The turntable, invented 36 years ago, ranks as the most recently created music-making device with staying power. Have computers replaced the need for the next guitar?
Composer and inventor Tod Machover poses with a Beatbug, a percussive instrument, in a 2003 AP photo.
For the musically daring, it's hard to beat the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition, which takes place later this month at Georgia Institute of Technology. One previous winning entry turned whisks and garlic presses into music makers. Another, the Double Slide Controller, borrowed the trombone's slide mechanism—a 15th-century innovation—to shape digitally produced tones into an otherworldly drone.
Events like these would seem to signal a golden age for the adventurous musician. New instruments have come to market at a steady clip in recent years, offering novel and occasionally fanciful ways to perform music. Maybe you've heard of the the Eigenharp, the Tenori-on, or the Harpejji?
Or maybe not. Good luck hearing any of these contraptions on the recordings of prominent modern artists. You're more likely to come across Tibetan singing bowls (Fleet Foxes), 17th-century Indonesian angklung (Okkervil River), or the zither (P.J. Harvey). In other words, established pop and rock musicians seem more inclined to try just about any instrument other than a new one. The turntable might be the last new implement to break into pop music; there's even debate over whether that qualifies as an instrument, despite having its own form of notation and a course at Berklee College of Music. According to hip-hop lore, Grand Wizzard Theodore invented scratching 36 years ago. Suddenly, the turntable became a device used not just for listening to music, but performing it. And like the guitar, it turned into a focal point in live performances.