For as long as I can remember, there has been a sound created by an instrument that spells rock ‘n’ roll with just a letter and a number: B3. That’s the Hammond B3 organ to those who don’t know the code.
The B3 was first used by churches to stand in for far more expensive pipe organs, and at about one-hundredth of the price, it (as well as its fancy sister C3 and home version A-100, which all have the same electronics) owned the South Side of Chicago’s storefront gospel churches.
In the early 1960s, the Brits decided the B3 needed to be included along with electric guitars and harmonicas that were part of the blues revival when they took the sound of Chicago Blues/Chess Records and re-upped it into the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, and finally, the Spencer Davis group fronted by 17-year-old Steve Winwood on B3. In 1966, Give Me Some Lovin’ raced up the radio charts just as fast as any of the guitar-driven American surf bands.
By 1968, a new group out of the UK called Deep Purple (sounds so quaint now) put a B3 thru a Marshall stack (usually reserved for the outsize ego’d guitarist) and created a new sound with a cover of an American blue-eyed soul tune called Hush. Rock ‘n’ roll was never the same, and the incendiary sound of the speaker level output of the B3 driving the guitar level of the Marshall is still a much sought-after sound today.
Fast-forward to the 21st century and we’re seeing vintage B3s on stage again with all styles of bands, including the country circuit (although strangely enough, not the western circuit). The B3 is the gravy that makes any band of chops players have soul in their stew. As John Mayer once said, “Playing in a power trio is really tough. It’s not like having a big fat B3 I can fall back on to hold the band together.”
In my band, the B3 plays a big part in providing the dressing for our salad. The problem is that many sound techs don’t know how to mic an organ correctly, and therefore, they don’t put it up front in the mix where it belongs.
And since they’re used to keeping it in the background in the mix, they make the problem worse by mixing all keyboard sounds equally under. Check me on this: the only time you really hear a keyboard up front and center is solo grand piano with a vocalist, and the band is out back having a smoke. In other words, mostly on the intros to big sappy hit ballads.
How did this happen? Probably 99 percent of today’s B3 players use a Leslie speaker. That’s the big wood box with the two rotating cone transducers inside that looks like something from your parents (and your grandparents, and my) living room. And in most cases, that’s exactly where the keyboardist found it, or in the garage after being moved from the living room for the estate sale.
A Leslie speaker is only rated at 35 watts. With a spinning horn and a spinning 15-inch cone driver, it’s output is roughly the equivalent of a small powered loudspeaker that you would use for your patio. But it’s a giant box, because it’s full of motors and pulleys to make it all work. The amp is tubes and is equal to the boutique guitar amp the lead player paid $3,000 for that is only loud enough to use in a recording studio.