“What about a tuba?”: Little Boots and the Tenori-On

My friend Susan gets the credit for turning me on (Christ, another pun!) to the Tenori-On. It’s a neat, little hand-held electronic instrument that’s easy to use and lets you create entire soundscapes with just a few inspired clicks of the right switches. And if you add the LED light system at the bottom, it’s kinda like you’re playing a Lite Brite.

Little Boots and the Tenori-On, live in concert; photo taken by Paul Gregory for Lense Eye

Little Boots and the Tenori-On, live in concert; photo taken by Paul Gregory for Lense Eye

This brings me to Victoria Hesketh, who performs under the name Little Boots, a British electronic-based singer-songwriter, whose primary instrument is the Tenori-On. Maybe you also know that Joe Goddard of Hot Chip and Greg Kurstin of The Bird and the Bee serve as her producers. Maybe you heard her single “Stuck on Repeat” (it was one Pitchfork’s Top 100 Singles of 2008).

But I don’t wanna suggest that Little Boots needs the guidance and approval of primarily male producers and music press to get ahead. Like many electro female recording artists at the moment (yes, including Lady Gaga), Little Boots is reconfiguring 80s synth pop. And this new little gadget is helping her do just that. Here she is covering Hot Chip’s “Ready for the Floor.”

For one, I like how immediate playing the Tenori-On seems. I don’t wanna be condescending and suggest that it’s simple and thus only dummy amateurs can pick it up, but to me there’s something sorta punk about how anybody could poke around on it to create songs and that it isn’t available only to trained instrumentalists and virtuosos.

(As an aside, the Tenori-On, which made its debut at SIGGRAPH in 2005, is still pretty expensive — a new one’ll set you back a grand, a used one’s starting price averages at $500 — so perhaps only art-school, trust-fund punks can afford it for now. Maybe as the instrument becomes more popular and widely-used, the asking price will decrease.)

For another, unlike punk, which tends to rely on three chords, I like how limitless the compositional possibilities are to the Tenori-On. It seems like you could start in one musical direction and then, with a few clicks and pushes, go through several musical tangents and end up somewhere completely unexpected.

I also like that the Tenori-On makes music composition seem accessible and efficient for the user, which is great for female instrumentalists like Little Boots who can be their own backing band, as well as a tremendous opportunity for women and girls to become more comfortable and savvy with technology. Add to that its compact, lightweight design and it seems like easy to transport from bedroom to backpack to bus stop to backseat to gig.

Incidentally, I have an Omnichord. If any ladies wanna jam, let me know.


  1. Susan

    Yay, Tenori-On!

    One thing to keep in mind re: the affordability of the instrument: a good guitar will usually set you back more than $1000 new or at least $500 used, too. Well, some cost less, but a lot of guitars would cost quite a bit more. The same goes for a lot of other instruments, including many synths with more common interfaces (like keyboards). So, yeah, it’s true that the cost of instruments often belies our ideals of punkrockness, but it’s pretty across the board.

  2. Alyx Vesey

    Thank you Susan. I must confess that I’ve never bought a guitar or any other basic instrument before and thus didn’t know how much they went for. Eek!

  3. hengst

    i like little boots. i tried to play “rich boy” at the party the other night, but it was early on, before any meaningful dancing was happening.

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