Looking to make it big in the music industry? There’s no better way to do so than by making use of the world’s biggest and most powerful musical instruments. Actually, there are a lot of better ways to make it big in the music industry, considering some of the instruments we’re about to look at are basically buildings or installations rather than instruments, and getting a pipe organ packed away after a show is more than you can reasonably ask of your average roadie. Here are 10 musical instruments (and one honorable mention) that won’t fit in the back of your friend’s van.WORLD’S LARGEST SINGLE DRUM
Although the Purdue Big Bass Drum popularly claims to be the world’s largest drum (though it may not even be as large as its cousin, the University of Texas at Austin's “Big Bertha”), until recently the true holder of the title is the 14-foot-diameter Ireland Millennium Drum, which for unaccountable reasons was apparently first played in England some 13 years before the Millennium.
In July of last year, however, the local government of Yeong Dong-Gun in South Korea obliterated the record with a 18-foot-diameter, 20-foot-long traditional Cheon-Go drum. The drum is currently a fixed installation at a local music institute, as its weight of seven metric tons makes it fairly difficult to appear at parades or football games.
WORLD’S LARGEST DRUM KITContaining 90 drums, 80 cymbals, the world’s largest custom-designed symphonic gong, and a total of over 500 pieces, the drum kit of Rev. Dr. Mark Temperato is so absurdly large and powerful that it is somewhat dangerous to play—Temperato claims that one performance where he got a little too enthusiastic with his gong left him with tinnitus and blurred vision for a period of two weeks.
After a setup and assembly period of eight to ten hours that often leaves Temperato obscured behind a vast array of drums, the reverend plays and preaches to packed Christian crowds in churches across the country as part of his musical ministry--presumably he gives the sermon before the drum performance so people are still able to hear it. The second-largest kit (or if you prefer, the largest drum kit in service of the Devil) consists of 308 pieces and belongs to Terry Bozzio, late of Frank Zappa, Fantomas, and Missing Persons.
LARGEST BRASS/WOODWIND INSTRUMENTSaxophones were designed to bridge the tonal gap between the high-pitched woodwinds and the big-bass brass section, and as a result come in all shapes and sizes. People are generally familiar with the smallish alto and tenor “curved” saxes (popularly seen with jazz and marching bands) and the soprano “straight” saxes (popularly seen with Kenny G and other people you want to hit with a brick) but lower-pitched saxes get larger and larger until we reach the mighty contrabass saxophone.
At a height of between six and seven feet tall and weighing around 45 pounds, the contrabass sax plays like a woodwind but is handled and sounds like some of the heavier members of the brass family. Only thirty of these super-saxes were built over the past eighty or so years, but resurgence of interest in the instrument has lead to some new production. A Munich instrument maker even built a few sub-contra-bass “tubaxophones,” but a very boring controversy over whether these qualify as “true” saxophones prevented their inclusion in this article.
LARGEST PLAYABLE HORNThe Windform Horn of Australian fabric sculptor Garry Greenwood is the culmination of a long career of designing, creating, and playing musical instruments made out of leather. Measuring twenty feet in length and played with a simple saxophone reed, the Windform Horn was available to the public to play until Greenwood’s death in 2005. Its current whereabouts are unknown, which begs the question, how do you lose track of a twenty-foot leather horn?
LARGEST ELECTRONIC INSTRUMENTThe theremin is one of the earliest electronic instruments, a tricky-to-use devicerelying on the positions of the operator’s hands to adjust frequency and volume oscillations in a way that, if played skillfully, results in the haunting and spooky moans and wails characteristic of fifties-era sci-fi movies, surf-rock, and avant-garde indie pop. Played less skillfully, it’s a more or less random collection of warbly noises that are characteristic of really really avant-garde indie pop, the kind nobody can actually successfully listen to.
In November of last year, artist Robin Fox built a theremin and antenna setup that measured over 23 feet in height for the city of Melbourne, Australia, where it stood for three months and participated in numerous public performances. The scale of the instrument means that instead of being controlled by two hands, the mega-theremin is controlled by the entire body, and teams of dancers often experimented with ways to coordinate their actions to the sounds produced. At all other times, the instrument was open to the public, where it proved a popular attraction for amateur thereminists of all ages.
LARGEST (TECHNICALLY) PLAYABLE GUITAROn the atrium floor of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Science center lies a 43.5-foot-long Gibson Flying V with kids walking all over it trying (like all children confronted with something unique and valuable) to destroy it. In the process, they discover a few things about how guitars work—some have even figured out how to wail by walking up and down the massive neck—since the guitar is, in fact, fully functional, albeit made out of plywood and heavy-gauge aircraft control cable.
Built by students of the Academy of Science & Technology in Houston in 2001 as part of an experiment in electromagnetics, structural engineering, and rockin’, the giant Flying V is part of the museum’s “GUITAR: The Instrument that Rocked the World” exhibit on the history and science behind America’s favorite stringed instrument. Unfortunately, nobody has figured out how to play anything coherent on the beast, which would require a tightly coordinated team of skilled guitarists who aren’t worried about what strumming a piece of high-tension aircraft cable will do to their fingers.
LARGEST (ACTUALLY) PLAYABLE GUITAROn the other eight pairs of hands, there’s the National Guitar Museum’s “Rock Ock,” an eight-necked electric guitar that they bill as “fully playable.” Created by legendary designer Gerard Huerta (responsible for the logos for AC/DC, Blue Oyster Cult, HBO, and Pepsi), the Rock Ock is an eight-necked guitar featuring every major guitar subtype: 6-string, 7-string, 12-string, baritone, bass, fretless bass, mandolin, and ukulele, arranged so that a single musician can easily switch between instruments, provided that he or she is already an invincible rock god fully prepared to jump from bass guitar to mandolin.
Technically it is also true that eight musicians can play each neck of the Rock Ock simultaneously, but the Guitar Museum’s own videos make it clear that the performance requires a precise yoga-style intertwining of performers involving ladders, footstools, and altogether too many occasions where one guitarist has to jam his or her face into the crotch of another, which is bound to lead to awkward situations (“Hey Gary, how come you get a boner every time we do a sweep arpeggio? Don’t pretend that you don’t, because I’m right there watching it happen.”). There’s also the matter of how often you need four kinds of guitars, two kinds of bass, and a ukulele in the same song, but it’s an interesting enough achievement.
LARGEST STRINGED INSTRUMENT, PERIODArtist William “Bill” Close spent much of the 80s at the Art Institute of Chicago dicking around with the creative intersection between musical instrument design, sonic sculpture, and acoustic architecture. His most fruitful and interesting experiments involved what he called “Long Stringed Instruments,” harps and harp-like sculptures with twelve heavy-duty strings measuring around 25 feet in length. Close spent several years experimenting with his instrument-sculptures and developing ways to “play” them that worked with standard musical notation, eventually discovering that cotton gloves covered with resin could play these super-harps in a way that produced sound that had the delicacy of a violin but the gut-shaking power of a troupe of cellos.
After developing his LSI’s to the point where he felt confident in adapting them to musical performance, Close formed the MASS Ensemble—MASS standing for “Music, Architecture, and Sonic Sculpture,” and employing musicians, dancers, and architects to create performances that made use of the acoustic features of their performance space to create truly unique musical experiences.
Eight years after the first MASS performance in 1991, Bill Close developed the ultimate expression of his theories of music, sculpture, and architecture: the Earth Harp, a set of two portable steel structures that are connected by twelve custom-built metal cables of a thousand feet in length.
The first Earth Harp performance in 1999 spanned a small valley between two mountains, but subsequent performances have taken place in all sorts of landscapes: canyons, cityscapes, and the flat desert of the Burning Man festival have all played host to MASS, and each landscape has served as a unique resonating chamber for the Earth Harp. Given that each venue MASS performs at represents a different “component” of the Earth Harp, every new location generates a subtly unique Earth Harp/MASS performance.
LARGEST NATURALLY-OCCURRING MUSICAL INSTRUMENTThe Luray Caverns of Virginia have served as a makeshift musical instrument since the Smithsonian Institution Expedition of 1880 discovered the curious melodic properties of the cave’s limestone stalagmites and stalactites. For decades, visitors to the Luray Caverns found they could produce certain tones by hitting certain stones, and the performance of popular songs on the cave’s natural features was a regular part of any Luray Caverns tour group.
After hearing several of these performances (and supposedly noting the clear and beautiful tone produced after his son tripped and hit his head on a stalagmite) inventor and musician Leland W. Sprinkle came up with the idea of automating the “lithophonic” performances by mounting hundreds of “strikers” on select cave features that were all ultimately wired to a standard multi-bank electrically-driven organ console from Klann Organ Supply of Virginia.
Instead of controlling stops and valves within a pipe organ, the Klann console actuated mallets and strikers all over the Luray Caverns to create a unique and irreproducible soundscape. The “Great Stalcpipe Organ” (as it came to be known) sat neglected for years until 2011 until Scandinavian music collective Pepe Deluxe refurbished the entire system for their album “Queen of the Wave.”
LARGEST AND LOUDEST MUSICAL INSTRUMENT ABSOLUTELY EVERAtlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall Auditorium Organ was and still is the largest and most powerful organ in the world, and at its peak operating capability was the loudest musical instrument ever made. Some numbers: the organ features 33,112 pipes, the largest of which (“The Diaphone-Dulzian”) is 64 feet long and was carved from a single hand-picked tree and the loudest of which (“The Grand Ophicleide”) can produce 130-decibel tones; the six electric blowers that pump the organ have a combined output of close to a thousand horsepower; the organ’s console is itself the largest and most complicated in the world, featuring seven keyboards (or “manuals” in organ terms), ten pedals, and over a thousand “stop” switches that subtly change the tonal qualities of the organ, and awesomely, the most powerful of the seven manuals is known as the “Bombard.”
The Boardwalk Organ used to deafen packed crowds of 41,000 people back in its heyday in the thirties and forties, but as music moved away from gigantic organ performances the instrument fell into disrepair. It was still powerful enough for a 1970s publicity stunt where it proved it could be played louder unamplified than a bunch of hair metal bands (that Bombard setting is no joke, Bon Jovi), but increasing decay and damage caused by a clumsy refurbishing of the convention hall left the BHAO just barely functional at the end of the twentieth century. Happily, a restoration effort is making headway—the Diaphone-Dulzian is already functional, and the organ is well on its way to being fully restored in time for its 100th birthday.
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HONORABLE MENTION: LARGEST OBJECT THAT PRODUCES MUSICAL SOUNDS
By Jove, it’s the second-largest object in the Solar System, and it has a CD out that’s worth a listen or two. Jupiter’s incredibly powerful magnetic field oscillates slightly, agitating metallic particles and plasmas that are caught up in the planet’s gigantic storm systems, and the interaction between all of these systems result in radio transmissions on the audible spectrum.
NASA started translating radio and electromagnetic information into audio files with the Voyager probe as a way of better “visualizing” the data that was being collected and discovered that Jupiter sounded less like the collection of staticky yelps and tweets they had been expecting and more like… music. Spooky modern electronic ambient music, the sort of thing you might get if you locked Brian Eno in a room full of synthesizers and told him he couldn’t come out until he had accurately captured the terrifying void and majesty of space.
It sounded so good that NASA released an album in 1990 titled “Voyager Space Sounds,” and an independent producer created a compilation album of all the Voyager 1 and 2 audio data (Voyager: Sounds of the Cosmos) available as a digital download. Have a listen to this youtube sample and chill out to the sounds of space.