There is No Other Way, Let’s Try it Another Way…a history of the Hammond Organ

A Guest Post by Nathaniel Gordon

I often use rock music themes in my college writing classes, and once in awhile I run across a student essay that really gets me thinking. While Dylanologists have written at length on the impact of Bob Dylan’s opus “Like a Rolling Stone” rarely do they focus on the use of the Hammond organ, crucial to the sound of that original recording.  ~Lu

Despite huge leaps forward in technology, in the early 1960s rock and roll bands most often performed as a four piece: drums, electric bass, and two electric guitars. As much as they pushed the genre forward, groundbreaking bands such as the Beatles were still performing music that directly echoed the 50s rock ‘n’ roll from which they were born. Though what they were doing with these instruments was innovative, the basic tools used to create these works were not. It wouldn’t be until 1965, when a former folk musician named Bob Dylan released his sixth album, Highway 61 Revisited, that something new would hit the mainstream, an electric instrument that rock hadn’t considered valid before: the Hammond organ.

Hammond with speakers

Photo courtesy of Retro Rentals, Burbank, CA

The Hammond, invented by Laurens Hammond and John M. Hanert, consisted of one hundred twenty two keys on two drawers, reaching five octaves. The organ also featured twenty six pedals that could be used to further expand the organ’s range, or warp the sound. This made it popular with electric blues musicians, much of whose sound came from the emotion found through intentional distortion. Setting the Hammond apart from its contemporaries were its preset keys, which could be edited to make certain combinations of sounds that otherwise would be unobtainable. Released in 1935, the Hammond and Harnet marketed as a cheaper alternative to the classic church based pipe organ. Its detractors, however, argued that the Hammond was simply too dolce to be conventionally used. As a response, the Hammond BC was issued, featuring more powerful sound production technology, along with what has come to be known as the Hammond’s signature cabinet. This innovation came about in 1937 when Donald Leslie purchased a Hammond for his own enjoyment but was disheartened at how weak the sound was in a room with sub par acoustics. To remedy this, he created a device that boosted the audio signal by rotating the output around a circular motor, creating a spooky and distinctly modern sound. The instrument would go through numerous additional revisions, improvements and additions over the next thirty years, until Dylan featured it on Highway 61 Revisited.


courtesy Wikipedia

“Like a Rolling Stone,” the first track on the album, was six minutes of pure rebelliousness as Dylan brayed “How does it feel/How does it feel” on each chorus over a swelling, raucous, abrasive Hammond organ. This organ was played by twenty-one-year-old session guitarist Al Kooper, who had been invited to watch Dylan record in the studio. When Kooper felt inspired to play along, he decided to join in on the Hammond organ, simply because it was the only instrument in the room not being played. When Dylan heard it, he demanded the organ be turned up and used in the final mix. This created a particularly warped, psychedelic sound that was new to folk music as well as mainstream pop. “Like a Rolling Stone” would go on to be Dylan’s best selling single, and introduce the Hammond organ to the public eye.


courtesy Wikipedia

Over the next few years, the instrument’s prominence grew to the point that it became nearly as ubiquitous as the guitar. A young British band called Procol Harum released their self titled debut album in 1967 featuring a dedicated organ player who often performed the lead role in songs. Their debut single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” featured this organ over the top of the mix, louder than any other instruments, even the vocals. As singer/songwriter Gary Brooker crooned abstract lines such as “One of sixteen vestal virgins/Who were leaving for the coast” Matthew Fisher’s organ rose and fell, swelled and subsided as if to give the song a sense of traveling through space. The crowd called out for more, and “A Whiter Shade of Pale” shot up the charts becoming the band’s first number one single, and has gone on to sell over 10 million copies across the world.


courtesy of Wikipedia

At the same time, future progressive rock stars Pink Floyd were recording their debut album The Piper at the Gates of Dawn. The first track on the American edition, “See Emily Play,” once again featured the Hammond organ as the lead instrument. This song started to show the psychedelic influences of the time, and the organ’s sound reflected this. After each chorus of “free games for May/see Emily play” Richard Wright’s organ would break into a free-form, distorted section that showcased the instrument’s unique sound and range.


courtesy Wikipedia

Just a few weeks after this, The Beatles released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which prominently featured the Hammond on most of its tracks, including the fan favorite Ringo Starr showcase “With a Little Help From My Friends.” From here, psychedelic rock would experience a boom in popularity, growing into one of the most groundbreaking genres of the next decade.


courtesy Wikipedia

In Hang on to a Dream: the Story of the Nice, Martyn Hanson writes that inspired by the enigma that was Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a young British keyboard player named Keith Emerson decided that he could do more with the Hammond organ, if he only had the capitol. When his blues band imploded in 1966, Emerson made a bargain with record company executive, if he could cannibalize and rebuild one of Immediate Records’ Hammond organs, he would perform in multiple Beatles-knockoff groups to pay the company back. The record company thought that Emerson’s innovations would go nowhere, but they could still make money off his ability to play simple music well in front of an audience. Therefore, the company’s head obliged, and Emerson went to work rebuilding. During this time, Emerson formed a band called The Nice which became Emerson’s showcase for his Frankenstein-ed instrument, and it was something completely new for the time. The band performed electric renditions of old classical songs, rearranged by Emerson for guitar, drum, bass, and, of course, Hammond organ.


courtesy Wikipedia

From the first notes of the band’s first album’s first track, it was apparent that the Emerson’s organ and piano work was nothing short of virtuosic and clearly the driving force in the band’s sound. Despite this, all five of the band’s albums subsequently failed commercially. Much like Procol Harum before them, the public wasn’t ready for a band quite that progressive. After the demise of The Nice in 1969, Emerson went on to form a group called Emerson, Lake and Palmer which continued to feature Emerson’s organ playing, with the addition of newer keyboard instruments such as the mellotron and moog synthesizer. ELP revolutionized the way in which music was recorded, but that’s a story for another day…

Dylan continued to experiment with new musical styles for the rest of career, everything from country to R&B to the Great American Songbook. Excluding a few outliers in the mid nineteen seventies and early nineteen nineties, all would include the Hammond organ which continues to be featured in popular music up through the present day. Artists across all genres include the instrument on their albums, ranging from Bruce Springsteen to Evanescence, from Frank Zappa to Taylor Swift. Other than guitar, no instrument has impacted popular music so instrumentally.


For any classic prog fans, that’s a Larks’ Tongues in Aspic shirt.

Nathaniel Gordon is sophomore studying psychology at the University of Maine at Farmington. He hopes to one day become a therapist like his father before him. In his free time he listens to music, reads about music, writes about music and thinks about music. His tastes range from classic blues to modern progressive metal (but not rap…anything but rap…). He’s pictured here with his friend Ozzy the snake.

About Luann Yetter

"Do you remember lying in bed with the covers pulled up over your head, radio playing so no one could see?" (The Ramones) Yes, I do. And I remember the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. And I believed in the magic of rock ‘n roll. Funny thing is, I still do. Somehow I never grew out of my fangirl phase. In recent years I’ve enjoyed writing local history books. But after three successive publications, I took a break. And then I realized that without deadlines or contracts, what I really want to write about is music.
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