5 More Ways to Play Organ Like Dr. Lonnie Smith

March 18, 2016

For my money, Dr. Lonnie Smith is the greatest Hammond B3 organist alive today. Along with guitarist George Benson and saxophonist Lou Donaldson, Smith wrote the proverbial book on what we now call “soul jazz.” This month, let’s delve into the sounds and settings behind the good Doctor’s signature style. For more examples, check out my lesson in the September 2014 issue of Keyboard.

1. Slap That Thing!

Ex. 1 is inspired by Smith’s song “Play It Back,” the opening track of his new Blue Note release Evolution. This two-fisted excerpt in C minor imparts the funky flavor of that song. Turn your Leslie speaker or simulator to the fast setting and note the photos of the drawbar settings as well. This technique sounds best when played sloppily. In this example, I am emphasizing a few chord tones like the Bb and F, but the rest can be somewhat imprecise and smeared. Note how the interplay between hands creates an undulating, funk fervor.

2. Left-Hand Top Chromatics

Ex. 2 illustrates how Smith sometimes slides his left hand up to the top organ manual to play a quick chromatic scale while holding a chord down. Note that the right-hand drawbar setting here is called “Half Fat” because it’s somewhere in-between “chill” and “all stops out.” The right hand shape is a raised ninth “piano shell” voicing with a flatted fifth on top. This extra note on the top of the voicing is a very common way to construct chords on the Hammond organ. Check out Smith’s song “Afrodesia” to hear this technique in action.

3. Vibey Bass Ostinatos

Smith often sets up slow ostinatos in the bass that are accentuated by doubling the chord root in the pedals. In Ex. 3, the left hand plays fifths with the first and third drawbar pulled out, for a stock bass setting on the lower manual. In the right hand, we have what is called the Tibia organ setting and one that comes from gospel music. Over the bass we play a simple bluesy fill from the D Dorian scale (D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D).

4. Simplify

Ex. 4 is influenced by Smith’s penchant for playing simple, soulful solos. Here, over a rather involved ii-V chord sequence, Smith’s use of a few minor pentatonic scales allows him to weave in and out of the chord changes. Notice that nearly all of the right-hand notes here come from the E minor pentatonic scale, which works great over the entire chord progression. Our last Eb catches the listener by surprise and outlines the third of the B7#11 chord. The right-hand drawbar setting here comes straight from storied organist Jimmy Smith, with the first three drawbars out and all percussion tabs up. Check out Dr. Lonnie Smith’s solo on the classic composition “My Favorite Things” (also on Evolution) to hear more of his understated solo style.

5. Smush It Real Good!

The Hammond organ sounds sublime when you put your hands all over the black and white keys. This gentle smush (when used in conjuction with the drawbars and Leslie speaker) creates dramatic musical effects and is essential for authentic organ playing. Ex. 5 illustrates this technique over a bass drone, with a smushed right hand solo line up to a C. The rest of the right hand line comes from the C minor pentatonic scale and skips every third note in sequence, starting the next pattern with the skipped note. Note that the drawbar settings pictured here is often referred to as the “silk” setting.

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