Musical Toys That Ended Up on Pro Records

Despite having access to studios full of the world’s best instruments and outboard gear, sometimes musicians want to get a little… playful. In these moments, instead of a Minimoog or a Fender Stratocaster, they’ll reach for a toy. We don’t mean the kind of low-cost instruments that some people deride as "just toys," no, we mean actual children’s toys—the kind you can buy at your local toy store.

The world of recorded music is surprisingly packed with performances played on toys, from the kind you’d expect like kazoos and toy pianos to more esoteric affair like optical-disc organs and even a yodeling pickle.

Let’s take a look at some of the songs and albums that wouldn’t be the same without the inclusion of a toy. We’ll highlight both toy-instruments and children's toys that just happen to make sound.

Mattel Bee Gees Rhythm Machine

Mattel Bee Gees Rhythm Machine
Mattel Bee Gees Rhythm Machine

For a band carrying the reputation of futuristic synth cyborgs, the members of Kraftwerk were surprisingly fond of toy instruments.

Originally sold as a children's toy during peak disco frenzy in 1978, the Mattel Bee Gees Rhythm Machine was a mini keyboard and drum machine, featuring a single instrument sound (a pulse wave) and three rhythms. No prizes for correctly guessing disco is one of them.

Kraftwerk - Pocket Calculator Live 1981

Kraftwerk used the Rhythm Machine to play the main melody on "Pocket Calculator" and even played it live, although they did paint it black to hide its Brothers Gibb origins.

Mattel Synsonics

The same company that gave us the Bee Gees Rhythm Machine created the Synsonics—a Simmons-style electronic drum instrument with a built-in sequencer.

First released to toy stores in 1981, it had four pads and six sounds: two toms (one tunable for disco flair), a fizzy snare, cymbal, closed hi-hat, and a kick. While Kraftwerk is rumored to have used one, there doesn’t seem to be hard evidence that they did. However, the techno duo Deardrums makes extensive use of one on their song "Aquila."

Kraftwerk - Pocket Calculator Live 1981

Micro Jammers Toy Guitar

Musicians have a lot of different reasons for using toys on their records. Unique sounds, for sure. Fun to play? Definitely. Frustration? If you’re Donna Sparks from L7, you bet.

While recording "Drama" for The Beauty Process: Triple Platinum, Sparks was hitting a wall, so she reached for a tiny Micro Jammers toy guitar for the solo. When asked why by Rolling Stone, she said, "It was out of complete frustration, like, ‘Fuck it, I can’t play these riffs, let the Micro Jammers do it for $1.99.’"

L7’s “Drama” featuring Micro Jammers guitar solo at 2:17



Jimi Hendrix pushed the boundaries of rock in many ways, from incorporating feedback into his playing to working with effects like the Shin-ei Uni-Vibe. But one aspect of his artistry that is often overlooked is his skill with a kazoo.

On "Crosstown Traffic" from 1968’s superb Electric Ladyland, Hendrix doubled up his guitar with a kazoo—but not just any kazoo. Hendrix put tissue paper against a comb and rolled his own, so to speak.

Whirly Tube

"Whirly tube" is a generic term for a chromatic, sound-making toy that occasionally pops up in songs. It's essentially a plastic tube that makes a pleasing sound when you whirl it around, hence the name. Twirling it faster creates a higher pitch; slower makes a lower pitch.

"Sway" - Spiritualized

Ex-Spacemen 3 members have used it on their solo projects with Sonic Boom recording, under the name Spectrum. You can hear it used on the tracks like "The Drunk Suite," as well as on "Sway" by Jason Piece (as Spiritualized). Funny how those guys always seemed on the same page, even when they weren’t recording together.

Texas Instruments Speak & Spell

Here we have a popular example of a toy that makes sounds but wasn't intended to be used as a musical instrument: the Speak & Spell by Texas Instruments.

The Speak & Spell was created as an educational toy with a speech synthesis chip. Hitting the market in 1978, it was perfect for synth-pop and early electronic music. It inspired the title of Depeche Mode’s debut album, and Kraftwerk also used it (no surprise there), as did OMD on their song, "Genetic Engineering."

Orchestral Maneuvers In the Dark - "Genetic Engineering"

Archie McPhee Electronic Yodeling Pickle

Archie McPhee is a famous novelty supply company based in Seattle, Washington. Gorillaz is a cartoon band created by Blur’s Damon Albarn and comic artist Jamie Hewlett. On their 2010 album The Fall, the two entities came together in "Seattle Yodel"—a track built around samples of the Seattle-based Archie McPhee’s Electronic Yodeling Pickle.

"The Fall" - Gorillaz

Archie McPhee made their own video for the song, saying, "The Gorillaz made a song with our pickle and didn't pay us anything. We made a music video for it without asking them." Turnabout is fair play, as they say—and especially when yodeling pickles are involved.

Mattel Electronic Football

You never know what’s going to provide inspiration. When Supertramp was working on "The Logical Song" for 1979’s Breakfast In America, they needed a sound to punctuate the lyric "digital." An engineer in the neighboring studio happened to have a Mattel Electronic Football handheld game on hand.

Made in 1977, it had basic LED-based play but it also made some pretty cool (and yes, digital) sounds. The band recorded it, and the song ended up as the lead single for the album.

"The Logical Song"

Mickey Mouse Piano Book Toy Piano

Toy pianos are some of the most common toy instruments used on recordings. Korg even made a professional-grade mini piano, the tinyPIANO. However, nothing beats the real, kid-friendly thing.

For a great example, check out this live performance of the B-52's "Dance This Mess Around," which sees Fred Schneider performing with a Mickey Mouse Piano Book—a toy piano set inside a wooden box so that it looks like a book.

The B-52s - "Dance This Mess Around"

This track appears on the Georgia-based group's self-titled debut album, released in 1979, and isn't the only one that features an unconventional toy-instrument.

RadioShack Walkie-Talkie

Another track from the B-52's debut record introduced the world to Fred Schneider’s walkie-talkie skills. He can be heard in opener "Planet Claire" tapping out rhythmic Morse code on a RadioShack Walkie-Talkie.

There is some confusion, however, as to which model was used on the recording. In the video, which was made for a children’s television program in the UK, Schneider is using Archer Micro Space Patrol Walkie-Talkies, but these do not have Morse code capabilities.

B-52’s Planet Claire featuring Walkie-Talkie

It’s more likely that his remote communications device of choice was the Archer Space Patrol, which did indeed have Morse code. Either way, it’s an excellent and unconventionally musical use of a toy.

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