A particular instrument can irk you; rub you up the wrong way. The correct thinking is to say that there are no bad instruments – just bad (unimaginative) players or incorrect use/placement of a particular instrument. But sometimes it’s not that logical – an instrument can be ruined for you because of one proponent; because of a signature sound-gone-wrong; because of a fad.
It’s probably no secret that I’m not a fan of the Ukulele Orchestra fad that is punishing the globe. The Wellington chapter plays gigs to devoted fans – fair enough. I attended one – it was like a church; preaching to the converted, the deeply faithful. And good on them – no harm if everyone is enjoying it; I applaud the work the group is doing with schools and children, the workshops and free concerts – or gigs aimed at the whole family. All of this is positive. But I do not like their rinky-tink versions of pop songs from the past. Their dumbed-down Kiwiana is insulting when served to an adult-audience – and it’s ruined the ukulele.
I was no huge ukulele advocate before hand – but as I said in the opening sentences, it was fine when played well and used correctly – right player, right context; you don’t need to be a virtuoso player to make an instrument sound great either. And sometimes it’s the virtuosos that strip the life and soul from the music and the musical instrument. I’ve seen the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain a couple of times – and good as they are/were this was definitely a case of (at least) once too often; the show was basically a complete repeat.
The ukulele is going to struggle to get beyond novelty value. And Eddie Vedder’s album sure didn’t help.
But the ukulele is not my least favourite instrument – I can still think about Phil Judd’s use of the uke on his idiosyncratic solo albums and the early Split Enz material and take some pleasure from the sounds of this instrument. Neil Finn and Paul McCartney and George Harrison all made good use of it too.
An instrument that has definitely suffered at the hands (and lips) of one musician is the soprano sax. Yes, thanks Kenny G! For a lot of people, the straightened saxophone sounds far too straight given the association with Mr G. Again, I can ignore Kenny G’s offerings – easy to do of course, don’t listen to them – and a bit of Dave Liebman or John Coltrane on the soprano will cure any thoughts of the poodle-haired jazz-lite jerk.
But the saxophone – be it tenor, soprano, baritone or alto – can be rather annoying. I love the saxophone as a jazz instrument, and sometimes in pop songs but I’m not (much of) a fan of the sax in a blues or rock context. Sonny Rollins though – sure thing (I even got to interview the man). John Coltrane? Of course – his sound was life-changing for me. But the turgid honking of the guy behind George Thorogood? No thanks. And though for some fans this is probably sacrilegious I’ve always thought that one of the worst things about Bruce Springsteen is The E. Street Band. And the worst thing about The E. Street Band? Most certainly Clarence Clemons. Now, “The Big Man” is no longer with us – so rest in peace and all of that. But his saxophone can rust in pieces for all I care. It killed several near-classics with its mating-geese honks and squawks.
But that’s a case of, to my ears, incorrect placement – the wrong instrument being played the wrong way. And I know that people will talk up Clemons’ showman-factor. I don’t care for that at all. Most saxophonists playing rock or blues-rock or anything where it’s not part of a horn-line or is a regularly featured instrument resort to bad-dancing and unnecessary percussion. These players must hate themselves when the gig is over; when the adulation dies down it’ll be a long, lonely night.
I can’t say that the bagpipes are the worst instrument to my ears – because I’ve heard them used in a few contexts where they sound fantastic. I am not referring to Mull Of Kintyre by the way. I’m thinking about AC/DC and Chris Knox using the bagpipes on their records. I’m thinking of the great Celtic music featuring the Irish bagpipes or uilleann pipes. But I’m sure for many the bagpipes are a contender.
Same with the banjo – I (mostly) love it but I’m sure a lot of people find it to be an awful sound and, also, I don’t like banjos when driving in to the Wairarapa. You can hear strains of banjo music no matter what you happen to be listening to and from there it’s not much to picture a canoe trip gone wrong. In this context it’s easy to see (and hear) the music of the banjo as somewhat frightening.
The accordion is another instrument that bugs some people – so too does the wheeze of the harmonica.
But I’m fine with these sounds. And I’m fine with most instruments. Steel drums, well that’s potentially dicey – as soon as they’re removed from their correct context it’s usually disaster. But there’s one instrument that I can’t take seriously, I can’t agree with, can’t get down with, can’t care for at all.
It’s fine for school kids to learn Three Blind Mice – but if you are older than 12 and playing a recorder you are simply a failed clarinetist. Clarinetists of course are generally failed saxophonists.
My own story of playing the recorder is not entirely important here – but I had it forced on me, as many did. I learned Three Blind Mice. I played it adequately. Anything else I tried to play sounded like a less-adequate version of Three Blind Mice.
But my recorder attempts do figure in my contempt for the instrument. Specifically the actions of the teacher; she was awful – she terrorised our class. There was a bucket of communal recorders soaking in disinfectant and she dragged one of the members of the class across the room – an eight year old girl who sucked her thumb. She forced the girl’s thumb out of her mouth and in to the water. Then pushed it back in to her mouth – this apparently was the lesson. If she taught like that now she’d be fired.
When I listen to the recorder now – not that I ever go out of my way to do that – I imagine this awful woman pushing this frightened girl’s thumb in to her mouth; the communal spit and disinfectant coating it.
There’s no reason to play a recorder. Ever. They sound terrible.
So, whether logical or not, what is the one instrument you just can’t stand? What is your least favourite instrument? Or are you happy with the idea that there are no bad instruments only bad players?