The Hammond Organ: A Classic

The Hammond is to the organ what the Hoover is to the vacuum cleaner. A household name, this timeless instrument is indivisible from classic rock and modern pop, whether it’s a vintage model or a modern digital Hammond, and decades before it even made the rock hall-of-fame, it was a mainstay of blues and jazz. Despite the fact that playing one means lugging a 100-kilo chunk of hardware from gig to gig, we find out exactly why this instrument is as much a legend as the musicians that have played it. Welcome to your definitive guide to the Hammond organ. Enjoy!

Every Style

The Hammond organ feels at home in any style of music. It can play delicate little melodies just as effortlessly as it can emit the existential scream of a raw and aching blues or rock solo. It can lay a glittering and complex carpet of notes over pretty much any pop number you might want to throw it at and can be used to perform accomplished jazz phrases with gymnastic agility. The immense versatility of this instrument is also a double-edged sword. Many will immediately lump the Hammond sound in with the irrelevant and ‘kitsch’, associating it with the organ sound that characterizes countless records made in the seventies – a sound that’s ‘dead and gone’. This association has definitely tarnished the reputation of the Hammond, but the Hammond is fighting back. In jazz and blues music, the Hammond never went away, and while the Hammond was swiftly replaced in pop and rock by Hammond-mimicking synthesizers during the eighties and nineties, this plucky sonic beast has been making a steady comeback during the last twenty years. These days, artists seem to prefer to skip digital pretenders and go for the authentic analogue sound and feel of a genuine Hammond tonewheel organ. This is likely to be a Hammond B3 hooked up to a Leslie rotary speaker, like the Leslie 122 or 147.

The Tonewheel Generator

The magic of a real Hammond tonewheel organ lies in how it’s able to produce sound. Developed by American inventor, Laurens Hammond (1895-1973) who died with no less than one-hundred-and-ten patents to his name, including the iconic red and green cardboard 3D glasses of fifties fame. Laurens Hammond also invented something called the synchromotor; an electric motor that rotated at a speed dictated by the mains power frequency (which sits at 50Hz in the UK and at 60Hz in the USA). As long as the mains power frequency remains constant, the motor rotation remains constant, making it the perfect motor for electric clocks – which is exactly what Laurens used them for. What the synchromotor also inspired was Laurens’ first electric organ. With the goal of replacing gigantic, expensive and maintenance-greedy church pipe organs, he came up with what he called the tonewheel generator – which was driven by his own synchromotor. The system was patented in 1934 and would form the central, beating heart of the Hammond tonewheel organ (see the image below).

Depending on the model, a Hammond tonewheel organ will have between twelve and ninety-six tonewheels and each of the wheels have a wave-shaped edge based on a corresponding sine wave. The higher the note, the more waves the corresponding tonewheel has, and each wheel is mounted onto an axle so it can rotate along a pickup made up of a coil wrapped around a magnetic core. As the tonewheel rotates, the magnetic field around the pickup core is interrupted and stimulated, which is then translated by the coil into an alternating current.

The Hammond Organ: A Classic
Hammond A-100 – Photo (cropped): Hammond A-100 inside, by Brandon Daniel, licence CC BY-SA 2.0

Lively & Musical

The alternating current has a sine wave form – just like the sine wave edge of the tonewheel. This current is then electronically filtered, amplified and prepared to be passed onto a speaker. This process gives the sine wave a whistle-like tone, which sounds dull on its own, but is given character by the overtones added by the multiple tonewheels that make up the total sound. The organist can control the colour of this sound using the drawbars (see the section on drawbars later). The sound is sent from the tonewheel generator through an enormous circuit that passes it through several electronic stages (like valves) that all have an influence on the Hammond organ sound. Laurens also had to make a few technical compromises when building the Hammond, which gives the sound some unique imperfections and is exactly what makes this instrument so interesting, lively, and musical. For anyone wanting to dive deeper into these character-building imperfections, see the section on ‘Key Click, Leakage & Other Unintended Bonuses’.

The Hammond Organ: A Classic

The Leslie

Laurens Hammond had built his organ to serve as a church or living room organ, but the Hammond would, as we know, find its own way. This is partly the fault of Don Leslie, who built the Leslie rotary speaker. For many Hammond fans, a Hammond isn’t a Hammond without a Leslie. Rotary speakers like the Leslie 122 and 147 have a horn rotating in one direction, amplifying the high-range frequencies and a drum rotating in the opposite direction, amplifying the low-range frequencies. The effect gives the Hammond-sound the natural vibrato produced by the Doppler effect of the dual rotation. The effect was named after the Austrian physicist, Christian Doppler, who discovered that a sound rises in pitch as it moves closer to the listener and gradually lowers in pitch as it moves away. A classic example of the Doppler effect is the sound of an ambulance passing by with its siren blaring.

Besides the Doppler-style vibrato, Leslie speakers inject a lot of air into the sound of a Hammond organ – as if the sound is floating above the ground. The two compliment each other so beautifully, that when you team a Hammond up with a Leslie, an immense range of styles and textures can be woven, and it can be as if the Hammond-sound embraces the other instruments. You can also set up a Leslie so that it gets overdriven at a specific volume, adding an expressive edge of valve distortion. It also has two standard speeds: choral (slow) and tremolo (fast), both of which have their own specific character, and switching from slow to fast and back again takes a few seconds to take effect, so if you hit the switch at just the right moment, you can really push the tension and make things dramatic. The Leslie and Hammond pairing is classic when it comes to pop, rock, and blues, and if jazz features a Hammond, then that Hammond is likely to be hooked up to a still Leslie – where the rotation has been switched off. By the way, Laurens Hammond didn’t like the Leslie one bit at first, but whether he liked it or not, this was to be one of music history’s perfect marriages.

The Hammond Organ: A Classic

The renowned Leslie speaker. In the illustration on the right, you can see the interior and the rotating horn for the high frequencies and rotating drum for the low frequencies. Image: Leslie speaker (mechanical diagram), by R.P /  Ecelan, licence CC BY-SA 2.5

The Hammond Organ: A Classic
Above you can see what’s been dubbed the ‘half-moon’ switch for switching between the two speeds of the Leslie speaker. Here it’s seen fitted on a Hammond M3. Photo (cropped): Half-Moon Switch, by CJ Sorg, licence CC BY-SA 2.0

A True Instrument

Enough of the mechanics, let’s start digging into the musical side of the Hammond organ – or just the Hammond as musicians have dubbed it. While the Hammond is an electronic instrument, it has the playing feel of an acoustic instrument. “It’s a real instrument. Just like the electric guitar,” says Leon Kuijpers, professional keyboard player and Hammond specialist. “What I mean is, it’s not an imitation of an instrument, like many electronic organs and keyboards that just mimic the sound of other instruments, it’s an instrument in its own right. The Hammond has its own authentically unique sound, just like an acoustic piano, Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer have their own unique sound.” This is because each of these instruments, including the Hammond, have their own way of generating sound, even if it is electronic.

“A good Hammond player can put a lot of feeling into their playing because the keyboard is just as sensitive as the keyboard of a piano. The Hammond can be incredibly expressive depending on how you play it. Add a volume pedal, play around with the tone using the drawbars and a Leslie speaker and you can really discover your own sound. You don’t just sit behind a Hammond, you get in there and become part of it,” according to Leon. “Playing a Hammond can give you a massive kick.”

But it’s Not a Piano

A Hammond has a set of black and white keys, just like a piano, so if you can play the piano, you can play a Hammond, right? “The feeling is completely different, so the technique is also different,” claims Leon. “There’s a big difference between playing a piano and playing a Hammond. The expressive side of playing a piano lies in how hard you hit the keys and once you’ve hit one or more notes, you have no further influence over the tone besides a sustain pedal.” So, you have no true control over the sound of a piano, just the way the notes are struck. “With a Hammond, you have complete control, even after you’ve hit the keys. You can mess with the volume pedal, colour things in with the draw bars, and play with the switches of your Leslie. This is why a Hammond is nothing like a piano. It demands a completely different way of playing.” Another big difference is that a chord struck on a piano will slowly die out, while a chord struck on a Hammond will go on for as long as you hold it. So you can do things like hold a high note for a long time while playing other notes against it (this is called pedal point, or organ point), which is something you just can’t do with a piano. “You have to work for every note you play on a piano. In that respect, playing a Hammond is easier,” says Leon. “In terms of sound, a Hammond also has more heft to it than a piano, so you can give your playing body by doing a lot less, and you actually need to do less, otherwise it’ll sound too full. You can hear it as soon as a pure pianist sits at a Hammond. For instance, I’ve got this Ray Charles record – and Ray Charles is not just any musician – on the record he’s playing a Hammond and it sounds like nothing you’ve ever heard before, because he’s basically playing the piano on a Hammond.”

The Hammond Organ: A Classic
The swell pedal controls the volume. Seen here on a Hammond B3. Photo (cropped): Hammond C2 25-note pedalboards & expression pedal, by eyeliam, licence CC BY 2.0

Let it Roar

So is a piano harder work than a Hammond or is it the other way around? “You can’t really compare them in that way,” according to Leon. “While you might have to work harder with a piano, a Hammond demands more from your imagination. You do much more colouring in with a Hammond and you need to be more careful not to play too ‘closed’, like you would with a piano. Musically speaking, the Hammond and piano are completely different instruments. Hammonds are more closely related to instruments that you can play really long, sustained notes with. You can also weave a really thick carpet of sound with a Hammond, and in terms of expression, you can run from really deep to really high – you can make a Hammond roar and scream. You can’t do that with a piano.” Despite their differences, though, Hammonds and pianos work really well together on recordings and in live bands. In fact, the Hammond combines beautifully with any instrument.

The Hammond Organ: A Classic
Starting up a Hammond involves a special procedure involving two switches. Photo (cropped): START-RUN Schalter einer Hammond B-3, by MePaJa, licence CC BY-SA 4.0

The Church Organ & The Stage Beast

Hammond tonewheel organs are no longer built. In December, 1974, the very last Hammond B3 left the factory, not long after Laurens Hammond had passed away in 1973. While Hammond continued to build electronic organs to compete with other organ builders at the time, this didn’t last for long, and in 1986 the company finally went bankrupt. In 1987, the Japanese company, Suzuki bought the brand and continued to build organs based on digital technology under the name Hammond-Suzuki. Building a genuine tonewheel organ à la Hammond is a costly process these days, but luckily, old tonewheel organs are nearly indestructible and can always be repaired. However, most of these instruments are still gigantic and heavy lumps of furniture, even if spine-organs lightened the load a bit. Portable ‘clones’ are getting better and better, but will musicians ever be able to get the same ‘kick’ that they get out of a genuine tonewheel? That comes down to personal preference. In any case, the Hammond is a special instrument and a genuine instrument in its own right. Back in 1934, Laurens Hammond could never have dreamed of the stage beast and household name that his electronic church organ would grow to become 75 years later.

The Hammond Organ: A Classic
You can immediately recognise a Hammond B3 by the typical L-shaped sides. Photo (cropped): Hammond B3 Organ at Recording Studios, by JacoTen, licence CC BY-SA 3.0

Good to Know

Keyclick, Leakage & Other Unintended Bonuses

Various technical idiosyncrasies and imperfections help make the sound of a Hammond organ what it is. There are entire libraries filled with books on the subject, but here, we’ll just list the most infamous ones:

  • The sound of a Hammond is generated electromagnetically via a tonewheel generator (see above). This already makes a big difference to the sound. By the time the generated sine wave reaches the end of the electronic circuit, technically speaking, it’s no longer a sine wave, which immediately makes the tone more interesting.
  • Every tonewheel (the Hammond B3 has 91) has its own phase, which isn’t synchronised with the phase of the other tonewheels. This results in a far more lively sound than that of an instrument like a keyboard, where every note has the same phase.
  • Organs like the Hammond B3 and many Leslie speakers include valves which are responsible for the quality of sound. If the valves inside a Leslie are overdriven, then the sound is given a raw, slightly distorted edge.
  • The built-in vibrato of most Hammond tonewheel organs is generated by an electromagnetic vibrato scanner which produces a deep and organic vibrato. Famously, the vibrato sounds best in the Chorus setting, which blends the vibrato ‘note’ with the natural notes of the organ.
  • A single tonewheel can only take whole waves, and the cogs that rotate the tonewheels can only have one tooth, as it were. Half or smaller waves or teeth are not an option, and this limitation meant that Laurens Hammond wasn’t able to tune every note perfectly, in the way that every note of a piano can be perfectly tuned. While the A of a Hammond organ is a perfect 440 Hertz, most of the other notes have miniscule variations. This unique ‘tuning’ is what gives the sound of a Hammond organ a more exciting edge.
  • A typical quirk of the Hammond B3 and other similar tonewheel organs is what’s referred to as ‘keyclick’. When any key is pressed, the instrument emits a short, audible sputter prior to the note. This sputter is the sound of the electrical contact being made. While Laurens Hammond hated this technical glitch, many jazz organists love it.
  • Because of wear within the electrical circuit of a Hammond, the sound of inactive tonewheels can be heard alongside active tonewheels. This is called leakage and technically, it’s not something you necessarily want, but can make a Hammond sound really dirty – in the right way. Due to little technical gremlins like leakage, one Hammond B3 can sound completely different to another Hammond B3.

The Hammond Organ: A Classic
The Vibrato-Chorus knob Photo (cropped): Hammond C3 presets, SJSF 2012, by ClusternoteHenry Zbyszynski, licence CC BY 2.0

Colouring in with Drawbars

The note produced by a single tonewheel has no overtones to it but can be coloured in with the natural harmonic overtones that are produced by acoustic instruments. Using the drawbars, an organist can add or remove harmonics to colour in the sound and this process is called registering. Most Hammond organs have nine drawbars per keyboard (or manual) and the lowest sounding drawbar is the 16-foot (16’) referring to the corresponding pipe length of the traditional pipe organ that the Hammond was designed to emulate. The longer the ‘pipe’ the lower the pitch, and on a Hammond, each of the nine drawbars corresponds to a specific pipe length. By pulling out the drawbars, an organist can add harmonics to the longest and lowest ‘pipe’, and these are always an octave, fifth, or third harmonic above. The further a drawbar is pulled out, the more body the sound of the selected ‘pipe’ has. The root note comes from the 8’ drawbar; the 4’ is an octave higher; the 2’ is two octaves higher, and the 1’ is three octaves higher than the 8’, while the 16’ is an octave lower. The so-called broken harmonics sit in between, so the 51/3′ is a natural fifth higher than the 8’; the 22/3 is a natural fifth higher than the 4’; and the 11/3’ is a natural fifth higher than the 2’. Then there’s the 13/5’ drawbar, which is a major third higher than the 2’. The drawbars are step-less, so can be pulled out smoothly, offering organists a million possible combinations and just as many possible sound options. From there, you can add 2nd or 3rd percussion; vibrato or chorus and so on.

Foldback: Yes or No?

In the section about different Hammond organ models, we mention the phenomenon of ‘foldback’, which console organs have, and spinet organs don’t. This is a pretty important difference when it comes to musicality, but what is foldback? Foldback is as follows: the higher the note, the finer the serrated edge of the tonewheel needs to be to describe the sine wave, and naturally, this presents some limitations. The highest note you can get is a high F♯ using the 1’ drawbar, so what about the notes above that? The solution that Laurens Hammond came up with was foldback. By ‘folding back’ to the 1’ an octave below, the G that follows the high F♯ could be played, so you get another high note in the highest part of your manual. With a console organ, anything above the high F♯ is heard via the 1’, but with foldback. With a spinet organ, the high F♯ is the limit of the 1’, and the other high ‘pipes’ also have their limit, which is often the downside of spinet organs, since you’re missing those high notes at the top of the manual. The lower note range of console organs is also covered by low foldback.

Legendary Hammond Organists

Which names have had the most influence on the organists that followed? Here, we list some of the most legendary.

The explosive introduction of the Hammond organ to jazz is partly thanks to Jimmy Smith (1928-2005), who is seen as the most influential jazz organist, or in fact organist in general, of all time. He emerged in the sixties with a distinct playing style that happened to fit perfectly with the jazz music of the moment, including bebop. One of the hallmarks of his sound is his minimal use of drawbars when compared to the generations that came before him. Often, he would only combine the lowest three with the 3d percussion drawbar. These days, if you have a keyboard with a sound library including a ‘jazz organ’, it’s likely to be based on the sound of Jimmy Smith’s unique registration.

Jimmy McGriff (1936-2008) was a jazz and blues organist and was the first to get a Hammond organ to really ‘talk’. He would use his hammond as an extension of the voice and made it sing with masses of expression.

Jazz organist Rhoda Scott (1938) took harmonic colour a step or two further than Jimmy.

Roy Phillips (1941) was a singer and organist from The Peddlers. Known for his blues-flavoured style, he pushed the timbre of the organ even further and was able to build walls of sound with the lower manual.

Billy Preston (1946-2006) played jazz, blues, funk and gospel organ, and no one could make a Hammond smoke like he could. While a prodigy himself, he worked with giant names including Little Richard, Sam Cooke, and famously lent his organ skills to Let it Be by The Beatles.

Booker T. Jones (1944) introduced the Hammond organ to soul music with Booker T. & The MGs in the early sixties, opening pop music up to the soul revolution.

Matthew Fisher (1946) was responsible for one of the most iconic organ-driven songs ever. In 1967, he joined the Procol Harum lineup and scored a hit with A Whiter Shade of Pale. The feel and style of his unforgettable riff has been copied countless times, even by bands like Crowded House.

Keith Emerson (1944) was a virtuoso pianist from Emerson, Lake & Palmer who, in the seventies, caused a tidal wave in the world of progressive symphonic rock, in which the Hammond organ played a prominent role.

John Lord (1941) was the organist for rock legends Deep Purple and helped write a slice of rock history with the hit, Child in Time. If the intro had been played on anything other than a Hammond it wouldn’t have sounded half as mystical and otherworldly.

The Best-Known Models

Hammond built a lot of different models while they were still in business, and their output not only encompassed tonewheel organs, but ‘normal’ electronic organs. Here, we’ve made a list of the tonewheel organs you’re most likely to see played in bands, and one electronic Hammond organ that made it through.

The Hammond B3 is the most legendary tonewheel organ. Built between 1954 and 1974, if you see a massive organ sitting on stage, then nine times out of ten it’ll be a B3. You can easily recognize it by the four ornate wooden legs. A hefty monster.

Internally, the A100 and the C3 are nearly the same as the B3, so in terms of sound they’re pretty much identical. However, no two B3s ever sound the same – every example will come with its own character. The B3, C3, and A100 have the same keyboard and control layout, but the A100 has a closed cabinet with built-in speakers (but still has an output for a Leslie speaker) and the C3 is more based on a traditional church organ (which is what it was designed to serve as).

The B3, C3 and A100 are collectively called console-organs. These are large organs where both of the manuals have a five-octave range. There are also smaller tonewheel organs, which are called spinet organs and were initially designed for living rooms. Both of the manuals of spinet organs have a 3 ½ octave range, but the span of the step-style placement adds up to five octaves (see photos). Also, spinet organs aren’t capable of foldback (see the section on foldback earlier). The character of sound is also different, but they still have the lively feel of a genuine tonewheel organ.

Here are some spinet organs that have become band-favourites in their own right:

Because of its sound, the M3 (built between 1955 and 1964) is often called the mini-B3. Almost everything that a B3 offers, you also get with an M3. So you get the scanner vibrato and percussion. The only thing you don’t get is the extra range of the foldback. But, of course, the M3 is a lot easier to carry than the B3.

The M100 (built between 1961 and 1968) is the organ you can hear on A Whiter Shade of Pale by Procol Harum. It looks very different to the B3 but still features a scanner vibrato.

The L100 (built between 1961 and 1964) is the model you’re most likely to hear in pop music, and if you heard a Hammond during the sixties or seventies, it was probably an L100. The organist of prog band Focus would also play an L100. There’s also a portable version of the L100: the Porta-B, and you can pick up a second hand L100 these days for a pretty reasonable price.

The X5 is the joker in our pack since it’s not a tonewheel organ, but it’s just as loved by some organists as the models we’ve already mentioned. The X5 is often coupled with a Leslie 760: a Leslie transistor speaker.

Repairing a Hammond

Hammond tonewheel organs are almost impossible to break, and if they do break, they can always be repaired. The world is teeming with Hammond organs that have been hefted on and off stages every night for more than fifty years and are still going. Part of the maintenance work involved in taking care of a Hammond you can do yourself, like treating the tone generator with two thimbles-full of special Hammond oil (which is still available!) once a year. It’s also easy to find specialist Hammond repair shops via the internet.

‘Clone Wheels’

Old-school Hammond tonewheel organs are big and heavy – this much is obvious, and the B3 plus a Leslie 147 is not just a heavy combo, but an expensive one. It’s therefore little wonder that many manufacturers have come up with some lighter and cheaper solutions that try to emulate the combined sound of a Hammond and a Leslie. There are even virtual, software-based emulations available. These ‘clone wheels’ are getting better and better at coming as close as it gets to the original. An organist’s experience of these clones can be pretty subjective since it depends on what aspect of that ‘Hammond sound’ you’re looking for and how far the virtual version can go. It also seems that emulating the effect of a real Leslie is a lot harder than emulating the sound of a Hammond. Bands that have that Hammond sound at the core, like blues and jazz bands, often opt for the real sound of a genuine tonewheel teamed up with a real Leslie – it also looks great on stage.

Without getting too exhaustive, here’s a brief overview of the best-known and most recent digital ‘clone wheel’ organs:

Hardware instruments with keyboards: Hammond-Suzuki New B3, Hammond-Suzuki XK-1, Hammond Suzuki XK-3c, Roland VK-8, Nord C2, KeyB organ. The Modules: Hammond-Suzuki XM-2 and Roland VK-8m. And, the software instruments: Native Instruments B4 II, Linplug Organ 3, and Genuine Soundware VB3. The American developer Motion Sound also builds boxes with a mechanical rotating speaker that are a bit more portable than the much larger original Leslies. Hammond-Suzuki also offers their own Leslie alternative: the Leslie 3300.

Want to Know (Even) More?

Want to know more about Hammond organs? You only need to glance at the internet to see that there’s enough Hammond-themed reading to be done to take up a lifetime. American author Mark Vail wrote an entire book about the phenomenon titled ‘The Hammond Organ – Beauty in the B’, and whoever wants to take a deep-dive into Hammond playing techniques should take a look at ‘Hammond Organ Complete’ by Dave Limina. Unfortunately, most music schools don’t offer specific Hammond organ lessons but there are plenty of clubs and organisations dedicated to the Hammond organ.

Interview with Hammond Organist Pascal Lanslots

Pascal Lanslots has been playing the organ since he was six years old, and once he was big enough, he found his way to his first Hammond organ: the instrument that would steal his heart and help win him a music degree with honours.

Interview Pascal Lanslots

Hammond Education Center

The former Karel I cigar factory in Reusel in the Netherlands was saved from the sledgehammer because a son had promised his father that he would finish his life’s work. The colossal complex that was first built in 1928 has now been transformed into an enormous cultural hub. The paint is still wet, and the first brood of artists have been busy laying fresh, creative foundations. In one of the many spaces, nestles MusiFix, a small company that specialises in repairing, restoring, and maintaining electronic musical instruments and audio installations, and conveniently adjacent, you’ll find the Hammond Education Centre and Pascal Lanslots. It’s a little mission to get here, but a helpful painter cheerfully guides us to Pascal’s brand new workshop. The door is unlocked so we step inside a room filled to the rafters with gear that probably should be kept under lock and key – not that you could make a quick getaway with it.

Of course, there are Hammond organs, both tonewheel and digital, and including a good-old B3 from 1958, an M3, and an M100. Over there, sits a B3 Classic, a New Generation Ultimo, a Pro-XK system and a mouth-watering stack of different Leslie speakers and Tone cabinets, all carefully Tetris-ed in between other hardware, instrument amplifiers, a mini PA system and recording equipment.

Presets Are for the Weak

Pascal soon follows us through the door, dressed in an olive green t-shirt printed with the Hammond organ logo and the statement ‘Presets are for the weak’ scrawled underneath: the assertion of any true Hammond professor. We tell him the epic tale of our journey to get here.

“Oh yeah, I’ve been good friends with Jack from MusiFix for years. We met when we lived in the same area in Frankfurt. I teach and play gigs, and he repairs instruments. A few months ago, I brought them an old Hammond organ for repair – they’re pretty prone to developing faults and need regular maintenance – and I noticed that this spot was still empty. Since my studio can’t exactly be expanded, as soon as they offered me this space, I took it.” Now, both Jack and Pascal make use of the space. “If Jack has people in that are looking for an organ, they can come in here and compare different models. I give lessons in here, do some band coaching and also give workshops on Hammond maintenance. I also set up a little vocal studio. In terms of recording, it can be pretty inspiring to work in here, because we can do extra-live things.”

A Musical Nest

Currently, Pascal’s website is down for reasons that are unclear, so gathering information via the internet has proved near-fruitless. But we’re well aware that we’re standing in the presence of one of the best Hammond organ players in the whole of the Netherlands. We can’t help but gulp. “It was probably hackers,” shrugs Pascal, breaking the silence while he waves a couple of A4 sheets of paper at us, filled with all of the services he has to offer. Like most professional musicians, Pascal does a lot more than just play the organ. Gigs, teaching, band coaching, and side projects. He’s also an official Hammond-Suzuki endorsed ambassador and his CV sheet lists a Wikipedia page about Deming’s Quality Circle – whatever that is. “It’s a shame that the website’s down. I’ve had a lot of people calling for information about lessons, which is no bother, but it’s time consuming. It’s much easier when people can just look at my portfolio on the site and look at the schedule. But anyway, we’re working on it.”

Pascal Lanslots (1966) was born into a musical nest in Baarle-Nassau. His father was a singer and guitarist and his two older brothers are both drummers. “Since Baarle-Nassau is half Belgian, we were able to get an education in music in Baarle-Hertog for virtually nothing,” Pascal tells us. “Music education in Belgium is a lot more thorough than it is in the Netherlands. For the first two years you had to do compulsory general musical education, and in the third year you had to learn to play the recorder and one other instrument. I chose the clarinet and saxophone and then learned to play the piano.”


For two years, Pascal has been happily playing with his father and brother. During the time when he was taking organ lessons at the Jan van Steen music school in Breda to improve his technique, the electronic organ was on the rise thanks to artists like Klaus Wunderlich, Cor Steyn and Stef Meeder, which was good reason for Yamaha to start opening music schools to promote their new hardware. Pascal was in the thick of it and went on to win various regional and national competitions before one day, he bumped into Jan Laenen, who Pascal describes as ‘an extremely good organist’.

“Every Saturday, I would go to Jan’s music shop, where I would do odd jobs in exchange for private lessons after the shop was closed. One day he turned to me and said: ‘Pascal, if you do this then you need to do it well. And to do it well, you have to dare to let go of other things.’ So I immediately set aside the bands for which I played clarinet and saxophone and started to prepare for the entrance exam for the Brabant Conservatory.” Pascal tackled it head on; eating through the entire reading list, from classical Bach fugues to two thick books packed with piano pieces by Oscar Peterson. “It was only when I stepped up for the admissions process that I realised you only had to memorise one of the pieces from those books,” says Pascal with a grin, who, of course, was accepted to study at the school. Because he was already way ahead of his fellow students, he got bored quickly and started playing in bands again. “Yeah, I thought ‘if you’re a musician, you’ve got to make music’. I played in the band Incapable Jakes at the time, and we won a grand prize in Belgium.” In his second year, lower grades started to appear on his report card, and he was told that he was not doing well. “I didn’t understand it. What was going on? I think they just wanted to let me know that I should stop playing in bands and start focussing on studying. In the end, I graduated as cum laude, with the Hammond organ as my main instrument, classical piano as my second instrument and other disciplines like the keyboard, improvisation skills, and theatre music.”

Perfect Pitch

As soon as he finished at the Conservatory, Pascal took an entirely different direction. That is to say: he dived right out of school and onto the stage. For a while he played all the clubs and company parties with the band No limit, then later performed with Out of Town: a professional artist backing band that plays at least three to four times a week. “We made a lot of money but at some point, I couldn’t really take the schedule any more. It wasn’t so much the level of work, but the fact that I have perfect pitch.

A Hammond organ is connected to a generator, which isn’t stable, and when it gets unstable it means that the organ is tuned too low. I can play transposed easily enough, but it’s a weird sensation because I can literally hear everything. Even if a plane is flying over, I can hear the pitch and it distracts me.” Of course, perfect pitch also comes with benefits, according to Pascal. “If I’m sitting in a traffic jam on the way to fill in for a band I’ve never played with before, I can put on the tracks and come up with a lead sheet and note it down right there and then. By the time I get there, I already know my parts.”

Interview Hammond-organist Pascal Lanslots

The Charm of a Hammond Organ

Pascal describes his Hammond organ as a good ‘friend’. “You can comfortably stand on stage alone with a Hammond, but if you’re in a band or part of an orchestra, it can function as the broad brush that colours everything in. You can stick a Hammond into any genre and it will work, whether it’s classical music or pop, rock, jazz, and gospel. It can sound really subtle and sweet just as easily as it can sound wound up and raw.” Making music with a Hammond is, to Pascal, the best thing there is. “It’s especially a big kick when playing festivals. You spin some nice riffs and fat lines and the crowd goes nuts because that’s what they’re there for. If I didn’t have a great wife and two beautiful kids, I would be stuck here from dawn to dusk every day. Do you want to see the inside of a B3?” Hilarious. This is something a keyboard player will never ask you. Calling your Hammond a good friend probably has something to do with the ‘warm beating heart’ of these special instruments. Pascal definitely agrees. “Every Hammond has its own personality. The sound is literally generated by the instrument itself. It’s a really organic process, which is why no two Hammond sounds the same. It also makes it hard to find a Hammond that really suits you. I found this 1958 B3 in Germany. As soon as I saw it, touched it, and played a couple of notes, I was sold.” Pascal plays the New Generation digital Hammond organs as well as vintage Hammonds. And because of his Hammond-Suzuki endorsement, he’s active in developing the design and improving the new generation of Hammonds. Something that he’s particularly excited about. “They’re really nice and compact, so you can just lug one under an arm. They’re also much more reliable but still have one hell of a sound.”

The Baseline

In 1996, Pascal was offered the chance to come and play Hammond organ for Magic Frankie, also known as the ‘Gangster of Blues’. Frankie has been top of the bill in the Netherlands blues scene and the international festival circuit for years, and was a hit at the international Jazz Festival in Prague, the Blues Festival in Germany, The North Sea Jazz Festival and at the Rijnmond Jazz Gala. Things got even more exciting for Pascal when Magic Frankie was booked as the support act for the grand-master: Mr. B.B. King, and during their European tour, Pascal has one epiphany after another. “Musicians at that level are always striving for the highest possible level. That romantic image of musicians spending the whole day sitting around sipping whiskey is an utter myth. You’re running a business, and anyone working for that business is expected to perform at their best every time. Just being a good musician is not enough. That’s just the baseline. Let’s assume that you have a good command of your instrument and that the interaction between the musicians makes the band a perfectly functioning organism.” But that’s still not enough, says Pascal. “You have to get together for the promo photos, turn up for serious sound checks, deliver an excellent performance and then submit an evaluation afterwards: what didn’t go well? What can be improved? That’s all part of it. Since I’m a perfectionist, I have the mentality for it, and when I work with professionals on that level, I also expect the same from them.” Pascal further illustrates his point: “We were going to play a show with Andy Tielman from the Tielman Brothers and at the dress rehearsal, it was clear that the guitarist hadn’t done his job, so I told him, ‘Sorry, dude, but this isn’t going to work’. There was also an incident where a guitarist didn’t show up for rehearsals just because they didn’t get on with the orchestra leader. He didn’t even send a substitute, which in my book, is just not on.”

The X-Factor

While on tour with B.B.King, Pascal discovered a little bit about what makes up that mysterious ‘X-factor’. It’s something he struggles to describe, but for us, he tries. “I noticed that in some parts of a track, those guys would speed up the tempo to build towards a crescendo. This is something that’s done very consciously. Another smart thing they do is play a bunch of numbers in a row that are in the same key. This is smart because it literally puts the audience in a certain mood.” Pascal knows that this works. “If the energy on the night is a bit lacking, then you can use this formula and you’ll immediately notice the shift. Don’t get me wrong, you’re not trying to manipulate people into false emotions – that means tricking your crowd. You need to do it well. Anyone who might be thinking: really? Is that how it is? And then go and play four songs in a row in D are missing the point. I don’t think this is a formula for success that can just be imitated.”

Fire Proof

Despite Pascal’s love for the Hammond organ, that’s not the only thing he’s busy with. “When you’re doing things that you’re good at and actually enjoy, then you tend to be pretty broadly involved in it. That’s why I give organ lessons, Hammond organ workshops, and I’m also active as a side-man and band coach. My hobby is old cars which are completely different.” However, the thing that Pascal loves to do more than anything is to play. But there’s a danger in that, he warns. “If you keep saying no to the side projects that make you money, then your network will eventually shrink. On the other hand, I’ve also learned that when one door closes, another does tend to open. But, when I stopped working with No Limit and hadn’t played commercially in a while, I jumped at the chance to play with Out of Town. I know a bassist who played as part of a large theatre show and fell into a black hole as soon as it had finished, simply because he hadn’t done anything else in all that time so everyone had just forgotten about him.”

According to Pascal, you should always have the bigger picture in mind. “Because no matter how well you play, if you don’t plan, then you won’t get there. At the moment, I’m busy planning a new project. Something that’s my own and that I can continue for a long time. I’m calling it Fireproof. It’ll be a combination of original and well-known numbers using the Hammond as the flavour of the whole thing.”

The name comes from a film about relationships. “A marriage needs to be fireproof. You might burn your fingers, but you can’t just leave. You need to continuously invest. It’s kind of like going to school. If you see two old people holding hands, you could say that they’re at university level. Fireproof also refers to the Hammond organ itself, which is anything but fireproof. If you connect an American organ with a 110 Volt system up to a 220 Volt power outlet, then it will start to smoke at some point.” This actually happened once, while the Rolling Stones were on stage in the eighties. They had two B3s and both of them gave up the ghost. “The Fireproof project is still in its infancy, but I have R&B lines in mind, with a fat and raw sound and beautiful chords with unexpected changes that have a hip hop leaning. Maybe it’ll be a combo with changing vocalists, like Santana did.”

Gigging & Being a Sideman

Performing shows makes up 30% of Pascal’s income. Band coaching and being a sideman each add on another 15%. “My added value is my versatility. I have a massive repertoire library in my head already; I’m a good reader, improviser and backing vocalist. I can play the piano, synths, accordion, and of course, the Hammond. I also enjoy being the sideman in a band. The sideman is the confidant; the point of contact and also a sort of concertmaster. Artists often get nervous. The sideman anticipates this. If the band leader is scared of getting their white outfit wet in the rain on the way from the dressing room to the stage tent, then you make arrangements so that they feel comfortable and give a good performance. I also make sure that everything is in place and make sure that there are CDs made for every musician that’s coming.”


Teaching brings in a good 40% of Pascal’s income. “I’ve been teaching Hammond organ lessons since 2000. The lessons are for complete beginners as well as experienced players and fun always comes first. Because the Hammond organ is capable of taking on so many different styles of music, my lessons are also not bound to one genre. I give lessons in pop, jazz, rock, theatre music, evergreens and so on. I have around sixty students at the moment, and all of them play in an array of different genres and come from all over the place.” Because of the amount of requests he receives and that he often comes across the same topics over and over during his lessons, he often gives workshops with various themes; focussing on a specific playing style or technique. “It’s really fun and inspiring to swap stories with other organists and gain a deeper understanding of the instrument through the experience of other musicians. Just like the private lessons, the workshops are recorded so that the teaching material can be taken home. I also sometimes invite a special guest.”

Band Coaching

What Pascal finds with most bands is that they often have a firm goal in mind but lack the tools to achieve it. “What do you actually want? Wanting is not always in line with ability. If bands have the creativity and ambition to go on, then they’ll often come up against limitations that they often can’t handle. Just like in a business, you have leaders and followers.” As a band coach, Pascal likes to use ‘Demin’s Quality Circle’. “It’s a creative aid for quality management. The circle describes four activities that can be applied to improve any organisation. The cyclical nature guarantees that the quality continues to improve and is attended to.” These four activities are:

  • Plan: Look at the current work and draw up plans for improving it. Set objectives for these improvements.
  • Do: Carry out the planned improvements in a controlled trial.
  • Check: Measure the results of the improvements and compare them with the original situation, then check them against the initial objectives.
  • Act: Actualisation of your planning. Update the plan. Make any adjustments where necessary on the basis of what was discovered at the CHECK stage.

Circle: Repeat the four steps, plan-do-check-act. “The core of this vision is the idea that every individual band member is able to assess and improve their own working method. It also prevents the ‘quality’ from stalling in the ‘plan’ and ‘do’ phase. By using this system you also quickly find out where the ambitions really lie. For some it’s just a hobby, while others have more ambition. It’s here that, as a band coach you can play a role. It’s possible that the ambitions of some band members don’t match the ambitions of others. This can cause a rift and cause bands to break up, but it’s better that this happens early on rather than later. When a band’s goal is just to enjoy playing together without any pretensions or dreams of big stages, then it’s also fantastic to help them to develop musically.”

See also…

» Digital Hammond Organs
» All Digital Organs
» Organ Plugins (Software)

» The Accordion: It’s More Popular Than You Think!
» Acoustic or Digital Piano? Which One Should You Go For?
» The Three Piano Pedals: What Are They For?
» What is Velocity Sensitivity?
» How to play basic piano chords
» What’s the difference between a keyboard and a synthesizer?
» Help! My MIDI keyboard isn’t making any sound!
» What’s the difference between a keyboard and a digital piano?

1 response
  1. Oscar Stern says:

    Because the Hammond Organ company is back again (as Hammond Suzuki) more Classically Trained Organists are considering adding a Hammond Organ to their music cause Classical Organ music on it is what it was originally meant for. It’s alot more compact than a Pipe Organ so it’s easier to keep in good shape.

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