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Twanging, Stirring, Thundering And Shaking: My Favorite Exotic Percussion Instruments – Part Two

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Following my recent look at percussion instruments, it became clear that further investigation was needed.

As I said then, the field is wide. So let’s start with an instrument that most people are familiar with:

The Rainstick:

It’s possible (but not certain) that the Rainstick originated with certain hollow cacti in South America. Lengths of the cactus were dried in the sun, and then the spines were removed before being turned around and pushed back into the cactus, creating a sort of lattice inside. Then amounts of small stones or seeds were added and the ends were sealed.

The primary mechanisms are gravity and kinetics.

The player lifts an end of the Rainstick, which causes the filling inside to fall down through the lattice work. The filling bounces off of the needles inside, and this is what causes the sound. 

Generally speaking, it’s used more as a meditative instrument. Surely there are other examples, but this gorgeous serving of pastoral melancholy is the one I know:

Additionally, it can be used in a style similar to a shaker. I brought up shakers last time without going into depth. That’s a bit of a glaring omission, one that bears correction. Thankfully, most people are already familiar with shakers.

Which is to say, the Rainstick can be thought of as a shaker variant.  The mechanics are the same.  And indeed, if a Rainstick is held level, it works exactly like a shaker. Go to 04:30 of the above video to see a short example of how that can work.


The Jaw Harp is also familiar to most people.

But otherwise, it has nothing in common with the Rainstick. The Jaw Harp is generally a metallic construction, and the style of playing is… unusual, to say the least:

To get the full effect, one has to physically place the Jaw Harp directly in contact with their front teeth.

Then, a small metal arm – crucially, the one that is NOT pressed against the teeth – is plucked by the player. Instead of a gourd or some sort of tube, the player’s mouth is used as the resonance chamber.

This allows for a wide range of expressive tonalities. In the same way that it’s done with a harmonica, the player changes the tone of the instrument by varying the position of the tongue and the shape of the inside of the mouth.

It may be the case that the Jaw Harp ranks somewhere near the kazoo in terms of how seriously it’s taken by music fans, but it’s a surprisingly versatile and expressive instrument:

The trade-off is that the player has to press an actively vibrating chunk of metal against their teeth. It’s for this reason that I generally avoid the Jaw Harp – I’m rather concerned with maintaining the structural integrity of my skeleton.

My uneasy feeling is that the Jaw Harp is the instrument that is most likely to be recommended by a dentist with a third mortgage.


The Thunder Tube, or Spring Drum, also uses a resonating chamber and has a metallic element.

The spring drum is superficially similar to the Cuica, which I profiled last time. But instead of a thin wooden dowel which is rubbed by the player, the Spring Drum uses – you guessed it – a metal spring, which is attached to the thin drumhead that covers one end of the tube. The sound is created when the instrument is shaken or struck.

The vibration of the spring is transferred through the drum head, and the tube acts as the resonating chamber. It’s great for certain effects and situations, but tricky to use in a highly rhythmic manner.


Even less familiar is the Kokiriko, an instrument of Japanese heritage.

Honestly, you’re not likely to hear this one in the wild. But it’s interesting in that its construction is unique.

Basically, the Kokiriko is a series of small wooden slats that are tied together in a particular way.

Often there are handles on both ends of the row of slats, and the player holds both ends by the handles, moving the whole apparatus in a way that makes the slats clack into each other.

As with most percussion instruments, there are a variety of ways to work it. A skilled player can make it swing like shakers, can make it sound like wind and rain, and can snap it loudly. 

Honestly, I had a very hard time finding a video of anyone playing a Kokiriko competently…


Lastly is the Stir Drum.

This is similar to a very small xylophone – usually with eight small slats or notes – mounted on a circular base. The player holds it in one hand and uses a mallet or stick in the other. The notes can be struck singly from the inside or the outside, or the player can place the mallet inside and rapidly bounce it between two oppositely-placed slats.

You can hear an example of that at the beginning of this selection:

Even more interesting is the technique suggested by the drum’s name: The mallet is placed inside and then moved in a circular motion, tapping the slats quickly in succession. The motion is reminiscent of stirring a big cup.

The slats are placed in order of length, so “stirring” it, depending upon the direction of the motion, creates a rapidly repeating upward or downward series of tones. The effect is a bit hypnotic.


In contrast to a xylophone, the slats on a Stir Drum are not tuned to specific notes. This contributes to an effect in which listening to and playing the Stir Drum is more evocative of the sounds of Nature – a babbling brook, for instance – than formal music. And really, that’s true of quite a lot of the percussion instruments. 

That’s not to say that these instruments CAN’T be tuned to certain keys.  But looked at in a broad context, I think the wide-scale occurrence of Rhythm pre-dates, and as a result can exist outside of, the idea of keys and tuning in music at large. 

“Harmony and Melody collapse without Rhythm:”

“But Rhythm can stand on its own.”

tnocs contributing author both grouse

Tapping into your sense of rhythm – and EVERYONE has a sense of rhythm – it’s a tried and true method of dipping one’s toe into the mystic. 

And literally, all it takes is tapping your foot…

There’s more to be said about percussion.

But next time we should talk about drums!

…to be continued…

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Phylum of Alexandria
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January 3, 2024 7:30 am

Man, watching those jaw harp videos really make me want to get one, just thinking of all the obnoxious fun I’d have. But you’re right, the vibration of metal on teeth part is a big no for me. A shame.

As for the kokiriko, I found this video of a live performance, and the instrument pops in about 3 minutes in:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tgb-AO0PuwU

But I enjoyed your demonstration as well!

Last edited 1 month ago by Phylum of Alexandria
Phylum of Alexandria
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January 3, 2024 8:43 am
Reply to  Both Grouse

Apparently dances like these come from harvest festivals, with the kokiriko being played and handled like a farming tool of the same name.

Pauly Steyreen
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January 3, 2024 11:45 am

That video hypnotized me — so mesmerizing and tranquil!

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 3, 2024 12:10 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

It is lovely. This dance, based on fish workers, is a lot peppier:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GzmrGAM2U7c

cappiethedog
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January 3, 2024 7:05 pm

I have the sudden sensation of life flashing before my eyes. All those grammar school field trips. For me, it’s like a lucid dream.

rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 8:48 am

Look at the Grouse, using some really cool instruments to spotlight! (Sorry it was just sitting there. I had to do it) I was very familiar with the first two. The first song that comes to mind that uses mouth harp is Up On Cripple Creek by the Band. Any other suggestions?

We use rain stick in church here and there, mostly to set a reflective mood at the beginning of a song. I love it.

I was vaguely famiar with the thunder tube but I don’t remember why.

The last two were not familiar to me, though the sound of the stir drum is something I have heard. Fascinating stuff.

As a Catholic music director, I do have to opine that one place that melody does not necessarily collapse on itself without rhythm is traditional chant, unless you consider rhythm to exist whenever there are multiple sounds made in sequence. Feel free to debate me.

rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 11:59 am
Reply to  Both Grouse

Got it. Chant has no meter and notes are not held out for a specific amount of time, but there are longer notes and shorter notes and there is a flow. It can feel rhythmic no doubt.

Last edited 1 month ago by rollerboogie
rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 9:02 am

Also, I may have met one person who had no sense of rhythm. He was playing a tambourine at a jam session and it was completely random. No matter how hard we tried, we could not get him even close to playing in time. Afterward I joked that if it had endured any longer, he would have propelled us all to an alternate dimension where we were out of sync with time itself and the only way back was to get him to play the tambourine on the beat.

Zeusaphone
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January 3, 2024 9:36 am

Well, I don’t know much about bands but I do know
You can’t make a living selling big trombones, no sir
Mandolin picks, perhaps and here and there a Jew’s harp…

Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 10:16 am
Reply to  Zeusaphone

No, the fellow sells bands, Boys bands. I don’t know how he does it but he lives like a king and he dallies and he gathers and he plucks and shines and when the man dances, certainly boys, what else? The piper pays him! Yes sir ,yes sir, yes sir, yes sir. 

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 3, 2024 10:28 am
Reply to  Both Grouse

You’re not, but I Googled it. 😃

Zeusaphone
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January 3, 2024 11:27 am
Reply to  Both Grouse

That is sad. You’ve missed out on an all time great musical. Great songs, tons of funny lines, and the film has superlative performances by Robert Preston and Shirley Jones as the leads.

rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 12:10 pm
Reply to  Zeusaphone

My daughter was a pick-a-little lady in a youth theater production of this. It grows on you.

Last edited 1 month ago by rollerboogie
Zeusaphone
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January 3, 2024 2:54 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

I hope she got to say “Ballllllzac”. That’s double entendre gold.

rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 4:48 pm
Reply to  Zeusaphone

She didn’t. The girl that had that line stole the show.

rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 12:02 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Zeusaphone, that rhymes with Sousaphone, that stands for…I’m out

LinkCrawford
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January 4, 2024 12:30 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

But he doesn’t know the territory!!!!

I don’t have tons of Broadway soundtracks, but The Music Man is known well in our family.

Aaron3000
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January 6, 2024 2:02 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

I mainly know of it as it inspired a very funny episode of “The Simpsons”:

https://youtu.be/KGg5rfBfWT4?si=6lPrt0LFvKnQrqPG

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 11:05 am

I have a jaw harp and, try as I might, I can’t get a sound out of it. It’s probably me and not the harp but is it supposed to make a sound if not at the mouth? When I pluck mine on its own, it barely makes a twang. You couldn’t hear it across the room.

Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 12:05 pm
Reply to  Both Grouse

I’m still not getting much of a sound. I think I need better teeth.

Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 12:57 pm
Reply to  Both Grouse

Did that, and watched some instruction videos. Still no luck. Maybe it’s the universe’s way of telling me to stick with bass.

Pauly Steyreen
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January 3, 2024 11:41 am

Whoa, BG, that Kokiriko was a trip! It almost sounded like fiddling with your zipper… (Would a zipper count as a percussion instrument?)

mt58
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January 3, 2024 11:47 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

> fiddling with your zipper

This just in: Pauly has initiated a BAND NAME ALERT!

Pauly Steyreen
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January 3, 2024 11:51 am
Reply to  mt58

Not sure I’d want to see that band, mt58. Sounds a little pervy…

Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 11:58 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

In the name of good taste, which is rare for me, I’m going to pass on this one. Even if you switch it to The Zipper Fiddlers.

Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 12:57 pm
Reply to  Both Grouse

Now you’re talking!

rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 4:57 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

Squirrel Nut Zipper Fiddlers anyone?

rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 12:05 pm
Reply to  mt58

If we ever do a worst band names ever tournament, and we should, that there be a finalist

Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 12:15 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

Don’t tempt me….

cappiethedog
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January 3, 2024 7:07 pm
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

You could use your zipper to imitate the “scratching” on “Rockit”.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 3, 2024 1:35 pm

The only ones I know of are the Rainstick which I’ve seen mostly as being sold in museum / zoo gift shops aimed at children.

The other is the Jaw Harp, which I know as the Jew’s Harp. Done a quick Google to establish they’re one and the same thing and see what the Jewish connection may be. According to the Oxford English Dictionary it appears that it has no connection at all to Jews and there’s no firm evidence for how it got that name. Jaw Harp makes a whole lot more sense and would have been a lot less confusing to me when I first heard of it as a kid.

Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 2:21 pm

My understanding, and this is based only on urban legend, is that it was originally a “juice harp” due to all the saliva propelled from the user, and that got misheard as “Jew’s harp.” No idea if that’s true, but it’s a good story.

Virgindog
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January 3, 2024 4:44 pm
Reply to  Both Grouse

I’ve heard it called “mouth harp,” too.

rollerboogie
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January 3, 2024 4:52 pm
Reply to  Virgindog

I only heard Jew’s harp growing up, and then mouth harp replaced it.

thegue
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January 4, 2024 9:39 am
Reply to  Both Grouse

You know, there used to be this site where a commenter couldn’t use the word “harmonica”, so they had to come up with alternate words to represent it, like “harmonicles”.

I wonder whatever happened to that site.

Phylum of Alexandria
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January 3, 2024 7:23 pm
cappiethedog
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January 3, 2024 8:15 pm

No way. I googled Rainbow. It’s a real children’s television show. I thought Pee Wee’s Playhouse was risque. I remember the episode in which Jambi the Genie’s wish for a pair of hands came true. Growing up in the eighties, without cable, and needless to say, the Internet, it was still possible for a child to have no clue what “Jerkin’ Back and Forth” was about. I thought it was about having a seizure. Devo actually performed this “bubbling under” synth-pop classic on national television.

JJ Live At Leeds
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January 4, 2024 8:21 am

Unfortunately, it’s not real. Or rather it is real but the infamous twanger episode was an in-joke that was never intended for public consumption.

Though there was a crude playground version of the theme tune that we sang and involved Bungle (the bear) doing something unspeakable to Geoffrey (their human carer).

https://www.thatsnonsense.com/the-rainbow-twangers-plucking-song-episode-did-it-air/

Aaron3000
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January 6, 2024 2:53 pm

Fiddling With Your Zipper would fit right in.

LinkCrawford
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January 4, 2024 12:34 pm

Jaw harp can be fun, and Snoopy (not surprisingly) appears to be an expert. This is from the 1969 Spelling Bee movie A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCekQ8Sizqk

rollerboogie
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January 4, 2024 10:29 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Snoopy also played acoustic guitar in his family’s bluegrass band in “Snoopy’s Reunion”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8–vJf6ANPg

Last edited 1 month ago by rollerboogie
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