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The Hammond B3

Weapon of Choice: Hammond B3

The Hammond B3 organ is a tone wheel organ made by the Hammond Organ Company. It is considered the most popular Hammond organ of all time, and has been used in a great number of popular rock bands and jazz ensembles.

The Tonewheel System
In imitation of a pipe organ, with its banks of pipes in multiple registers, the Hammond Organ used additive synthesis of waveforms from harmonic series to generate its sounds. As in Thaddeus Cahill's earlier Telharmonium, the individual waveforms were made by mechanical "tonewheels" which rotated beneath electromagnetic pickups. Although they are generally included in the category of electronic organs, strictly speaking, because the waveforms are produced by mechanical tonewheels rather than electronic oscillators, original Hammond organs are electric rather than electronic organs.
The component waveforms can be mixed in varying ratios by using "drawbars" mounted above the two keyboards. The drawbars, which operate like the faders on an audio mixing board, allow the performer to vary the volume of each notes' fundamental tone, the octave below it, and the octaves and harmonics above it. Other features added to Hammond organs included an electromechanical vibrato and, by the late 1950s, a reverb effect which simulated the reverberation of a large church hall.

Follow this link to see the tonewheel in action: keyboardmuseum -- click the key with your mouse

Hammond organs have a distinctive percussive "key click", which is the attack transient that occurs when all nine key contacts close and cause an audible pop or click. Originally, key click was considered to be a design defect and Hammond worked to eliminate or at least reduce it by using equalization filters. However, some performers liked the percussive effect, and it has become part of the "Hammond sound", which modern imitators of the Hammond organ try to reproduce.
Speakers originally designed by Don Leslie were widely used with the Hammond organs, though at first, Leslie was a competing company that Hammond sought to drive out of business. The Leslie speakers had a rotating horn and a stationary bass speaker with a rotating baffle that produced a vibrato effect. As well, the Leslie speaker cabinets' tube (also known as "valve") amplifier gave the Hammond's tone a warm, natural "overdriven" sound, which could be varied from a mild "purr" to a heavily overdriven growl. Soon, the Leslie speaker cabinet's signature sound became a de facto requirement for Hammond enthusiasts.

Follow this link to see a Leslie Speaker in action: keyboardmuseum -- click the buttons to listen

The lightweight construction of the "waterfall"-style keyboard for the upper manuals allows for very rapid passages to be executed with more ease than on a weighted keyboard, such as a piano or pipe organ. This has allowed such masters of the instrument as Joey DeFrancesco and the late Jimmy Smith to fire off lightning-fast flurries of notes during their solos.

Types of Hammond organs
The model B-3 was, and still is, the most sought-after model, though the C-3 differs only in cosmetics. Hammonds can be divided into two main groups: the 'Console' models such as the B-3, C-3 or A-100 which have two 61 note manuals and the smaller 'Spinet' models that have two 44 note manuals such as the M-3, L-100 and the M-100. Hammonds' serial numbers are not sequential from one production lot to the next, which can make it difficult to determine the date of manufacture of a Hammond organ.

Playing the Hammond organ
Pianists and synthesizer players who begin playing the Hammond soon realize that authentic performance practice involves a lot more than playing the notes on the keyboard. Hammond players vary the timbre of both manuals in real time through a combination of changing drawbar settings, engaging or disengaging the vibrato/chorus effects or percussion settings, and changing the rotating Leslie speakers' speed setting. As well, performers obtain other effects by increasing the Leslie speakers' volume to add natural overdrive or "growl" for certain passages, or by switching the Leslie speaker's run motor off for a brief moment, which produces a wobbly pitch-bend effect.

There are playing styles that are specific to the Hammond organ, such as palm glisses, rapid repetition of a single note, tremolo between two notes a third apart (typically the 5th and flat 7th scale degree of the current chord), percussive drumming of the keyboard, and playing a chord on the upper manual, then sliding your hand down to duplicate the chord on the lower manual. Artistic use of the foot-controlled expression pedal -- which controlled the Hammond's volume level -- and bass pedals are also important facets of the art of the Hammond. Pianists making the transition to Hammond organ have to learn to use their feet to perform bass lines on the bass pedal board. Although the pedal board can be used in a very simple fashion (for sustained or slow-moving bass notes), professional-level Hammond players typically develop the ability to perform fast-moving bass lines on the bass pedal board.

"Clones" and emulation devices
Due to the difficulties of transporting the heavy Hammond organ, bass pedal board (a B-3 organ, bench and pedal board weighs 425 pounds/193kg) and Leslie speaker cabinets to performance venues, and due to the risk of technical problems that are associated with any vintage electromechanical instrument, there was a strong demand amongst musicians for way of recreating the Hammond sound in a more portable, reliable fashion. Some early emulation devices were criticized for their unrealistic imitation of the Hammond sound, particularly in the way the upper harmonics were voiced, and in the simulation of the rotary speaker effect. Refinements to Hammond emulations eventually led to the development of relatively light electronic keyboard instruments such as the Roland VK-7 and the KORG BX-3 and CX-3 that produce a fairly realistic re-creation of the Hammond tone.

By the 1990s and 2000s digital signal processing and sampling technologies allowed for better imitation of the original Hammond sound, and a variety of electronic organs, emulator devices, and synthesizers provided an accurate reproduction of the Hammond tone. Hammond Suzuki USA currently markets numerous home, church, and professional models that digitally reproduce the sound of vintage Hammond tonewheel organs.

Some sophisticated emulation devices have algorithms that recreate some of the characteristics of the vintage Hammonds, such as the "crosstalk" or "leakage" between the tonewheels, and digital simulations of the rotating Leslie speaker cabinet's sound. Nonetheless, an article entitled Clonewheel Heaven in Keyboard Magazine that reviewed electronic simulations of the traditional Hammond sound claimed that some aspects of the vintage electromechanical Hammonds' sound are not accurately reproduced by clones and emulation devices.

Current interest in Hammond organs
Despite the availability of relatively lower-cost, reliable digital "clones" and emulation devices, there is still a strong interest in vintage Hammond organs. Even the difficulties of finding spare parts and trained repair personnel for such a complex instrument has not dissuaded musicians from continuing to use vintage Hammonds. Original electromechanical Hammond organs are prized by musicians from jazz, blues, rock, gospel, and other musical styles for the look and feel of their varnished wooden cabinets and "waterfall"-style keyboards, and their vintage, traditional sound. Although the last electromechanical Hammond organ came off the assembly line in the mid-1970s, it is a testament to their over-engineered design and high-caliber construction that thousands are still in daily use.
-- courtesy of wikipedia

The Hammond B3 in Action

Track Listen Further/Buy
The first track is a sample from the incredible Jimmy Smith. The tune is "Back at The Chicken Shack".
Richard Tee playing "Uptown and Country" from Tom Scott's New York Connection album
Art Neville of The Meters playing Look-Ka Py Py
Yes "Roundabout"
D'Angelo on "Higher" from his Brown Sugar CD
Check out live footage of D'Angelo playing rhodes here

John Medeski of Medeski, Martin, and Wood playing "Night Marchers"
Check out live footage of MMW here.

Innocent Bystander -- Mechanized Madness, and Capt. Lee's Scotch

I studied jazz organ as a kid, but I have never owned a B3. (It's at the top of my wish list). I learned to play organ on a Yamaha home organ, and played on B3's in Baptist churches for years. Lately, I have been experimenting with placing the hammond sound in electronica tracks and my CD Innocent Bystander is all about that. Using the Hammond sound as the foundation, I experimented with running it through various effects to create unique pads and lead tones. Most of the hammond sounds on this CD came from a Voce B3 module. I don't have it anymore because it got fried at the Istanbul Jazz Festival when a tech plugged it into the wrong power. My weapon of choice now is the B4 vst software made by Native Instruments.

Hammond B3 Emulations

Because Hammond B3's are so heavy, there are a number of emulations on the market in both keyboard and software forms.
Product Name Manufacture Comments
B4 II -- software Native Instruments This software version of the Hammond B3 sounds amazing to me. Until I can make room for the real thing in my studio this is my weapon of choice.
EVB3 -- software Logic Audio I use this version occasionally as well. It's not as good as the B4, but it is very useful.
VK-8 -- keyboard
VK8M -- module
Roland I've rented quite a few of these on the road and they sound great, especially if you can run it through an actual Leslie speaker.
XK3 -- keyboard Hammond I have used these as well and it sounds really cool too. It's probably my favorite among the keyboard versions.
Links to Hammond B3 Parts, Maintenance and more

Here are a few links to some great Hammond B3 Sites
google "Hammond B3" I know this is a cop out, but there are so many Hammond B3 sites that it is impossible for me to refer you to just one. Just google and you'll see. But here is a good one for parts and service Hammond B3 parts and service

Current Releases

Rodney Lee -- The Satellite Orchestra

Innocent Bystander

Alien Chatter
Satnam Ramgotra &
Rodney Lee

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