Annals of musical instruments: two 20th-century inventions

As if there weren’t already huge numbers of folk musical instruments, in bewildering variety from all over the world, people are constantly inventing new instruments: the harmonica, the glass harmonica, the theremin, the Hammond organ, the saxophone, the sousaphone, and on and on. Now two 20th-century entrants.

Recently, a posting on the History of Music page on Facebook, passed on to me by Michael Palmer, about the melodica; and discussion on ADS-L about the bazooka.

The melodica.


The melodica, also known as the pianica, blow-organ, key harmonica, or melodyhorn, is a free-reed instrument similar to the pump organ and harmonica. It has a musical keyboard on top, and is played by blowing air through a mouthpiece that fits into a hole in the side of the instrument. Pressing a key opens a hole, allowing air to flow through a reed. The keyboard is usually two or three octaves long. Melodicas are small, light, and portable. They are popular in music education, especially in Asia.

The modern form of the instrument was invented by Hohner in the 1950s, though similar instruments have been known in Italy since the 19th century.

The melodica was first used as a serious musical instrument in the 1960s by composers such as Steve Reich, in his piece titled Melodica (1966) and jazz musician Phil Moore, Jr., on his 1969 Atlantic Records album Right On. Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal developed a technique consisting of singing while playing the melodica, resulting in a wide tonal and harmonic palette. It is associated with Jamaican dub and reggae musician Augustus Pablo who popularized it in the 1970s. (Wikipedia link)

On the classical front, two performances by the Melodica Men, who are great fun to watch as well as listen to: you can watch them doing Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca here; and doing parts of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring here. Or in a very different vein, Augustus Pablo performing Java (live in 1986) here.

The bazooka.


The bazooka is a brass musical instrument several feet in length which incorporates telescopic tubing like the trombone. From its start within a lipreed mouthpiece (which may consist of nothing but the bare tube or employ a mouthpiece which is handmade to emulate one from a low brass instrument), the air column expands into a wide length of pipe which slides freely around a narrower length of pipe which itself terminates in a widely flaring bell [apparently a big funnel, in early versions of the instrument].

Although the slide action of the bazooka appears to alter pitch, this isn’t the case due to the extremely wide diameter of the horn’s tubing. Manipulating the horn’s length changes tone quality as subtle harmonic overtones fluctuate. This effect gives the bazooka its characteristic warbling, echoing sound.
… In other words, the player’s lips produce pitches as they vibrate on the bare pipe end or in conjunction with the optional mouthpiece and leadpipe unit but not in resonance with the full tube length of the instrument. Unlike the trombone, the remainder of the bazooka works mainly as a megaphone to amplify the volume of the sound.
Radio comedian Bob Burns, who has the credit of inventing the instrument some 20 years earlier, popularized the bazooka in the 1930s. Jazz musicians Noon Johnson and Sanford Kendrick also played the bazooka.

The word “bazooka” originates from an extension of the word “bazoo”, which is slang for “mouth” or “boastful talk” and which ultimately probably stems from Dutch bazuin (trumpet). [NOAD2 connects it to kazoo as well, though the bazoo connection seems firm.]

During World War II, “bazooka” became the name of a new [tubular] anti-tank weapon (Wikipedia link)

(You can watch a video here of Bob Bazooka Burns and the instrument he made famous.)

A straightforward metaphorical extension, based on the appearance of the weapon — seen here being deployed by GIs:


The weapon moved to patriotic bubble gum:


Bazooka bubble gum was first marketed shortly after World War II [introduced in 1947] in the U.S. by the Topps Company of Brooklyn, New York. The gum was packaged in a red, white, and blue colour scheme. Beginning in 1953, Topps changed the packaging to include small comic strips with the gum, featuring the character “Bazooka Joe”. There are 75 different “Bazooka Joe” comic-strip wrappers to collect. Also on the comic strip is an offer for a premium and a fortune. Older Bazooka comic strips were larger in size and are no longer available.
.,, In November 2012, Bazooka Candy Brands announced they would no longer include comics, instead using brain-teasing puzzle wrappers in an attempt to modernize the brand. (Wikipedia link)

On the comics, see this 12/7/13 posting of mine. They were distinctly kid-friendly, not at all war-like.

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