Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Oboe



The oboe was developed by the French in the 17th century, taking an already silly instrument with a tone fit only for military outdoor signal calling and enemy intimidation, the shawm, and making it over complicated.  This is why most French preparations for duck involve some sort of steampunk contraption and leftover gynecological tools from the set of Dead Ringers.



France, originally, but it spread quickly across all parts of Europe(see also Boring, Boring Rash Arsenal: The Syphilis).  The oboe was originally referred to by its French name, hautbois(pronounced “hoe-boy”, as in “Ho boy, is that the way it’s supposed to sound?  Really?”) which is French for “loud woodwind” and not “the voice of a duck wood golem singing to you as you shop in your local CVS Pharmacy”.

What and How?

Early Oboe
Early Oboe

The oboe is a double-reed woodwind, meaning that two flattened reeds vibrate against each other which, coupled with the conical shape of the oboe’s bore, give it its distinguished timbre, described as “bright”, “vibrant”, “piercing”, “cloying”, and “pungent” even.  Really it’s not so bad, but its sound is intense; in an attempt to housebreak the instrument, the flared bell of the shawm had to be removed, and the neck piece covering the majority of the reed on the shawm had to be removed as well, giving the oboe a more mellow and controlled sound.  The fingerings of an oboe are similar to the fingerings of a saxophone, so on about the second date.


Well, in The Sixties…

The oboe seemed to be the must-have timbre to add a chamber-pop aloofness to feel-good hippie tunes(as compared to the menace of the sitar. which immediately made you switch from a left-handed cigarette or two to black tar heroin). There was “The 59th Street Bridge Song”, so aloof it was called by its sub name, “Feelin’ Groovy” more often than not.  “I Got You Babe” was so aloof that it let the woman be taller while the oboist skipped a groove like Zoot from The Electric Mayhem.  So aloof was the oboe playing in The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” that it doesn’t bother to be on rhythm or come in to any of the phrases properly, making me pull over to the side of the road and stutter-scream “FIGGITY FUCKING FUUUUUUUUUUUUU” every time it comes on the radio(listening to the single version of this song with a good set of headphones is a decent into madness, like The Serpent and The Rainbow but with more triangle rolls).

In The Seventies…

… that’s it.  You needn’t hear anything else involving the oboe from The Seventies unless Peter Gabriel is playing one.

In The Eighties? This…

[skip to 1:53 if you must]

…which led to this:

[skip to 3:44 if you must, but don’t…]

The Nineties?  Sorry, I got nothing.

But in the 2000’s, the prog-metal group Opeth go back to capturing the chamber music vibe of The Sixties with the opening track from their 2008 album Watershed, “Coil”.  But no aloofness here.  Oh, goodness no.  “Coil” warms you up for the track “Heir Apparent”, which the band was nice enough to call it instead of “Heir Apparent to Slayer and Megadeth as Proven By This Song”.

So enjoy the oboe this week, or just enjoy some aloof duck noises.  Better yet, in an act of aloof solidarity with the oboe, go full “Bartleby the Scrivener” on someone when they ask you about Duck Dynasty, then pass it to the left.

Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Theremin



The theremin was invented in 1920, which is why it slyly is shown as background furniture on the cover of all of your Decopunk graphic novels.

[NOTE: I’ve made every attempt to be factual and accurate, if irreverently so, in all of my “insightful humor” posts.  Be warned, though, that the propaganda machines behind both the Iron Curtain and the American Flag makes it pert near impossible in the case of Leon Theremin.  I was unable to edit out all of the ‘Murican sentiment because it is the most compelling story, not because the USSR were liars, liars, and fiery-pants wearers]


The theramin was invented by Leon Theremin[whose real name was Lev Serveegich Termen; Leon Theremin was his Westernized name, but history identifies him with it instead.  See what I mean?], a wizard of electronics for the Soviet Union.  Much like Celtic Frost, Theremin toured Europe before coming to the United States in 1928, patenting his instrument and starting mass production with a contract from RCA.  Shortly after that?  The Great Depression.  Theremin “left” the United States a decade later, with a little nudge from his mounting debt and a teeny nudge from a Soviet press gang.  The theramin lost favor as a musical instrument, so Leon continued to make awesome spy equipment(in a Gulag prison) and work for the KGB, later working for a music conservatory and a physics department for the USSR.  Theremin would eventually return to the United States, but not until the 1991, the year punk broke and rudely excluded the theremin from its ranks.

What and How?


The theramin, in its original form factor, looks like a toy piano possessed by an electronic ghost, with a vertical antenna and a horizontal metal loop connected to a wooden cabinet eaten alive by the design ascetic of The Rocketeer.  The metal loop controls the volume of the note, while the vertical aerial controls the pitch of the note.  Both operate by proximity; the closer your hand gets to the loop, the quieter the note gets, and the closer to the aerial your other hand gets, the higher the pitch of the note.  The motion of coordinating your pitch hand, which is both moving towards and away from the pitch aerial and trembling at a government-approved seven tremors per second to facilitate vibrato, with your volume hand, dropping one, two, or three fingers in like an at-first-timid-but-then-awestruck Grace Slick poolboy, is difficult to master[unless you are Lenin, who, according to legend purported by the man himself,  was able to play “Skylark” immediately after watching Theremin perform it].

The trick to playing a theremin correctly is understanding the vocal concept of portamento.  Portamento is a technique where a vocalist uses a glissando effect, sliding the pitch of his/her voice from one to another.  It’s more subtle than the trombone’s glissando, the clowns of the orchestra that they are*.  Even in its subtly, however, it is widely discouraged among classical musicians.  In fact, if you ever wonder if a classically trained vocalist lady you’re dating is also trained in Taekwondo, tell her as you’re strolling on the moonlit beach about how much you love the way those American Idol singers hunt and peck and warble for the notes because it sounds “soulful” and “like they’re really feeling it”.  Is she stating to slide her dress over her knees?  No, your music talk hasn’t put her in a sexy mood; she is giving herself the full range of motion needed to dislocate your jaw with the hardened heel of her weaponized foot.


Using portamento correctly on the theremin gives the instrument the vocal, lyrical quality that makes what is essentially feedback aurally palatable.  Clara Rockmore, who helped establish the signature sound and technique of the theremin, said that the performer must “play through the rests”, and proper playing of the theremin means that during phrases you can’t stop the sound completely by sticking your whole fist through the volume loop, the main reason Rob Halford refuses to use the instrument on any Fight albums.


Because HAUNTED BY ROBOTS, that’s why!  Here’s three of my favorite rock theremin parishioners:

1) Brian Wilson

Sure, only once, but once is enough when it’s on “Good Vibrations”.  Coupled with the chamber echo on the bass and the organ sound, the theremin was the perfect lyrical voice to hover over the cello strokes and walking bass parts.  Apparently Carl’s idea, but I’m sure somehow Dr. Landy tried to take credit…

2. NOT Portishead

I sure do love me some Portishead, but according to the band they never use a theremin to make their eerie, Fifties-era electronica noises.  Part of the reason the theremin went out of vogue was the creation of synths like the Moog, with a more familiar method of performance(keyboard) making it easier to get the sound the performer needed.  Playing a synthesizer doesn’t look as cool as playing a theremin, but still sounds awesome.

3. Mike Patton

On the off chance that Mike Patton isn’t using his voice as a theremin substitute, he often surrounds himself with the sound of one.  Often the theremin takes over the melodic line in his songs or is doubling the vocals, but every once in a while Patton kicks out the jams with his own “cheater” theremin in his kit of effects, with just one aerial to control pitch.

So celebrate Independence Day this week by listening to the theremin, which I guess was invented by a Communist but Clara Rockmore had to learn to play one because the malnutrition she suffered behind the Iron Curtain left her too weak to master the violin USA USA USA USA.

*Saying the trombone is “the clown of the orchestra” is tiring, I know, but a fantastic trombone player I know once called someone who was running past his allotted time in the rehearsal hall a “ham sandwich”.  This happened roughly eighteen years ago, and I’m still laughing thinking about it.  Clowns, indeed.



Hawkwind: Silver Machine

Kaada/Patton: Invocation


Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Cowbell

Brief summary of important risk information


COWBELL (bovinated idiophone)

What is COWBELL?

COWBELL is a medicine prescribed for people with low or moderately low internalized rhythm, made from the same natural ingredients found in salsa.  Commonly used in the bovine industry, COWBELL has been tested and prescribed for adult rock-and-roll patients.

Who should not take COWBELL?


  • are vegan.
  • are currently taking other rhythm-enhancing drugs, like AGOGO or CENCERRO.
  • are currently or may become racist.
  • fear the reaper.
  • live in Oxford, Mississippi.
  • have had a history or family history of auxiliary percussion abuse.
  • are not a man.


What should I tell my doctor before taking COWBELL?

Tell your doctor if you've experienced earth and wind and fire in the month of September
Tell your doctor if you’ve experienced earth and wind and fire in the month of September.

Tell your doctor about all percussion instruments you play or plan to play, including timbales, bongos, or drumsets.  Your doctor will decide if COWBELL is right for you.  Tell your doctor if you plan to play with madness.  Let your doctor know if you plan to become a resident outside of the United States or were a resident outside of the United States after 1973.

Some songs may require you to take COWBELL with a horsehair bow commonly used with stringed instruments.  Tell your doctor before doing something so pretentious and awful; he may want to prescribe COWBELL FOR ORCHESTRA.

How should I take COWBELL?

COWBELL is formulated to work optimally at the dosage prescribed to you.  Do not use more COWBELL.

What are the possible side effects of COWBELL?

While taking COWBELL, Daft Punk may be playing at your house, your house.
While taking COWBELL, Daft Punk may be playing at your house, your house.

COWBELL is generally well tolerated.  As with any auxiliary percussion instrument, some rockers taking COWBELL may experience side effects.  The side effects are usually mild and do not last long.  The most common side effects of COWBELL are dizziness, sensations of being “funky as hell” or “muy caliente”, skin rash, honky-tonk womanizing, nausea, and the inability to take anything.

Some percussionists taking COWBELL suffer a rare form of Tourette’s.  These percussionists report the yelling of “baile!” and “vamanos!” at intermittent intervals.  This reaction usually does not reappear after the first set break.  Seek medical attention if this side effect lasts past 2:00 AM.

What do I do in case of an overdose?

If you feel you have overdosed on COWBELL, leave Starkville immediately.

Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Banjo



Jeez, no one knows.  The versions most similar to modern banjos, with pegged tuning and fingerboards, turned up in the 17th century.  Before that, though, nearly every culture known had some sort of resonating instrument that could have been the father of the banjo.

Since this a rock and roll post,  your “when” question might be “when did white people steal the banjo from black people?”  We know this one: sometime in the 1830’s.  And we know who! Continue reading “Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Banjo”

Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Twelve-String Bass Guitar



The first 12-string bass was invented in 1978, sometime between the Jonestown Massacre and the first limited-theater release of The Deer Hunter, giving it the kind of ominous, Satanic creditably it would need to perform as a rock and roll instrument.


The 12-stringed bass in question was made by Jol Dantzig, the perfect German horror stage name for some baby-eating pig masturbator or equally demonic person, Hell-bent on building a Starbucks for the Antichrist with the power of rock music. Continue reading “Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Twelve-String Bass Guitar”

Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Chainsaw



Before it was a musical instrument, the chainsaw was a medical instrument; the chainsaw, operated by hand to remove diseased limbs from living patients, was invented in 1785 by Scottish doctors, proving that the stereotype of Scotsmen being such drunkards that they thought a hand-cranked saw used to sever legs off of their living owners was a good idea is not a modern construct. Continue reading “Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Chainsaw”

Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Keytar



Well, let’s get this out of the way first: Edgar Winter’s keyboard strapped around his shoulders out of bad-ass necessity in the Seventies does not count.  He’s already a Confirmed Rockstar and The Coolest Albino Since Raistlin Majere; I am sure he will get over the heartache of not also being the inventor of the keytar. Continue reading “Boring, Boring Rock Arsenal: The Keytar”