Over many years people have asked me about how I come up with the crazy instruments I build. Surely I must have a phenomenally creative mind. Um, no. I just look at other “real” instruments and think “what’s the simplest possible way to make a version of this, preferably one that is incredibly cheap and extremely hard to break, and that very young children will be able to play successfully”.
I’m very proud of my instruments – I think they are pretty darn wonderful, and other people seem to think so too, especially the children I work with – but they are not complex. My over-riding design principle is KISS. If I cant build it simply I don’t build it at all. If I can also make it from recycled junk that’s a bonus.
People also assume that I must have wonderful manual arts skills, that I am a trained woodworker and metal machinist. Nope. To be honest, my skills are very limited. I’m not proud of this, but I failed woodwork and metalwork in first year high school, and I think of myself as a self-taught wood-butcher and metal-hacker. OK, I had a lot of experience working with PVC pipe when I used to be a professional gardener, but a 5 year old child can cut PVC pipe just as well as I can.
Nor do I have a state-of the art workshop with milling machines, band saws, thicknessers, router tables and the like. I mainly work with manual hand tools of the simplest kind. In fact the only power tools I use are:
- a cordless drill
- a drill press
- an angle grinder;
- an electric jigsaw
- a 1/3rd sheet electric sander
- a hand-held electric planer
You could outfit my entire workshop by going to any major hardware store with $1000 and come away with plenty of change. Indeed there is not one of my instruments that actually requires power tools to make – they just save a lot of time, but if necessary I could make them just with hand tools.
So, if I don’t have enormous creativity, nor great manual skills, nor a flash workshop, how did I learn to make such great instruments? Two words:
Before I came across Bart Hopkin’s work and his wonderful books I had come up with a few very simple instruments. After Bart Hopkin – the world of weird and wonderful instruments was opened up for me.
Now, not one of the instruments I make is a direct copy of anything in Bart’s books. But almost everything I know about musical instrument design comes directly from reading his books, and many of my instruments are variations on his designs.
His books are utterly inspiring; in the simplest of language they explain the principles of musical instrument design – the physics, the practicalities, the tools needed, the materials you can use, & the methods of construction. And then he gives you full instructions on how to make them. Easy to follow instructions with diagrams and explanations. Just brilliant!
Bart is quite simply the doyen of weird and wonderful experimental musical instrument design. Using the simplest of materials and tools he makes instruments – wonderful instruments – and if you read his books you can learn to make them too. He is also a pretty damn wonderful musician in his own right.
The first of his books that I came across was “Musical Instrument Design” (See Sharp Press; 1996; 181pp; large format paperback, US$18.95).
This book taught me 90% of what I know about designing instruments. It covers every possible sort of acoustic instrument, and many that you will never have heard of or thought possible. If you buy just one of his books, buy this one. Some of the instruments are quite complex (there’s a few I would have difficulty building), but even if you’ve never done any manual work at all there are dozens of great projects that anyone can build.
It is also chock-full of the physics of instrument design – explained simply so that even a math-deficient and scientific ignoramus like me can understand them. I can’t stress enough how valuable this info is – it’s that information that lets you come up with your own designs.
Of course, you could just build the instruments in the book – and there are literally hundreds of designs for instruments – but half the fun in building homemade instruments is coming up with your own weird variants.
The next book I bought was “Slap Tubes and other Plosive Aerophones” (Experimental Musical Instruments; 2007; 64pp; standard format paperback; includes a CD; US$15.95).
Co-written with Phil Dadson, this is a much smaller book that concentrates on instruments like Thongophones and Stamping Tubes. Now, you will find those in “Musical Instrument Design” too, but this book goes into far more detail and also has some great designs you won’t find in the first book.
The third book I bought was “Making Musical Instruments with Kids“, subtitled “67 easy projects for adults working with children” (See Sharp Press; 2009; 116pp; large format paperback; includes a CD; US$19.95).
If you work with children between the ages 5 to 15 BUY THIS BOOK. Each instrument is graded by age and some are quite amazing (personally I think he has been quite conservative with the ages he recommends for each project – I think that with good supervision younger children could make many of the instruments that he recommends for older children).
Bart has many other books available too, but those are the ones I have and I can’t recommend them highly enough. Honestly – I wouldn’t be doing what I do today without them. I’m seriously tempted by “Funny Noises for the Connoisseur” (Experimental Musical Instruments, 2003; 60pp; with CD; US$16.95). The blurb reads:
This book, with its accompanying audio CD, is about comical sounds and how to make them … squishy sounds and gloopy sounds, farting sounds and belching sounds, laughing sounds and crying sounds, moaning and keening sounds, munching and snarfling sounds, scraping and squeaking sounds, bestial indigestion sounds, crazy-bad musical instrument sounds, Martians conversing, muskrats chattering, and morticians giggling. There are also some sounds that are more exotic than comic and a few that are strangely lovely.
Call me juvenile (most people do), but that sounds like a book worth having, especially if you work with young children. Is there a 6 year old in existence who doesn’t think that fart jokes are the ne plus ultra of humour?
Bart’s books are available from many on-line sources, but why not buy them direct from Bart’s site and cut out the middle man? You can find them all right here, along with Bart’s CDs of his own music and other useful stuff.
To finish with, here’s a wonderful video from Bart himself, showing how to make a driftwood xylophone. The techniques involved would work just as well with ordinary sawn lumber if you can’t find driftwood on your local beach.
(All photos of the books and of Bart are sourced from his web site; if you want to Pin them to Pinterest please pin them from there, not from my blog post – it’s just good manners.)
It would be remiss of me not to mention the other great source of inspiration that first got me wondering about whether I could make musical instruments out of junk. Back in the 80s here in Perth there was a wonderful band called AC-PVC, very serious musicians who made great instruments out of junk and PVC pipe. Mark Cain, one of the founding members of AC-PVC was a particular influence on me.
It was seeing them play that first got me interested in junk instruments. I was amazed by the possibilities, but I didn’t know enough about how to make such instruments, although I did have the privilege of attending a workshop with them that gave me a bunch of ideas and got me started.
AC-PVC mutated into Nova Ensemble, equally inspiring and although they are still in existence they appear to be on hiatus. If you ever get a chance to see them I thoroughly recommend you do so.