That ‘Urban Tribal’ Sound

Meet the weird instruments of Blue Man Group

Sure, watching three tall, blue, bald men explore the stage as if it’s their first day on the planet is both surreal and endearing. But that’s only half of the Blue Man Group equation. A unique and otherworldly driving-rock soundtrack rounds out the show’s experience. (Technically, with seven band members and three Blue Men, who also drum, music is more than half the equation.)

Musical director Vince Verderame describes the Blue Man Group sound as “urban tribal.” He says, “If a tribe evolved in the city, it would sound like this.” So how do they achieve a melody of apocalyptic-exuberance? Mostly with a lot of weird instruments. Here’s an explainer.

Meet the Chapman Stick. It’s like a combined bass and guitar, but instead of plucking it, the musicians saw at it with a bow.

“How we use the Chapman Stick is totally our own thing; nobody really has a need to do what we do,” says Verderame, who is also a drummer in Blue Man. “It creates the foundation of a lot of the Blue Man music. It’s that sawing of the Chapman Stick. It is pretty cool and pretty fun to do.”

Another cool instrument is the zither, which Verderame describes as the combination of a slide guitar and the inside of a piano. “This is homemade; you can’t really buy a zither like this,” Verderame says of the rainbow neon-colored object. “There are different versions of a zither, but this is strictly Blue Man.”

One of the show’s most unusual instruments is called a trombone. But this one doesn’t quite harken back to band class. It’s a bunch of pipes that are drummed on and then elongated to change the pitch by Blue Men. “You take a basic principle of music. You make a longer resonating chamber and get a lower note,” explains the Blue Man who calls himself Meridian. “In fact one of the unique things about this instrument is that it takes three people to run it.”

Ultimately, the instruments are tools that allow the musicians to do what they do best: perform. “That’s what makes a Blue Man,” says Meridian, a classical pianist who failed his first drumming audition. “I think it’s your ability to transcend any musical technique and still have that feeling that you’re having an intimate conversation with [the audience] while you’re playing the piece.”

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