Hammond – organ theories

In the previous post we talked about the history and the main features of the classic Hammond Organ, but we didn’t get deeper enough. The Hammond (but also the standard pipe organs) are not like every other keyboard or piano. There are great structure, sound and “feedback” differences.

First of all the organ keyboard (called manual) has no pressure sensitivity. This means that pressing a key is the same as pressing a normal light switch: it can only get either ON or OFF. The classic piano keyboard produces soft or loud sounds depending on how much “violence” is put by your hands, and that’s why we say “piano – forte“. The organ manuals, instead, will produce the same volume for the played notes regardless of the strength of the touch. For these reasons all the keys of every kind of organ are “super light” and the player’s fingers can move very quickly up and down the manual with relative ease. On the other hand, the classic grand-pianos are built with heavier keys and the musician has to develop a completely different technique… trust me, it’s a big difference! By the way, electric organs also have an expression pedal – usually on the bottom right – which allows to control the main volume of the instrument.

Now let’s concentrate on the most important aspect: the shaping of the sound.

The beauty of the organs is that they do not produce always the same sound type, but they can change their “voice” through simple mechanisms. The normal reed organs are equipped with a large series of “pipes”, each one of a different length: the longer the cane, the lower the pitch of the emitted note. Shorter pipes will create the “trebles” and the longer ones the “basses”. Not all the canes should “sing” at the same time, but they can be opened or closed by pulling particular levers called drawbars. The possible combinations of pipes that are actually opened or (partly) closed give space to a terribly vast range of timbres and effects – flutes, horns, diapason or full-ensamble (all drawbars out) and much more…

The Hammond also works this way, but since it is electric there’s no real pipe, though it still has the drawbars. Actually the sound shaping becomes completely “virtual”.

There’s a precise harmonic correlation among the various drawbars, but we’ll discuss that in the next article. For now lets see a few other features this splendid instrument owns.

Classic pianos normally have two or three pedals at most, for the “reverberation” effect. On the contrary the organ doesn’t need a reverb pedal because the notes would easily overlap one another causing a lot of noise. Many organs (among which also the Hammond) have an entire pedal board in place of the simple reverb pedal. The pedal board works exactly like another keyboard that may be played with the feet, but a lot of skill is required in order to master this technique. The sound produced by the pedal is pretty deep and strong, so it can be used to play nice “bass lines” for the performed piece, but generally this is a characteristic of the church organs – in fact Hammond organs used for churches usually are endowed with a pedal board that “Gospel” or “Soul” musicians are used to playing.
Nevertheless, Jazz players always use their right foot to regulate the volume through the expressions pedal, while they never move the left foot but for controlling other effects such as “vibrato” and “Leslie speed” (which we talked about in the previous post).

Of course the world of Jazz can boast a fantastic exceptions: the great German musician “Barbara Dennerlein” is maybe the most skilled female Jazz player, who is known for her “absurd” fluidity with her feet: this technique is called “walking bass“.

Here’s a video of this rare beauty. Enjoy!

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