The melodica- if you don't know what it is, you know what it sounds like. This funky little device, sometimes called a clavietta, melodion, or pianica, is one wicked beast. From the woodwind family, this instrument sports a keyboard which makes it polyphonic, unique for most wind instruments. These days, they're commonly used in music education and typically marketed as kid's toys. But, after recently seeing Neutral Milk Hotel's fantastic performance at Albuquerque's Kiva Auditorium, I was reminded of how amazing the accordion and Casio DH-100 sounded in person. On a side note, said casio is a really wild & rare midi wind instrument worthy of it's own write-up. Needless to say, since that performance, I longed to be able to create a similar sound. Unfortunately, accordions are pricey as hell, difficult to master, & finding a usable Casio DH-100 is like finding a living chupacabra. So I found my way to what I call the accordion for the common man- the melodica. Upon discovering what it was, I realized my first experience with the melodica was much earlier in my life. The Gorillaz 2001 self-titled debut album featured the melodica quite a bit. Most notably on the tracks "Clint Eastwood" & "Tomorrow Comes Today."
Catch it around 1:45 and throughout the chorus, it's the riff which bears a slight resemblance to the tune from The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly. The melodica also appeared in popular music a few decades before Gorillaz. Almost twenty years prior, Joy Division had a love affair with the pianica which sounded neat on "Your Silent Face," among other tracks. You can hear the melodica below starting at the 50 second mark.
But, I was even more psyched to learn that everyone's second favorite experimental composer, Steve Reich, also used the beloved melodion. He has a great tape loop piece, aptly named Melodica (1966) that features a four note sequence from a single melodica slowly disintegrating into madness as it phases out of time. By the end of the composition, the simple loop evolves into a dizzying amoeba of sound fitting for an X-Files score. Oddly enough, Reich stated this was the last tape piece he ever recorded.
These days, outside of the "kiddie toy" realm, those who appreciate the melodica really dig the melodica. There are some beautifully crafted boutique melodicas out there, often made by hand and out of wood. Mylodica is a great resource for these devices as the eccentric Peter Jones explains and displays in the lengthy video below. If you take the time to watch him though, you'll notice he has some serious melodica chops and wails on several different devices with the effortless finesse of a jazz pianist, all while taking time to explain the pro's and con's of each instrument in-between demos.
But saving money is what brought me to the melodica in the first place & I didn't have the means to drop over 300$ on a handmade clavietta. I found that Hohner offers a fairly inexpensive melodica online and at some retail stores, these models can also be found on amazon and ebay from time to time. I was able to find one at the local drug spot a.k.a Hastings for around 30$, although they can be found for several bucks cheaper online. Needless to say, i'm more than excited to include this puppy in my arsenal of odd devices and can't wait to record with it. I was satisfied and surprised to find that this model actually sounds really similar to the one used in those Gorillaz songs from 2001. But, the most interesting thing I may have stumbled upon in my melodi-search was a celebrity known as the Human Jukebox (or Benny the Jukebox). This musician performs an insane amount of popular songs exclusively on the melodica and he is extremely active on youtube. I don't want to spoil how incredible this guy is so i'll let just one of his many videos do the explaining for you. Awesome moments to note include covers of Haddaway's "What is Love," Eifiel 65's "Blue," Alice Deejay's "Better Off Alone," Aqua's "Barbie Girl," and then he gets really pumped towards the end when the Venga Boy's "We Like to Party" segues into Scatman John's "The Scatman"- it is the 90's megamix after all and it's entirely rad.
I leave you with one final goofy display of the melodica- here is Stephen Limbaugh performing the Star Wars Cantina Song, enjoy.