October 2022

The Recorder in Popular Music

by Victor Eijkhout

Quick, name two jazz recorder players! No? (Tali Rubinstein and Kees Boeke, and then I'm stumped too.) So how about pop groups with a regular recorder player? Again no? (Going back to the 1970s I remember Gentle Giant, but nothing beyond that.) I hope you see my point that the recorder makes no more than guest appearances in popular music. Recorder is just not among the main instruments in popular genres. In pop music there are few wind instruments, period, but there are enough groups with regular saxophone or brass players.

So the occasional appearance of a recorder in popular music is all the more special for being so rare. Rather than going into a mere enumeration of pop songs with a recorder, let's focus on the reasons why a recorder could be used.

You may find it helpful to listen to the snippets of recorder music in popular music as you read through the following examples. You will find the brief sound files here on my webpage.

Childlike Imagery

A recorder has a certain image of being a childish or simple instrument, so a recorder can be used to evoke this image. In this category I know of two clear examples. First of all, there is "The Fool on the Hill" by the Beatles. Here Paul McCartney plays a recorder solo in a deliberately artless way, depicting the titular simpleton. (This solo features a couple of interesting slides. See if you can figure out the probable fingerings that McCartney used. Also note that he does not use his tongue for articulation.) Next, "Sing a Song" by the Carpenters goes for the childish image, even featuring a children's chorus. Unlike with the Beatles, the recorder part (two sopranos?) is expertly played.

The Hippie Folk Influence

Another type of music with recorders is ‘60s and ‘70s music from American hippie and psychedelic pop groups. California group The Association used the recorder in mainstream hits "Windy" and "Along comes Mary." Another California group, Jefferson Airplane, a little further out from the mainstream, used recorders on songs such as "Martha" and "Comin' Back to Me.” Their singer Grace Slick was even pictured with a recorder on the cover of the album. The recorder was not the only non-traditional instrument used in this type of music: others include a prominent oboe and bassoon in Sonny and Cher's "Little Man."

Across the ocean, British rock groups with a folk influence also regularly used the recorder. This includes groups such as Gryphon, Gentle Giant, and (similar, though Australian) Fraternity, all now largely forgotten.

The Rolling Stones were not afraid to use some unusual instruments: recorder and cello on "Ruby Tuesday," and recorder and tablas on the more psychedelic "Gomper." The recorder on "Ruby Tuesday" has nothing to do with any preconceived imagery, nor is it used as a solo instrument: it is played with a short echo, making it a textural element of the song.

Probably the ultimate psychedelic use of a recorder is Jimi Hendrix freaking out on a soprano recorder on “If 6 was 9.” Here he is (go to the 3 minute mark) playing random notes as fast as possible, purely for the effect of it. The engineer put a lot of echo on it to make it almost unrecognizable as a recorder.

These last two examples bring us to the third category.

Recorder as a different color in the palette

Some popular songs use a recorder for nothing more than added tone color. A popular example is Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" which has two recorders playing long lines that could have been played on flute, sax, violin, or synthesizer equally effectively. Someone just decided that having a recorder would be an interesting tone color. A similar example of a recorder playing long lines is Toto's "Africa." Interestingly, sometimes the recorder is used for a rhythmic rather than a melodic texture. "Ruby Tuesday," mentioned earlier, provides an example of that; a more modern example of the recorder playing a rhythmic riff is "Hannah Doot” by The Undertones.

Using obscure instruments for added color is a favorite trick of film composers. The film Gladiator uses the Armenian Duduk for its melancholy sound. (This led to Djivan Gasparian, until then only famous in Armenia, suddenly becoming globally known, and getting a lot more work, as a Duduk player.) In the same respect, it seems that the recorder's day has come: the Star Wars spinoff “The Mandalorian” uses a low riff played on bass recorder in the theme music. That riff, and a growl on a higher recorder, can be found throughout the soundtrack. Since the main theme is played on a low recorder, and is not an idiomatic recorder riff, probably very few people would have realized that this was the instrument they learned in grade school. Sarah Jeffery has a tutorial on how to play the various parts of the theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEmIEI_Saps

And finally:

The Recorder Takes a Solo

The Beatles used the recorder for a brief solo, already mentioned. There are other songs with recorder solos, but a surprising number of those are not terribly good. Check out David Cassidy's "Daydreamer" and Billy Joel's "Rosalinda's Eyes." Since there is a version of that latter song with a saxophone solo, I suspect that the recorder was played by the same studio player who did the sax solo earlier, not by a true recorder player. An even worse example comes from Giorgio Moroder, the synthesizer genius behind Donna Summer’s disco hits. The recorder solo in his song “Danger Man” leaves me utterly baffled. 

Of course there are examples of great recorder playing in popular music. I already mentioned The Carpenters above. The Forester Sisters have a recorder solo that is only a single phrase in "We Will Not Pass This Way Again," but you can tell that it was played by a true recorder player from the skilful ornamentation and the complete control over vibrato.

All songs mentioned in this article can be found as audio/video excerpts on my web page https://www.eijkhout.net/music/rock-recorder.html under the fair use law.

Victor Eijkhout (born 1959 in Arnhem, the Netherlands; currently residing in Austin TX, USA) is a long-time multi-instrumentalist with a history of playing in, and writing for, wind ensembles, jazz and pop bands, choir, and other instrument combinations. Currently he plays recorder in the early music ensemble The Austin Troubadours. Victor is a regular contributor to American Recorder as a music reviewer. In 2019 he traveled to Durham, England as a finalist in the composition contest sponsored by the UK’s Society of Recorder Players.

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