it some modern flair. She's a classically-trained, award-winning harpist who's played Carnegie Hall and The Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage, but her most exciting project might be her a duo with guitarist Eric Faires.
Dubbed Rizpah Eccentrica, it showcases her virtuoso harp playing and strong vocals on pop songs like "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and "Umbrella." If you've never associated words like "shred" and "wail" with harp, watch Fitzgerald take on Bob/Dylan/Hendrix's "All Along the Watchtower."
I'm a bit biased about washboard. It's an instrument my daughter plays. She plays it so ferociously, I swear I can sometimes see sparks flying from the damn thing.
There are tons of washboard/rubboard players laying the backbeat down for zydeco bands, but if it's going to scrape its way to front of the stage, it's going to take some innovation. No one is trying harder to make this instrument a centerpiece than New Orleans' Washboard Chaz Leary. He played at this year's New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and is in at least four different bands, lending his sound to jazz, blues and western swing styles.
I'd like to see washboard head from roots music to the mainstream. The washboard seems so metal. Because it is. Literally. I predict one day a resurgent Marilyn Manson will hit the stage with a gargoyle-shaped washboard hanging from his neck, wearing finger picks fashioned into gnarly demon claws. Then, Guitar Center will need to clear a wall for its collection of washboards retailing for $200 or $300.