We’re going to set aside our little history lesson on Blues piano this time to talk about… what some keyboardists lovingly call… The BEAST!!! Since the big event this month is [Suncoast Blues Society’s] annual “Battle of the B3s”, this might be a good time to talk about what a Hammond B3 organ is and why this old huge antique holds such a special place in the hearts of so many.
Once upon a time the B3 organ was the king of the non-acoustic keyboard roost. It was the electric keyboard sound in many styles of music. The thick growl of the B3 generated by its tone wheel system (more on that later) set the standard of excellence. It took years before players could appreciate the sounds of other more portable organs, like those from Vox and Farfisa, without turning their noses, shrugging and saying “Well… yeah… but it doesn’t sound like a B3.” There’s just something about a B3 that invited myth and mystery. Pianos sounds like a piano, synthesizers sound like whatever preset happens to be on. But the B3 left the player with a lot of latitude in sound design. By pulling and pushing those magic drawbars (yup, more on THAT too) you could instantly sculpt your sound. If you wanted a high pitched sizzle to your whistle? Just tug on the upper drawbars. Something weird and de-emphasized? Shove in the white drawbars. You could even blow people’s heads off by “pulling ’em all out”! (Now you know where the term “Pulling out all the stops” comes from.)
Today, with every conceivable noise on Earth available on software, the nuances created by the B3 may seem quaint. To modern ears it all sounds like variations on the same basic sound. But let me tell you, no organ software emulator sounds anywhere near to what a real B3 sounds like when you get behind its keyboard!
Call it irrational or even silly, but when one is in love, silliness happens. And to most organ players, the B3 represented true Affairs de Coeur. Each B3 has its own personality which expresses itself in different keyboard feels, perceived variations in tonal nuances, loudness of key click and a thousand other details. Paul Shaffer once said, “Within the drawbars of the B3 lies the secrets of the universe.” Keith Emerson said it in a less metaphysical way, “The B3 is like a good hooker. You can abuse it, and it WILL abuse you too, but you’ll both come up smiling.” Enough said!
Now for a little background history. This remarkable instrument was the brainchild of Laurens Hammond, a nonmusical inventor whose patents included 3-D movies, collapsible bridge tables and, believe it or not, missile control systems! He developed a means of producing a musical pitch by using tone wheels (see, I told you we would get back to those). He found that a rotating wheel with a notched outer edge could
produce a sustained pitch when spinning next to an electromagnetic pickup (kinda like
the pickups on an electric guitar). A row of these tone wheels could create a variety of pitches. He also realized that the row could be triggered by the key of a keyboard instrument. Hammond used the motor from electric clocks he was making to drive the tone wheel assembly. Since the motor spins at a rate that is in sync with standard electrical current, the tone wheel could maintain a steady pitch. When a key is pressed, nine contacts close a circuit sending the tone fundamental and eight harmonics to nine drawbars.
OK, you might say, what the HECK is a tone fundamental and what are harmonics? Let’s see if I can explain this without too much science talk. Almost every sound you hear is actually a combination of several simultaneous sounds – a main tone (the fundamental) and several overtones (harmonics). Nearly every sound is made by some kind of combination of overtones. Now the individual overtones are imperceptible to hear by most people, though some folks with highly trained ears can. Those poor souls are cursed with what we call “perfect pitch”. I know a couple of guys who have it and, believe me, it’s not a good thing in the real everyday world. That combination of overtones is what makes the ring of a bell sound different then the crash of a trash lid. OK, no more science talk!!
Now the nine drawbars of a B3 can control the “loudness” of those overtones by the player pulling them out or pushing them in. That’s where the magic of the B3 happens! “But Wait a minute!” you might be saying. “In the picture of the B3 I see a lot more than nine drawbars!” You’re right; there are actually four sets of nine drawbars and a single set of two. Why? Take another look at the picture and you’ll notice that there are two keyboards and that most of the keys look like normal everyday keys you would find on most any keyboard instrument. But the seven keys all the way to the left are reverse colored. Those keys are actually not connected to tone wheels at all. They’re actually “presets keys” that can change the sound of the B3 instantly without having to move the drawbars at all. Now in case that ain’t enough options, the last two keys of the “presets” can be set by one of the sets of the nine drawbars. So on each of the two keyboards you can set up two different sounds with the drawbars, call them up by hitting one of those two last preset keys. Two keyboards, two sets of “presets”, two programmable presets per keyboard and two sets of drawbars per keyboard. Cool huh? (By the way, that one set of two drawbars I’ve mentioned earlier? Those are for the bass pedals on the bottom of the B3 if you choose to play them with your feet!!)
Well that should whet your appetite for the upcoming “Battle of the B3s.” I’m very proud to be representing the Suncoast Blues Society in this event and I’m very grateful for the chance to play this amazingly beautiful instrument for you. And now you too can really see the “Beauty in the Beast!” See you at the SHOW!
By Lee Pons. Look for Lee Pons in this week’s International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee!