Pyrophonia: Music on Fire

"Flaming" and "on fire" are words used all the time for musicians who are "burning it up," or playing with talent and fervor. The phrases are usually not meant to be taken literally. But the universal human fascination with fire and music is sometimes combined into instruments that are literally on fire. And they come in all shapes and sizes, like these ten. Warning: these projects are dangerous, and should be left to professionals.

1. Flamebone or Frankenhorn

Jonathon Crawford (who goes by the handle Pyro) added fire to his trombone, with what appears to be an acetylene torch. Scott was inspired to make his own "Flamebone" (pictured) by connecting a torch and an air compressor to his horn.

It has a 21 foot range with the fireball, and a concussion wave of 150 feet. It can be difficult to play since it has a recoil.

Does it need to be said that this can be dangerous, and should never be tried inside?

2. Tubatron

Animator David Silverman is best known as the director of The Simpsons Movie and many episodes of the TV show. But he is also a musician. He plays the Tubatron, or flaming Sousaphone. The instrument is rigged with a propane tank that feeds flames Silverman can control. You can see him perform every year at Burning Man, or at YouTube.

3. Flaming Tuba

The Sousaphone is not alone as far as fire-belching bass horns go. This gentleman plays a flaming tuba on the street in Bratislava, Slovakia. I haven't found any information on him, but he's been recorded on video many times.

4. Pyrophone

The word pyrophone literally means "fire sound." The instrument is a series of pipes like an organ or calliope, but the sound is made by applying combustion to the pipes, usually with propane or gasoline. The pyrophone is, essentially, the dangerous opposite of the hydraulophone. Early pyrophones of the 18th and 19th centuries resembled pipe organs, although they worked like steam calliopes powered by internal combustion generators. Modern pyrophones are more likely to be homemade experiments in explosion technology, as you can see in this video performance. Nathan Stodola designed the pyrophone pictured here, which he named the Thermoacoustic Organ, or Fire Organ. The heat is provided by propane, and the pipes are cooled with liquid nitrogen. The cooling allows the pipes to be played and then replayed sooner than other pyrophones. Watch Stodola's Fire Organ in action in this video.

5. The Pyrophone Juggernaut

The Pyrophone Juggernaut is a fire organ played by directing the flames of a blowtorch into the various pipes. See a performance on video. Image by Flickr user John Goodridge.

6. L'Orgue à Feu

French sculptor Michel Moglia built the L'Orgue à Feu in 1989. This fire organ is 7 meters long and 9 meters high! It plays on 200 stainless steel tubes of different sizes. You can witness a performance of this instrument at YouTube. Image by Thierry Nava.

7. Fire Horn

Ariel Schlesinger noticed that a can of butane to refill lighters was cheaper than a can of compressed air. That gave him the idea to fuel an air horn with a butane canister to produce a Fire Horn. Not only is it an economical way to power the horn, but also have a pyrotechnic show to go along with it. Does that sound dangerous to you? Schlesinger has a video of the flaming horn at his site.

8. Ruben's Tube

The Ruben's Tube, or standing wave flame tube, began as an experiment to show the relationship between sound and pressure. A tube with holes is filled with flammable gas, and a speaker is attached. The pressure from sound waves causes the flames to spike. The Ruben's Tube was invented in 1904 by German physicist Heinrich Rubens. While physics students learn from the experiment, most of us think "Light show!" You can see how music affects the flames in this video. If you'd like to make your own Ruben's Tube, instructions are available online.

9. Syzygryd

Syzygryd is a collaborative musical instrument made for Burning Man 2010. The three musicians use computerized controls set equidistant around a 60-foot diameter circle. They can see each other, but they are too far apart to talk -however, they can monitor each other's input on a screen. The music they play controls a sculpture in the center of the circle, "a huge metal tornado of cubes," which displays lights synchronized with the music and shoots out flames. Syzygryd can also play preprogrammed music without live musicians. Image by Flickr user Michael Broxton.

Syzygryd proved to be very popular at Burning Man, with many participants wanting to take a turn playing it. Even non-musicians can make music, as the instrument is tuned to create working chords no matter what data is fed into it, but the controllers do produce unique melodies.

10. Musical Flamethrower

As a final note, here's a musical instrument made from a collection of flamethrowers of differing lengths. I don't know who made it, but this demonstration was recorded at the Preston Riversway Festival in Preston, Lancashire, England this past July.

Samir Hussein, Getty Images
One of Michael Jackson's 'Billie Jean' Gloves Can Be Yours (For the Right Price)
Samir Hussein, Getty Images
Samir Hussein, Getty Images

Three things usually come to mind when people recall Michael Jackson's stratospheric fame in the 1980s: His music videos were events unto themselves; he toted around a chimp named Bubbles (who once bit Quincy Jones's daughter Rashida); and Jackson was often seen wearing a single white sequined glove.

There's no official count on how many gloves Jackson owned and wore during his career, but one performance-used mitt is now up for sale via GWS Auctions and their Legends of Hollywood & Music Auction. Used by Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour, the Swarovski crystal-covered glove is unique in that Jackson had it made for his left hand, as he wanted to keep the wedding ring—courtesy of his marriage to nurse Debbie Rowe—visible on his right. (Though wedding rings are traditionally worn on the left hand, Jackson was known to wear his on the right.)

A white glove worn by Michael Jackson during his 1997 HIStory tour
GWS Auctions

According to Jackson associate John Kehe, Jackson allegedly got the idea for the glove in 1980, when he was touring a production company and saw a film editor at a control panel wearing a white cotton glove. Jackson himself wrote in his autobiography, Moonwalk, that he had been wearing a single glove since the 1970s. Either way, it was Jackson's performance of "Billie Jean" during a television appearance for Motown's 25th anniversary in May 1983 that cemented the accessory in the eyes of the public. That particular glove sold for $350,000 in 2009.

The HIStory glove will be up for auction March 24; pre-bids currently have it in excess of $5000. The Legends of Music and Hollywood Auction is also set to feature a prescription pill bottle once owned by Frank Sinatra and a hairbrush used by Marilyn Monroe.

Getty Images
The Stories Behind 10 Johnny Cash Songs
Getty Images
Getty Images

Johnny Cash, who was born on this day in 1932, once wrote, “I love songs about horses, railroads, land, judgment day, family, hard times, whiskey, courtship, marriage, adultery, separation, murder, war, prison, rambling, damnation, home, salvation, death, pride, humor, piety, rebellion, patriotism, larceny, determination, tragedy, rowdiness, heartbreak and love. And Mother And God."

That sums the Cash discography up pretty well. He covers at least 20 of those themes in the 10 songs below. Here are the backstories behind some of the Man in Black's most famous songs—and maybe a little insight into why he loved those topics so much.


In the song, Cash explains that he always wears black to performances and public appearances because of social injustices, “just so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” It’s a great story, but it’s not 100 percent true. In 2002, he told Larry King that black was his signature color simply because he felt most comfortable in it, although he preferred light blue in summer. “You walk into my clothes closet. It’s dark in there,” he said.

Rolling Stone wrote that the inky wardrobe was also helpful when it came to hiding dirt and dust in the early touring days.


Cash didn’t always wear black. In the video above, he’s dressed in bright yellow, accessorized with a powder blue cape.

Sound a little off-brand? It was. In the early ‘80s, Cash felt that Columbia, his record label, was ignoring him and failing to promote his music properly. He decided to record a song so awful that it would force Columbia to cut his contract early. The plan worked, but it came at a price. “He was kind of mocking and dismantling his own legacy,” daughter Rosanne later said. Here’s a sampling of the lyrics, in case the video is too painful to watch: “I put your brain in a chicken last Monday, he’s singing your songs and making lots of money, and I’ve got him signed to a 10-year recording contract.”


Written in just 20 minutes, Cash’s (arguably) greatest hit  was intended as a reminder to himself to stay faithful to his first wife, Vivian, while he was on the road opening for Elvis in the mid-1950s. "It was kind of a prodding to myself to 'Play it straight, Johnny,'" he once said. According to other interviews, that wasn’t the song’s only meaning: He also meant it as an oath to God. Although Sam Phillips from Sun Records said that he wasn’t interested in gospel songs, Johnny was able to sneak “I Walk the Line” past him with the story about being true to his wife.


In 1969, Johnny and June threw a party at their house in Hendersonville. As you might imagine, it was a veritable who’s-who of music: Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, and Shel Silverstein. Everyone debuted a new song at the party—Dylan sang “Lay Lady Lay,” Nash did “Marrakkesh Express,” Kristofferson played “Me and Bobby McGee,” and Mitchell sang “Both Sides Now.” Silverstein, who was a songwriter in addition to an author of children’s books, debuted “A Boy Named Sue.”

When the party was over, June encouraged Johnny to take the lyrics to “Sue” on the plane the next day. They were headed to California to record the famous live At San Quentin album. Johnny wasn’t sure he could learn the lyrics fast enough, but he did—and the inmates went crazy for it. They weren’t the only ones: "A Boy Named Sue" quickly shot to the top of the charts. And not just the country charts—it held the #2 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks.

The song was originally inspired by a male friend of Silverstein’s with a somewhat feminine name—Jean Shepherd, the author of A Christmas Story.


The story behind this one depends on who you believe. The Carter-Cash family has always maintained that June and guitar player Merle Kilgore co-wrote the song about June falling in love with Johnny despite being worried about his drug and alcohol problem.

But according to Johnny’s first wife, Vivian, June had nothing to do with “Ring of Fire.” “The truth is, Johnny wrote that song, while pilled up and drunk, about a certain private female body part,” Vivian wrote in her autobiography. She claims he gave June credit for writing the song because he thought she needed the money.

Either way, June’s sister Anita originally recorded the song. After Johnny had a dream that he was singing it with mariachi horns, he recorded it that way. 


“Ring of Fire” isn’t the only time Johnny had a dream that inspired a song. In his later years, Cash had a dream that he walked into Buckingham Palace and encountered Queen Elizabeth just sitting on the floor. When she saw him, the Queen said, “Johnny Cash, you’re like a thorn tree in a whirlwind!” Two or three years later, Cash remembered the dream, decided that the reference must be a biblical one, and wrote what he called “my song of the apocalypse”—“The Man Comes Around.”


This one is another early song inspired by Vivian. From the summer of 1951 through the summer of 1954, Cash was deployed in Germany with the Air Force. At the end of three years, he turned down the option to re-enlist, feeling homesick for his girl and his home. On the journey back from Germany, he penned “Hey Porter” about the excitement and relief he felt to finally be coming home.


After seeing Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison, Cash was inspired to write a song about it. Too bad that song already existed as “Crescent City Blues,” written by Gordon Jenkins.

Jenkins sued for copyright infringement in 1969 and received $75,000. Cash later admitted that he heard the song when he was in the Air Force, but borrowing the tune and some of the lyrics was subconscious; he never meant to rip Jenkins off. Oh, but the famous “I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die” line—that was all Johnny.

9. "CRY! CRY! CRY!"

After Cash returned home from the Air Force and signed with Sun Records, he gave Sam Phillips “Hey Porter.” Phillips asked for a ballad for the B-side, so Cash went home and quickly wrote “Cry! Cry! Cry!” literally overnight. It became his first big hit—not bad for an afterthought.


Though “Get Rhythm” eventually became the B-side for “I Walk the Line,” Cash originally wrote it for Elvis. It might have been recorded by Presley, but when he went to RCA, Sam Phillips refused to let him take “Get Rhythm” with him.


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