From Bo Diddley to Björk, musicians have often created their own homemade musical instruments. Such bespoke pieces of equipment may sometimes be bizarre, but they’ve helped artists realise the sounds in their head when nothing else on earth could.
Here we present 10 of the most iconic and interesting homemade musical instruments of all time. Let us know in the comments if there are any other favourites you like…
The Double Zither (Washington Phillips)
Blues and gospel singer Washington Phillips recorded 18 songs for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1929. In these sessions he used a complex instrument that he had made by reconfiguring two fretless zithers. In an article published in the Texas newspaper, in 1907, Phillips’ equipment was described as “homemade” and “the most unique musical instrument we ever saw. It is a box about 2 x 3 feet, 6 inches deep, [on] which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp. He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs. He calls it a Manzarene.”
Hear: ‘Take Your Burden To The Lord And Leave It There’
The Cigar-Box Guitar (Bo Diddley)
When The Beatles arrived in the United States, in 1964, John Lennon was asked, “What are you most looking forward to seeing here in America, John?” He replied instantly, “Bo Diddley!” Diddley, who had hits for Chess Records in the 50s, fashioned homemade guitars from cigar boxes (something sharecroppers had done to make a cheap instrument), an old blues tradition that gave his signature instrument its distinctive rectangular shape.
His first version was made in 1958 (the cigar boxes were good acoustic resonators) and was known as the one-string diddley bow. The blues star then asked the Gretsch company to produce commercial editions of his homemade musical instruments. One of Diddley’s first versions was stolen; he later found it on display in the window of a second-hand shop. He later made new six-string versions, sometimes covered with fur or leather.
The Cigar-Box guitar became an indelible part of his image. Diddley, who was known as The Originator remained an individualist, even working as a deputy sheriff in Los Lunas, New Mexico, late in life.
Hear: ‘Road Runner’
Cloud-Chamber Bowls (Harry Partch)
Californian-born composer Harry Partch, who died in 1974, aged 73, is one of music’s true mavericks. He invented a new musical language on a 43-note scale and created an orchestra of new instruments to play it on. Partch’s homemade musical instruments were often built out of found objects, such as the discarded ketchup and wine bottles and hubcaps used in the Zymo-Xyl, his take on the xylophone.
Partch gave his instruments exotic names. The Spoils Of War is a percussion instrument made of seven artillery-shell casings. The Cloud-Chamber Bowls use Pyrex bottles that Partch salvaged from a laboratory at the University Of California. There was also the Diamond Marimba, the Harmonic Canon and the Quadrangularis Reversum (a complex, custom-built marimba). Paul Simon used a number of Partch’s instruments, including cloud-chamber bowls, Chromelodeon and Zoomoozophone, on the track ‘Insomniac’s Lullaby’ on his 2016 album, Stranger To Stranger.
Hear: ‘Insomniac’s Lullaby’
The Red Special (Brian May)
In 2014, a book was published called Brian May’s Red Special: The Story Of The Home-Made Guitar That Rocked Queen And The World. It told the story of how May and his late father, Harold, an electronics engineer, started to hand-build an electric guitar in 1963.
May said: “My dad and I decided to make an electric guitar. I designed an instrument from scratch, with the intention that it would have a capability beyond anything that was out there, more tunable, with a greater range of pitches and sounds, with a better tremolo, and with a capability of feeding back through the air in a ‘good’ way.”
May played The Red Special (or “the old lady”, as the musician affectionately calls it) on every Queen album and gig. It was the guitar on which he played the national anthem from the roof of Buckingham Palace, in 2002, for the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. On tour, it even has its own bodyguard – likely one of the only (if not the only) homemade musical instruments to do so.
Hear: ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’
King B Flat Trumpet (Dizzy Gillespie)
The bent trumpet with its uniquely shaped upturned bell became an internationally renowned trademark for jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. But this custom-made instrument came about by chance. Music curator Edward Hesse, who persuaded Gillespie to donate the King B Flat model to the American History Museum, said that, in 1953, “somebody fell accidentally on Gillespie’s trumpet as it was standing up on a trumpet stand, and as a result, the bell was bent. Gillespie picked it up, played it, and discovered he liked the sound, and that it projected better over the heads of the audience of people in the back of the nightclub. Ever since that time when he got a new trumpet, he had it specially made for him, with the bell bent at 45 degrees.”
Hear: ‘Sonny Side Up’
The Walking Piano (Remo Saraceni)
One of music’s most celebrated homemade musical instruments is the “walking piano”, which was created by Italian engineer Remo Saraceni. It was installed in New York toy store FAO Schwarz, in 1982. Screenwriters Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg saw the seven-foot piano (then selling for nearly $7,000) and suggested it for a key scene in the film Big. Saraceni customised the instrument – adding a second octave and expanding it to 16 feet – and the scene, featuring Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia playing ‘Heart And Soul’ and ‘Chopsticks’ on the foot-operated electronic keyboard, is one of the most iconic in modern cinema.
The Conundrum (Tom Waits)
Tom Waits loves to add musical sound effects to his albums and has experimented with everything from tin cans in the wind, to rice on a bass drum. In 1983 he said that he had always been afraid of percussion sounding like a train wreck – “or like Buddy Rich having a seizure” – but the master songwriter tried something completely new in 1992 when he commissioned his friend Serge Ettienne to build him a percussion rack made from rusted pieces of farm equipment that are hung from a huge iron cross in order to be beat upon and otherwise “played”.
One of the most physically demanding of homemade musical instruments, it was called The Conundrum and appeared on the aptly-titled album Bone Machine. Waits said, “It’s just a metal configuration, like a metal cross. It looks a little bit like a Chinese torture device. It’s a simple thing, but it gives you access to these alternative sound sources. Hit ’em with a hammer. Sounds like a jail door. Closing. Behind you. I like it. You end up with bloody knuckles, when you play it. You just, you hit it with a hammer until you just, you can’t hit it any more. It’s a great feeling to hit something like that. Really just, slam it as hard as you can with a hammer. It’s therapeutic.”
Hear: ‘The Earth Died Screaming’
The Pikasso (Pat Metheny)
In 1984, Pat Metheny requested a guitar that had “as many strings as possible”. It took more than two years for luthier Linda Manzer to build the Pikasso guitar for the jazz great. The instrument, which has three necks and 42 high-tension strings, was inspired by the Cubist art of Pablo Picasso and weighs around seven kilograms. Metheny used it to terrific effect on the song ‘Into The Dream’ and he says that one of the tricky aspects is getting the baritone tuning right on a guitar neck that sits in the middle of the instrument.
The Voodoo Guitar (Don Moser)
Don Moser, a musician and artist from Louisiana, built his Voodoo Guitar from the debris left by Hurricane Katrina, in 2005 (the guitar is now housed in the Smithsonian National Museum). Moser, who plays with a band called The Swamp Kats, built it from parts of instruments he had salvaged, along with debris pieces of copper, brass, tin, plastic and fabric adorned with rhinestone and decorated with a picture of Marie Laveau, Voodoo Queen Of New Orleans (there is an engraving celebrating the spirit of “the Ol’ Big Easy”). Moser said, “I wanted to give people a peek inside the supernatural world as it exists in the south. I also wanted to continue celebrating African-American traditional folk music.”
The Gameleste (Björk)
Icelandic musician Björk Guðmundsdóttir is a true innovator. She was the first musician to release an album, Biophilia, as a series of interactive apps, and that 2011 album also continued her trend of using homemade musical instruments. The Gameleste, played on the song ‘Virus’, is a combination of a gamelan and a celeste. The bronze bars allow for a toy piano-like high register to create ethereal sounds. The hybrid instrument, which can also be controlled remotely, was built by British percussionist Matt Nolan and Icelandic organ craftsman Björgvin Tómasson in 10 days.
Discover more about how musicians embraced DIY ethics and created music on their own terms.