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World Musical Instruments for Stocking Stuffers

Tiny But Mighty Instruments from Around the World!


Stocking stuffers are such fun to shop for, but it can be hard to think of new and fresh things year after year. These fun instruments may be small, but they are all very real, and used regularly by professional musicians from all over the world. Stuff these in your loved ones' stockings, and you can even have a miniature jam session before breakfast! Or not. Your choice.

Tin Whistle

Tin Whistle (or Penny Whistle)
Getty Images / Stockbyte

For somewhere in the $10-30 price range, you can get your hands on a tin whistle, an important piece of instrumentation in traditional Irish music and a great gift for anyone who's into woodwinds. It's a deceptive little thing -- it's easy to play some simple tunes (which makes it a fun instrument even for someone with no musical training), but mastering the trills and frills that give the instrument its signature sound can take years and years. If you'd like a CD to accompany this, try The Chieftains' Water From The Well or any of the others on this list: Top 10 Irish Music Starter CDs.

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(c) Getty Images / Photodisc

Bring out your inner Spanish folk dancer with a pair of castanets! They come in two varieties: the classic kind, which are just two shell-shaped pieces of wood and a piece of string (as shown in the picture to the left) and the newfangled kind where the two clacky bits are mounted on a stick. The latter is definitely easier to play, but the former is obviously more fun. Either way, you can't really go wrong, and either model can be had within the $10-30 range.

A great contemporary group that fuses flamenco with other Latin and international elements (with castanets featuring heavily into the percussion arrangements) is Ojos de Brujo -- try Techari for a fun play-along CD.

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(c) C Squared Studios / Getty Images

Okay, yes, claves are basically just sticks, but those two sticks (which are, in fairness, carefully carved and tuned for maximum and ideal resonance) make up the percussive bases of a whole slew of musical genres, from Afro-Cuban son to Australian aboriginal music. Plus, they're really fun to play: experiment with holding them loosely and tightly, from the far end and "choked up," and see what kind of sounds you can get out of them. A simple pair will run you from about $5-30, and you'll find that they're available in hardwood, metal, and plastic or composite versions. I prefer hardwood myself, but other materials certainly have their advantages.

Laru Beya, the most recent release from Garifuna musician and ambassador Aurelio, features claves as the sole percussion on much of the CD and supplementary percussion on the rest, and would most certainly make for a fun CD to play along with on a new set of claves.

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Mbira / Kalimba / Thumb Piano

Mbira - The National Musical Instrument of Zimbabwe
(c) C Squared Studios / Getty Images

The mbira family encompasses a range of instruments made of different raw materials in a range of sizes, and thus, can vary wildly in cost. A small one, though, can be had for $15-45, but be sure to search around for "kalimba," "mbira," "thumb piano," and "finger piano" to make sure you're seeing all of your options. These neat little instruments, which are technically classified as lamellophones if we're bein' fancy, are found throughout Sub-Saharan Africa and in various Caribbean and South American African-rooted cultures as well. They're fun to play, and have a quiet, cheerful tone -- the perfect stocking stuffer for that one family member (lookin' at you, little brother) who really doesn't need to be tempted with something super-noisy.

If you want to pop in a CD to go along with the instrument, try something from Zimbabwe, where the mbira is the national instrument. Anything by Thomas Mapfumo, Oliver Mtukudzi, or Stella Chiweshe should do the trick.

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The Carolina Chocolate Drops' Hubby Jenkins Playing Bones
(c) Megan Romer, 2012 / Licensed to About.com

Musically related to both the claves and the castanets, the bones are best-known for their contribution to North American genres, most specifically African-American folk music: jug band music, old-time, early jazz, ragtime, Dixieland, minstrel music, and so on. Along with the revival of these early styles that's happening nowadays is a newfound interest in bones-playing, and they're once again becoming available on the market. Some of them are actually made of bone (as is obviously traditional), but it's a bit more common to see either composite materials or some kind of hardwood. They pretty consistently run in the range of $25 for a decent pair.

The obvious choice for a CD to slip in the stocking with the new set of bones is the bones-heavy Leaving Eden, the latest CD from the excellent Carolina Chocolate Drops, and you can even check out some photographs of the bones in action in my photo gallery of the Carolina Chocolate Drops Performing at the 2012 Rhythm and Roots Festival.

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Old Man Playing Guiro
(c) John Miles / Getty Images

A guiro is, traditionally speaking, a dried-out gourd that is notched on one side and scraped with a stick for a clacky, buzzy, percussive sound. The guiro is specifically found in Afro-Caribbean music, though there are scraper instruments of other kinds played in just about every traditional music culture in the world. A small one (likely made out of wood, which is far more common than gourds in this day and age) should fit into a stocking without trouble, and run from $5-$30 for a student or beginner model (pro models can run upwards of $100, believe it or not). Take a bit of time to examine the variations on the theme before buying a guiro, as well -- this instrument family has lots of fun little variations, each with their own tonal quality and character.

A guiro is easy to play along with all sorts of music, but it matches perfectly with vintage salsa. Try Celia & Johnny or any of the other classics of the Fania catalog and get scrapin'!

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Egg Shakers

(c) Bjorn Holland / Getty Images

The egg shaker, a modern relative of the maraca which has become all the rage among musicians from Latin and Caribbean genres, might seem humble, but put a box of them out in a room full of people and everyone will quickly start playing with them. They're irresistible! They fit snugly into your hand and are tremendous fun to shake. They seem to have a similar effect on people to that of one of those squeezy sand-filled stress balls, or even Chinese therapy balls: once they're in your hand, you can't help but roll them around and play with them, and they are oddly relaxing at the same time. Plus, they run from about $2-6, with top of the line models (made of wood instead of plastic) topping out at around $10, and they come in all sorts of different fun colors -- perfect for everyone's stocking!

There's not much that you couldn't play along with with your trusty egg shaker, but something with a strong backbeat (that's when you'll want to shake) and an acoustic sound will be really fun. An old-style calypso collection would fit the bill nicely, I think.

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Singing Bowl

Young Woman Plays a Singing Bowl While Meditating
(c) Hutch Axilrod / Getty Images
The singing bowl is not so much a jam session instrument, nor does it lend itself to playing along with much of anything, but it's a great gift for anyone who's into yoga or meditation, and it is certainly fun to play. This traditional instrument (technically, it's in the bell family) is played by giving the edge of the bowl a good whack with the mallet, and then slowly drawing the edge of the mallet around the rim of the bowl, circling for as long as the sound sustains. Singing bowls come in lots of sizes and lots of prices, but the 3.5"-4" ones that you'd be looking at if you were seeking out a stocking stuffer tend to run around $25-40 for basic models, and more expensive if you're looking at fancier materials or designs.
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(c) Stockbyte / Getty Images

The harmonica is a great stocking stuffer for exactly the same reason it's remained popular in American folk and blues music for a hundred years: it's small, it's cheap, and it's loads of fun to play. At the top of the line, harmonicas can cost several hundred dollars, but you can get a good playable harp in the range of $10-30 with no trouble. If you're planning on stuffing a few different stockings with a harmonica, do yourself a favor and make sure you buy them all in the same key. Harmonicas are diatonic (they offer a fixed set of just seven possible notes across a couple of octaves), so if you get them in separate keys, you'll find yourself with a very dissonant Christmas morning as everyone tries theirs out.

A budding harmonica player needs some inspiration from the true masters. Check out some CDs from these legends of the blues harp. Little Walter's my favorite, but any of those cats will do.

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Zills / Tingsha Bells / Finger Cymbals

Finger Cymbals
Elke Selzle

Musically speaking, zills and tingsha bells are related in that they're both finger cymbals; that is, pairs of small, flat, metallic bells that, when clanged together, sound pretty similar. Zills are common in Middle Eastern music, more specifically, as part of belly dancing music and performance. Tingsha bells, on the other hand, are used in Tibetan Buddhist prayer services and rituals. Either one could be a fun stocking stuffer, though the zills will be easier to find and cost around $10-25.

Like the aforementioned singing bowl, there's not really accompanying music for tingsha bells, but if zills are the finger cymbals that you choose, an accompanying CD of music for belly dance is the obvious choice.

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