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Vintage Keyboards, New Tracks

By Rob Taube

These days any music making software has a ton of different keyboard sounds pre-loaded, with a bunch of options available for arranging and altering them. While it’s fun to surf around and try stuff randomly, some historical context of what these sounds are and where they come from can be both grounding and inspiring. Let’s take a look at some of the top stars in this field:

Wurlitzer Piano

The Wurlitzer, or “wurly” for short, is one of the most popular and yet most taken-for-granted of keyboard sounds in popular music. Listen to the opening bars of Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” or Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World” to hear it handled with funk and verve, or to the more gentle layering on Norah Jones’ “Don’t Know Why.” It has a soft sound that sort of distorts when hit hard, and is often used with a light tremolo (volume vibrato effect) that came on the original analog instrument.

Nowadays we usually access the wurly through our software or a keyboard instrument that can call up many other sounds. Make sure your wurly is not overdistorted or too trebly, unless this is a specific effect you are going for. Sometimes the wurly sounds great through a “leslie” or rotary speaker effect (see “Hammond Organ”), listen to the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus” to hear this done amazingly well.

I’d say you should play the wurly sparsely, try hitting long individual low notes hard for accents, and weave it in and out of your other parts. Avoid extreme highs and lows unless you are really inspired to do so. Remember I’m just generalizing about the rules; giving you someplace to get started. It’s up to you to follow or break them according to your artistic conscience.

Hammond B3 Organ

Much of modern popular music is drenched, soaked, and marinated in the gorgeous, swirling, soulful, celestial sound of this classic instrument, first introduced in the late 1930’s. From Booker T. and the MG’s doing “Hang ‘Em High” to Stevie Winwood’s beautiful “Once You See A Chance” to Alicia Keyes’ “Superwoman” to country songs like Montgomery Gentry’s “I Believe,” the Hammond sound can add depth and character to almost any track.

Part of the remarkable sound of the Hammond is the “leslie” rotary speaker effect, which once was generated by an actual spinning speaker in a really heavy wooden cabinet. Some B3 players had two or more of these monsters and a crew of roadies standing by to lift them when needed. Now we can get the same sound out of our software or light synthesizers, but we must make sure to use the slow/fast control of the leslie just right. Good players toggle between slow and fast constantly, using the fast to add drama and crescendo to rising parts of the song. On a long outro chord or musical denouement, it often sounds great to let the leslie slow down to bring the song to a close.

A Hammond or a good simulator (try the Nord series of keyboards, or dedicated software that has Hammond graphics) can also approximate the drawbars on the original instrument, which bring in different overtones and add incredible flexibility to the sound. There is also a “percussion” feature which can add punch to individual notes—very nice.

Don’t play too many notes in your Hammond chords, instead let the richness of the tone fill the sonic spectrum up. Try sliding up and sliding down the keyboard, use a volume pedal, experiment. Learn from the masters, have fun!


Originally invented to approximate a guitar sound, the clavinet (or “clav” to pro players) quickly became a funky instrument in its own right largely due to the influence of Stevie Wonder, who created entire musical landscapes with his Hohner D6 clavinet on his early albums. Sometimes his clav sounds like a fingerpicked guitar (“Happier Than the Morning Sun”), sometimes like a funk guitar (“Superstition”) and sometimes like something entirely unique and intriguing (“Maybe Your Baby”). In the 70’s it was a staple of the disco scene, on songs like “Get Down Tonight” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and “December 1963” by the Four Seasons. Michael Jackson used a clavinet on “Shake Your Body,” one of his mid-period hits.

The clav is played two-handed, with the hands tapping out notes and chords in alternating rhythms with the motion of a drummer or dulcimer player. In this way the back-and-forth motion of a strummed or “scratched” guitar can be duplicated.

Try using the clav with a “wah” effect, which can be accessed automatically or with an actual pedal depending on your software or keyboard setup. Experiment with different tones, filters and octaves. A modern hit could easily benefit from the sound of this classic instrument.

Fender Rhodes

The Rhodes was first used by Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock as a jazz-rock instrument, but it found its way into pop through Stevie Wonder (“You Are The Sunshine of my Life”) and such bands as Styx (“Babe”), where it was used to add a sugary sparkle to tracks. This gradually morphed into a more generic “electric piano” sound that was soon digitized by Yamaha and others and that wound up on 90’s tracks like “From A Distance” by Bette Midler and “Save the Best For Last” by Vanessa Williams. Pop electric piano is a sweet sound that is not always the most ironic or funkiest thing to add to a track, but it can really bring out tender moments or help reinforce acoustic piano lines.

Try playing lots of 6ths on your Rhodes sound, use a stereo panning effect (that ping-pongs between your stereo speakers) and some chorus, delay, reverb or flanging. Use the texture that best blends with your overall track.


Keyboard string sounds have been around since the Moody Blues did “Knights in White Satin” in 1969, and have gone through many changes as technology sought to duplicate the sound of dozens of violins, violas and cellos playing in a concert hall. Nowadays all software and standalone keyboards have killer string sounds that can be blended into any track.

Hint: arrange your strings like a real orchestra, with moving single parts and two or three part harmonies, rather than just playing chords on them like an organ or piano. Listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” by the Beatles for a perfect example as to how this can be done.

Analog Synth Sounds

Stevie Wonder was known for the best bass synthesizer ever (check out the exuberant funk of “Boogie on Reggae Woman”), and bass was an important use for classic synths like the Arp 2600 and the Mini Moog. But loads of other sounds are found on timeless records: a beautiful soft horn-like Moog on “Here Comes the Sun” by the Beatles and proud gliding sound on Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s “Lucky Man.” Lady Gaga and Rhianna have been more recently using analog synth sounds on their records like “Just Dance” and “Umbrella,” and these are probably generated with software synthesizers (or “soft synths”) hooked up to a digital audio workstation. There is so much flexibility in these instruments that I can only tell you to listen for them and play around with them in your sound bank to get ideas as to how they can create different musical characters to fill our your tracks.

The Language of Bass and Drums



The Language of Bass and Drums

Bass and drums are the heart of your band’s “rhythm section.” Though every instrument (including the voice) is responsible for its part in the overall beat, or “groove” of the music, bass and drums define and propel that beat in a fundamental way.


The bass guitar, invented in the 1950s by electric instrument pioneer Leo Fender, was adopted by players everywhere and over the next decade reshaped the foundation of rock and R & B music with its sharply defined and deeply felt tones ( The bass part of popular recordings, which before in had consisted largely of single notes landing on the 1st and third beats of every measure, became a living, breathing melody of its own that often was as distinctive as the vocal or horn parts.


Of all the talented players that picked up this new instrument, there is one giant that stands out: Motown Records’ James Jamerson, whose work is heard on an astonishing percentage of the smash hits that flowed forth from the iconic Detroit label during the 1960s.

You need only listen to “Ball of Confusion” by the Temptations

( or “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five ( to hear the kind of creative, memorable bass lines laid down by this 4-string legend.


Now listen to Paul McCartney’s bass parts on Beatles tunes like “A Little Help From My Friends” ( and “Rain” ( Despite the obvious differences in musical style, McCartney was deeply influenced by Jamerson in that he made sure his parts were prominent in the mix and were profoundly melodic.


Later on, assertive bassists like Larry Graham would take the instrument to new heights (or perhaps “depths”would be a better term) with the use of “slapping” or “thumbing’ techniques. The instrument, generally played with the index and middle fingers of the right hand, has an explosive, edgy bite when struck sharply with the bone of the thumb. Graham’s tune “It Ain’t No Fun to Me”( will show you how this sounds.




No matter how expertly the bass is played, however, it is only half of a synergistic dialogue which constantly goes on with the drums. Let’s turn our attention to the drums for a moment to see how this works.


The modern drum set, or “kit” is based on a model created by the swing bands of the 1930s and developed through the rock and roll years of the 50s and 60s ( Once again, the Beatles figure prominently as an example of a group that solidified the kit and how it is used by almost everyone who makes popular music, even electronically.


The kit consists mainly of a bass drum (on the floor and struck by a pedal), a hi hat (two cymbals that, also with a pedal, can open and close at the drummer’s command), and a snare drum (a midrange drum with a set of finely-rattling “snares” stretched over its head). Peripheral drums are tom toms, usually a set of three, and any good drummer has a “crash” cymbal and a “ride” cymbal that create accents and variety in the groove.


The bass drum usually plays on the 1st and 3rd beats of the measure (in 4/4, the most common time signature in rock) and the snare hits on 2 and 4. The hi hat is generally playing either steady 8th or 16th notes throughout.


A good example of a basic drum beat, on its own, is the opening of “Honky Tonk Women” by the Rolling Stones ( Listen to this track and note how the beat is compelling on its own even before the guitar and bass come in. Likewise with the simple yet utterly distinctive groove of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean.” (


The rhythm, however, in these and most other songs, takes on a whole other dimension when the bass comes in to anchor and answer the beats placed by the drums. This interaction is as complex and powerful as an unspoken language, and needs to be explored and nurtured by the bassist and drummer of any good band. Jamerson on bass and Benny Benjamin on drums held down the groove for the Motown sound, and McCartney and Ringo Starr of the Beatles did the same for their group and everyone who was influenced by them. Since them, the bass/drums sound of Nirvana, Rage Against the Machine, and more recent groups like Blink 182, Paramore and Nickelback carry on the tradition in every changing and creative ways.


After listening to all these giants, and letting the sound seep into your consciousness, try emulating them on cover versions of their songs, and more importantly, on your originals.


Start with the basics: try to lock the bass guitar with the bass drum, and keep the pattern solid as the chords change. Start with just the 1 and the 3 of the measure (assuming it’s 4/4 for now) and then the 1 and the 3 and the “3 and” (one eighth note after the 3). This pattern can be found on the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Band Reprise” at the end of the Beatles’ classic album.


Next try some more soulful and complex patterns: Jamerson and Benjamin’s locked groove on “Can’t Hurry Love” by the Supremes (; Donald “Duck” Dunn and Al Jackson’s deep dialogue on Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man” (, and finally the naked angst of Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade”, in which the low string of the bass is tuned to a low D (


Now experiment with letting the bass “walk” or travel in between the bass drum notes, always making sure to touch base on the 1’s and 3’s—much like Jamerson does on the Jackson Five’s “I’ll be There.” (


Try also 80s style tunes like Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer”( and as well as straighter rhythms like the Cars’ “Just What I Needed”( For a great example of creative and varied bass work within a song, try “Roxanne” by The Police (


Songs from the 90’s to try? How about “Roller Coaster of Love”, Red Hot Chili Peppers (, or Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (


Post 2000: “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley ( or “Forget You” by Cee-lo Green (


Important Note: you don’t have to love these examples as the ultimate example of the music you and your band want to make—as a matter of fact many may seem hopelessly old! However, they are the basis of the music being made today and in the future, and just as Shakespeare created a template upon which Jane Austen, John Updike and Jonathan Franzen could build, so the bass and drum greats of the past lay down the foundation which the new creative forces operating now (that’s you!) can develop and even redefine.


Most of all, spend time with your rhythm section partner, having bass and drum rehearsals and even general hangout time. Listen to music, find out what you like and what you don’t. Get your sound together (more on this in another chapter) and learn to speak fluently in the language of bass and drums.


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