Musings of the Past

The Hardware: The Hammond B-3

This is the second installment of my new feature introduced last week, where I essentially republish previous content and update where I feel it’s warranted. This post is about the Hammond B-3 and the first installment of an irregular feature titled The Hardware, which I started in June 2017. The idea is to look at prominent instruments and music technology. It’s not as geeky as it sounds! 🙂

The Hardware: The Hammond B-3

The introduction of the Hammond B-3 in 1954 revolutionized music

I’ve decided to introduce a new category on the blog I’m calling The Hardware, where I’m going to take a look at instruments and technology that have had an important impact on rock music. Admittedly, my general understanding of technology is limited, so these posts will definitely be a bit of a lift for me. While I anticipate things may become a bit technical at times, I’m certainly not planning to go overboard.

With that being said, I’d like to get started by taking a look at an instrument I’ve admired from the very first time I heard it, which is probably longer than I want to remember: The legendary Hammond B-3 organ.

The Hammond organ was designed and built by American engineers and inventors Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert and was first manufactured in 1935 by the Hammond Organ Company in Chicago. Following the original, the Hammond A, numerous other models were introduced, including the legendary B-3 in 1954.

Tonewheels inside the console of a Hammond

The Hammond B-3 is a tonewheel organ. These types of organs generate sound by mechanical toothed wheels, that rotate in front of electromagnetic pickups. The B-3 has 91 tone wheels located inside the console. Together with the so-called drawbars, they give the instrument its incredible sound versatility. According to Glen E. Nelson, a “Hammond B-3 can all at once sound like a carnival, a big band, a horn section, a small jazz combo, a funk group, a percussion section, a flute, and/or countless other things.”

Hammond drawbars

The organ has nine drawbars that represent the nine most important harmonics. “Each drawbar has eight degrees to which it can be literally “drawn” or pulled, out of the console of the organ, the eighth being the loudest, and all the way in being silence,” explains Nelson. The drawbars and the way each can be adjusted individually allow to create an enormous amount of different sounds, such as flute, trumpet or violin-like sounds.

Leslie loudspeaker

In spite of its impressive size, the B-3 does not have a built-in speaker. As such, it needs to be run through a separate speaker, which typically is a Leslie, named after its inventor Donald Leslie. The speaker combines an amplifier and a two-way loudspeaker that does not only project the signal from an electronic instrument but also modifies the sound by rotating the loudspeakers. While the Leslie is most closely associated with the Hammond, it was later also used for electric guitars and other instruments.

Due to its versatility and sound, the B-3 became very popular and has been used in all types of music, whether it’s gospel, jazz, blues, funk or rock. One of the artists who helped popularize the instrument was jazz musician Jimmy Smith. Some of the famous rock and blues musicians who have played this amazing organ include Booker T. Jones, Billy Preston, Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood and Gregg Rolie.

Jazz organist Jimmy Smith

The last original Hammond B-3 organs were manufactured in 1973. The Hammond Organ Company started to struggle financially in the 1970s and went out of business in 1975. The Hammond brand and rights were acquired by Hammond Organ Australia. Eventually, Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation signed a distribution agreement with the Australian company before purchasing the name outright in 1991 and rebranding it as Hammond-Suzuki.

In 2002, Hammond-Suzuki introduced the New B-3, a re-creation of the original instrument using contemporary electronics and a digital tonewheel simulator. The New B-3 is constructed to appear like the original B-3, and the designers attempted to retain the subtle nuances of the familiar B-3 sound. A review by Hugh Robjohns in the July 2003 issue of Sound on Sound concludes, “the New B3 really does emulate every aspect of the original in sounds, looks and feel.”

Following are a few examples of rock songs that prominently feature a Hammond B-3.

Gimme Some Lovin’/Spencer Davis Group (Steve Winwood)

Jingo/Santana (Gregg Rolie)

Just Another Rider/Gregg Allman

There is perhaps no better way to finish the post than with this amazing demonstration of the Hammond B-3 by Booker T. Jones. Watching his joy while playing the instrument and listening to the anecdotes in-between the songs is priceless.

-END-

This post was originally published on June 5, 2017. It has been slightly edited. The Spotify list is an addition.

Following is a Spotify playlist featuring the above and some additional prominent Hammond B-3 players.

Sources: Wikipedia; History of the Hammond B-3 Organ (Glen E. Nelson); Hammond USA website; Sound on Sound; YouTube; NPR

10 thoughts on “Musings of the Past”

  1. This is my favorite keyboard instrument besides piano. The next one in line is a Mellotron…but I love the B-3 organ. With Gregg Allman, Booker T, and Jon Lord it made a ton of difference.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised to learn that the Mellotron actually plays little pre-recorded tapes when you hit the keys. It works like a whole bunch of little tape players. That is so wild.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It is an awesome piece of history and an incredible instrument. I have read though that whatever band took it on tour with them….they would have to take a tech dedicated to the Mellotrron.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, And Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues actually worked at the Mellotron factory, and he introduced it to John Lennon who was recording Sgt Pepper, so he used it on Strawberry Fields Forever. I think that’s awsome.

        Liked by 2 people

      3. Yep, the Mellotron is a pretty cool but also highly sensitive instrument that requires lots of care. In fact, as part of my gear feature, I also did a dedicated post on the Melltron. I’m probably going to republish it as well at some point. These kinds of posts take a lot od time to research, so I feel they deserve to be seen again!

        Like

  2. I had no idea that’s how it worked. Who would have thought that it had wheels that turned around?? I guess this would be one of those keyboards that are called electro-acoustic or electro-mechanical. That’s what came before electronic, I guess. Electric pianos and stuff like that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. According to my brilliant grasp of technology, it’s an electric tonewheel organ.

      What I find really cool is the apparent variety of sounds you can create by using the organ’s eight drawbars. I also find the concept of the rotating loudspeakers in the Leslie pretty cool. Of course, at the end of the day all of that is secondary and what really matters is the amazing sound you can create with a Hammond.

      If you haven’t watched it, I’d encourage you to check the clip of Booker T. Jones demoing the Hammond. Beware, you want one afterwards! 🙂

      Like

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