5 Things I've Learned About Playing the Hammond Organ - KeyboardMag

The church organ. That’s what I called that 450 pound beast that was a fixture next to the choir at church. I didn’t know it was a Hammond C-3 until my neighbor's uncle, the late great organist Jimmy McGriff came to town to perform. I was 11 years old, and Mr. McGriff taught me “Little Red Rooster," my first song! I watched him do things with that church organ I never thought possible. He also played popular Top 40 soul songs like Ray Charles' “I Got A Woman" and later, Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together."

I’ve been on a learning quest since hearing those popular songs soulfully played on the mighty Hammond by not only my mentor Jimmy McGriff, but also by Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, Charles Earland, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Joey DeFrancesco and Chester Thompson. Here are a few things I’ve learned (and that I'm still learning) that I’d like to share with you.

1. Know the Material

This is crucial. Always arrive at the rehearsal or gig knowing not just your part, but the entire rhythm section arrangement. This makes you an asset, not a liability. Case in point; I showed up with all my gear to rehearse for a major tour with a major artist. I was very familiar with his material, but not familiar enough, as I hadn’t "shedded" (i.e., practiced) one note. I thought I would just cruise through it easily. Wrong! I was sent packing after struggling through the first tune! 

2. Make Sure Your Gear Works

If your an “old schooler” like me and you are using a real Hammond B-3 or C-3 organ, make sure your tubes are seated properly, the generator is oiled, the belts in your Leslie have the right tension and your bus bars are clean! 

3. Listen

I’m one-tenth of Tower Of Power, and my parts have to mesh and groove with five horns, guitar, bass, drums and vocals. The trick for me was studying the architect’s (Mr. Chester "CT" Thompson's) organ parts and listening to my bandmates' parts. Then I could find my own voice.

4. Use ALL of the Organ

I’ve found that using the three positions on the tremolo switch (which controls the lower rotor and horn speed of the Leslie speaker), and manipulating the drawbars can dramatically change the feel of the song. I do this on songs like “You’re Still A Young Man," “What Is Hip" and many others.

5. Show Up and Show Out

Show up with all of the points mentioned above (the material learned, your gear in great working order, listening to what your bandmates are playing, and using all of the Hammond organ), and show out. In other words, look and play your best!

For more information on Roger Smith and Tower of Power, visit the band's Official Website