By Josh Saunders
Meet the performer who transforms guns, boots, hockey sticks, suitcases, coat hangers and more into musical instruments.
Ken Butler, 70, from Brooklyn, New York, has made over 400 of the unusual creations repurposed from everyday and unusual items.
While working as an artist, he began to recognise the similarities between the shape of the human skeleton and that of a guitar.
This would lead him to pick-up a hatchet axe and put it under his chin in 1978, realising that it could be transformed into a violin.
Since then has worked his way through a countless array of items that could be turned into a playable guitars, violin and pianos.
Everything from tennis rackets to golf clubs, brooms, coat hangers, mannequins, snowshoes and more have been repurposed into instruments – all are playable but around half were made to be performed on.
From his 41 years of experience, he can turn a hammer into a violin within an hour and for the more complicated items incorporating a piano up to a full month.
Over the years he has been dubbed ‘trash musician’ and ‘garbage musician’ for recycling and repurposing of items thrown away by others or given to him.
Ken, an artist and musician, said: “My intention is not to say everything is a musical instrument but to look at what you can come up with if you look at the world with that idea in mind.
“The things I choose have the parameter to have strings attached, they are light, portable and function.
“A string instrument often has a fingerboard that can touch the string against something to change the pitch, as opposed to where the strings are suspended, like for playing with a slide.
“A screwdriver could not, but a spoon could, a tennis racquet is a natural fit, but a lawn mower is not.
“The parameters I’m looking for are mostly that it can’t be too heavy, if you think of a violin’s body, it needs to fit under the chin.
“The thickness of the cane like a hockey stick is exactly that of the headstock of a guitar, attaching a tuning pegs can take ten minutes.
“To make a violin out of a hammer is extremely simple, you drill two holes, put the strings on and use a microphone as a bridge, there you have a two-string electric violin.
“You can play a shovel with a slide if it has raised strings, but to play fretting a fingerboard the strings need to be alligned without buzzing or hitting anything in the way, which requires a lot more work.
“It happens to be that a machine gun has the parameters to be functional, not that I find them something radical to make.
“One of my gun violins, which is made from two plastic pistols is one of my most playable instruments.
“The simplest instrument I made took an hour to build and the most complicated like one of my keyboards took more than a month.
“Some days I would make five to seven pieces in a day, I would gather materials and lay them out to see what relationships would develop.”
For Ken his moment of inspiration came while analysing the human body from x-rays, while putting together collages.
He believes this is what led him to think about the world and items differently, seeing the shape of items and thinking how similar they are to musical instruments.
Ken said: “The head looked like the ‘head’ of a guitar, the spine like the neck, and the lower torso like the body.
“I was thinking about the physical shapes of string instruments and how they relate to the human body, that’s when I picked up the axe.
“I just put it under my chin and thought ‘Oh wow, that would be a weird thing to make a violin out of.’”
Ken would go onto repurpose numerous items into instruments, for him the creations were an illustration of how looking at the world differently can change your life.
He added: “The hidden logic that can be seen and discovered excites me.
“The idea of hyper-utility and ingenuity is more important than craftmanship, reinvention is more interesting to me.
“I have a few hand tools and a few power tools, for me it’s more of the idea of transforming and looking what something else could be.
“They are quite easy to make in some ways, but to make something really beautiful sounding and playable is extremely difficult.
“When people ask how I made the instrument with such a good sound, my response is that I made 100 others that didn’t sound good.”
Ken believes there are not many items left that he hasn’t already considered or repurposed into an instrument.
He said: “I have been looking at things and imagining what instruments they could be for 41 years now.
“For years I was looking for a snowshoe because it is about the same length as the body of a cello, I finally got one ten years ago and made the snowshoe cello.
“I literally can’t imagine I will suddenly go ‘Wow, that item would make a fantastic violin’ now, I would love to but don’t know what it would be.”
Of his more than 400 creations, many were repurposed into other musical instruments and he regularly performs with around 12 of them.
Ken said: “The most playable ones I perform on regularly, all have the characteristic of being ergonomic, light weight and have great sound.
“I’m not trying to replace instruments, people assume I had a problem with normal instruments, which is absurd.”