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10 World Instruments Worth Knowing

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World music used to seem so out of place and far-removed from Western culture. In reality, a lot of its defining characteristics have been seeping into our own music for a few decades now. How many of you were first introduced to the sitar thanks to “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles or “Paint It Black” by The Rolling Stones? I certainly was. And if you happen to live in a large city, you’ve probably heard pannists or mariachi bands on your morning commute.

World music is — as the name implies — everywhere. There are so many beautiful instruments out there — often handmade and sometimes only available in their country of origin. I’ve decided to pick 10 of my favorites, a few of which remain fairly unknown to even most professional musicians. I hope you find them as fascinating as I do.

1. Qanun (or Kanun)

The qanun is a Middle Eastern string instrument. It contains 25 to 27 courses of strings, with three strings per course. The instrument, which is capable of microtonality, is typically plucked with two pieces of horn attached to a metal ring worn on the player’s index fingers.

Bassem Alkhouri demonstrates the qanun

Bassem Alkhouri demonstrates the qanun

2. Tama

Often called the “talking drum”, the tama has an hourglass shape, scalable pitch, and is held under the player’s arm. The instrument is from West Africa and has become quite popular there. The tone and pitch of the drum can be changed by varying the tension placed on its head. The tama can be heard in songs by Erykah Badu, Tom Waits, King Crimson, and Fleetwood Mac, among others.

tama jam

tama jam

3. Sarod

Similar in some ways to a fretless guitar and sitar, the sarod is a common instrument found in Indian music. It usually has 17 to 25 strings consisting of 4 or 5 main strings, 2 chikari strings, and 9 to 11 sympathetic strings. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, the sarod is an adaptation of the Afghan rebab, which arrived in India during the 16th century.

Maestro Amjad Ali Khan Plays the Sarod

Maestro Amjad Ali Khan Plays the Sarod

4. Shamisen

The shamisen is a Japanese instrument that somewhat resembles a banjo. It’s actually originally derived from the sanxian in China. The shamisen can be made with plastic, but dog and cat skin is also commonly used. The strings were once made from silk but are now made with nylon. A bachi, which is constructed with wood, plastic, or ivory, is used to play the shamisen.

津軽三下り(Tsugaru sansagari)

津軽三下り(Tsugaru sansagari)

5. Bansuri

The bansuri is a flute mainly used in North Indian music. It is typically made of bamboo and has 6 or 7 finger holes. The instrument is said to have mythical qualities. It was allegedly used by Krishna and had a mesmerizing effect on both women and animals.

Vivid Raag Madhuvanti | Pandit Pravin Godkhindi | Music of India

Vivid Raag Madhuvanti | Pandit Pravin Godkhindi | Music of India

6. Irish Bouzouki

Originally developed in Greece, the pear-shaped bouzouki was adapted for Irish folk music in the 1960s. It was popularized by Johnny Moynihan and Irish folk act Planxty. The most common tuning is G2 D3 A3 D4.

Irish Bouzouki - Jack Spira

Irish Bouzouki – Jack Spira

7. Duduk

The duduk is a double-reed flute that has been around since at least the 5th century. The body of the instrument is made from aged apricot wood. The Armenian instrument can be heard in numerous popular films, including Avatar, Gladiator, The Kite Runner, The Crow, The Passion of The Christ, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End.

Armenian Duduk - Yanni Live

Armenian Duduk – Yanni Live


8. Hang

Unlike many of the previous instruments, the hang is a fairly modern instrument. It was developed by Felix Rohner and Sabina Schärer in Bern, Switzerland in 2000. According to the creators, “Seven notes are harmonically tuned around a central deep tone (ding), which excites the Helmholtz (cavity) resonance of the body of the instrument.”

Hang Massive - Once Again - 2011 ( hang drum duo ) ( HD )

Hang Massive – Once Again – 2011 ( hang drum duo ) ( HD )

9. Mbira

The mbira is sometimes referred to as the thumb piano, and it’s easy to see why. Originating in Africa, the instrument consists of a wooden board and metal tines. According to Wikipedia, the mbira is often played at religious ceremonies, weddings, and other social gatherings.

Mbira music master piece Live

Mbira music master piece Live

10. Angklung

The angklung originated in Indonesia and has become quite popular throughout Southeast Asia. It consists of tubes attached to a bamboo frame. The tubes are built in a way to produce a specific pitch when struck.

Rihanna "Umbrella" - Angklung/Bamboo Version

Rihanna "Umbrella" – Angklung/Bamboo Version

Bonus: The Bubble Organ

Even though this instrument was invented by a young man named Aaron Wendell in Chicago, it’s so intriguing that I had to include it. The bubble organ was built by Aaron for an instrument construction course at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Bubble Organ: Art Rock Lives In Chicago

The Bubble Organ: Art Rock Lives In Chicago

Michael Duncan

Michael Duncan is a record producer, engineer, and writer who lives in NYC.