The Waterphone (How it Works, What it Sounds Like, Where to Buy One)

The Waterphone, invented by Richard Waters, is an intriguing and unique sounding instrument that will probably give you the chills!

Even though people usually think that nobody invents new instruments, some people are always working on improving and meddling with existing ones trying to get that perfect sound they need. One of those people certainly is Richard Waters, inventor of the waterphone.

In this article, we’re going to introduce you to the magnificent instrument that is waterphone and all the details about how it works and how it was invented.

How the waterphone works

Waterphone is a peculiar instrument that consists of stainless steel wide bowls that have bronze rods attached to the sides of the bowl. These are then filled with water and create the sound by playing on the rods, whether you use a bow, a mallet, or pick them with your fingers. The water that’s inside of the bowl allows for the sound to change when the water is being moved by shifting the sound but also for different sounds to be played depending on the place of the water.

The instrument has a big rod in the middle of it, through which you fill and empty the bowl with water and there you can hold or suspend your instrument on the cord. Also, you can play it when it just sits on the surface.

What a waterphone sounds like

Sound of the waterphone is a dreary, hollow sound similar to that of a cello or a violin, but louder and with more echo to it (thanks to the water inside and the size of this instrument). The rods on the instrument are not tuned to any scale, but are, in its makers’ words, he tunes it to a micro-tonal scale split between two diatonic, tuning the tonal rods against the primal tone of the diaphragms, resonator and each other.

This means that you can get a whole lot of new, exciting sounds when playing this instrument as you can’t expect the same sounds over and over again just going up and down the scale. You can find some notes by ear and then mark those rods to use them specifically when you compose a piece, but you can’t expect to have a waterphone tuned exactly to standard scales as other instruments.

Where to buy a waterphone

If you’re interested in one of these, there’s only one place where you can get them safely This is the original website of the inventor and the only original producer of these, Richard Waters where you can order one of these.

All of the waterphones are made custom and by hand, according to the needs of the customer.

There are three main models you can choose from, which are then being customized to your needs: Whaler (12” in diameter, 14” height), Bass (14” diameter and height), and MegaBass (16” in diameter and 14” in height). As you might deduce from their names, the larger the instrument more bass you’re going to get from it. Also, you’ll get more rods, as there’s more space to put them on.

You can find online many different counterfeits and copies of the original instrument. Several people are trying to sell these, but you should be aware that all of these copies are very badly designed and made. They are usually made out of low-quality metals, with fewer rods welded onto the instrument, giving you the lesser quality sound which is easily comparable if you have and original Waterphone next to one of these.

So, our recommendation is to always go and buy original, because it’s made by a person who invented this instrument, who has 40 years of experience in working on it and can make it to fulfill your needs.

When and where the waterphone was invented

This instrument was invented by Richard Waters in California, the USA in 1969. It was inspired by kalimbas or African thumb pianos. As you probably know, kalimbas are played by plucking thin rods and creating the sound in that way. Mr. Waters experimented with different types of kalimbas, welding the rods on the bowls, and then one day he filled the bowl with water together with his friend, and invented a whole new sound.

This model was then later on perfected, after a lot of experimenting with materials and ways in which it can be made and tuned. The final verdict was that the body should be made out of stainless steel and the rods out of bronze, as the materials with the best money/quality ratio and durable as well.

Why does it sound scary?

The main use of this instrument is in music production, specifically movie soundtrack production. This is due to the really dreary, scary sounds you can get from the Waterphone, and horror movies are a perfect place for just such an instrument.

There are two main reasons for why the waterphone sounds so scary. Firstly, there’s something odd to the ear of the listener when they listen to instruments that are not tuned to the standard scales. When you listen to music, you expect the sounds to hit those 12 notes you’re accustomed to in Western music since all of them have their own personal resonance and are all set apart identically from one another.

When you hear some notes that are out of those registers, you’re immediately baffled as to what is going on and are trying to get ahold of that mess.

Secondly, the use of the water in this instrument allows for the very odd and sudden change in the sound, which is not available in the other instruments. Water carries the sound differently than the air and when in contact with vibrating metal around it, it will create a whole new bending of the sound, which is again not something you’re accustomed to.

When you combine that effect with the high pitched, metallic sounds you get from playing this instrument, and years of usage in horror movies and generally scary scenes, you’ll immediately get the chills down your neck when you hear waterphone squeak and rumble.

Other names for a waterphone

Even though the waterphone is the original name of the instrument, you can find it under several other names that have sprung up during the years. This instrument is also well known as the Ocean harp or Aquasonic waterphone, and you’ll maybe find it under those names for sale in your local store, but the name waterphone is the original one.


We hope that you’ve learned something new and exciting in this article. Waterphone have been around more than 50 years and it has no intention to leave. Even though it’s not really widespread in its use, waterphones are very admired and used by serious professional musicians who use it’s dreary, weird sounds to accompany the standard instruments which can’t really get those out of themselves.

If you’re looking to buy one, you should note that they do come quite expensive, prices ranging from 1100$ to 1700$. These prices are however justified as each instrument is handmade by the inventor and it can be accustomed to your personal needs and wishes, even though it will keep the original form of the instrument you’re buying.

Featured Image: Alex wong playing waterphone, CC BY 3.0

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