What Makes an Instrument Unusual? A Look at Unconventional Stringed Instruments

When we think of musical instruments, we often think of the traditional ones like pianos, guitars, violins, and cellos. But have you ever heard of an instrument that’s not quite like any other? That’s right, I’m talking about the unusual instrument. These unconventional stringed instruments are often unique and challenging to play, but they can also produce beautiful and haunting sounds. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some of these unusual instruments and explore what makes them so special. So, let’s dive in and discover the magic of unconventional stringed instruments!

Exploring the World of Unconventional Stringed Instruments

Characteristics of Unusual Instruments

When it comes to unconventional stringed instruments, there are several characteristics that set them apart from more traditional instruments. These characteristics can be broken down into three main categories: materials, design, and techniques.


One of the most notable characteristics of unusual stringed instruments is the unique materials used in their construction. While traditional instruments are typically made from wood, unusual instruments may be constructed from a wide range of materials, including metal, glass, and even recycled materials. These materials can affect the sound and overall tone of the instrument, making each one truly unique.


Another key characteristic of unusual stringed instruments is their distinctive design. While traditional instruments have a familiar shape and layout, unusual instruments may feature unconventional shapes, multiple necks, or even unorthodox tuning systems. These design elements can greatly impact the way the instrument is played and the sounds that it produces.


Innovative techniques and methods are often used in the creation of unusual stringed instruments. These techniques can include the use of new technologies, such as 3D printing, or the incorporation of unconventional materials, such as carbon fiber. Additionally, some instruments may be constructed using traditional techniques, but with a modern twist, such as the use of sustainable materials or innovative designs.

Overall, the characteristics of unusual stringed instruments make them truly unique and distinct from more traditional instruments. Whether it’s the materials used, the design elements, or the innovative techniques employed in their creation, these instruments offer a fresh perspective on the world of music.

Brief History of Unconventional Stringed Instruments

Early Origins: Tracing the Roots of Unconventional Stringed Instruments

The history of unconventional stringed instruments dates back to ancient civilizations, where musical instruments were often created using local materials and craftsmanship. For instance, the Hurrian Lyre, a wooden instrument with two or three strings, was used in ancient Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. It was often played during religious ceremonies and is still played today in parts of the Middle East.

Revolutionary Instruments: Key Innovations Throughout History

Throughout history, innovative musicians and instrument makers have pushed the boundaries of traditional stringed instruments. One notable example is the Viola da Gamba, developed in Europe during the 15th and 16th centuries. This instrument, with its distinctive curved body and six strings, offered greater versatility and range than its lute and viol relatives.

In the 19th century, inventors like Hermann Hauser Sr. and Emilio Pujol contributed to the development of the Electric Guitar, which combined the principles of the acoustic guitar with electronics to create a new instrument capable of producing a wide range of sounds.

Contemporary Scene: The Current State of Unconventional Stringed Instruments

In the modern era, the concept of unconventional stringed instruments continues to evolve. Musicians and instrument makers experiment with new materials, shapes, and technologies to create unique sounds and playing experiences. For example, the Electro-Acoustic Violin combines traditional violin construction with electronic components, allowing the player to manipulate and enhance the instrument’s sound through various effects and amplification techniques.

Additionally, contemporary instrument makers are exploring new approaches to acoustics and design, leading to the creation of instruments like the Microtonal Guitar, which allows for the playing of non-equal temperament scales, opening up new possibilities for musical expression.

Overall, the history of unconventional stringed instruments is one of continuous evolution and experimentation, driven by the creative vision of musicians and instrument makers alike.

Types of Unconventional Stringed Instruments

Key takeaway: Unconventional stringed instruments offer a fresh perspective on the world of music. They are unique and distinct from more traditional instruments due to their innovative materials, design, and techniques. From the ancient Hurrian Lyre to contemporary electro-acoustic violins, unconventional stringed instruments have a rich history of continuous evolution and experimentation. These instruments offer musicians and instrument makers the opportunity to explore new sounds and playing experiences, contributing to the evolution of music.

Bowed Instruments

Viol Family

  • Violin: The classic four-stringed instrument
    • The violin is perhaps the most well-known bowed instrument, with a rich history dating back to the 16th century.
    • Its distinctive shape, with a narrow waist and a flat bottom, contributes to its characteristic sound.
    • The violin is typically played with a bow, which is held between the fingers and moved across the strings to produce music.
  • Viola: The deeper-toned cousin of the violin
    • The viola is similar in size to a violin but has a lower pitch, making it an ideal instrument for musicians who want to explore a different sound.
    • The viola has a more mellow and rich tone than the violin, which makes it well-suited for certain types of music.
    • Like the violin, the viola is played with a bow and features four strings.
  • Cello: The largest and lowest-pitched viol
    • The cello is a large, deep-toned instrument that is played with a bow.
    • It has a similar shape to the violin and viola but is larger and has a deeper body.
    • The cello is known for its rich, resonant sound and is a staple of classical music.
  • Double bass: The bass instrument of the string family
    • The double bass is the largest and lowest-pitched instrument in the string family.
    • It has a distinctive shape, with a curved body and a large, round sound hole.
    • The double bass is often used in orchestral music and is essential for providing a solid foundation for the rest of the ensemble.

Other Bowed Instruments

  • Hurdy-gurdy: A stringed instrument played with a wheel
    • The hurdy-gurdy is a unique instrument that dates back to the Middle Ages.
    • It has a long, cylindrical body and a wheel that is turned to create music.
    • The hurdy-gurdy has a distinctive sound that is both haunting and melodic.
  • Jew’s harp: A simple instrument with a single reed
    • The Jew’s harp is a simple instrument that consists of a metal frame and a single reed.
    • It is played by holding the frame in the mouth and plucking the reed to create sound.
    • The Jew’s harp has a unique, high-pitched sound that is often associated with folk music.
  • Bouzouki: A traditional Greek instrument with a pear-shaped body
    • The bouzouki is a traditional Greek instrument that has gained popularity in recent years.
    • It has a pear-shaped body and a flat top, and is played with a pick or fingers.
    • The bouzouki has a bright, lively sound that is well-suited for Greek folk music.

Plucked Instruments

Plucked instruments are stringed instruments that are played by plucking or strumming the strings with the fingers or a pick. These instruments are popular in many genres of music and come in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Guitar family

The guitar family is a group of plucked instruments that are all related to each other. The four main types of guitars in this family are the acoustic guitar, electric guitar, bass guitar, and classical guitar.

  • Acoustic guitar: The classic wooden guitar
    The acoustic guitar is a wooden instrument with a hollow body and a flat wooden soundboard. It has six strings and is played by strumming or plucking the strings with the fingers or a pick. The acoustic guitar is a versatile instrument that is used in many genres of music, including folk, country, blues, and rock.
  • Electric guitar: The amplified version with pickups
    The electric guitar is a solid-body instrument that has a pickup system that converts the vibrations of the strings into electrical signals. It has a shorter scale length and a smaller body than the acoustic guitar, making it easier to play fast and complex music. The electric guitar is used in many genres of music, including rock, jazz, and pop.
  • Bass guitar: The low-pitched guitar used in many genres
    The bass guitar is a four-stringed instrument that is tuned an octave lower than the standard guitar. It has a deeper body and a longer scale length, making it capable of producing deep and powerful notes. The bass guitar is used in many genres of music, including rock, pop, and funk.
  • Classical guitar: A nylon-stringed guitar designed for classical music
    The classical guitar is a six-stringed instrument that is designed for classical music. It has a flat wooden soundboard and a wooden body, and it is played with the fingers rather than a pick. The classical guitar has a unique tone and is used in classical music, flamenco, and other styles.

Other plucked instruments

There are many other plucked instruments that are not part of the guitar family. Some of these instruments include the sitar, mandolin, and kalimba.

  • Sitar: A traditional Indian instrument with a long neck
    The sitar is a traditional Indian instrument that has a long neck and a resonator box. It has two main strings and several sympathetic strings that vibrate when the main strings are played. The sitar is played with a flat-bottomed plectrum and is used in Indian classical music.
  • Mandolin: A four-stringed instrument similar to a guitar
    The mandolin is a four-stringed instrument that is similar in shape to a guitar. It has a teardrop-shaped body and a flat top, and it is played with a pick or the fingers. The mandolin is used in many genres of music, including bluegrass, folk, and classical music.
  • Kalimba: A thumb piano from Africa with a flat surface
    The kalimba is a thumb piano from Africa that has a flat surface and a series of metal tines. It is played by holding it in one hand and pressing the tines with the thumbs. The kalimba has a unique and ethereal sound and is used in African music and other styles.

Stringed Keyboard Instruments

Piano family

The piano is a quintessential keyboard instrument that has been a staple in classical music for centuries. It is a complex instrument that consists of a keyboard, strings, and a soundboard. The keys are connected to metal strings that vibrate when struck, producing a rich and complex sound. The piano is capable of producing a wide range of dynamics and tonal colors, making it a versatile instrument for composers and performers alike.

The digital piano is a modern electronic version of the piano. It uses samples of acoustic pianos to produce a digital sound. Digital pianos are often used in recording studios and for live performances. They offer features such as headphone outputs, metronomes, and a variety of sounds.

The harpsichord is an early keyboard instrument with a plucked sound. It is characterized by its distinctive sound, which is produced by plucking strings with a quill or a similar material. The harpsichord was popular in the Renaissance and Baroque periods and is still used in some contemporary music.

The organ is a complex instrument with multiple keyboards and pipes. It is capable of producing a wide range of sounds, from soft and delicate to loud and majestic. The organ has been used in religious and secular music for centuries and continues to be an important instrument in many musical traditions.

Other keyboard instruments

The autoharp is a musical instrument with a button-activated keyboard. It is played by pressing buttons that are connected to strings, which produce a sound when plucked. The autoharp is often used in folk and traditional music and is known for its distinctive sound.

The accordion is a portable instrument with buttons and keys. It is a versatile instrument that can produce a wide range of sounds, from gentle and delicate to loud and energetic. The accordion is commonly used in folk and traditional music, as well as in jazz and classical music.

The sitar is a traditional Indian instrument with a long neck. It is a stringed instrument that is played with a pick or a finger. The sitar produces a distinctive sound that is characterized by its microtones and resonance. It is an important instrument in Indian classical music and is also used in contemporary music.

Unusual Instruments and Music Genres

How Unusual Instruments Shape Music Genres

  • Fusion: Blending different genres with unconventional instruments
    • Examples of Fusion in Music Genres:
      • Jazz and classical music fusion
      • Hip-hop and electronic music fusion
      • World music and traditional music fusion
    • How Fusion Creates New Sounds:
      • Blending different musical styles and techniques
      • Creating unique textures and timbres
      • Expanding the possibilities of music composition
  • Experimental: Pushing boundaries with new and unconventional instruments
    • Examples of Experimental Music Genres:
      • Avant-garde music
      • Noise music
      • Experimental electronic music
    • How Experimental Music Genres Challenge Traditions:
      • Using unconventional techniques and sounds
      • Exploring new possibilities for music creation
      • Breaking boundaries and pushing the limits of music
  • Traditional: Preserving and celebrating the heritage of traditional instruments
    • Examples of Traditional Music Genres:
      • Folk music
      • Ethnic music
      • Traditional classical music
    • How Traditional Music Genres Keep Cultural Heritage Alive:
      • Preserving the history and cultural significance of instruments
      • Celebrating the craftsmanship and artistry of traditional instruments
      • Keeping traditional music alive for future generations.

Famous Musicians and Their Unusual Instruments

In the world of music, some of the most iconic musicians have used unusual instruments to create their unique sounds. These unconventional instruments have become synonymous with these musicians and have contributed to their enduring legacies. Here are some examples of famous musicians and their unusual instruments:

Pink Floyd: The band’s iconic use of the chiming twelve-string guitar

Pink Floyd, one of the most influential rock bands of all time, is known for their use of the chiming twelve-string guitar. This distinctive sound can be heard in many of their hit songs, such as “Wish You Were Here” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” The chiming twelve-string guitar adds a layer of depth and complexity to their music, giving it a dreamy and ethereal quality.

Bob Dylan: His distinctive harmonica playing

Bob Dylan, the legendary folk singer-songwriter, is known for his distinctive harmonica playing. He has been playing the harmonica since he was a teenager and has become one of the most celebrated harmonica players in popular music. Dylan’s harmonica playing is characterized by its raw, expressive style and its ability to convey a wide range of emotions. He has incorporated the harmonica into many of his songs, such as “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Like a Rolling Stone.”

Jimi Hendrix: Electric guitar innovations and techniques

Jimi Hendrix, the revolutionary electric guitarist, is known for his innovative techniques and experimentation with the instrument. He is famous for his use of feedback, distortion, and other effects that he created using various methods, such as playing with his teeth or behind his back. Hendrix’s playing style was influenced by a variety of musical genres, including blues, jazz, and rock, and he used the electric guitar to create a unique and distinctive sound that has influenced countless musicians since.

Sting: The use of the Bulgarian tambourine in his music

Sting, the former lead singer of The Police, is known for his eclectic musical style and his use of unusual instruments. One of the most notable examples is his use of the Bulgarian tambourine, a percussion instrument that consists of a row of small, mounted cymbals. Sting incorporated the Bulgarian tambourine into many of his songs, such as “Message in a Bottle” and “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.” The instrument’s distinctive sound added a unique flavor to his music and helped to distinguish him from other musicians of his time.

Unusual Instruments in Popular Culture

Film and Television:

  • The use of unusual instruments in film and television soundtracks and themes has become increasingly popular in recent years.
  • For example, the “thumb piano” or “kalimba” is a small African instrument that has been featured in the soundtracks of several popular movies, such as the Lion King and Black Panther.
  • Another example is the use of the “digeridoo,” an Australian Aboriginal instrument, in the theme song of the television show The Simpsons.


  • Unusual instruments are often described in literature, particularly in science fiction and fantasy genres.
  • For example, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds describes the use of a “hurdy-gurdy” played by Martians, which is an unconventional stringed instrument.
  • Another example is J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which describes the use of the “lute” and “harp” played by the characters, which are both unusual stringed instruments.


  • Unusual instruments are often depicted in visual art, particularly in surrealist and abstract art movements.
  • For example, Salvador Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory” features a melting clock played on a traditional stringed instrument, which is an unusual depiction of a musical instrument.
  • Another example is Rene Magritte’s “The Son of Man,” which features a man in a bowler hat with a pipe, but with his face obscured by a bird’s beak, holding a violin with a bow, which is an unusual depiction of a musical instrument.


1. What is an unusual instrument?

An unusual instrument is any musical instrument that is not commonly used or recognized in traditional music. These instruments may have unique designs, unconventional playing techniques, or distinct sounds that set them apart from more conventional instruments.

2. What are some examples of unusual instruments?

There are many types of unusual instruments, but some examples include the hurdy-gurdy, dulcimer, oud, sitar, theremin, and electric guitar. Each of these instruments has a distinct sound and playing technique that makes it unique.

3. What makes an instrument unusual?

An instrument can be considered unusual if it has an unconventional design, uncommon playing technique, or a unique sound that sets it apart from more traditional instruments. Additionally, an instrument may be considered unusual if it is used in a genre or style of music that is not commonly associated with that instrument.

4. How are unusual instruments different from traditional instruments?

Unusual instruments are often different from traditional instruments in terms of their design, playing technique, and sound. They may be more complex to play, require specialized knowledge or skills, and may be used in a different context or style of music.

5. Are unusual instruments difficult to play?

The difficulty of playing an unusual instrument can vary depending on the instrument and the individual player. Some unusual instruments may require specialized knowledge or skills to play, while others may be relatively easy to learn. In general, however, unusual instruments tend to be more complex and challenging to play than traditional instruments.

6. Can unusual instruments be used in traditional music?

Yes, unusual instruments can be used in traditional music. While they may not be commonly used, there are many examples of unusual instruments being incorporated into traditional music styles. In fact, some traditional music styles were created using unusual instruments, such as the hurdy-gurdy in European folk music.

7. What are the benefits of playing an unusual instrument?

Playing an unusual instrument can provide many benefits, including increased creativity, improved problem-solving skills, and a greater appreciation for the diversity of musical instruments and styles. Additionally, playing an unusual instrument can be a unique and rewarding experience that sets players apart from others who only play traditional instruments.

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