Dusting off old keys

Krzysztof Stefański / 2 Jul 2019

Jimmy Smith’s flourishes on the Hammond organ; Herbie Hancock’s and Chick Corea’s experiments with the Rhodes piano; Jon Lord playing the Hammond in Deep Purple; Tyron Downie’s Hammond part in Bob Marley’s No Woman, No cry; Ray Manzarek’s Rhodes solo in The Doors’ Riders on the Storm; the Hammond-infused aura of Czesław Niemen’s songs, especially the ones from Enigmatic—the Hammond organ and the Fender Rhodes piano (as well as the electric pianos from Wurlitzer and Hohner) shaped the sound of jazz and pop in the sixties and seventies. Superseded by synthesizers, they fell out of grace for many years, exiled to attics and basements, where they sat accumulating an ever-thickening layer of dust. Their characteristic, warm sound was initially emulated on synthesizers, and later using virtual instruments. Today, spurred on by the “analog counter-revolution,” they are—along with vinyl records and cassette tapes—being dusted off by enthusiasts who prefer their analog souls over digital sterility.


The Hammond organ was patented in 1934. It entered the market one year later, sold as a cheaper alternative to church organs. The instrument generates sound by rotating a metal tonewheel near an electromagnetic pickup. Ridges cut into the tonewheels distort the magnetic field and produce an electric current with a signature similar to that of acoustic waves. Pressing a key on one of the manuals or the pedal board sends the signal from the converter to the amplifier. Diversity of sound is provided by drawbars which enable different organ-like registers, marked 16′, 5 1/3′, 8′, 4′, 22/3′, 2′, 13/5′, 11/3′, 1′. Each drawbar can additionally be placed in one of nine positions (from 0 to 8), which allows for around 253,000,000 different timbres. Preferred settings can be saved using the preset keys. The instrument also allows the player to fluidly change the timbre and dynamics of a sound while it is being played. Additional effects offered by the Hammond organ include tremolo, vibrato, chorus and percussive sounds, which have been introduced to the most popular model of the Hammond, the B-3. The instrument owes its characteristically warm and slightly vibrating timbre to the built-in (and equally worshipped) rotating Leslie speaker.

Harold Rhodes started building his first electric pianos just a few years after the Hammond organ was patented, in 1942. He did so as a part of an educational program for war veterans. By the end of the 1950s, Rhodes went into business with instrument manufacturer Leo Fender. Although instruments based on Rhodes’ idea were present on the market since the fifties, the full-size, 73-key Fender Rhodes became available only after Fender’s company was bought by CBS. As opposed to the Hammond, Rhodes’ instrument was meant to imitate the piano with its characteristic, hammer-based key action mechanism, which is why it uses key pressure to determine sound dynamics. Pressing a key makes the hammer strike a small, metal tine, which is very similar to a tuning fork. Nearby converters pick up the resulting vibrations and transport the signal to the amplifier. Unlike Hammond, the Fender Rhodes does not need electricity to create sound, only to amplify it. With its moderate dynamics, the characteristic timbre of the is similar to the sound of bells or the celesta, especially in the high register. However, when the volume is increased, the sound becomes harsher and somewhat distorted. In addition, the Fender Rhodes also features a sustain pedal and a tremolo function, often mistakenly referred to as a vibrato.

Despite their popularity among jazz and pop musicians, neither of the two instruments was ever as widely adopted by composers as the only slightly older ondes Martenot, which was built in 1928.  The Hammond organ episodically featured in some pieces by Karlheinz Stockhausen, such as Microphonie II and Momente; it also appears in Arne Nordheim’s Colorazione. Notably, all these pieces were written in the late sixties, at the height of the instrument’s popularity. The initially cold reception makes their popularity among Polish composers and performers in the recent years all the more extraordinary. The start of their current renaissance is marked by Paweł Mykietyn’s 2007 Symphony no. 2, where the Hammond organ plays a key role by leading to the second and final culmination as well as—to quote Andrzej Chłopecki—“gives the symphony an electronic ‘glimmer’”.1

“Old keys” really returned to grace in 2014, when Piotr “Pianohooligan” Orzechowski and Marcin Masecki, accompanied by Capella Cracoviensis, recorded an album of Bach’s concertos played on Rhodes’ and Wurlitzer’s instruments. The same year saw the “Hammond Organ Project” presented at the Musica Polonica Nova festival at Dariusz Przybylski’s behest, which involved the composer, accompanied by Kwartludium, performing pieces written for the Hammond and an ensemble by Eunho Chang, Aleksander Kościow, Mikołaj Laskowski, Mateusz Ryczek, as well as Przybylski’s own Abrenutio. A year later, the project was immortalized on a record issued by Requiem Records, while Mikołaj Laskowski’s The tiger left me unsatisfied received a recommendation from the UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers. The year 2015 also saw the premiere of Aleksander Nowak’s NANINANA for an amplified keyboard instrument (the composer asserts that “a classic Fender Rhodes Stage Piano is the best choice”) at the opening of the new building of the National Audiovisual Institute. Finally, the Aukso orchestra conducted by Marek Moś and the “Pianohooligan” performed three pieces for the Rhodes piano and string orchestra commissioned by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne from Zygmunt Krauze, Sławomir Kupczak and Marcin Stańczyk at the 7th Festival of Premieres in Katowice in 2017.

Final concert of the 7th Festival of Premieres in Katowice, 26.03.2017, Piotr “Pianohooligan” Orzechowski and the Aukso orchestra conducted by Marek Moś, photo by Iza Lechowicz

Analog electric pianos, just like any other instrument, require a lot of knowledge from the player in order to reveal their entire palette of sounds. The timbre of the Hammond organ is a good example. In his Symphony no. 2 Paweł Mykietyn precisely marks which registers are to be enabled by placing a special chart over the Hammond part in the score. Mikołaj Laskowski takes similar steps in his The tiger left me unsatisfied: not only does he mark the registers  he uses, but also the positions and timeframes for moving the drawbars. The remaining composers—much like is the case with historical pieces for the organ—leave the performer significant freedom in his choice of register. Dariusz Przybylski, who wrote Abrenutio with himself as the performer in mind, only included general instructions in the score, such as “register variation.” In his 28 days of Moon Mateusz Ryczek, too, limits himself to general indications, such as “sharp timbre” or “delicate and blendable (stopliwy),” only once clearly indicating which registers are to be used (4′ and 1′). The composer, however, precisely determines the mode of operation of the Leslie speaker, by writing either “tremolo” or “chorale.” While composers often leave the drawbar settings up to the performer, they all use one important characteristic of the Hammond—the ability to fluidly change dynamics.

Both the Hammond organ and the Rhodes piano have a rich history with a number of musical associations. It is up to the composer whether he wants to enter a dialog with the tradition, or go the opposite way and look for new, non-traditional sounds and expanded performance techniques. Listening to the virtuosic, strongly chromaticized series and syncopated motives of Aleksander Nowak’s NANINANA one might think that it is Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea sitting at the Rhodes. However, despite a slight nod to the instrument’s history, Nowak’s piece realizes precise formal assumptions which have nothing to do with jazz. On the opposite extreme there is Marcin Stańczyk, in whose A due the Rhodes sound is enriched by being filtered through a Moog synthesizer as well as by introducing the loud clicking of the pedal being released. Sławomir Kupczak also put forth a novel way of using the Rhodes. In his Full Moon the soloist, besides playing using the keys, hits the metal tines with a baton. Dariusz Przybylski achieves an interesting, almost percussive effect on the Hammond by including secco clusters in his Abrenutio. The several keyboard glissandos featured in the piece also have a marvelous sound. In The tiger left me unsatisfied the instrument’s original sound is revealed through a rapid register change concurrent with an abrupt crescendo. Aleksander Kościów on the other hand used the traditional sound of the Hammond organ in his Steam Punk Gear, which sounds somewhat like not so much steampunk, but an old sci-fi soundtrack.

Composers using “old keys” not only approach their sound differently, but also give varying importance to it in their pieces. One can identify three main strategies they adopt in combining such unusual instruments as the Hammond or the Rhodes with the sound of a larger ensemble: avoidance, concert, and synthesis. These strategies often co-exist within the same piece.

Avoidance is an attempt to escape the possibly cumbersome instrument and cover it up with the sound of other ones within the piece. In Eunho Chang’s Pattern the Hammond organ only appears occasionally, and clearly plays second fiddle to piano. At the same time the occasional clustered crescendos of the Hammond break up the traditional sound of the piece and counterbalance the traditional piano part, which seems to include a faint echo of Romantic-period parlor literature. Marcin Stańczyk quite literally escapes the Rhodes sound: the majority of the solo part is feigned, and the instrument’s sound is processed by the Moog’s filter, giving the Moog player (rather than the pianist) the power over its timbre. The escape is, however, superficial: the pianist’s gestures are synchronized with the attack of chords in the string part, giving off an impression that the soloist is conducting the orchestra using his all-powerful keyboard. The extremely common practice of using these instruments as harmonic “glue” is another kind of escape.

Giving the instrument a solo part is the easiest way to display its potential. In Zygmunt Krauze’s Rondo the solo, partly improvised “refrains” are interwoven with string “couplets,” both of which share the same main motives. Dariusz Przybylski introduces an improvised cadenza to the Hammond part, while Sławomir Kupczak opens his Full Moon with a spectacular improvised introduction of the Rhodes, in which the sound of the electric piano gradually blends in with the electronics. Aleksander Kościów’s Steam Punk Gear also features a concert-like situation. He allows the organ to shine by giving up other instruments and limiting the ensemble to the Hammond and percussion.

In NANINANA the Rhodes is the piece’s axis: spatially, because it is located between the left and right sides of the orchestra, and harmonically, when in the piece’s first section the solo part gradually develops around the repeated C note. As the Rhodes part starts to include more and more pitch classes, so do those of the other instruments. Still, in the end the soloist has the last word, ending this part of the piece with a spectacular cadence. A reversal of this situation takes place in the third, and last, part of the piece, when the soloist takes the sound material from the string instruments, which are performing the same motive in an ascending progression. As the progressions grow shorter, the Rhodes part grows more robust, leading up to a culmination in the subsequent cadenza.

NANINANA showcases the richness of the Rhodes sound: from its jingling mezzopiano in the middle section, through the harsh, overdriven sound in the culminations, to the stacatto piano in the low register, which perfectly complements the timber of the double basses. However, the most important part of the piece is the subordination of its solo part to the very strict and consistent form of the entire work. Mateusz Ryczek takes similar steps, using the Hammond organ as just one of the media for harmonic material, which is generated based on the golden spiral. The Hammond part, especially when led in parallel to the piano, often becomes little more than timbral spice to the ensemble’s sound. The instrument is subordinated to the process of going through the subsequent harmonic aggregates, much like in a lunar cycle. The Hammond is also covered by the piano is Dariusz Przybylski Abrenutio, where formal tension arises between two sound models: ricochets and repetitions, and a neoclassicism similar to that of Stravinsky’s more jazzy pieces. Sławomir Kupczak also created a kind of synthesis by combining the Rhodes sound with his trademark old-school electronics.


Although the “Hammond Organ Project” and Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne’s commissions for the Rhodes piano and strings have showcased the different attitudes composers have towards “old keys,” they have the disadvantage (one that perhaps all projects share) of forcing a certain artistic situation by restricting the selection of instruments. Kwartludium enriched with a Hammond organ is not an easy ensemble: it contains, besides the organ, similar instruments, such as the piano and, partially, percussion (idiophones with a definite pitch). This creates the risk of creating a conglomerate that cannot be counterbalanced by the violin and the clarinet. No wonder then that composers limit the number of instruments (Kościów, Laskowski), minimize the Hammond’s role (Chang), use it as timbral background (partially Ryczek and Przybylski), and only sometimes give it solo fragments (Przybylski). The case was similar with the pieces commissioned by Polskie Wydawnictwo Muzyczne, where the artists tried to escape a typical, concert-like soloist-orchestra situation by either playing with gestures (Stańczyk), or enriching the sound with electronics (Stańczyk, Kupczak). Perhaps this is why NANINANA is the piece that seems to have used to the potential of this unusual instrument to the fullest: it was created as a standalone composition.

The recent pieces for “old keys” show that these instruments have a lot of potential, which composers have not yet fully discovered. The renaissance of these instruments is also far from being over. Dariusz Przybylski is now working on an album of Hammond performances of pieces ranging from Dufay to 20th century composers. Others, too, are sure to reach for the Hammond and the Rhodes in the future. And there are still some amazing keyboards waiting in the attic: the German Wurlitzer and Hohner. The basement is full of treasures, too: from the famous Moog, to the homely sounds of Elwirka, Unitra, and various Soviet synthesizers. And, just maybe, someone will finally reach for the cheap, unassuming Casio keyboard, the one responsible for the quintessential sound of Poland’s transition from communism?

Krzysztof Stefański
Translation: Agata Klichowska

  1. Andrzej Chłopecki, Pawła Mykietyna Opus czyli “II Symfonia”, “Ruch Muzyczny” 2008 vol. 17/18, p. 8-11.