Benmont Tench: 5 Ways to Play Your Hammond Like a Heartbreaker

Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers keyboardist offer tips and advice for musicians
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I never wanted to be a Hammond player. Rock & Roll, from the beginning (I turned three in Elvis Presley’s breakout year of 1956), was guitar and piano music to me—things like “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “Tutti Frutti.” The other music that drew me in—from Beethoven and Chopin, to Berlin and Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein—was most often heard on, or accompanied by, a piano, not an organ. Even when the British Invasion stirred it all up and kicked it back over to us in the States, keyboardists played mostly pianos or Vox organs, which were strange, reedy, and so great to just plain look at. Hammonds were rare and still sounded square and old-fashioned to me. I got a Farfisa, and then a Wurlitzer, and played through a Marshall stack.

Booker T. and Matthew Fisher (of Procol Harum) were the first Hammond players to make me sit up and take notice. They were pulling the drawbars and playing the instrument in ways that seemed vital, spirited, new, and haunting. Still, I balked at the sheer bulk of the thing. (How the heck do you even move something that big, and with a Leslie speaker to boot?) But when I finally got my hands on one in 1974—in a tiny upstairs, elevator-less recording studio in Los Angeles—a switch went off. And by the time the Heartbreakers made our first record and set out on our first tour, I had fallen in love with it and was starting to get my head around it. And I’m still getting my head around it.

I’m something of a slow study with my Hammond C-3, but I’m in no hurry: Discovery is one of the great joys of playing an instrument over a long period of time. Here are a couple of things I’ve figured out, which I hope will help some of you out.

1. Listen
To the rhythm, to the other players, and to the arrangement—the way it rises and falls. Above all, listen to the song, and the melody.

2.Think About Texture
You have a world of tone and texture at your fingertips. Tailor the drawbars and the register in which you play so that they speak in the right perspective. For example, is your sound too thick or too thin? Are you covering other instruments or voices with your octave or inversions? Change the drawbars between sections: Try moving them subtly as you play to swell or sneak around. And, for the same reasons, play with the amount of overdrive you get from the Leslie. Guitar players don’t always use the same amp settings, so why should you? For example, during the “Refugee” and “The Waiting” period, I had a solid-state Bill Beer Leslie speaker that was very clean, whereas the Mojo album features a tube Leslie, frequently driven hard, either by turning it up or by using a stomp box in the effects loop.

3.You Don’t Always Have to Play!
You can be just as effective by where you don’t play. Choose where you enter and exit, and how you do it (e.g., abruptly or by fading in/out). Ask yourself, “What if I just waited? Does a more active or percussive part suit, or does it give the track too much rhythmic information?” And if you use the percussion tabs, which I prefer on the subtle side, make sure your time is really good! (I’m working on that, too.)

4.More Thoughts on Listening
Listen to the song and to the other players and ask yourself, “Will a simple riff enhance the song more or will pads be a better choice?” When moving with pads or playing a melody, do they conflict or distract from the vocal or another instrument that’s important at that point in the song? (Listen to “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.”) Again, what if you just waited and didn’t play here?

5.Leslie, Chorus, and Vibrato
A Leslie speaker is a wonderful thing, as is the chorus/vibrato wheel. But don’t leave the Leslie on “fast” for too long. It’s best used for transitions and emphasis. If your switch has a Stop option, experiment with it, as it can create a beautiful, humble effect. And you will have more places to go—Stop to Slow to Fast to Stop, etc. The subtle change in richness when going from Stop to Slow can really deepen the song at the right time.

And be careful with that chorus/vibrato wheel. It can be very effective when used to differentiate song sections, but one slip and you’re in roller-rink land. (An interesting place to visit, but not my favorite hang!) A good example of Stop-switch and chorus-wheel work is the live version of The Heartbreakers playing “Don’t Bring Me Down.”

Benmont Tench is a founding member of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, and plays with Mudcrutch and the Watkins Family Hour. A much sought-after session keyboardist and songwriter, Tench released his debut solo album You Should Be So Lucky on Blue Note Records in 2014. He lives in California with his wife, writer Alice Carbone Tench, and their three large and fierce (but lovable once they know you) attack dogs.