By Ray McDonald
In my last blog entry, I wrote about electric guitars…specifically, the Fender Stratocaster and the Gibson Les Paul. I had so much fun learning about these perennial favorites that I’d like to look at some other building blocks of modern pop music.
Today I’m looking at the electric piano and the Hammond organ. While the Strat and Les Paul continue to be popular today, these two instruments occupy more specialized niches. Synthesizers and rhythm machines dominate the current pop scene…you hear them everywhere in rap and dance songs. Synthesizers aren’t exactly electric keyboards, but they are frequently controlled from a keyboard. More traditional keyboards, both acoustic and electric, still appear in country, gospel, and R & B…and there are still plenty of roots-oriented rock acts using them. A driving piano sound has been at the heart of good-time music since the days before rock and roll existed. Electric pianos have been around since the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the late ’50s that they became popular on record. In 1959, Ray Charles enjoyed a huge hit with “What’d I Say,” featuring the then-novel sound of an electric Wurlitzer piano.
Rhodes MkII73 (credit: Creative Commons, Wikimedia)
One of the best-known electric pianos arose from World War 2. In 1942, Harold Rhodes invented a small acoustic piano for soldiers convalescing in hospital beds. He founded his own company in 1946, and in 1959 entered a joint venture with guitar maker Leo Fender. The partnership lasted six years, after which the CBS company bought Fender. The resulting instrument, popularly known as the Fender Rhodes electric piano, is a staple of classic rock. Capable of producing sounds ranging from tinkling bells to raging distortion, it’s heard in many of the era’s greatest songs: “Riders On The Storm” by The Doors; “Get Back” by The Beatles; “You’re My Best Friend” by Queen – the list goes on and on.
By 1991, synthesizers dominated the keyboard market, and the Rhodes piano ceased production. Five years ago, a re-formed Rhodes Music Corporation introduced a reproduction of the original electric piano, called the Rhodes Mark 7, and even today, acts such as Radiohead continue to use electric pianos to achieve that special sound.
(B.B. King Museum, AP Photo/Matthew S. Gunby, File)
Organs have been associated with religious music for hundreds of years, and indeed, the Hammond organ began life in the 1930s as a low-cost alternative to church pipe organs. As a boy in the 1960s, I recall my father playing a Hammond chord organ in our house, and I even noodled around on it myself. Around that time, however, it assumed a much more prominent role in rock and jazz. Gregg Allman of the Allman Brothers Band is one of the great organists of our era, and his keyboard work on their records has passed into rock lore. Psychedelic bands such as early Pink Floyd used the organ to make eerie and other-worldly sounds, and the instrument went on to become a staple of the progressive era of the 1970s. Rock virtuosi such as Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman forged their reputation on lightning-fast keyboard runs.
As with the electric piano, the organ plays a reduced role in the digital age, with the last electromechanical model rolling off the assembly line in the mid-1970s.
Today, the Suzuki company manufactures electronic Hammond organs closely replicating that classic sound through modern digital technology. The hardware may have changed, but the groove remains.