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Why I Love... The Suzuki Omnichord

Ben Brockett By Ben Brockett
Published May 2024

The Suzuki Omnichord

The Omnichord is an unusual electronic instrument created by the Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation in 1981. It features a small metal touch plate known as the ‘Sonic Strings’, and sound is created by holding down a chord button and sweeping one’s finger across the plate. It has experienced a deserved renaissance in recent years, having been championed by Damon Albarn among others, and with its unique leftfield tones and engaging, unusual playing mechanics, it’s not hard to see why it has become sought after by sonic experimentalists.

I was first introduced to it one morning in 2010. Before a team meeting at the substance misuse service where I’d recently started working, Debs from admin thrust a briefcase‑sized parcel into my arms. I presumed it was something to do with my new employment, perhaps some kind of drug testing kit or training manual, but instead, when I removed the paper I found an old leatherette case with the word Omnichord emblazoned across it in gold. A small group gathered. “What is it?” they asked. Having no idea, I opened it and found what looked like a giant brown retro hearing aid nestled within. A strangely textured metal strip ran down it, with a selection of buttons and knobs scattered across the body. It became apparent that this was a musical instrument, but certainly not one I had seen the likes of before.

“How do you play it?” my colleagues asked. Having no idea, I plugged it in and was immediately assailed by the rattle of a tinny 200 bpm bossa nova. I deactivated the rhythm button and tried another, and was rewarded with a throaty chordal drone — I was liking this already. But what of this metal strip? Pleasingly bobbly to the touch but seemingly serving no purpose, it was only when I stroked it whilst holding down one of the chord buttons that the real magic happened. The whole room was instantly bathed in an otherworldly shimmering glissando that faded away on a tail of lo‑fi reverb. This surely must be the music of the gods, I thought, my eyes lighting up as my finger swept up and down the strip, creating cascades of sound that somehow seemed to be inherently digital and organic at the same time. I became aware that some of my colleagues were now looking at me strangely so, not wanting to create too much of a stir so early on, I reluctantly turned it off and closed the lid.

I’ve never fully lost the sense of wonder I felt when I first heard the Omnichord in full song...

I felt it unlikely that the Omnichord would be standard issue for East Sussex County Council workers and spent most of the day puzzling over where on Earth, or space, it could have come from? It turns out it was from a dear and resourceful friend from university who’d remembered my birthday but who didn’t know my new address. I’ve never fully lost the sense of wonder I felt when I first heard the Omnichord in full song, and I hope I never will.