The 10 most surprising instruments ever used by metal bands

Ghost/The Hu/Eluveitie
(Image credit: Katja Ogrin/Enkhbat Nyamkhishig/Miikka Skaffari/Redferns)

Heavy metal has evolved immeasurably in the past 50 (plus) years, moving beyond its blues roots to subsume a variety of styles into its overall framework. Whether it's the likes of Nightwish and Within Temptation incorporating full symphonies, bands like Ghost breaking out the saxophone for a unique new flavour or bands like Alien Weaponry and The Hu using historical folk instruments to explore their culture and ancestry, heavy metal can take many shapes and sounds in 2022. 

That in mind, we asked Ade Mulgrew, guitarist in Celtic folk metallers Darkest Era, to pick out the 10 times heavy metal used surprising instruments to expand its sound. These are his picks... 

Metal Hammer line break

1. Toacă (Negura Bunget)

"The iconic and sadly defunct Romanian black metal band Negura Bunget used this unusual instrument on their 2006 opus OM. Traditionally used as a call to prayer, the Toacă is a wooden board hung from a frame and played with a hammer."

2.  Morin Khuur (The Hu)

"Also known as the horse head fiddle, this is a traditional Mongolian two-stringed fiddle, originally consisting of one string made from hairs of a stallion's tail and the other with hair from a mare’s tail. It features heavily in the music of Mongolian folk metal band The Hu."

3.  Hurdy Gurdy (Eluveitie)

"Originating from as early as the 9th century, this is a wooden stringed instrument which works when a wooden wheel, turned by a crank, rubs against the strings. When folk metal broke in the mid 2000s, its distinctive sound made Eluveitie easily the most exciting band on the scene."

4. Mouth Harp (Bathory)

"Probably not that unusual to anyone familiar with Scandinavian or Viking culture, the mouth harp (or jaw harp) is a small metal instrument played by gripping it with your teeth and plucking the metal tongue. The sound is altered by moving the shape of your mouth, which provides the acoustical chamber."

5.  Saxophone (Shining NOR)

"Not exactly a weird instrument in itself but it is within the context of metal, and even weirder when you consider the batshit avant-garde sounds of Norwegians Shining. Sure, it’s not as good as Careless Whisper, but what is really?"

6. Gaida (Rotting Christ)

"The southeast European equivalent of bagpipes, normally made of sheep or goat hide. Rotting Christ's Nemecic is an absolute banger and sees the band perform the Gaida as the ancient Greeks would have played them."

7.  Liturgical Bell/altar bells (Batushka)

"There’s nothing orthodox about using these on a metal album. They are usually rung during mass whenever the hocus pocus happens, otherwise known as Consecration when the bread and wine turns to the body and blood of Christ. They are used for percussion at the start of the absolute ripper that is Yekteniya I."

8. Deer Skull (Agalloch)

"Listen to 2002 album The Mantle by Agalloch and you can occasionally hear the sound of a mallet being struck against a hollow deer skull. The resulting effect not only adds to the atmosphere of the album but also fits wonderfully with the art, themes and overall aesthetic.  A masterful record."

9.  Harp (Eard)

"Eard are an Italian atmospheric black metal project featuring the talents of Glorya Lyr. Unusually, the harp here is part of the fabric of the music, present during relentless blastbeats as well as during lighter passages. The most effective I’ve ever heard the instrument used in a metal context. Wonderful!"

10. Prehispanic wind instruments (Cemican)

"This Mexican folk metal band use prehispanic instruments such as clay flutes, ocarinas and conch shells to give their sound authenticity. Combined with their striking visuals they make for a very distinctive band indeed."