Written by Lara Pellegrinelli from NPR
Musicians who play the Hammond B-3 — the electric organ found most often in jazz, soul and gospel — can forget about traveling light. The instrument weighs in at around 425 pounds and moving it is a little like schlepping around a refrigerator.
Californian Larry Goldings, who appears with trio-mates Peter Bernstein (guitar) and Bill Stewart (drums) on our Live from the Village Vanguard series tomorrow, was still trying to work out his Hammond moves when we spoke with him last week. He explains why the organ is worth it.
Lara Pellegrinelli: You’ll be playing a Hammond B-3 at the Vanguard this week?
Larry Goldings: Yeah, if we can find someone to move it! When I tour, it’s usually part of the rider that the venue needs to rent one. But this time, I was on my own to scrounge one up and I’m having a little trouble getting a mover. All I can say is I won’t be doing it personally.
I’m glad to hear that. How many people does it usually take?
I’ve seen one person do it.
One person? He’d have to be Andre the Giant.
It’s amazing what one crafty mover can do with an organ dolly and a ramp. On this job, it will take at least three. Apparently, it’s the stairs and the turn into the club once you get down there — nobody wants to do it. I think they have to upend the instrument. And, any time you move one of these, there’s something bound to get shaken up in there.
I wanted to ask you a question that I’m sure many people have pondered. How can you play the organ without any pipe?
Heh, heh. Well, pipes were the original way to get the sound out of an organ. In the case of the Hammond, which is electric, there are these things called tone wheels. They have a particular sound that’s very warm and analog. They don’t make them that way anymore. It’s antiquated technology.
I’ve never heard a B-3 with a tone wheel side-by-side with the mid-1970s version that has integrated circuits or the digital organs made since Suzuki bought Hammond and revived the B-3. Can you tell the difference?
It’s not that easy. Your average listener, or even your educated listener, can get fooled — especially if it’s still going through a Leslie.
[The Leslie] is the special rotating speaker?
Yeah, they go hand in hand. It has a horn on top and, when it spins, you essentially get the Doppler effect. There’s this subtle pitch thing that almost creates vibrato and has this emotional effect. The guy who originally came up with that thought it would sound like pipes, but it doesn’t at all.
It’s easier for players to tell the difference between the older and newer instruments than the listener. Hammond has a patented keyboard and all of these companies have tried to duplicate the mechanism — including Hammond. None of them have done it — although Hammond has gotten pretty close. But I guess I’m supposed to say that because I endorse them.
That puzzles me — the idea that the instrument has a distinctive sense of touch. Because it’s an electric organ, touch doesn’t control the volume of sound or impact tone color, so you wonder what it is about then.
Right. Unlike a piano, where you can affect volume and tone with how you strike the key, you’re not dealing with any kind of touch sensitivity. No matter how you touch a key, the sound will come out the same way. But the Hammond is supposed to have a bouncy, light touch. Of course, they’re all different, like all pianos are different, but they should have a nice springy yet solid feeling to them, so it really feels like you’re digging into the instrument.
Huh. It does sound like players are “digging” the instrument.
The change of tone color comes from the drawbars — sliders across the top of the two keyboards. They essentially build up different colors of what you’re playing by adding harmonics to the original pitch. So you can get a whispering, transparent sound by just pulling out one drawbar or a thicker version of that by pulling out [another drawbar] along with it. It’s sort of like the first synthesizer — that’s why I love the organ.
I know Jimmy Smith frequently used the drawbar setting 888000000. Are there others that are really famous? Do you have ones that are your go-to settings?
The Jimmy Smith sound is not just from the drawbars, but the percussion switch — it gives you a quick attack combined with a higher harmonic pitch which fades out as soon as you play it. I use that a lot when I solo, but I also like the challenge of pulling out whatever and seeing what happens. I’ve borrowed ideas not just from the jazz organ players but people like Sly Stone or Booker T. One thing that I like to do is put the Leslie in a stationary position. Ray Charles did that on one of my favorite records, Genius + Soul = Jazz. It gave him this incredibly raw sound.
You’ve played with a lot of incredible pop musicians, like James Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones and Elton John. Have you needed to bring other sounds into your playing while working in that realm? Or do you get hired because they want a groovier, jazzier element?
I think I get brought into projects because the organ can fill up a space without getting in the way — if you know what you’re doing. You can find a very transparent way of expressing something, whether they want soulful language or a bluesy kind of thing and you can do it so that it can coexist with a lot of instruments.
I have to admit that my range of understanding what the B-3 can do is still pretty limited — to Jimmy Smith and Medeski, Martin & Wood. What else should I be trying to hear?
Some great gospel records. You can go on YouTube, search for gospel organ and there will be some stuff recorded with someone’s phone that will be the most awesome playing you’ve ever seen. I’m talking about kids: There’s a 9-year-old someone posted on Facebook. People say, “He sounds like he grew up in the church.” That’s not a cliché.
It’s almost like the gospel players play a different instrument than I do. It’s that different. Traditionally, they play a lot of bass pedals. Some jazz organ players do, some don’t. I’m somewhere in the middle. I’m not so great at it. I use it when I can get to them, like in ballads, but for the most part the bass is being played by my left hand. And I’m supporting with the foot sometime. People always think the bass is coming from the pedals in jazz and that’s almost never true because it would sound very heavy handed — or footed. I don’t like that heavier sound. The other reason I don’t do it is because I’m lazy and it’s hard.
You aren’t the kind of person who can effortlessly multi-task? I bet you can walk and chew gum at the same time.
How are your choices influenced by working in the trio with Peter and Bill? You’ve been together for more than 20 years.
We came up together in this music. I’ve known Peter since high school. A lot of organ groups are very organ-centric: The organ always plays the melody, the guitar player has a much less important role, and the drummer just keeps time. When you listen to Jimmy Smith, he almost always has the melody — except when he recorded with Wes Montgomery. In this trio, Peter plays more of the melodies than I do. I just love being an accompanist and coloring and texturing behind him. We’re bringing in tunes that are far away from the classic organ tradition and trying to make it work in that context.
Knowing how hard it is to get around with the Hammond logistically speaking, are you sure you didn’t choose organ because you’ve got something against bass players?
Ha! No, if it wasn’t for bass players, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into the organ. I love bass and I was jealous of bass players and what they get to do in terms of the groove and making something feel a certain way. They also have tremendous harmonic control. So it’s not so much that I don’t love bass players, it’s that I love being a control freak. That’s a joke, but you can really be an orchestrator in the truest sense when you have all that control. What you put in the lowest part of the sound influences everything.