Can a musician sell their soul to the Devil to become a prodigy, and why does this deal always involve string instruments, like the guitar or the violin?

Listen to “What is the Devil’s Instrument?” on Spreaker.

For centuries, the violin has been known as the devil’s instrument, or the instrument of the devil. This diabolical association began in the Middle Ages, when the Church declared the violin—an instrument of merriment that encouraged people to dance—held no place in God’s house. But there are a few notable musicians throughout the past 400 years that have accentuated the violin’s—and later the guitar’s— devilish reputation.

The podcast host with her devil's instrument, a skull-shaped violin
Becky, who narrates this episode, with her devilish violin hand-carved into the shape of a skull

Famous musicians who have been accused of deals with the Devil

“Johnny, rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard
‘Cause Hell’s broke loose in Georgia and the Devil deals the cards
And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold
But if you lose the devil gets your soul”

The Devil Went Down to Georgia by Charlie Daniels

Does it count if you sell your soul to the Devil in a dream?

In 1713, a dream inspired Italian violin maestro Giuseppe Tartini to compose The Devil’s Trill Sonata. In his dream, he sold his soul to the Devil without compunction, only to have the tricky Devil snatch his violin and best him at his own craft. Upon waking, Tartini attempted to piece together the unearthly notes he had heard the Devil play in his dream.

Instead of feeling demonically empowered, however, Tartini felt that he failed to capture the sublime nature of his devilish dream tune. Is that enough proof that he didn’t truly sell his soul after all? He did have an incredibly successful music career, but never published The Devil’s Trill. Perhaps he escewed it out of shame, that he couldn’t quite achieve his fantasy. Or perhaps he just didn’t want the Church to know he was inspired by the Devil. After all, he owed most of his career success to the Church.

Niccolo Paganini was metal before metal was metal

Nicolo Paganini is another Italian violin virtuoso just after Tartini’s time. Paganini’s reputation of having dealt with the Devil may have had something to do with his overall metal vibe. A tall, gaunt man with long dark hair and “flaming eyes,” dressed all in black, Paganini would rock out so intensely his violin strings would break. Well, technically he filed his strings so they would gradually break as he played. In a sort of fiddling strip-tease, his continued performance revealed more of his talent with each eliminated string. Once during a concert, audience members swore that his bow was struck by lightning. Does it get more metal than that?

Of course, the rumor could’ve been due to his skill alone. Broken strings and all, he purportedly played at an incredible 12 notes per second. He pretty much instantly surpassed every maestro he sought to learn from. The vast majority of violinists at the time denounced any non-traditional practices. Paganini embraced and perhaps even improved upon every violin innovation he came across. Becky’s teacher told her Paganini’s technical skill came from his long, double-jointed fingers. Some historians agree that his unusually long fingers, likely due to Marfan Syndrome, were indeed to blame for part of his unprecedented ability. No wonder his contemporaries were all like “no fair, we can’t play like that with our stupid average-length fingers, therefore you’re in league with the Devil.”

It was probably a combination of being really talented, having well-endowed phalanges, and being uber metal that led to his devilish reputation. Paganini didn’t seem to have any qualms with the rumors that he was in league with the Devil. While others were submitting to the rules of the Church and propriety, Paganini composed music mimicking lovers groaning during sex. He even refused last rites on his deathbed. The church declined his burial in consecrated ground for decades.

Interestingly, Paganini played and composed music for guitar, but would only ever perform on guitar in private. Do you think that’s because his hardcore guitar riffs were just too satanic for public consumption?

Tommy Johnson and his deal with the Devil

Speaking of guitars, fast-forward about a century and a half, and we have the first American musician to rise to fame after an alleged deal with the Devil. Unlike Paganini and Tartini, Tommy Johnson straight up started these rumors about himself. His brother, LaDell Johnson, helped spur the legend on. And his talent and innovation caused widespread belief in his demonic dealings. It didn’t hurt his rep when he’d croon in falsetto about doing shots of Sterno during prohibition while playing his guitar behind his own head.

But every deal with the devil has its comeuppance. Tommy Johnson fell on hard times during the Great Depression and drank himself to death. Still, he remains a legend. His creative take on the blues was instrumental in forming the new Delta blues sound.

Was Robert Johnson the first member of The 27 Club?

Just a few years after Tommy Johnson’s rise and fall, American musician Robert Johnson (no relation) was coming of age. Timing is everything, and it was partly due to the Great Depression that Robert Johnson didn’t receive much fame or fortune during his career. He recorded his entire songwriting legacy from 1936-1937. Robert Johnson was “discovered” in 1938, and asked to play Carnegie Hall…except he had died quietly and mysteriously in the brief months between his studio recordings and his discovery that would’ve cemented his fame. He basically started the trend of musicians living fast and dying young. Or as Becky called it, The 27 Club.

Of these four musicians, Robert Johnson’s alleged deal with the Devil was perhaps the most justified. In a very short timespan, he went from “that guy ends the party with his embarrassing attempts to play guitar” to “damn, that guy can play literally anything he hears better than anyone else.” With little experience or formal training, he basically invented the “boogie bass pattern” for guitar, inherently changing the way the blues sounded forever. Like the other three, he seemed to embrace the rumors of his deal with the Devil. He wrote and recorded several songs with references to the Devil, the Crossroads, hellhounds, and of course, any and every sexual innuendo.

What is the Devil’s instrument?

Medieval monks and the Church specifically deemed the violin an instrument of the Devil. You might think this is because if you do it wrong, it can sound like strangling small animals, or the screeches of harpies. But even fancy fiddlin’ was once condemned because it inspired fun and dancing, the horror. Those in charge claimed violin had no place in Church-sanctioned music.

This European Christian admonishment echoes through the ages. Aside from the violin, this judgement broadly applies to instruments, musicians, and genres alike. The condemnation only expanded in the years between our classical violin maestros and our Delta blues maestros. According to Alan Lomax, ethnomusicologist and author of The Land Where the Blues Began, “every blues fiddler, banjo picker, harp blower, piano strummer and guitar framer was, in the opinion of both himself and his peers, a child of the Devil, a consequence of the black view of the European dance embrace as sinful in the extreme.”

The Devil’s Music

While the religious protesting of devilish themes in rock and roll and heavy metal music of the 1970’s-80’s (the Satanic Panic) started with religious extremists, it quickly influenced mainstream. Political movements such as Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center committee of “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics” sticker infamy perpetuated the idea that subliminal messages in occult-themed music could hypnotize impressionable young people into committing violent crimes. Even today, a quick Googling for satanic pop music will reveal several passionate accusations I’m not going to justify with backlinks.

Predictably, every group that cites a new style of music as “evil” seems to do so from the viewpoint that kids nowadays being devilishly influenced by new styles of music is a completely modern and novel groundbreaking threat. Makes one wonder what those Medieval monks would’ve said about the unspeakable evils we rock out to today.

…Eh, probably the exact same things they said about Paganini. I mean, how many ways can you say “my dogma can’t withstand challenges to the status quo”?

The Devil’s Violin

The Devil's Instrument in the flesh (or at least carved wood)
Becky’s skull violin, the Devil’s Instrument herself, affectionately named Slurpy, getting ready for her closeup.

If the violin is the official instrument of the Devil, Becky’s violin is the Devil’s violin. A shrieking skull with shriveled skin and hollow eyes, Slurpy is perhaps the most haunted-looking instrument in the greater ATL. The Devil may have influenced many musicians. As for Becky…well, you be the judge.

 

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