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?

8 Answers 8


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.

  • 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
    Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 21:11
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    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." Commented Mar 29, 2012 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.
    – user1044
    Commented Mar 29, 2012 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
    Commented Jun 15, 2014 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
    Commented Jun 15, 2014 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.

  • This is very interesting information. But cannot other brands of organs do the same thing? Commented Mar 28, 2012 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
    Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 16:35
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    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. Commented Mar 29, 2012 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
    Commented Jun 15, 2014 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.

  • 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?) Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 20:15
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    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
    Commented Mar 28, 2012 at 21:07
  • Or you could say that, like a Porche, there are perfectly good substitutes, but branding and prestige sway people.
    – slim
    Commented Dec 11, 2012 at 11:17

A few points that I think need to be added, as they may well be the overwhelming factors in answering the "what's special about a Hammond."

First, as compared to a pipe organ: Pipe organs do not "speak" quickly enough for most popular music. (That is, the initial attack of each note that is played takes too long.) Classical organists adjust their technique to account for the difference in timing (it depends on the keying technology of the pipe organ). But it is not a useful fit for anything but slow ballads in a jazz or blues idiom.

Second, as compared to other electric or electronic organs (which are not the same thing---tonewheel organs, while being "electric" do not generate their base tone via eletronic means, just as an "electric guitar" is not an "electronic guitar."): Although Laurens Hammond intended his instruments to be an alternative to a church pipe organ, the control mechanism used---individual drawbars to control 9 different "flute" pipe ranks---allowed the jazz, blues or rock organist to override the original intent. In fact, you almost NEVER hear a Hammond being played in popular music using the intended "church organ" settings. (Those are the reverse-color keys to the left of the playing manuals.) Thomas, Lowery, Gulbranson and so forth stayed more true to the church organ sounds and did not, at least in the early days, allow an organist to adjust the organ to fit what they felt they needed in a pop setting. Jimmy Smith, for example, played the great majority of the time with most of his tone coming from three drawbars--the fundamental, an octave below the fundamental and a fifth above it. That sound has no equivalent in the world of classical or church organ stops.

One last point and sorry to harp on this. The feet are NOT used to play the bassline in 90% of jazz organ playing. The left hand does this on the lower manual. The pedals are used for long pedal tones, for the slow-moving bassline of a ballad, to reinforce with occasional "stabs" the left-hand bassline, to add a percussive attack in time with the left-hand bassline (without any particular pitch) and to fill in briefly while the organist's left hand is making adjustments to organ settings.

  • The other 10% must be the German Hammond player, Barbara Dennerlein. Well worth a listen - and watch those feet!
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 13, 2023 at 8:51

I have to disagree with all of the answers I read here since Hammond organs are not, I repeat not electronic instruments. While electronic amplification is ubiquitous in lots of music production, the terminology between acoustic, electric, electronic and digital instruments is quite more discriminating than the literal sense would call for.

"Acoustic" instruments work at least essentially without electronic amplification and oscillation (but try running a church organ these days without electricity: power apparently does not count), "electric" instruments have mechanical oscillators (electric pianos like the Fender Rhodes have tines, electric guitars have strings) that are getting picked up by pickups and electronic postprocessing and amplification, electronic instruments have analog electronic oscillators and electronic postprocessing and amplification, digital instruments have sampled sounds as the basis and use computing for producing samples.

In those categories, the category of a Hammond organ is not an electronic but an electric instrument. It is powered by a synchronous motor which drives a bunch of gears and has hundreds of cog wheels running before electric pickups at certain gear ratios and with certain number of teeth resulting in a particular frequency. All the pickup data is then mixed and switched depending on key presses and drawbars and amplified electronically.

Hammond organs were originally produced for home, congregation, and concert use. The home models are smaller concerning the available ranges and manuals and not as robust under transportation.

The B3 is the primordial "concert" model including a 32-note pedalboard, 2½ manuals, a vibrato wheel (essentially using a rotational Doppler effect), percussive sounds and various other items, without an internal amplifier. It's typically used with a Leslie speaker (Deep Purple instead used a Marshall stack I think).

All the mechanics are comparatively heavy and the tone frequencies are, due to the mechanical way of producing them, all in rational ratios only approximately constituting a equally tempered scale. The various frequencies from the stack of pickups associated with a key are added with individual contacts, making for a distinct composition of the "click" with individual frequencies coming in slightly offset.

So a faithful reproduction of the feel and sound takes a lot of effort that earlier electronic and/or digital variants were "not cutting it" for players. That, as well as the prohibitive cost, weight, and size has led to the near-mystical reputation of the B3. As one consequence, there is still a significant number in rotation, compared to much more portable electric instruments like the Fender Rhodes that are essentially replaced by digital keyboards.


One part of the distinctive Hammond organ sound in rock/jazz is the use of a Leslie speaker cabinet. In my opinion, it is also the reason that Hammond organs were becoming less popular for mainstream music requiring big PAs and selling and broadcasting recordings. Because a Leslie speaker cannot be faithfully reproduced or simulated with reasonable effort. It's an effect that can almost only be used live. Not transferring well over a PA also means that you are restricted to cabinets of a few 100W at most.

Now obviously some bands like Deep Purple have used Hammond organs as a seminal part of commercial success, but the greatness of its sound suffers from being watered down in recordings and reamplification more than other instruments.


I think all the comments here are useful and accurate; I'd like to add one from the standpoint of pure timbral analysis.

The B3 has a distinctive "percussion" setting that adds a short burst of either the second or third harmonic to the start of the note. It's polyphonic, so playing a chord will get percussion on every note, but single-triggering, so holding a note pressing another will not get percussion.

The result is a tone that, when played staccato, cuts through an ensemble like a knife, but allowing legato playing to be very smooth (and percussion is switchable, so it's easy for the play to simply turn it off when they want to "lay back"). Coupled with the Leslie effect and the rapid response of the keyboard, this allows the player to get very distinctive effects that are hard to get with any instrument other than an electric guitar.


one of the very early considerations that led to many clubs getting their own, or an act carrying its own, was the fact that they did not require tuning, could not get out of tune. No surprises at the next gig.

  • This is not specific to the Hammond B3 organ and therefore does little to answer the question.
    – guidot
    Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 9:58

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