In 1889, 35-year-old Nikola Tesla happened upon Heinrich Hertz’s experiments that proved the existence of electromagnetic radiation. Despite his lack of an advanced degree in engineering, Tesla knew that if electromagnetic radiation existed all around us, he should theoretically be able to send power through the air without having to use wires. After three years of tinkering and experimenting with Ruhmkorff coils and high-speed alternators, Tesla built a machine that utilized a magnetic field to collect massive amounts of energy before it reached a breaking point and flowed into the air as a giant arc of lightning. That machine, of course, is now known as the Tesla coil.
In 2005, roughly 114 years later, a 25-year-old named Joe DiPrima continued the tradition. DiPrima was no professional engineer — he worked at a speaker repair shop in Texas — but he knew that if zaps from a Tesla coil could transfer some energy into sound waves, he should theoretically be able to turn the machine into an instrument. And in 2005, he and his brother did just that.
“People had been experimenting with making sounds with sparks for quite a long time, but they were trying to produce high-fidelity audio from it to basically turn it into a speaker,” DiPrima tells me. “No one had pivoted in the direction of making the Tesla itself an instrument by creating sparks with different pitches.”
Confident in the science, DiPrima connected his homemade Tesla coil to his Casio keyboard with some “basic interface circuitry” in between. “Basically, the way a musical Tesla coil works is that there’s a little microcontroller reading MIDI data from a computer, which is then interpreted to create a pulse at a certain frequency, which heats up the air, creating a disturbance in the atmosphere and, thus, soundwaves,” he explains. “If you send a one shot, it just makes a pop sound, but once you start sending them sequentially, they start producing tones.”
It didn’t take long for DiPrima’s Tesla coil to start producing notes. “There’s one thing to fully expect it to function and not blow up, but we had no idea what a Tesla coil would even sound like as an instrument. Yeah, we’d seen and heard singular sparks produce a pitch, but now we were hearing full melodies,” he says, laughing that the first piece of music ever produced by a Tesla coil was the demo tune programmed into his Casio.
“So to have control over what note it’s playing, and not just reproducing singular sounds but actually giving it voice as an instrument — it’s definitely something you don’t anticipate, even though you put hours of work into it,” he says. “That was pretty exciting.”
It wasn’t just a cool discovery for DiPrima and his brother. It was a pivotal moment in the industry. Until that point, Tesla coils were exclusively used for visual and educational purposes. In fact, Tesla coil purists weren’t happy that DiPrima was experimenting with the coil to make music.
“A lot of the old-schoolers who were super-into Tesla were almost put off by [my] making music with the Tesla coil, because they saw it as cheeky,” he says. “And they were the ones who helped me build my first coils! When they learned I was going to try to make music with it, they’d be like, ‘Sorry, I want to make real Tesla coils.’”
Of course, every hobby has that group of people dedicated to doing things a certain way, DiPrima says. “And then you have someone playing video game tunes, and suddenly all these new, outside people are interested in what’s typically a very niche, very sciencey hobby. I get it.”
On the other hand, DiPrima argues, “unlocking the musical capabilities of these machines has just made the technology so much more advanced.” For over a century, Tesla coils were mostly a novelty, where “the goal was just to make a spark, or make a bigger spark, and that’s it.” But since DiPrima found a way to harness the energy of the Tesla coil to make music, he says, not only has the science around coils become more advanced, the interest in the coils has exploded.
“It’s a great educational tool, and we think that people should be playing with and experimenting with it. Now you can’t look up a Tesla coil without running into some hobbyist playing a tune with them,” he says.
Ever since the fateful day in 2005, DiPrima has toured his musical Tesla coil around the world. He zapped David Blaine. He even had a pretty good run on America’s Got Talent.
But after 15 years of grinding work, escaping life as a speaker repairman and turning his hobby into a full-time career, Joe DiPrima was ready to break out in 2020. Rapper-producer Travis Scott had come across DiPrima’s band, ArcAttack, and wanted them to join him at Coachella.
“The sad truth is that Tesla coils have been notoriously unreliable stage effects since the ’60s,” DiPrima says. They “have an incredibly bad reputation with world-renowned production companies. So the only way we’d ever get booked to do big shows is if the artist knows about us. Funny enough, that was actually going to happen this year. [Coachella] was probably the biggest gig that we had ever scored, and then it was gone. This was going to be our best year ever, and it literally just got wiped off the map.”
Because DiPrima and his band heavily relied on doing live shows and educational visits to schools, they scrambled to find new sources of revenue — in the coming months, you’ll be able to buy an ArcAttack-approved musical Tesla from their website — and began pumping more effort into their online presence.
But just when they thought interest online had peaked — they hit 17,000 Facebook fans — one of their proteges, 26-year-old Fabricio H. Franzoli, went viral. Living on a farm in São Paulo, Brazil, Franzoli became an electrical engineering student after being inspired by DiPrima’s appearance on David Blaine’s show.
“Now Fabricio’s YouTube channel has eclipsed ours, which is pretty funny,” DiPrima says. “For 10 years, we’ve only focused on live shows, but never invested time or resources to YouTube. He’s reached a way bigger market for this stuff than we ever thought.”
Like DiPrima when he first started out, Franzoli also built his own Tesla coil, designing it himself for about $2,000. “I work on each song that I’ll play on the Tesla coils so they reproduce the music the way I program them,” he tells me. “Each coil can generate up to 300,000 volts, generating really hot and loud electrical discharges, which can reach tens of thousands of degrees.”
After seven years of getting only a few hundred views on his own trials with Tesla coils, Fanzoli began posting songs like Toto’s “Africa” and music from popular memes. Suddenly his YouTube page skyrocketed in popularity, to over 170,000 subscribers, each video nearing millions of views.
According to DiPrima, the rising voltage lifts all coils. “I do believe Tesla coil music is at a point right now where it’s gaining more and more interest, which is amazing, considering the loss we took due to coronavirus,” he says.
And now, DiPrima and Franzoli, the Dr. Dre and Eminem of Tesla coil DJing, are planning a collab.
“I think he just feels bad for eclipsing our page,” DiPrima says, “but we’re going to do a four-coil version of Smash Mouth’s ‘All Star’ together, and it’s going to be awesome.”