What’s the secret to being a Billboard chart-topper? Is it the lyrics, the melody, the image of the artist? It’s a mix of everything of course, but today we’ll focus on one aspect that helps Billboard artists create the sounds that help them get to the Billboard Hot 100: the instrumentation.
When you think of instruments, the “usual” band instruments such as the electric guitar, bass, drums and keyboards typically come to mind, but Billboard artists actually make use of other, more unusual instruments to add flavor to their music.
Let’s take a look at the different kinds of instruments Billboard artists have used, aside from the usual band stuff.
We’ve always been fascinated by the accordion so we’re putting it here first. This instrument was used in Billy Joel’s “Piano Man,” which peaked at No. 25 in 1974; Los Lobos’ “La Bamba,” which topped the Hot 100 in 1987; and Aerosmith’s “What It Takes,” which reached No. 9 in 1990.
Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1965, features an oboe.
Some Hot 100 hits that come to mind that feature the Scottish instrument are 1968’s “Sky Pilot” by Eric Burdon and the Animals (No. 14), 1972’s “Amazing Grace” by the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards (No. 11) and 1991’s “Rhythm of My Heart” by Rod Stewart (No. 5).
One of the most interestingly unusual instruments in the world, the kazoo in Ringo Starr’s 1974 chart-topper “You’re Sixteen” was played by none other than fellow Beatle Paul McCartney. The instrument was also used for Supertramp’s “The Logical Song,” which reached No. 6 in 1979.
Paul and Linda McCartney topped the Hot 100 in 1971 with their “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” which also used a kazoo (along with other sound effects). Reaching No. 35 in 1992 was “Smells Like Nirvana,” Weird Al Yankovic’s parody of the Nirvana hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which also employs the instrument.
The Left Banke reached No. 5 way back in 1966 with “Walk Away Renee,” in which a harpsichord is used.
Also referred to as a key-flute or blow-organ, the melodica has been used in many songs, and a number of those songs have made it to the Hot 100. There’s “Money Changes Everything” by Cyndi Lauper, which reached No. 27 in 1984 and “And We Danced“ and Where Do the Children Go” by Philadelphia, which peaked at No. 21 in 1985 and No. 38 in 1986 respectively.
Back in the Eighties, you wouldn’t normally hear a bassoon in the instrument lineup of pop songs, which is why it’s unusual to hear it in “Tenderness” by General Public. It’s possibly one of the reasons why the song made it to No. 27 in 1984.
Whistling in songs isn’t unusual, but it’s still pretty cool to see songs that feature whistling make it to the top 10 in the Billboard charts. Hugo Montenegro made a No. 2 hit with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” in 1968, David Bowie whistled his way to No. 10 in 1976 with “Golden Years” and Guns N’ Roses gave us “Patience,” which ranked at No. 4 in 1989. There’s plenty more, but those are some of our favorites.
For something more contemporary, there’s OneRepublic’s “Good Life,” Maroon 5’s “Moves Like Jagger,” Britney Spears’ “I Wanna Go” and Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.”
Whistling is actually a thing–just look at videos of the World Whistling Championships to see for yourself!
Other instruments and sounds that have used in Billboard Hot 100 songs are the organ, a typewriter, a wobble board, the banjo, the harmonica, the sitar, the mandolin, the saxophone and the talk box. This list goes to show that if something makes a sound, it’s definitely something you can use in a song!