Squeak squeak SQUEAK! Tingle-ingle squeak!

There are two silly-sounding musical instruments whose names I keep forgetting. With any luck, this post will fix them in my memory.

The first one makes a sort of tinkling "sproing" noise, and the second sounds like someone squeaking a cleaning cloth on a drinking glass, or window. They're both surprisingly common - considering how weird they sound by themselves - in Latin music.

This much information wasn't quite enough, however, for Google to lead me directly to the answers. (Not the first time, and not either of the later times when I forgot again, and looked them up again.) But I got there in the end.

The sproinger, frequently heard in the sort of 1970s cop-movie music that opens with frantic bongo drumming, is called a "Flexatone", or "Flex-a-tone" to give it its full original 1920s-patent trademarked name.


The Flexatone is as unlikely-looking a device as its sound (OGG audio sample) would suggest. It's essentially a percussion variant of the musical saw; the Wikipedia article explains how it's played.

A "genuine" Flex-A-Tone will set you back at least $US26.99 (or $US34.50, for the deluxe version!). But this eBay seller has, among a variety of other instruments that look absolutely ideal for giving to the small children of people whom you do not like, a "Flexitone" for only $US24.99 delivered within the USA, or $US33.99 including delivery to Australia.

Speaking as a man who already owns a siren whistle (not nearly as good as the expensive Acme version), a melodica and two Stylophones (the old analogue type, of course), I can't say I'm not tempted.

[UPDATE: I just noticed that a Flexatone is part of the striking apparatus of one of Tim Hunkin's ramshackle clocks! It's featured at the start of the quartz-watch episode of The Secret Life of Machines.]

And then there's that rubbing-glass-sounding drum.

Cuíca drum

It's called a Cuíca, and it actually is played by squeaking a cloth on something. There's a stick inside the little drum, anchored to the middle of its single head. You rub the stick with a damp cloth to play the instrument, and alter pitch by pressing on the outside of the head with your other hand.

Cuica stick

Here's a 4.6Mb video tutorial, which makes clear that certain jokes about the motions involved...

Cuica playing

...are far, far too easy to be worth making.

The Cuíca is also known as a "laughing gourd" or "laughing drum" (not to be confused with the various kinds of talking drum). That's a fairly straightforward name, which made the Cuíca easier to look up than the Flexatone. Many other novelty instruments also have names deducible from their sound, like the humble "slide whistle", here demonstrated...

...in Ben Cowden's inimitable "Wayward Calliope" (via).

11 Responses to “Squeak squeak SQUEAK! Tingle-ingle squeak!”

  1. Thuli Says:

    I own some siren whistles, they drove my parents so insane when I was a child they confiscated them. Took me ages to figure out what they were called in order to buy some more....bwahahhaha!

  2. corinoco Says:

    I love weird musical instruments! I have two; a Wave Drum (no, not the Korg one... I wish!) and a Calimba. My Wave Drum is a square one with purple batik silk and is about 45cm along each side; it has occasionally freaked people out when I have had it in a car while moving, and they are unprepared for a sound that makes them think they are in a disaster movie. My Calimba looks a bit more ghetto than the one in the pic, as it actually came from a ghetto in somewhere in Africa.

  3. corinoco Says:

    Oh, should I count the three Theremins I've built so far? Yes, I think I should.

  4. Mohonri Says:

    I played percussion all the way through high school, and as I was the only one who didn't care for snare drum, I ended up with all the oddball percussion instruments. The Flex-a-tone was always a fun one, but the Vibraslap and slap stick were always fun as well.

    One of our band's few traditions was playing "Sleigh Ride" at the Christmas concerts. During part of the song where the crack of a whip is written (for which a slap stick is used), it was always great fun for us percussionists to substitute another instrument, be it a Vibraslap, Flexatone, gong, slide whistle, siren, or any of a number of other oddball instruments which I have since forgotten. The look on the director's face the first time we did it was simply priceless.

  5. Mohonri Says:

    I should also mention Acme's quite excellent Siren Horn as well. The sound is strikingly authentic, though its dynamic range is pretty limited.

  6. Matt-S Says:

    The Cuíca sounds like the intro from some of the really old cartoons. although that was probably some sort of muted brass.

  7. corinoco Says:

    'Lonesome Road' by Dean Elliot & His Big Band, from the legendary Ultra Loungue 'Furry Album' is an audio showcase of strange instruments.

    I can hear Cuíca, Siren Horn, Slide Whistle, those clicky-frog things, car horn, and something that sounds like some sort of muted Temple Block. There are also some quite strange vocals.

  8. Anne Says:

    The general weird-sound-generator-hooked-up-to-drumhead idea is used in another musical instrument I encountered but don't know the name of: it had a long spring attached to the drum. Shaking it or pulling on the spring caused the coils to clash against each other. You could get thunder-like rumbles out of it without much difficulty.

  9. Shadowex3 Says:

    And now that I've heard all of those in isolation I'm never going to be able to not recognize them anywhere else. Especially the Cuica/Laughing Drum which seems to be pretty much everywhere in cartoons and possibly comedy in general.

  10. Coderer Says:

    When I was in high school, we had a pretty complete percussion section -- at least one of all the instruments mentioned here, minus the Laughing Drum. One of my favorites at the time, though, had to be a "bird whistle" -- fill a little cavity with water, blow in the tail of the bird-shaped device, and you get something approximating robin's song. Never got old, that.

  11. jack17475259 Says:

    6.The Cuíca sounds like the intro from some of the really old cartoons. although that was probably some sort of muted brass.

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