I have a lot of fun little instruments. They range from toy pianos and kalimbas to cheesy Casios and homemade noisemakers like the Atari Punk Console. Of all of my novelty instruments, however, my Omnichord is probably my favorite. These were made by Suzuki in the 1980s, and came in a few different models. It was eventually replaced by the digital (and much less cool) Suzuki Q-Chord. Omnichords are a bit harder to find these days. They have a sweet lo-fi nintendo/casio-ish sound that I find very appealing. Plus there’s nothing else quite like them.
What is an Omnichord?
The Omnichord is an electronic instrument that has a few similarities to an autoharp. The primary feature being the ability to press a button that corresponds to a chord, and then strum that chord with the other hand. In addition to the Omnichord’s “strumplate” and chord buttons, Omnichords also have various drum rhythms and a tempo control. The chords can play along with these patterns with a walking bassline, or simply sustain throughout. The strumming can then be manipulated over the top of this accompaniment. This makes for some fun little arrangements. Some later models offer more voices for the strum sounds and even enable the Omnichord to be used as a midi controller.
There are many things to like about this instrument. People may like it for the way it sounds, the design, or simply the uniqueness of it all coming together in such a package. For me though, something I really like about the Omnichord is as an aide to songwriting. There is something very exciting about exploring different chord progressions and playing with the cool and chippy sounding drum patterns that really helps that creative spark in me. Many artists have used the Omnichord to great effect, either as a featured instrument or as a shimmering addition to an already full arrangement. Below are a few vids of some Omnichords in action.
There are not too many things that do what the Omnichord does quite as well as the Omnichord does it. However, there are a few things of note that should be mentioned here. First, the Omnichord is actually not the first of its kind. It is actually the successor to the Suzuki Tronichord. These are incredible rare and hard to find, but if you get the chance, I would certainly snatch one up. The other offering, like mentioned earlier in the article, is the Suzuki Q-Chord. These look very similar to the Omnichord, and have the same basic features of chord selection and strumplate. These also all feature midi capabilities (of which only the later models of Omnichords have) and a song cartridge for playing along with. While all the features of the Q-Chord make it sound like it would be an improvement on the Omnichord, something about this most recent digital instrument just doesn’t have the same charm as the original.
Surprisingly enough, two other alternatives to the Omnichord can be found as iPad apps. These are the Polychord (Polychord App Store Link) and Chordion (Chordion App Store Link). Both offer the strumming and chord selection features of the Omnichord, but on the iPad screen. The Polychord app has choices of rhythms, basslines, arpeggiators, sound editing, recording, midi, and more. Chordion offers less features, sticking simply to the chord + strum idea, but sounds can be edited with vibrato and tremolo adjustments, and chord families can be made custom by the player to fit the song and layout of preference. Both are fun diversions, and offer something a little different from the original. I’d venture to say that the hardware form of the original Omnichord is still more appealing however, but your mileage may vary.
If you ever have the chance to play an Omnichord, I’d highly recommend it. You might just fall in love with it. I did.