Honky Tonk Polymers: Making Music with Plastics, Part 2

Technology |  2 min. read

Recently we told you the story of the Res-o-Glas guitar – that plastic guitar from the ‘60s with the shimmery sound, played by a long list of rock gods, from Bob Dylan to Jack White.

Plastic, Fantastic…Guitars: Making Music with Plastics, Part 1

But that’s just Chapter 1 of the plastics and music story.  You could put together an entire band, or orchestra, using instruments built with polymers (“polymer” you’ll recall, is the fancy name for plastic).

Take jazz, for instance, and the saxophone.  Among his instruments, the great Charlie Parker played an acrylic saxophone made by Grafton, and on occasion, so did Rudy Vallee (when he wasn’t singing).  And it wasn’t a Grafton, but David Bowie’s first musical instrument (he was 10 or 11 at the time) was – a plastic saxophone.

There’s a plastic trombone too – the pBone.  (And yes, there’s a pTrumpet too.)  If you’re curious about the chemistry of that music, the pBone is made from ABS plastic, made possible by petrochemicals (in this case, you take a little acrylonitrile, a little styrene, a little butadiene…and a few chemical reactions later, you’ve got a trombone).

So that brass section – “76 polymer pBones led the big parade”?  Well, maybe it works better for the music than the lyrics…

Oh, and if you know your marching band, you know the Sousaphone (named for JP, of course).  Fiberglass has been the material of choice for many of the Sousaphones serenading high school football games from coast to coast, since the 1960s.

Now, if you want some rhythm to back up those horns?  Mylar© might be more familiar as the stuff shiny balloons are made of – but for years now, it’s also been used on the snares, traps and the rest of the drum kit.  Other polymers, like Kevlar©, make an appearance on the skins, (though Kevlar is probably more familiar to most of us as body armor.  And more on THAT side of Kevlar in a future story).

Crossing over to the woodwinds – yeah, a lot of today’s clarinets, piccolos and oboes (recorders too, if you like that elementary school sound) might fairly be called polymerwinds (alright, that sounds terrible).  And if you have a budding flute player in the house – he or she might well be starting out on a jFlute (thanks, ABS).

Should you be one of our readers with a few years behind you, the name Arthur Godfrey might ring a bell.  Or more properly, might pluck a string – since he was famous for his ukulele (And famous he was.  At his peak in the early ‘50s, he had a Monday night TV show, a Tuesday night TV show and a radio talk show).  When he endorsed the Islander ukulele, made from Styron© (a Dow Chemical polystyrene), 9 million of them sold over the next 20 years.

And because these ukes were plastic, you could play ‘em in the shower, or drop them in the sink, and they’d be just fine.

Now if you like your stringed instruments a bit more in the Mozartian vein, you’ll find polymers there too.  The instrument makers Luis and Clark, for instance, make a full line of carbon fiber classical strings – from violins and violas, up to a string bass.  (And Yo-Yo Ma really likes their cello, so they must be onto something).