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Instruments of Rock – The Hammond Organ

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The Hammond Organ – From ‘Green Onions’, ‘Itchycoo Park’ and ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ to Radiohead and the White Stripes, the Hammond Organ is one of rock’s most unique and treasured sounds. Here, we take a look at the history of the instrument and celebrate some of its greatest exponents.

Laurens Hammond had a brilliant but unhappy childhood. Born in Evanston Illinois in 1895, his father Andrew, who founded The First National Bank, committed suicide when his son was three. Laurens’ mother, Idea Louise Strong Hammond, an artist, moved to France with her son. He quickly showed promise as an inventor: by the age of 14, he had designed an automatic transmission mechanism for the car, only for Renault to reject his idea!

He and his mother returned to the USA, he studied engineering at Cornell and, after serving in France during World War One, he moved to Detroit as an engineer for Gray Motors. Here, he designed silent clocks that were successful enough for him to set up on his own, which he moved to New York to do. He then invented Teleview – the system of projecting frames shot from slightly different camera angles rapidly one after the other to give a 3D effect.

By the 1930s, his clock business was feeling the pinch and he turned to musical devices as a possible money-maker. He got a piano, stripped out everything but the key mechanism and experimented. The most successful method of producing sound was a tonewheel generator: an electromagnetic pickup sat in front of a rotating disc. The faster the it rotates, the higher the tone. And the Hammond Organ’s unique tone is a result of ‘additive synthesis’ – where each note has a couple of accompanying harmonics, analogous to the stops on a pipe organ. Each note’s attack is accompanied by second and third harmonic overtones, giving the distinctive ‘plink’ effect.

Larry Hammond got the patent for his organ in 1934, unveiling it at Radio City Music Hall. George Gershwin was among those who performed on the new instrument and immediately ordered one for himself. It went into production a year later. The instrument was initially used in chapels and cinemas, but Hammond’s dream was for it to replace the piano in middle-class homes. By the 1950ws, jazz musicians were starting to employ the Hammond organ. Jimmy Smith was the greatest of the early Hammond jazz pioneers: on hearing him play in a Philadelphia club, Blue Note boss Alfred Lion signed him up immediately. Fats Waller and Count Basie had already used electronic organs, but Smith’s use of the pedals not just for basslines but for added attack on his melodies really showcased the Hammond Organ at its best. He was a big influence of Keith Emerson – and the Beastie Boys, whose ‘Root Down’ track from the album of the same name sampled his bassline.

It was in the Sixties, though, that the Hammond first really came to the fore. A staple of surf music in the first half of the decade, it was also heard in rhythm and blues tunes like The Dells’ ‘Hello Stranger’. Keyboardists took to using so-called rotating amplifiers – like the Leslie Speaker, where the sounds is emitted from a horn that revolves. This gives that characteristic, weird Doppler effect – as heard on Hammond classic ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’. Matthew Fisher – who has fought a long and bitter court battle with Gary Brooker over songwriting credits and royalties – played the awesome Hammond part, with its echoes of Bach.

Floyd’s Rick Wright, ELP, Tony Banks of Genesis and Rick Wakeman of Yes made the Hammond a staple of prog throughout the Seventies and later, sort of inoffensive easy listening elevator type musak – a strangely bland usage for such a magnificently weird instrument. They were seen, clearly, as being the sort of antithesis of punk and fell out of fashion, but have been used of late on, for instance, ‘Fake Plastic Trees’ by Radiohead and by Jack White on a fair bit of Icky Thump. We always love a bit of Hammond, here, it really just tickles some bit of the musical brain in a deliciously spaced out way.

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