5 Legendary Keyboards (and the Songs They Made Famous)

[This post was originally published on August 4th, 2008]

These days, there's no distinguishing one keyboard from the next because all they really do is act as computer trigger devices. But in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the early 90s, keyboards and their manufacturers were known for signature sounds. Here are five of my favorites:

1. The Mellotron

Though not nearly as famous as the others on this little list, the Mellotron is perhaps the coolest keyboard ever invented. Like our modern-day keyboard controllers that trigger computer samples, the Mellotron was really nothing more than a sample trigger-er, too. But because it was invented in the early 60s, the samples were actual tape loops! By depressing a key, a keyboardist was putting a tape of, say, a choir, or a violin section into motion on that particular pitch. So each of the 35 keys had its own, distinct, 8-second tape loop ready to play in the belly of the keyboard. Mellotrons never really caught on, though, because they were a) always breaking down, and b) the tapes, just like cassette tapes, lost their edge over time. Imagine playing an 8-second cassette tape over and over in a loop for hours on end. Think about how quickly scratches and hiss would take over.

But it was and still is one of the most musical of all early keyboards. Its sound is unmistakable, heard here on the two very famous excerpts below.

"Strawberry Fields Forever" by the Beatles. (The opening flute quartet is classic Mellotron at its best.)

"Nights in White Satin" by the Moody Blues. (Those lush strings aren't real! Well, technically they are, but as sampled and played back on the Mellotron.)

Be sure to check out "And You and I" by Yes, as well as "The Rain Song" by Led Zeppelin for more great Mellotron.

2. The Hammond Organ

HammondB3.jpgOriginally intended for churches, the Hammond line of organs, invented by Laurens Hammond in 1934 and manufactured by his Hammond Organ Company, became very popular in the 60s and 70s with rock and blues bands, especially the Hammond B3, pictured here. Whether you know the Hammond or not, you definitely know its legendary sound. Check out the examples I've picked here and revel in that "a-ha moment."

"Amsterdam," by Coldplay "“ One of my favorite songs by Coldplay. Listen how the Hammond coming in under the piano just opens the whole song up and takes it to another level.

Ah, yes: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" by Procol Harum. Can you imagine how different the song would feel if the chord progression and tune were plucked out on, say, a piano?

The Hammond completely defines this great Steve Winwood song, "Gimme Some Lovin":

3. The Minimoog

Minimoog.JPGA lot has been written about Bob Moog and his Moog Music empire. One cool fact, which often gets forgotten, is that the Minimoog is actually monophonic, which means it can only play one note at a time. You can't even play a simple C major chord on the Minimoog, let alone accompany yourself with the left hand plucking out a bass line on the lower part of the 44-key synth. It's also one of the first keyboards to feature the now ubiquitous modulation and pitch-bend wheels.

One of my favorite examples of the classic Minimoog is the following solo in Pink Floyd's song "Shine on You Crazy Diamond."

4. The Synclavier

synclavier.jpgAlong with the Fairlight synthesizer, the Synclavier, made by New England Digital in 1975, was one of the very first keyboards that allowed musicians to sample sounds and store them in on-board computers. In fact, if you're an old fart like me, you might remember Stevie Wonder showing off this very sampling ability on his Synclavier in an episode of The Cosby Show (the one where the kids get into a car accident with him).

One really amazing thing about the Synclavier, other than its ability to sample the human voice or anything within a microphone's range, was its amazingly high sticker price. Costing upwards of a quarter of a million dollars (much less than the price of my parent's 3-bedroom apartment in Center City Philadelphia purchased around the same time), some Synclaviers even fetched closer to half-a-million.

Other noteworthy facts about the Synclavier: It was created at Dartmouth College by the team of: Sydney Alonso, who developed the hardware designs, Cameron Jones, who developed the software, and Dartmouth faculty member and composer Jon Appleton, a musical advisor to the project.
Other than the Cosby episode, which I can't find on YouTube, if you'd like to hear the Synclavier in action, check out one of the most famous samples in music history below (the gong at the beginning of "Beat It," by Michael Jackson):

5. The Fender Rhodes

rhodes.jpgAll I have to say is: the theme song from Taxi, and you should instantly know the sound of the Fender Rhodes. Ubiquitous throughout the 70s and 80s in dozens of maudlin ballads (which we'll sample momentarily), the Rhodes is named for its inventor, Harold Rhodes, who was a piano teacher before joining the Army Air Corps during WWII. It was there that he was asked to provide musical therapy, bedside, for the wounded and wound up inventing a small keyboard using aluminum pipes from the wings of B-17 bombers.

The pipes created such a pleasing sound, and Rhodes' therapy sessions became so well-known, he received the Medal of Honor after the war. Soon he was manufacturing a larger version, and, over time, new, improved versions. Eventually, the Rhodes was bought out by Fender, which is why people forever call it the Fender Rhodes.

In addition to the below clips, the Rhodes can be heard up and down Chick Corea's Light as a Feather, Miles Davis' In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew, as well as on most of Weather Report's albums and Herbie Hancock's, too. It was a jazz-fusion staple for a couple decades there.

"Just the Way You Are" by Billy Joel

"Angela (Theme from 'Taxi')" by Bob James

Ed note: The gorgeous Stevie Wonder keyboard pic (on the homepage) is by Al Satterwhite, via kalamu.

Check out past On Music posts here >>

Shazam, Shlemiel, Shlimazel

I've used Shazam on and off over the years to I.D. songs I either forgot the names of or just never knew. But the real test of any music recognition software is whether or not it can tell me what's playing on a classical music station. This is where you really need the app to come through because, let's face it, it could be 30 minutes or more before the piece ends and the radio announcer comes back on to tell you. Sadly, every time I've tried, the app has come up empty. I've even tested it with well-known pieces, like Barber's Adagio for Strings. Instead of coming back with at least "The theme from Platoon," Shazam says the piece is "unrecognized." What would Samuel Barber say?

Deciphering classical music presents a lot of challenges. For starters, recordings are indistinguishable when you're talking about a 12-second sample size. For example, there are more than 200 recordings of Beethoven's 5th Symphony! Not quite like learning the beat of a B52s song, is it?

Tempi vary wildly from recording to recording and, as I understand it, it's the tempo/beat mapping that Shazam is really working off of. But technology will improve, rest assured. The Shazams of the future will surely be able to not only distinguish between Mozart's Requiem and Berlioz's Requiem, but the hundreds of recordings of each. Until then, well, I guess the beat goes on...

Have any funny or interesting experiences with music recognition software? Let us know in the comments below.

Check out all the ON MUSIC posts here.

School Band Arrangements: 10 Unusual Choices

As a hard-core band-geek -- Marching Band, Orchestra, Jazz Band, Pit Band -- pretty much whatever band they had going at high school, I know what unusual musical arrangements sound like. I even made a few of my own back in the day. These, however, take unusual to another level entirely. Some were chosen based on the juxtapostion of songs in a medley, others just by the choice of song. I've also included some that weren't necessarily the worst choices, but were played so poorly, they had to be published in a larger venue for more people to hear.

1. Dark Side of the"¦ Rainbow?

Original song: Somewhere Over the Rainbow
Performed by: Judy Garland
Release date: September 1939

Original song: Time, Breathe, On the Run, Money
Performed by: Pink Floyd
Release date: March 10, 1973

Marching Band: University of Central Oklahoma
Hometown: Edmond, Oklahoma

2. Hey ya...Devil?

Original song: Hey Ya!
Performed by: OutKast
Release Date: September 9, 2003

Original song: The Devil Went Down to Georgia
Performed by: Charlie Daniels Band
Release Date: June 23, 1979

Marching Band: Garnet Valley High School
Hometown: Glen Mills, Pennsylvania

3. Numa Numa!

Original song: Live Your Life
Performed by: T.I. featuring Rihanna
Release date: September 23, 2008

Marching Band: Michigan State University
Guest Conductor: THE NUMA NUMA GUY!!
Hometown: East Lansing, Michigan

4. Sexy Wha?

Original song: SexyBack
Performed by: Justin Timberlake
Release date: July 7, 2006

Marching Band: Cheltenham High School
Hometown: Wyncote, Pennsylvania

5. Just Dance

Original Song: Just Dance
Performed by: Lady Gaga
Release Date: April 8, 2007

Marching Band: Southern University
Hometown: Baton Rouge, Louisiana

6. American Boy

Original song: American Boy
Performed by: Estelle featuring Kanye West
Release Date: March 24, 2008

Marching Band: Proviso East High School
Hometown: Maywood, Illinois

7. Livin' on a Prayer

Original song: Livin' on a Prayer
Performed by: Bon Jovi
Release date: 1986

Marching Band: University of Louisiana at Lafayette
Hometown: Lafayette, Louisiana

8. Hollaback Girl

Original song: Hollaback Girl
Performed by: Gwen Stefani
Release Date: March 15, 2005

Marching Band: Campbell County High School
Hometown: Gillette, Wyoming

9. Bohemian Rhapsody

Original song: Bohemian Rhapsody
Performed by: Queen
Release date: October 31, 1975

Marching Band: University of Michigan
Hometown: Ann Arbor, Michigan

The set-up to this one is priceless. "Are you ready to rock?! Hello Cleveland!"

10. What Song is This?

Original song: What Child is This
Written by: William Chatterton Dix
Release date: 1865

Marching Band: St. Martin's High School

You MUST make it about 1-minute into this one, at least, when the percussion enters... epic fail... Oh, and did anyone ever tell them that FEAR the BEAR doesn't exactly rhyme? Oy.


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