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 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.

Tonewheel Generator

The Hammond B-3 is a tone wheel 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 Speaker

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.

Jimmy Smith with Hammond B3

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 tone wheel 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 presentation of the Hammond B-3 from Booker T. Jones. Watching his joy while playing the instrument and listening to the anecdotes in-between the songs is priceless.

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

What I’ve Been Listening to: Santana/ Santana

Santana’s debut still rocks and grooves to this day and remains one of his greatest albums

I can still remember when I listened to Santana for the first time. It must have been in the late ’70s after my sister had gotten Santana’s Greatest Hits (on vinyl, of course!), the fantastic 1974 compilation album featuring highlights from the first three Santana albums.

To this day, it is the early phase of Santana I like the most. The band’s classic line-up with Gregg Rolie (lead vocals, keyboards), Carlos Santana (guitar, backing vocals), David Brown (bass), Michael Shrieve (drums), Michael Carabello (congas, percussion) and José “Chepito” Areas (timbales, congas, percussion) remains one of the best jam bands to this day.

Santana was the band’s 1969 debut. Its initial relatively modest reception was a bit surprising, given the album was released right after the band’s acclaimed performance at Woodstock. I think part of their challenge was that much of their music was instrumental, in fact, more than half on this album – something most listeners weren’t used to.

The record kicks off with the instrumental Waiting. Right from the get-go, the congas and the bass create a seductive groove that draws you in. And once Rolie starts coming in with his Hammond B3, it’s sheer magic! Here’s an audio clip of the piece from the band’s Woodstock performance.

Next up is Evil Ways. Written by Clarence “Sonny” Henry and originally recorded by jazz percussionist Willie Bobo in 1967, the tune was also released as the album’s second single in December 1969. It became Santana’s first top 10 hit in the U.S., climbing to no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles Chart. The fact that unlike Waiting this tune includes vocals undoubtedly made it more radio-friendly. Rolie does an outstanding job on lead vocals and plays a killer solo on the Hammond. Here’s a cool live clip of the tune, played a little faster than on the album.

Another highlight on the album is Jingo, a song written by Babatunde Olatunji, a Nigerian percussionist, and first released in 1959. The blend of African-derived rhythms and chants with Rolie’s Hammond and Santana’s guitar is simply amazing. Jingo also appeared as the album’s lead single in October 1969. While it is just as outstanding if not better than Evil Ways, Jingo didn’t have as much impact.

And then there is of course Soul Sacrifice, the instrumental composed by bassist Brown, Rolie, Santana and percussionist Marcus “The Magnificent” Malone, the band’s initial percussionist, when it was still known as the Carlos Santana Blues Band. And magnificent it is! Here’s a clip of the epic performance of the piece at Woodstock.

Initially, the music critics were less than impressed with Santana. Rolling Stone’s Langdon Winner at the time called it “a masterpiece of hollow techniques” and “fast, pounding, frantic music with no real content,” comparing the music’s effect to methedrine. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau happily agreed with Winner’s sentiment, saying, “Just want to register my unreconstructed opposition to the methedrine school of American music. A lot of noise.” Wow, you wonder whether these guys were on the very drug they referenced when they made their clever assessments!

In fairness, Rolling Stone later revised its opinion of the album, characterizing it as “thrilling … with ambition, soul and absolute conviction – every moment played straight from the heart”. In 2012, the magazine also ranked Santana number 149 on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Not sure whether Christgau ever revised his opinion or whether he is still on methedrine – but who cares anyway!

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, Rolling Stone