One-man Band

Jesse Fuller

A one-man band is a musician who plays a number of musical instruments simultaneously using their hands, feet, limbs, and various mechanical contraptions. The simplest type of ‘one-man band’ — a singer accompanying themselves on acoustic guitar and harmonica mounted in a metal ‘harp rack’ below the mouth — is often used by buskers. 

More complicated setups may include wind instruments strapped around the neck, a large bass drum mounted on the musician’s back with a beater which is connected to a foot pedal, cymbals strapped between the knees or triggered by a pedal mechanism, tambourines and maracas tied to the limbs, and a stringed instrument strapped over the shoulders (e.g., a banjo, ukulele or guitar). Since the development of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) in the 1980s, musicians have also incorporated chest-mounted MIDI drum pads, foot-mounted electronic drum triggers, and electronic pedal keyboards into their set-ups.

‘The one-man band exists, in all its uniqueness and independence, as a most elusive yet persistent musical tradition. As a category of musicianship it transcends cultural and geographic boundaries, spans stylistic limits, and defies conventional notions of technique and instrumentation. Defined simply as a single musician playing more than one instrument at the same time, it is an ensemble limited only by the mechanical capabilities and imaginative inventiveness of its creator, and despite its generally accepted status as an isolated novelty, it is a phenomenon with some identifiable historical continuity.’

The earliest known records of multiple musical instruments being played at the same time date from the 13th century, and were the ‘pipe and tabor.’ The pipe was a simple three-holed flute that could be played with one hand; the tabor is more commonly known today as a snare drum. This type of playing can still be heard in parts of rural France, in England and among the Basques and Catalans.

One of the earliest modern exponents of multiple instruments was Jesse Fuller. Fuller developed a foot-operated bass which he called the ‘footdella,’ which had six bass strings which were struck by hammers. In ‘one-man-band’ shows, Fuller would use his ‘footdella,’ a footpedal-operated sock, a homemade neck harness (for a harmonica, kazoo and microphone), and a 12-string guitar. Fate Norris, of the Skillet Lickers, a hillbilly string band of the 1920s and early 1930s developed a geared mechanical contraption with footpedals that enabled him to play guitar, bells, bass fiddle, fiddle, autoharp and mouth harp.

Joe Barrick, who was born in Oklahoma in 1922, wanted a way of accompanying himself on fiddle, so he built a contraption with a guitar neck on a board with footpedals to operate the notes. Subsequent versions of this ‘piatar’ also had bass guitar and banjo necks and a snare drum which are played by foot-operated hammers. To change notes on the guitar-family instruments, a foot treadle operates a mechanical fretting device. Two notable one-man blues bands active in Memphis in the 1950s were Doctor Ross and Joe Hill Louis, playing guitar, harmonica and bass drum/high-hat. The simple guitar and harmonica combination is so common now that it is rarely considered to be a one-man band. British-born Don Partridge made the classic one man band outfit (bass drum on the back, guitar and harmonica) famous in the streets of Europe, and was probably the first ever busker to enter the Top Ten of the UK Singles Chart, with his hit singles ‘Rosie’ and ‘Blue Eyes’ in 1968.

The term ‘one-man band’ is also colloquially used to describe a performer who plays every instrument on a recorded song one at a time, and then mixes them together in a multitrack studio. While this approach to recording is more common in electronic genres such as techno and acid house than traditional rock music, some rock performers such as Stevie Wonder, Prince, Lenny Kravitz, and Paul McCartney have made records in which they play every instrument. Other examples of a one-man band in the recording studio are Dave Grohl for the first studio album by the Foo Fighters, Trent Reznor for Nine Inch Nails, and Billy Corgan for Smashing Pumpkins since 2009.

A recently emerging musical tool is the use of recording, delay, and looping devices in live performances of everything from beatboxing to classical violin, in order to create layered looped accompaniment for music later in the song. Using this technology, a simultaneous combination of various instruments and vocals, or one instrument played in different ways, can be created over the course of one musical piece which rivals studio recording. Notable artists who incorporate this technique live include Keller Williams and KT Tunstall.

Since the 1980s, musicians have also incorporated chest-mounted MIDI drum pads, foot-mounted electronic drum triggers. Some ‘one man bands’ use organ-style pedal keyboards to perform basslines. A small number of enthusiasts use custom-made MIDI controllers connected to different parts of their bodies to trigger music on synthesizers. Custom-made MIDI controllers range from wind-operated controllers to small triggers mounted on the arms or feet. At a certain point, the use of body MIDI controllers may come to resemble performance art, because the musical sounds are triggered by the performer assuming certain poses or dancing.

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