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Reading the credits of a jazz or blues album you might come across a musician who played using a Hammond organ (not just any organ, but a Hammond). I know that the Hammond has a long and storied history, but I have never been able to discern what about this particular organ makes it so popular and attractive.

Asking this question is a little bit like "what so great about a Stradivarius violin?" and of course at some level this will be subjective. But there are also objective differences between manufacturers of the same instrument. It is these that I am interested in.

What is distinct about the Hammond? For example, in what way is its timbre/tone distinct? Is it more or less playable than other competing products? Or is this, fundamentally, just a marketing success?

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3 Answers 3

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You asked "or is this fundamentally just a marketing success?" I think the answer to these sorts of questions always has to take into account the historical background.

The Hammond organ came on the market in 1935. It became distinctive because it came first. It was popular and sold in large numbers. It was the first commercially successful electronic musical instrument that could be played with a keyboard, and was polyphonic (it can play chords rather than single notes). It became strongly associated with certain types of music due to its popularity and lack of competition in its early decades. In addition, it's also a unique-sounding and wonderfully versatile instrument, but for this answer I will concentrate only on the historical context.

The Hammond was originally marketed as a less-expensive and more practical substitute for an acoustic pipe organ of the sort used in churches. Acoustic pipe organs were tremendously expensive to build and maintain, and typically were a fixed installation; the typical acoustic pipe organ was not portable. Soon there were smaller versions of the Hammond organ that were suitable for use in homes, where a pipe organ would be tremendously impractical. Hammonds could also be made portable, so they could be used in many contexts where an acousic pipe organ could not.

In 1935, the Hammond company could not conceive that their instrument would ever be used in jazz or blues, let alone rock. By the same token, in 1935, organs had never been used in jazz or blues.

Soon the Hammond organ was being used for newly emerging forms of music. Its sustained sound added a new dimension to jazz and blues. Before the Hammond organ, jazz and blues bands could not use acoustic pipe organs because virtually all pipe organs were installed in churches and orchestra concert halls, places that jazz and blues bands were not able to rehearse or play.

At the same time, in African-American churches, the Hammond organ was being adapted to the newly emerging style of sacred Christian music called black gospel. The setting for this was often a church whose congregation was not wealthy enough to purchase an acoustic pipe organ, but could afford a new Hammond. Musical innovation in this environment was such that they adapted and created a new style of music to play on this new instrument.

Then jazz clubs and entertainment establishments began purchasing Hammond organs for use by various bands that would come and play there, in the same fashion as the club would own a piano that all visiting bands would play.

It also helped that a highly-skilled Hammond player could play bass lines with his feet on the bass pedals, in the same manner as the classical church organ, obviating the need for another musician who played bass. So this lowered costs for certain jazz combos.

The Hammond organ is a wonderful and versatile musical instrument, but it became standard because it appeared on the market at the right time when it was a unique type of instrument with virtually no competition among other instrument makers (The Allen electronic organ company, emerging at almost the same time, chose to make only very large console organs that were permanently installed in churches, so they weren't really competing with the Hammond instruments). When the Hammond became commonplace, then it got adapted to jazz and blues and gospel, and ultimately rock.

The Hammond organ was therefore firmly established and very popular long before any competing instruments appeared. Its sound was firmly entrenched in blues, jazz and gospel, and keyboardists who played those styles of music had become adept at getting great sounds and performances from a Hammond instrument, starting in the 1930s and going through the 1950s. Then came the advent of other new keyboards such as electric pianos in the 1950s, transistor organs in the 1960s, and polyphonic synthesizers in the late 70s and into the 80s.

The Hammond organ (or more often, emulations of its sounds using newer technology) remains the distinctive instrument for certain styles of music to this day, even though the original electro-mechanical rotary-tone-wheel Hammond organs ceased to be manufactured altogether in 1974.

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I like your answer very much. It better explains the point I tried to make in the comment I posted above. Other organs could compete, but Hammond is a "standard" already loved by many musicians. –  lfzawacki Mar 28 '12 at 21:11
Agreed, the historical perspective appears to be necessary in explaining its distinctiveness. A Hammond is not just an organ, it's a Hammond, which is a unique type of instrument. So saying that you are playing a "Hammond" is about precision. It's not about brand loyalty, or marketing. And the reason we like the Hammond is because we have grown accustomed to it. As you say, it "came first." –  digitalmaps Mar 29 '12 at 20:38
I'll mention that there were a few rockers in the 70s who distinctly prefered the Lowrey brand electronic organs to the Hammond. But Lowrey was a very distant second in the market. I don't know Lowrey's history; that would be worth looking up. There was also Wurlitzer electronic organs in that period--they were mostly for home solo organ enthusiasts and were not embraced by jazz, blues or rock bands. –  Wheat Williams Mar 29 '12 at 20:44
Great answer, Wheat. I'll add a couple of reasons for the B3's enduring popularity: vacuum-tube technology and the Leslie. Much like audiophiles sometimes preferring the "warmer" sound of vinyl, some musicians say the same about the Hammond because of the tubes. The Leslie is the only speaker that actually physically rotates the speaker to create the "wow-wow" sound, and some musicians swear by it, in particular church gospel musicians. I used to sell keyboards in Detroit, and if a church came in looking for a B3, it was a B3 they wanted and that was it; "no other organ has the sound." –  BobRodes Jun 15 at 20:16
This wikipedia article gives information about rock musicians who used the Lowrey. I used to work at a "Lowrey Organ Center" when I was in school, too. Their bread and butter was home sales. –  BobRodes Jun 15 at 20:33

The Hammond organ is what is called an analog additive synthesizer (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Additive_synthesis) and it works by adding together sine waves that are multiples of the base frequency. A sine wave alone sounds like a whistle or a dull flute, but the more you add up the more interesting the sound can get.

The Hammond organ features something called a "leslie speaker" (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leslie_box), an ingenious device powered by a motor and initially imagined to simulate the acoustics of a wide open space. Apart from that it usually features some kind of "drive", percussive attack and other envelope parameters.

Putting this all together the hammond became a very versatile instrument capable of a great array of sounds and of expressing various feelings and nuances. One common technique is the "Hammond Screech", but others are listed in the wikipedia entry.

I suggest you look up some famous hammond players (as listed in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Hammond_organ_players) on youtube and get a feeling of what the instrument is really capable of.

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This is very interesting information. But cannot other brands of organs do the same thing? –  digitalmaps Mar 28 '12 at 16:14
Yes, and I believe there are some other famous additive synthesizers (even thought I can't think of any now). The leslie speaker isn't exclusive to it too, but the fact is: how close to these characteristics can you get before it's a mere clone? For instance, there are several apps and VST plugins that were crafted exclusively to emulate this sound and feel, but in spite of that I saw (and heard) an actual Hammond Organ on Roger Waters stage last sunday. It was a great concert BTW :) –  lfzawacki Mar 28 '12 at 16:35
The tonewheels of a Hammond don't really produce sine waves, though all but the lowest are similar to sines. And the Leslie cab, while very widely used with Hammonds, is not universal; some players (for instance, Brian Auger) don't use one. –  leftaroundabout Mar 29 '12 at 13:41
@leftaroundabout Well, he didn't say that they did produce sine waves, he said that they used additive synthesis to model their sounds. All additive synthesis is based on combining sine waves of varying frequencies. As you say, higher flute stops are pretty close to sine waves, but there are some overtones built in. –  BobRodes Jun 15 at 20:45

The Hammond B3 is by far the Blues organist's instrument of choice. Why? Hammond organ is the first electronic organ that uses "mechanical tonewheels that rotate in front of electromagnetic pickups." Yes, all the additive synthesis stuff is important but more importantly is how it is implemented by mechanical means, and uses 'drawbars' to mix and blend the harmonics. Features that make it unique to Hammond organs that began in 1934.

Combining a B3 with a Leslie (two different companies) was like rock guitarists in the 60's hooking up an original Gibson Gold Top Les Paul with a Marshall Plexi--tone to die for. Of course these are two different sonorities but both became and still are extremely desirable.

The key characteristic of the Leslie Speaker is that it has a rotating baffle on the main woofer and a rotating horn on the top of the cabinet. "The rotating elements can be stopped, switched between slow (chorale) and fast (tremolo), or transitioned between the two settings." The end result is a glorious and successful Doppler Effect. Not an electronic emulation but real physical Doppler!

Why is the original B3 preferred over the competition, or even Hammond's own solid state version? For the same reason that most pro Blues guitarists prefer vintage Fender or Marshall vacuum tube amps over solid state amps, it's because it produces tones that are more pleasing to the ear and it's the original. Like a Porsche, "there is no substitute". It's that simple.

The Hammond B2 and later B3 coupled with a Leslie was first made popular by the wonderful work of Jazzer, Jimmy Smith in the 50's and later by a train load of Rock, Blues, Gospel, and Jazz keyboard players: Alan Price, Gregg Allman, Steve Winwood, Rick Wright, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord, Matthew Fisher, Rick Wakeman, Tony Banks, and in this decade, Michael Emerson from the Daniel Castro Band.

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Great answer that addresses the distinctiveness. How, then, do players of the authentic analog B3 with the rotating Leslie capture that doppler effect when additional amplification is required? (i.e. how do they mic that for a big room, theatre or a hall?) –  digitalmaps Mar 28 '12 at 20:15
Strategic placement of more than one mic to capture fields then setting pan position on mixer for each mic to emulate fields into house speakers is one way to do this. –  filzilla Mar 28 '12 at 21:07
Or you could say that, like a Porche, there are perfectly good substitutes, but branding and prestige sway people. –  slim Dec 11 '12 at 11:17

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