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NAMM 2014 Oddities

Les Deutsch, in addition to playing piano with the Night Blooming Jazzmen, plays many other instruments and has been in the technical end of the musical instrument industry since his teens. He has attended the National Association of Music Merchant (NAMM) giant trade show each winter for more than 35 years. the "NAMM Show" is one of the largest trade shows in the world. The most recent show that took place January 23-26, 2014 at the Anaheim Convention Center (and surrounding hotels) had over 1,500 exhibits representing more than 5,000 brands of musical instruments and accessories. There were about 95,000 registered participants. Les was one of them.

Each year at NAMM, Les finds a small number of strange things on exhibit,. Some of these don't last until the next NAMM Show. Some are the start of new trends. Others are simply crazy and designed to draw people into someone's exhibit space. What follows are a few of the things Les picked out this year, explained in his own words.

For years I have watched music companies try to build small guitars. A small guitar is useful for travel, for example. These have had varying degrees of success. This year I found a giant guitar. It actually plays – though not very well. Perhaps it is just me, since I don't play much guitar. I tried playing this thing like an upright bass, since its about the right size and feel. I found the strings too mushy to get a good groove. In any case, I'd hate to have to wear a strap and stroll playing mariachi music with this thing.
This very strange horn caught my attention immediately. The man at the booth was Chinese and told me this was a traditional instrument. I looked it up afterward and discovered this is a modification of a traditional instrument from Tibet called a "Rag Dung." The Rag DUng is a "natural horn", meaning it does not have valves and is played on its harmonics, similar to an Alphorn. What makes this particular one unique is that they gave it valves! I borrowed a mouthpiece and tried it out. I believe the valve slides are slightly too short for the length of the horn because I could not play it quite in tune. It is quite an interesting idea, though. It sounds somewhat like a baritone horn and plays in the trombone range.
Another thing I see every so often is an attempt to build instruments entirely in plastic. This year I tried a plastic trumpet. It was surprisingly nice to play – and quite inexpensive. I had to resist purchasing one. I have enough trumpets already.
I MIDI controller is simply a set of switches that output signals that MIDI equipped instruments can recognize as either notes to play or effects to activate. People make MIDI controllers out of just about anything. Here is one made out of essentially nothing. As you move your hand between the upright pillars, it blocks small laser beams, throwing switches that control MIDI instruments.
Here is the "PianoArc", or actually four of them. Each PianoArc is an electric piano that is built on a quarter of a circle. I suppose this makes the keys easier to reach (when using a single PianoArc, that is). For this exhibit, they rigged four of these together to form a circle. The performer has to crawl in from below. There were two things that made this a bit hard for me to play. First, since each PianoArc is a full 88-key piano, the high C of one buts up against the low A of the next. This makes scales pretty hard! Also, as I played around (literally) on this, I found out that one of the PianoArcs was configured as a MIDI controller to change the sounds and rhythms on the others!
Ecology is in this year at NAMM. Many exhibitors were touting that they were "carbon neutral." Others played up their use of recycled materials. This company makes guitars entirely out of old parts. The bodies are classic oil cans! They sounded like any other electric guitar. I asked and they do not have any acoustic models!
It was Karen's turn to demonstrate at the Remo booth. They were showing a line of tables built from giant drum heads. Karen took a pair of mallets and banged away. When she began, she misjudged the "kick back" that the head generated and lost one of her mallets into a crowd behind her!
Here is an instrument that probably should never have been built. Certainly I should never play it. It is a slide piccolo trumpet. Slide trombones are nice, and play well enough to get around in serious music. I have always found slide trumpets, which play an octave higher, to be difficult. However, there are several companies that make slide trumpets and it is accepted as a novelty instrument. Piccolo trumpets play an octave above the regular Bb trumpet. The slide piccolo trumpet therefor plays two octaves higher than a trombone. When I picked it up to play, I immediately pulled the slide all the way off the end. 6th position on this is about the same as 2nd on a trombone. It took me a few minutes to even play a scale. On top of this, you have to have a very tight embouchure to play in this range. I did not buy one – and you and Chet should be very happy with that decision.
This is not an instrument, but a very clever way of displaying a line of drum cases. I suppose one could try playing this, but the cymbals would sound especially bad.