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The Most Unique Instruments in Indie Rock

Indie rock is vastly saturated with guitar/bass/drums combos — we’re lucky if we get a synth or a Broken Social Scene-type orchestral section in there. But sometimes, bands break the mould, reach for something a little ~extra~, and blow our minds.

These are the most unique instruments to appear in indie rock.


Sometimes referred to as a wheel fiddle, the hurdy-gurdy is a string instrument with roots in the European middle ages. Played by cranking a wheel-shaped bow that rubs against its strings and compressing keys that adjust their pitch, it’s a curious device known for its ability to produce stirring drones. Today, you can hear it in Neon Bible-era Arcade Fire, Régine Chassagne helming one on tracks like “Keep the Car Running” and “Black Mirror.”

Photo courtesy of Pomax via Flickr.



Brooklyn’s Buke and Gase are responsible for sourcing a singular sound from a variety of homemade instruments, most notably their titular “buke” (a six-stringed, former baritone ukulele) and “gase” (a guitar-bass hybrid).



With a bow and some will, the traditional handsaw can be channeled to ethereal effect, and Julian Koster has kept the century-old tradition alive in Neutral Milk Hotel and in his solo project, the Music Tapes.

My rusty lover 💜🍂✨
Photo by @tidalcreations at THRESHOLD*:.
#painproofpixie #vaudeville #musicalsaw #singingsaw #rustysiren #siren #threshold

Posted by The Pain Proof Pixie on Friday, December 23, 2016




The droning wind bags of the Highlands would be subject to mass condemnation for inclusion in most music, but on Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s F♯ A♯ ∞, they’re right at home sounding the reprise of the theme to “Dead Dog Blues” on “East Hastings.”



In spite of its name, the autoharp isn’t a harp, but a chorded zither typically featuring 36 or 37 (but also as many as 48) strings. Basia Bulat frequently uses one on her recordings, along with its cousin, the hammered dulcimer.



Sitars rarely cross into contemporary western rock music, and usually only as gimmicks. That’s not the case with Montreal indie outfit Elephant Stone, who make frequent, prominent use of the instrument in their dreamy psych departures.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Plumb via Flickr.



Krist Novoselic famously swapped out his bass in favour of an accordion during Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged appearance for a cover of the Vaselines’ “Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam” (retitled “Jesus Doesn’t Want Me For a Sunbeam”).

Photo courtesy of Janelle via Flickr.



Sometimes described as a cross between an organ and a theremin, the ondes martenot is an early electronic instrument featuring a vibrato-triggering keyboard and a ribbon attached to a ring the player wears to control the pitch. Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood is all over it, channeling its sci-fi sounds on “How to Disappear Completely” and “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi.”

Photo courtesy of Julien via Flickr.



In filmmaking, film synchronizers are used to edit film and track the physical length of cuts. At the front of Holy Fuck’s mess of samplers, toys, and effects pedals, Brian Borcherdt often mics one to some inspired mad scientist effect, pulling at strips of the 2002 Denzel Washington vehicle John Q to add whirs and scratches in transcendent moments of novel frenzy.

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Jug bands were all the rage in the 1920s, but not until the 13th Floor Elevators and electric jug player Tommy Hall was the instrument repurposed for more modern music making.

Zen Smith as Tommy Hall on Electric Jug.

Posted by Danna Renée Williams on Thursday, September 5, 2013

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