Category Archives: instruments


Greg Patillo is either a flautist who beatboxes while flauting – or a beatboxer who flauts while beatboxing. Or maybe he’s a beatflautist… or a flautboxer?

Either way you slice it, Mr. Patillo is surely the master of his medium. Just watching some of his YouTube videos is enough to make one lightheaded.

As with any groundbreaking music technique, he applies it to its most logical purpose: playing the Super Mario theme. He also does the Sesame Street and Inspector Gadget themes, as well as a bunch of others in the links below.

Sadly, there’s no Aqualung to be found, however…

More links: Hard Knock Life | Peter and the Wolf | Beatboxing Flute and Cello | YouTube: Greg Patillo videos



What’s the next logical step after you’ve constructed a Tesla coil that plays music?

Program it to play themes from Super Mario Brothers and Tetris, of course!

Different sets of keys

Tired of the same old humdrum keyboard? Bored with the old -school black-and-white keys in a linear configuration? Do you sometimes find yourself wishing for something with a little more dimension to it?

There are options, you know…

I remember a short blurb in an old issue of Keyboard magazine from the late 80s that mentioned an alternate keyboard layout – one that gave all keys the same profile and clustered them together in a two-dimensional pattern, rather than the linear one that traditional keyboard instruments have always followed.

I set out looking for some information on that layout, but I never found it. I did, however, find several others that look just as interesting:

Consider the Riday T-91 MIDI Controller, with its isometric keys and trackball. The notes are configured so that every scale pattern matches every other, no matter what key it is played in – a much-needed advancement over the antiquated piano format. You may have a bit of trouble finding this one, however – according to the comments on Matrixsynth, it’s been patented, but never saw production.

(Links: Oddmusic | Matrixsynth)

The C-Thru Music Axis uses hex-shaped keys that are arranged based on a harmonic table – not only do all chords and scales follow the same pattern, but major and minor triads can be played with a single finger, allowing for a much broader range of performance. A single hand can span four to five octaves, and complex chords can be formed with just a few fingers. Don’t miss the demo video on YouTube to see how it plays.

(Links: C-Thru Music | YouTube video |

This overgrown typewriter is actually the Chromatone 312, a modern synth based on a key layout designed by Hungarian mathematician Paul von Janko in 1882. That’s right, people were reinventing the keyboard over a hundred years before the days of new wave bands in neon pants.

It, too, uses a hex-shaped key layout that normalizes chord and scale patterns, but the notes are in a different configuration (and not as conducive to single-finger playing).

You can take a peek at some charts that explain the wholetone theory while your waiting for yours to arrive at your door, if you like. Momma, don’t take my Chromatone away…

(Links: MusicThing | Chromatone)

More to come, as I find them. Stay tuned!

Experimental music for kids on PBS

Every weekday morning, my kids and I enjoy some public television programming while we eat breakfast and get ready for our day. It’s probably just a coincidence, but the PBS morning programming for the last two days seems to have been themed towards experimental music.

One of my favorite television shows of all time is Arthur. The stories and morals are great, there are a lot of in-jokes for the grownups (always a plus in any children’s programming, as far as I’m concerned), and there have been some excellent guest appearances, including some great musical guests such as Yo-Yo Ma, Taj Mahal, and Koko Taylor.

Most episodes of Arthur contain two short stories, and the first story in yesterday’s episode was titled “DW Beats All.” In it, Arthur’s younger sister DW decides she wants to perform in Elwood City’s annual music festival, the Summer Serenade – but she doesn’t have the time to learn and practice a new instrument before then. After much thought, she devises a plan.

On the day of the festival, DW takes the stage wearing several noisemakers as her father wheels out a cart filled with even more. She then performs a piece of music on these found instruments – a hammer on a metronome strikes a pan, a fan blows cutlery and windchimes, she rubs her sandpapered feet on the floor, squeaks a rubber duck, plays a broken See-N-Say toy, and much more. At the climax of the song, an egg timer sounds, and DW opens an agitated can of soda – a soda coda!

The performance is very reminiscent of John Cage’s Water Walk, which I linked to in an earlier post. At the end of the story, DW taps the family car with a drumstick, and says that she plans to build something even bigger next time.

Another great kids show on PBS is Fetch! with Ruff Ruffman, where an animated dog sends a group of live-action young people on various missions to exercise their gray matter. This morning’s episode had him sending two members of his team to hang out with the Blue Man Group, where they learned to spit balls of paint at a canvas and play some PVC pipe instruments.

I don’t think my opinion of the Blue Man Group needs to be expressed. It can be safely assumed. If you’re not familiar with the Blue Men and their incredible work, be sure to check out the links at the bottom of this post.

It was great to see these two episodes about experimental music and found instruments. Thanks, PBS, for helping to foster the next generation of musical explorers!

(Oh yeah, and I still want these Blue Man toys something fierce:

Click the pics to find out more on

Errr… I mean my kids want them. *ahem* )

Learn more: Arthur episode 909a synopsis | Wikipedia: Blue Man Group | Explanations of Blue Man Instruments | Blue Man Videos on YouTube

Turn around, bright eyes…

How can anyone ever improve upon a piece of work like Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart? The passion and urgency of Bonnie’s throaty vocals, the bombast of Jim Steinman’s rock-opera arrangement… who could possibly attempt to rethink such a masterpiece?

Hurrah Torpedo, that’s who! This Norwegian trio puts their hearts and souls (and, in one case, ‘bottom cleavage’) into a timeless homage to the anthemic classic. Performed on guitar, chest freezer, and two ovens (one played with some sort of small club, the other with a large metal trash masher), this stirring performance is surely a fitting tribute to Tyler and Steinman’s magnum opus.

Watch it here – but get the tissues handy first!

(Just a mild warning – one of the percussionists in this video has a severe case of ‘plumber-butt’…)

Sadly, Hurrah Torpedo’s site appears to be circling the drain. At one time there were fantastic videos of innocent bystanders being subjected to their music. Nowadays, there’s hardly anything there but the occasional blurb in Norwegian. It’s a pity.

More!: All the Things She Said | Toxic | lots of interviews and stuff

Our Only Hope

I wouldn’t be a proper geek if I didn’t somehow recognize that yesterday was the 30th birthday of Star Wars. (Maybe now it can finally move out of its parents’ bedroom and find a girlfriend!)

In honor of this great moment in geekdom history, I present the following:

The Star Wars theme on a ukulele
…on a banjo
…on a 5-string bass
…on an accordian
…on an alto sax
…on a pair of turntables by a guy in a Darth Vader mask (check out this one, too)
…on bagpipes by a guy in a Darth Vader mask (no relation)
…on a Casio VL-1
…on bottles
…on a recorder
…on hand farts
…on a clarinet

And last but most earnestly not least – that lovable nutcase Buckethead playing the Star Wars theme on the guitar.

Just so you know, your personal level of geekiness is determined by how many of the above videos you clicked on – and how many you watched all the way through. (But it can’t possibly beat mine, for combing through a couple hundred YouTube videos to bring them to you…)

Playing between the lines

In microtonal music, the spaces between the notes in our traditional 12-tone western music scale are explored to create new harmonies and voicings. You can think of them, like American composer Charles Ives did, as the notes in the cracks between the piano keys.

I’ve been wanting to really dig into microtonal music in some upcoming posts to Parts Unknown, but after a quick Google search to read up on the subject, I came upon this picture of a 62 tone guitar neck, courtesy of the Microtonal Guitar Gallery:

It’s like a map to another world, or the guitar equivalent of alien crop circles. I’ve been too hypnotized by it to look much further.

More to come, if I can tear myself away from it. Stay tuned!

Learn more: Microtonal | Microtonal Guitar Gallery | Micortonal Guitar Conversion FAQ | Wikipedia: Microtonal music

The Zadar Sea Organ

The 3000 year old city of Zadar, Croatia (Google Maps) is the home to a very unique musical instrument and work of architecture – an organ that is played by the ocean.

A series of 35 tubes rest beneath the wide steps of white marble that lead downward into the water. When the tide crashes into the steps, it forces air through these tubes, which creates random pitches determined by the force of the waves. The result is random harmonic music in an eternal performance that is never repeated.

First opened to the public in 2005, the sea organ is a welcome improvement to Croatia’s shores, which were damaged by conflict during World War II. You can hear samples of the organ at Oddmusic (MP3) and Wikipedia (OGG), and even purchase a CD of sea organ music at

Find out more: Sea Organ home page | Oddmusic | Wikipedia

Arpeggiones and sympathetic strings

A couple years ago, I was sitting at my desk at work when a co-worker called from the next office over. “Turn on your radio,” he said, “they’re talking about some sort of rare stringed instrument. Sounds like something you’d want to listen to.”

Sure enough, our local classical music station, WSCL, was doing a special program on an instrument called the arpeggione (are-peh-JOE-nay) – a six-stringed, fretted instrument tuned to the same scheme as a guitar, but played with a bow. According to the all-too-brief Wikipedia entry on the instrument, only one piece of music was written specifically for the arpeggione – a sonata with piano accompaniment by Franz Schubert that wasn’t published until the instrument had long gone the way of the dodo.

“Ooooh,” I said. “I want one.” Which is what we always say in situations like these, right?

Soon after, I did a search to see if there were any instrument manufacturers who happened to be cranking out arpeggiones like mad (or, at least, taking special orders). Not that I could afford one, of course… but I love to daydream.

That’s how I found Fred Carlson and his marvelous instruments, at Beyond the Trees. Fred specializes in instruments that have sympathetic strings – strings that aren’t plucked or bowed directly, but sound out when the instrument is played. Commissioned by guitarist Erik Hinds, Fred built an instrument of the same species, but much further evolved.

Dubbed the H’arpeggione, it has eighteen strings; twelve sympathetic strings inside the neck and over the body, and six ‘playable’ strings. The neck has frets “between” the lowest seven semitones, which allows for microtonal playing. And, it’s drop-dead gorgeous.

While you’re daydreaming, be sure to look at Fred’s other creations – including my favorite, the Jomama – a papier-mache fretless banjo covered with ‘creature faces.’

If you’re inspired enough to want to commission an instrument from Fred, I wish you the best of luck. As he puts it: “I am currently not taking new commissions, except where the project is extremely compelling to me, and in line with my creative direction.”

It looks like you’ll have some convincing to do…

Mission statement


Before we weigh that anchor, I reckon it might be a good idea to let you know where we’re going, and how we plan to get there. Therefore, I present to you, the PARTS UNKNOWN MISSION STATEMENT:

Parts Unknown is a blog and podcast devoted to unique and unusual music. This includes (but is not limited to) unusual performances, uncommon theory and method, and even unusual instruments (or ‘usual’ instruments played in unusual ways).

Both the blog and podcast will be updated on a completely random, diabolical schedule. Any attempts to discern a pattern in the updating schedule may result in mental fatigue and possibly madness. Management will not be held responsible.

Because of the way things are nowadays, great caution will be taken when referencing music that is the property of the Big Nasty Music People (hereafter BNMP), to ensure that they are not given the opportunity to wreck any individual’s income and/or future. This should not be too difficult, as most (if not all) music owned by the BNMP is far from ‘unusual,’ anyway. Still, better safe than sorry.

When possible, all posts to Parts Unknown will be safe for work, and safe for the family. When not possible, sufficient warning will be given. There will be no drills.

If you know of some unusual music that should be explored, let me know about it! Drop me an email at

I think that just about does it!

For the first post to the ‘new’ blog, I wanted to link to a video of one of my favorite things ever – which, many of you have likely guessed, is Frank Zappa’s 1963 appearance on the Steve Allen show, where he taught Steve how to play the bicycle on live television.

Sadly, that performance is hard to come by. YouTube has pulled it, and the only other version of it I can find is this one on a site called DevilDucky – it freezes after a couple of minutes, however, and I’m not sure if it’s a problem with my connection or the site itself.

It’s a pity that this classic performance isn’t more readily available. But you can see some still pictures from it, read a transcript, and enjoy an article by Jerry Hopkins, where he tells the story of booking Zappa on the show as one of their “kook” acts, then discusses the idea of making music with “ordinary objects.”

If any of you intrepid explorers can find a more reliable copy of that video, please let me know!