Our shared obsession for vintage instruments is as timeless as the gear itself. From the Rhodes, Hammond and Wurlitzer to the Yamaha CP series, the Clavinet and the Mellotron, the signature sound of these old-school units can be heard in countless chart-toppers, which goes to show just how big of a mainstay these revered keyboards are.

Vintage Keyboards: Here to Stay

In Every Keyboard

While they may come wearing a disguise, a selection of sounds from vintage keyboards like the Fender Rhodes, the Wurlitzer, the Hohner Clavinet, the Hohner Pianet, the Yamaha CP, the Mellotron and the Hammond can be found in virtually all keyboards these days. Alternatively labelled Electronic Piano, E. Piano, Rhody, Wurly, Drawbar Organ, Jazz Organ or something of the sort, these sampled-copies often reflect the overall build quality of the keyboard they’ve been loaded into, which can range from exceptionally good to down-right poor and anything in between. While the samples loaded into modern keyboards do get really close to the original from time to time, it’s all digital at the end of the day. This would explain why purists generally stick to their vintage, analogue-rooted instruments, and ignore the unmanageable dimensions. Weighing in at over 400 pounds, a Hammond B3 can’t be carried alone and we’ve yet to mention its bulky side-kick, the Leslie cab. For bands, having access to vintage-grade gear can yield fruitful results just as easily as it can present a number of unanticipated drawbacks. With that and their bank accounts in mind, most keyboardists these days opt for a digital keyboard, which more often than not actually comes loaded with the sounds of various vintage keyboards and MIDI-support, meaning it can be connected to a computer for several extra perks. While the latest advancements in technology have only pushed the digitised sound of vintage instruments closer to the original, it’s the feel and playing experience that’ll probably never compare to the real thing. Either way, that’s a discussion for another day. Whether your plan is to pick up a vintage instrument or a digital counterpart, the roots remain the same. So, enough said – let’s take a closer look at how it all began.

The Piano and Harpsichord

The roots of many vintage keyboard instruments are formed by the piano and its predecessors. The acoustic piano that is, which owes its continued popularity to its ability to serve any style. They’re technically string instruments by design, so pianos generate sound via little hammers that strike the strings when any corresponding keys are played. The hammered dulcimer – a citer with tuned strings that are struck using so-called mallets – is an early version of the piano. Throughout the mediaeval ages, various attempts were made to develop an instrument with keys that could be pressed to play the strings. One of these attempts resulted in the harpsichord: a keyboard-based instrument equipped with a plectrum-like string-plucking mechanism that came with one significant drawback, i.e. little room for playing dynamics as a result of consistent volume across the board. Not only that, the decay of a harpsichord is too intense to play sustained notes. This and more ultimately led to the invention of the archetypical piano around the year 1700. Called a pianoforte back then, the name of this early piano directly referred to its dynamic range: soft (piano) to loud (forte). The pianoforte features hardened, felt-covered hammers designed to strike the string and immediately release for extra sustain and, while it’s been centuries since the birth of this revolutionary mechanism, it’s still being used to write new pages of music history to this very day.

The Fender Rhodes

So vintage keyboards trace back to the classic tech behind the piano and harpsichord, but that’s not to say their inventors initially set out to find a new sound. In fact, vintage, piano-like instruments were designed to be more portable and more affordable alternatives to bulky pianos and costly grands. At the same time, these keyboard instruments were also supposed to get as close to that authentic piano sound as possible and, while most never really succeeded, in reality a handful of these ‘modernised pianos’ actually unearthed fresh sounds and potential. Take the Rhodes, or the Fender Rhodes rather as it was the Fender corporation who built the Rhodes for quite some time and has been inextricably linked to it ever since. Designed by American Harold Rhodes during the 1940s, the Rhodes works almost the same way as a piano does, the difference being that the Rhodes features tuning forks instead of piano strings. These tuning forks vary in length in order to produce different pitches and, since the sound they generate is weak volume-wise, the vibrations are captured by a pickup before they’re amplified. While considered ‘vintage’ these days, the Rhodes was born out of Harold Rhodes’ attempts to develop a manageable and affordable piano that could be played by wounded, recovering soldiers during the second world war. Following a few years of iterative development as well as the release of the Fender Rhodes Piano Bass (a 32-note instrument with the range of a bass guitar – played by The Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek among others). The first model became a 73-note keyboard which became amazingly popular in the seventies. Perfect for jazzy performances, the sound of the Fender Rhodes is vaguely reminiscent of the sound of a piano, even though its uniquely mellow, ‘woolly’ character pretty much puts it in a league of its own. In 1984, the Rhodes Mark V was released. At that time, synthesizers were becoming ever more versatile and had already passed the Rhodes pianos in terms of popularity, so Fender decided to cease production. In the years that followed, properly maintained and playable Rhodes pianos would become not just more scarce but more valuable. In 2007, Fender finally decided it was time for a revival so they introduced the Rhodes Mark 7. More recently, the world was treated to the Rhodes MK8: the latest and most sophisticated Rhodes to be added to a long line of legends.

The Wurlitzer

While its manufacturer calls it an electronic piano, the Wurlitzer is technically an electro-mechanical piano that musicians have nicknamed ‘Wurly’. The most popular model is the Wurlitzer 200A, which sounds somewhat akin to the Rhodes since it’s based on a similar sound-generating mechanism. Wurlitzers feature tiny hammers that strike little steel reeds, the vibrations of which are registered by a built-in pickup for amplification. Produced between 1955 and 1982, the Wurly is equipped with 64 keys (a few less compared to a Rhodes) and, apart from the lowest and highest octave, it has the range of a grand piano and a sound that’s a tad sharper and therefore funkier than the Rhodes. Supertramp used to use one a lot – just have a listen to the intro of Logical Song.

The Hohner Pianet and Clavinet

Hohner have also enriched music history with two timeless keyboard instruments. In 1962, the famous German brand introduced the Hohner Pianet, which approached the sound of the Rhodes and the Wurlitzer to a certain degree, but not enough to leave as big a mark on pop music. Hohner started out as a small harmonica and accordion builder, which meant they could use the most important part of those instruments – little metal reeds – to build the Pianet. The instrument generates sound via these metal reeds, which are plucked by foam-rubber, leather-covered pads and amplified via a set of pickups. Its round, affable timbre is brighter when compared to a Rhodes and less focussed when compared to a Wurlitzer. That being said, the Pianet’s signature sound isn’t as well-known as that of the Hohner Clavinet. Launched in the sixties, the Clavinet has had a prominent role ever since, most notably in Stevie Wonder’s biggest hit, Superstitious. When you press one of the keys, a little rubber pad inside the Clavinet hits the corresponding string before the vibrations are captured by a pickup. Production of both the Pianet and the Clavinet ended in the early eighties.

The Yamaha CP Series

Out of all the keyboards highlighted in this article, the models in Yamaha’s CP Series probably most closely resemble the sound of an original piano, which makes sense since the innards are very similar. Just like a piano, the sound-generating mechanism inside a CP (Combo Piano) consists of piano strings and hammers, the main difference being the internal piezo pickup system of the Yamaha CP. Essentially a compact and ‘carriable’ grand, the Yamaha CP is remarkably practical for gigging keyboardists since it doesn’t require a microphone set-up to amplify the sound. In addition, the built-in pickup system ensures a unique timbre, and while CPs also produce an acoustic sound, this doesn’t have a lot of volume to it. Yamaha kept the original CP Series alive between the mid-seventies and mid-eighties; the most illustrious models are the CP-70 and CP-80.

The Hammond

Now that we’ve wrapped up the vintage keyboard instruments based on pianos and harpsichords, it’s time to take a closer look at a timeless keyboard that’s in fact based on the church organ: the classic Hammond. If there’s one instrument that deserves the title for “the most expensive, unwieldy and exclusive instrument ever,” it’s got to be the church organ. American inventor Laurens Hammond came up with an alternative during the 1930s: a smaller organ based on a so-called tonewheel generator, which could serve as a church organ in smaller churches across the USA. The Hammond organ did indeed find its place there but also infiltrated almost every other imaginable style; from jazz and blues to pop and rock. That’s because of the combination with another revolutionary invention: the Lesliebox developed by Don Leslie. Leslie speakers feature a rotating horn to amplify the sound of an organ, adding a lively, spatial dimension. As it turned out, Hammonds and Leslies made up a dream-team fit for any style of music. Throughout the years, Hammond have released various organs, including electronic models that aren’t based on the legendary tonewheel generator. The most famous one is the Hammond B3, which is often combined with a Leslie 122 or 147. Sadly, Hammond tonewheel organs are no longer made. The last B3 left the factory in 1974, after which Hammond continued to produce electronic organs before shutting down the plant in 1986. A year later, Japanese megacorp Suzuki stepped in and purchased the rights to the Hammond name. These days, modern Hammonds are based on digital tech.

The Mellotron

Much like the Hammond, the Mellotron can also be used to shape long-stretched notes. Mellotrons produce pre-recorded sounds and can be considered the mechanical predecessor of today’s samplers, even if a Mellotron can’t record sound while a sampler can. What’s more, samplers offer a faithful reproduction of the original sound while Mellotrons add a bit of colour and a ‘floaty feel’. Born in the sixties, the Mellotron comes equipped with magnetic lengths of tape that are loaded with sounds. When you press one of the keys, the tape gets pulled at a consistent speed before it gets pinched between a tape head and a pressure pad to reproduce the corresponding sound. The downside of this electro-mechanical system is that different pitches require separate stretches of tape, and these tapes can only hold about eight seconds worth of audio (strings, flutes and choirs are the most popular sounds, by the way). The M-400 model even helped to define prog-rock and symphonic rock throughout the seventies, and since the Mellotron remained a staple of pop and rock afterwards, the Mellotron Mark VI was introduced in 1999. Just like its younger sibling, the 2005 Mellotron Mark VII, it’s still in production today. Their digital counterparts, the Mellotron M4000D and the M4000D Mini, have been around since 2009.

Analogue Synthesizers

Of course, no overview of legendary keyboards is complete without a shout-out to analogue synthesizers. But, just like the Hammond organ, synths deserve way more than a mere mention since there’s a lot that can be said about their history, musicality and technical details. Analogue synthesizers come in all shapes and sizes but for the sake of brevity, we’re going to highlight just one: the Moog – developed by Robert Moog in the sixties. Since Moog was able to use another recent invention, the transistor, his synth was essentially a lot smaller than models based on ‘traditional’ valve tech. Following the sixties, development of analogue synths naturally took flight. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s great to see vintage keyboards continuing to play a prominent role in music. Clearly, there are still plenty of musicians devoted enough to their craft to lug massive, old-school instruments around – and the fact that this is still happening, even as digital takes over analogue, should say a lot about the timeless and invaluable nature of these instruments. Here’s hoping they keep inspiring instrument builders to iterate on classic concepts to develop new instruments that offer the best of both worlds, combining that authentic vintage feel with manageable, forward-thinking designs.

Heard on Countless Hits

The number of pop songs that feature vintage keyboards is literally endless. Here’s a humble list:

The Fender Rhodes

This 32-note predecessor can be heard on various songs by The Doors (Ray Manzarek played his bass parts on it); Get Back by The Beatles (featuring Billy Preston); Shake A Tailfeather in The Blues Brothers film with Ray Charles; Goucho by Steely Dan; I’m Not In Love by 10CC; Daniel by Elthon John; Roads by Portishead; and Streetlife from The Crusaders.

The Wurlitzer

Want to get a taste of the Wurly? Check out What I’d Say by Ray Charlies; various Supertramp tunes (including Logical Song and Dreamer); or You’re My Best Friend by Queen.

The Hohner Pianet

The Pianet was used to record She’s Not There by The Zombies as well as I Am The Walrus and The Night Before from The Beatles.

The Hohner Clavinet

Hohner’s Clavinet can be heard in Stevie Wonder’s Superstition, Led Zeppelin’s Trampled Under Foot and Billy Preston’s Outa-Space.

The Yamaha CP

My Life from Billy Joe; Private Eyes from Hall & Oates; Oh Yeah by Roxy Music and Hold The Line – Toto.

The Hammond

Procol Harum – A Whiter Shade of Pale; Deep Purple – Child in Time; Bob Marley – No Woman No Cry; The Pointer Sisters – Fire; Sam Brown – Stop.

The Mellotron

From the intro of Strawberry Fields Forever to the strings in David Bowie’s Space Oddity and various Oasis, Soundgarden and Guns N’ Roses classics, the Mellotron is everywhere – just listen.

See Also

» Stage Pianos
» Digital Home Pianos
» Drawbar Keyboards
» Keyboards

» 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?

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