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Five Instruments on the Cusp of Rockstardom

uke.jpg
Photo by Arnold Mejia
Is this rock's next great instrument?
By: Jesse Sendejas Jr.

Electric-guitar sales boomed in the 1960s, thanks to Clapton and Hendrix. In the 1980s, synthesizers were popular enough to blow up the likes of A-ha and A Flock of Seagulls. Beck upped the status of two turntables and a microphone, and everyone knows that a band's drummer gets all the ass.

The instruments of the moment are banjo, mandolin and fiddle. Thanks to groups 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. Somewhere, Woody Guthrie is smiling. But what other instruments are poised to make the leap from supporting act to headliner?

sawbug.jpg
Photo by Audrey Meyer
Musical Saw

The musical saw makes a mournful sound. There are no bouncy tunes being performed by this staid instrument. Which is perfect, because we live in serious times. The musical saw is ready for its close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Ever wondered why Jeff Mangum is a genius? It's because, in part, he's figured out how to make his Neutral Milk Hotel songs crushingly sad: by featuring musical saw bawling its eyes out behind Mangum's enigmatic poetry.

A musical saw player, Christi Mikles, visited my home recently. She was passing through town with the band she was accompanying. I sat in the kitchen one morning 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 sublime.

 

Harp

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, you've never heard a Joanna Newsom song.

Dallas-based 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 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 "All Along the Watchtower."

 

Washboard

My daughter plays the washboard -- 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 $300.

 

Ukulele

The uke has been trying to break through for decades. Back in the 1960s, Tiny Tim made it popular with "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." In the 1990s, it supported Israel Kamakawiwo's astonishing voice on his version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and then Tune-Yards tried to break it back in recent times.

Still, it never had much staying power as a main instrument. Even the likes of Eddie Vedder couldn't do it, though he tried mightily on 2011's Ukulele Songs.

 

Accordion

Does accordion need a makeover? These days it's mostly associated with traditional Mexican music, polka, and Weird Al.

If there's an Yngwie Malmsteen of accordion out there, it may be YouTube-famous squeezeboxer swissdaddycool. He's posted dozens of modern-rock hits to his channel, mostly shot in black in white at a secret location that seems to be his European living room. Metallica, Guns N' Roses, Deep Purple, and even Chopin...he covers them all.

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