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(Credit: Far Out / Mutney)

Music

Exploring the toylike world of the Suzuki Omnichord

@SamWKemp

Suzuki started small. The Japanese, family-owned company began manufacturing harmonicas in 1953, owing to the fact that the instrument was easy to play and easier to transport. At the heart of the enterprise was the idea that music had the power to bring people together, that it could be used to educate, bring joy, and foster camaraderie. But, in order to do this, instruments needed to be democratic and accessible.

Like the harmonica, Suzuki’s next product, the melodica, was simple by design and could be played by musicians and non-musicians alike. Released in 1960, this reed-keyboard instrument was quickly adopted by the Japanese Ministry of Education for use in schools, cementing Suzuki as one of the nation’s essential musical instrument manufacturers. Over the next 20 years or so, the company expanded and started making orchestral and band instruments as well, but with the arrival of the 1980s, Suzuki went back to their roots – crafting an instrument that has since taken on cult status: the infinitely majestic Omnichord.

When I first saw one of these quirky, toylike instruments, I was lost for words. The initial 1981 model is, in my opinion, still the best: The OM-27, which was released alongside the PC-27 Tronichord prototype. The OM-27 holds the shape of a small hand harp and was the first truly portable electronic instrument on the market. Featuring 27 playable chords (major, minor, and seventh), an in-built drum machine with a variety of rhythm and tempo controls, and a touch-sensitive synth ribbon, this futuristic yet charmingly clumsy piece of technology never caught on in the way Suzuki had hoped.

Following the commercial failure of the OM-27, Suzuki refused to back down, introducing the pimped up OM36 and OM84 models in 1984. With an expanded chord system and improved layout, these have served as the templates for every Omnichord that has fallen to earth since, including the recent Qchord. The ‘strumplate’ – a touch-sensitive synth pad – was greatly improved on these new models, meaning that players no longer needed to use a conductive rubber plectrum to make it sing.

Then came the OM100. With its ergonomic design and revitalised synth sounds, the instrument sparked a surge in sales, with orders coming in from all over the world. Soon, the Omnichord was being used in contexts Suzuki had scarcely imagined; choirmasters were using it to sing out melody lines, teachers to teach their students the rudiments of harmony, and songwriters were using it to lay down some of the most successful songs of the day.

The Human League, for example, used the instrument so much that they had a dedicated Omnichord podium during their live shows. David Bowie, after learning about the instrument through friend and collaborator Brian Eno, also adopted the Omnichord; using it for his performance of ‘America’ at the 2001 Concert for New York City. Devo, Talking Heads, and Cyndi Lauper, also developed a soft spot for the Omnichord’s mellow charm. Like many obscure instruments, the Omniuchord has taken on cult status over the last twenty years or so, with everyone from Bono and Damon Albarn to Pavorotti and Taylor Swift delving into the Suzuki’s weird world. While they were cheap as chips for a time, these days, you’d struggle to get hold of a retro Omnichord for anything below £500. Such is the price of innovation.