TOP GEAR: The 10 Most Instrumental Pieces in Modern Music

TOP GEAR: The 10 Most Instrumental Pieces in Modern Music

by Kevin McElvaney

Since the rise of American popular music in the early 1900s, the audio landscape has evolved quite a bit — from Dixieland jazz to rock ‘n’ roll, and disco to laptop hip-hop. Along the way, each new sound craze has been made possible by new technologies.

But simply creating something new isn't always enough (sorry, Léon Theremin). Indeed, it's often the subtlest advancements that usher in the most dramatic changes.

Here are 10 of the most iconic, game-changing instruments in modern musical history (1910 - present, one selection per decade). Don't see your favorite piece of gear on the list? Head down to the comments to let us know what we missed.

Bb Trumpet (1910s)

Prior to the Civil War, the trumpet was largely seen as a ceremonial instrument for military events. That soon changed as former slaves purchased used trumpets from pawn shops and began experimenting with new sounds — paving the way for early 20th century art forms such as ragtime and jazz.

Early jazz records received a considerable boost from the B-flat trumpet, which, with its loud volume and high pitch, cut through the mix better than most other instruments. But even as recording technology improved, the trumpet continued to play a pivotal role in 20th century popular music — featuring heavily on hit records of all genres.

National Resonator (1927)

As musical acts began to rely more heavily on brass, traditional acoustic guitars struggled to be heard above the cacophony of wailing trumpets. Since the invention of electric guitars was still a few years off, the solution of the day was to simply design an instrument with a louder soundboard. Thus was born the resonator — a guitar that replaced the standard sound hole and wooden bridge combo with a resonant metal disc.

The first (and most iconic) resonator was produced by the National String Instrument Corporation in 1927 — and it was an immediate hit. While the instrument was noticeably louder than other acoustic guitars, its signature disc also offered a twangy tone not heard before. It should come as no surprise, then, that resonators played a major role in developing the burgeoning genres of blues and country music.

Of course, by the early 1950s, mass-produced electric guitars had rendered the question of volume moot. But even today, many guitarists still seek out resonators for their unusual look and sound.

Slingerland Radio King (1936)

In the swingin' 1930s, bands got so big that there was barely room to fit all the performers on stage. With space at a premium, percussionists — who had previously focused on a single instrument — needed to navigate several at once. Gigging drummers increasingly looked to ready-made “kits,” which took up less space and made it easier for a single musician to keep the beat.

Enter the Slingerland Radio King drum kit, favored by such influential “big band” musicians as Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa. The Radio King featured thunderous bass and tom drums, fashioned from mahogany. But perhaps its most innovative feature was the snare drum — with a shell built from a single strip of maple, which provided a brighter sound than other snares on the market.

The kit's variety of tones encouraged the likes of Rich and Krupa to explore some truly complex rhythms and flamboyant flourishes. Drums went from being an understated background instrument to a lead attraction — paving the way for a new era of highly rhythmic music that, so far, we haven't looked back from.

Shure 730B (1945)

Of course, even as raucous, danceable music became increasingly popular, there was still ample room for mellower sounds. The music of the World War II era is often remembered for its myriad gentle crooners and smooth jazz singers — gifted vocalists who could be heard loud and clear, thanks to increasingly sophisticated microphones.

Among the most popular singers of the age was jazz icon Billie Holiday, whose instrument of choice was the Shure 730 Uniplex– a mic that used a crystal transducer to capture vocal nuance while minimizing the incidental noise of loud venues.

Though more sophisticated microphones have been created in the decades since, nostalgia buffs and discerning musicians alike still seek out the Shure 730 for its iconic look and classic, warm tone.

Fender Stratocaster (1954)

Though the Stratocaster wasn't Fender's first electric guitar (the Telecaster proceeded it by three years), it remains the company's most beloved creation to this day. Its unprecedented three pickup design encouraged players to experiment with a wider array of tones, while the shape of its body allowed easier access to the guitar's higher frets. Among the earliest proponents of the Strat was Buddy Holly, who played it on many of his most popular recordings.

Since then, the Fender Strat has been wielded by a veritable who's who of famous guitarists: Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, Bonnie Raitt, and Ike Turner (among countless others). And though its golden era coincided with the rise of rock 'n' roll, the Strat's versatility and smooth tone are timeless. Indeed, it remains among the world's most popular and best-selling guitars to this day.

Marshall JTM 45 (1962)

While early rock 'n' roll was by no means tame, some of it sounds downright quaint when compared with the rock music of the '60s and '70s. This was due in large part to a man named Jim Marshall, founder of the British company Marshall Amplification.

Though originally a drummer, Marshall's experience running a popular London music shop introduced him to the world of electric guitar amplification. By 1962, he'd hired two engineers (Ken Bran and Dudley Craven) to design an amp that would meet the discriminating tastes of his customers — including future guitar legends Pete Townshend and Ritchie Blackmore.

The resulting “Mark II” (later renamed the “JTM,” for Marshall's son) was unapologetically loud. Its signal also distorted more easily than most other amps on the market — an intentional choice, which set the tonal stage for hard rock and heavy metal. While Marshall's team would go on to create a number of even more popular amps — including the Marshall Super Lead “stack,” (made famous by Pete Townshend) — it was the JTM that began the trend of noisy, overdriven amplifiers still heard on most rock records today.

R.A. Moog Minimoog (1970)

Interest in electric instrumentation didn't end with guitars. As the '60s gave way to the '70s, one of the biggest points of contention among music fans was about synthesizers. Supporters battled the vocal contingent of purists who saw them as vapid and artificial. In the liner notes of Queen's debut album, the group even boasted that, “nobody played synthesizer.”

Nevertheless, synths persisted. The Moog (pronounced “mohg”) was an innovative, though clumsy device that was used to great effect on some prominent late '60s recordings. But while it was a popular studio instrument, the Moog wasn't quite built for live performance. Enter the Minimoog, a portable version of the synthesizer that proved to be a godsend for gigging musicians.

The Minimoog, with its colorful sounds and famous “pitch bend” wheel, turned keyboardists into a focal point of rock bands — lending a distinctive sonic flavor to the music of progressive rock acts such as Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and Yes. And as the decade rolled on, the Minimoog became a staple of funk, pop, and disco records by the likes of Stevie Wonder, ABBA, and The BeeGees.

But its providence didn't end there. Through the 1980s, the Minimoog and other synthesizers were right at home in an increasingly electronic musical landscape. Even today, the Minimoog remains a hot item for synth enthusiasts — the instrument routinely sells for thousands of dollars on eBay.

Roland TR-808 (1980)

Like many other items on this list, the Roland TR-808 wasn't the first instrument in its class — it was simply an innovative twist on an existing technology. (Indeed, programmable drum machines had been used on recordings as early as 1964). But it was Roland's drum machine, designed by Japanese engineer Ikutaro Kakehashi and introduced in 1980, that helped shape music for decades to come.

The 808 sounded decidedly unlike actual drums. Luckily, that never seemed to matter much, since other electric instruments (such as guitar, bass, and keyboards) had long since given up imitating their acoustic counterparts.

Just a year after its debut, the 808 provided the backbeat for Marvin Gaye's #1 single, “Sexual Healing” — the first in a long line of hits to employ the machine's robotic sounds. But the 808's most lasting contribution was to hip-hop. It was used to great effect on recordings by Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, and The Beastie Boys — creating “original” beats in a genre previously dominated by pre-recorded samples.

In the 2000s, Roland's creation saw a popular resurgence thanks to hip-hop mainstays Timbaland and Kanye West (the latter even naming his 2008 album, 808s and Heartbreak).

Today, the TR-808 is a major component of “trap” music — a hybrid genre that fuses hip-hop with retro dance music. The fact that the 808, which never really sounded like the drums it was meant to emulate, still resonates with listeners is a testament to the power of technology in the minds of creative people.

Auto-Tune (1997)

By the late 1990s, musical software had become just as important as hardware — with ProTools serving as the new industry standard for recording. But with it came a far more controversial innovation — Auto-Tune, a program that detects “errors” in vocal pitch and corrects them automatically.

Believe it or not, this now-standard technology wasn't conceived by some music industry honcho, but by a geophysicist. Andy Hildebrand was a former Exxon employee who'd established himself by designing software that analyzed seismic data. After realizing that some of these same techniques could also be applied to audio waves, Hildebrand founded Antares Audio Technologies in 1990. Seven years later, the company released Auto-Tune to the public.

While record producers were quick to embrace the software as a way to fix singers' mistakes, it wasn't long before others were using it more…creatively. Cher's 1998 smash hit “Believe” employed Auto-Tune in much the same way keyboardists use the Minimoog's pitch wheel — bending and shaping the sound of the human voice in previously unthinkable ways.

But while some decry the use of Auto-Tune as unnatural, its continued use in studios worldwide suggests it's here to stay.

MacBook Pro (2006)

Yes, a laptop computer as an instrument. Like it or not, popular music has been headed in this direction for at least half a century.

As earlier items on the list demonstrate, innovations in acoustic instruments have been on the decline for decades — beginning with the rise of the electric guitar in the early 1950s. And, given that music is increasingly made through digital means, it only makes sense that a computer would itself be turned into an instrument.

The MacBook Pro is the stylish delivery system of choice for many modern D.J.s who use a variety of software (including the Mac's native GarageBand) to arrange and sequence music for both digital release and live performance. And while electronic music is far from the only game in town, even musicians who favor more “traditional” styles have discovered the benefits of home recording.

But what about our current decade? As the 2010s enjoy their final years, it's tough to say which innovations will wind up standing the test of time. But if modern pop music has taught us anything, it's that technology and culture are symbiotic — and seemingly subtle improvements can often move mountains.