I was introduced to the Hohner Clavinet by artists like Billy Preston, Garth Hudson, Stevie Wonder, Willie Turbinton, Art Neville, Edgar Winter, Bernie Worrell, and Terry Adams of NRBQ. In many ways, my approach to the Clavinet is a mash-up of all of their playing styles. The Clavinet is always associated with funk music because, of course, it instantly makes any track sound funky. But when Clav playing is overdone it can become cliché. I was always interested when I heard the Clavinet used in unorthodox ways and contexts, and so I’ve tried to incorporate some of that sense of surprise into my own playing. Here are some of my favorite approaches.
1. Garth Twang
Garth Hudson was one of the first players that I heard use the Clavinet in an unusual way. One of the most recognizable clavinet breaks is by him on the Band’s storied song “Cripple Creek.” As with most of Garth’s approach to keyboards, his unique use of the Clavinet has an almost visual effect. It summons the sound of a jaw harp, which evokes a feeling of the South. On the Band’s song “Mystery Train,” Garth’s Clav work employs tremolo and wah, with the wah pedal swept slowly like a filter effect. Ex. 1 illustrates notes you might play for this kind of approach.
2. Stevie Ballads
The Clavinet playing of Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder couldn’t help but influence legions of musicians during the 1970s. On tracks like “I Believe When I Fall In Love” or “Heaven Is 10 Zillion Light Years Away,” Stevie would play the Clavinet like a singer-songwriter self-accompanying on a ballad. He also made use of delay, sometimes to imply double time of other rhythmic nuances. Ex. 2 draws on a signature Stevie approach that’s more lyrical and less driving than the always-cited “Superstition.”
3. The Mute Lever
I first heard the Clavinet’s mute slider used to great effect on the song “Low Rider” by the band War. This lever mutes the hammers and creates a plucked string sound. If you move the slider while soloing, you can get a tone that’s similar to how a guitar player might play mutes on some notes in a phrase. In Ex. 3 it’s very important to be exact with your articulation, as the instrument can be unforgiving if your timing isn’t dead-on. Strive for an even touch and dynamics.
4. New Orleans Funk
One of my favorite Clavinet players has always been Art Neville from the legendary New Orleans funk band the Meters. There is an economy to his playing that’s very different from most other keyboardists. In the Meters, each player’s role in the rhythm section is equal and it all fits together as a whole, much like the drummer’s role is in a Latin or Haitian drum ensemble. Willie Turbinton of the Wild Magnolias is no less infectious. With Willie, the Clav took on more of a lead instrument role. Both Art and Willie have a common thread, which is the use of Mardi Gras Indian rhythms and parade beats. (A Mardi Gras Indian beat is Haitian-derived and resembles the first half of a 3-2 clave). Ex. 4 is a nod to Art and Willie.
5. Aggressive Clav
Terry Adams from NRBQ demonstrated the versatility of the Clavinet in rock. He always uses it in quirky and edgy ways that keeps things intense. Edgar Winter also used it very effectively with White Trash and on his solo records. Ex. 5 is derived from their aggressive style. It’s also a very riff oriented style, meaning the Clav phrase is the rhythmic driving force of the song. It also features some Billy Preston-style rhythmic interplay between the left and right hands. Another important aspect is the use of ghost notes similar to what a funk guitar player would do. For added grit, use a little distortion.