Rock Organ: Competing with Guitars

Andy Burton shows how to rock on the organ without competing with the guitarist

If you’re a keyboard player who plays in rock bands, I’m sure you are aware of some of the challenges we face. Being the other, often secondary, source of chords and melody besides the all-important electric guitar means your playing can easily get lost in the mix, whether in the studio or onstage. How can rock organists better compete with guitars? Here are some solutions to this age-old question.

1. Do a Deep Purple

Ex. 1 illustrates how to rock out your organ with overdriven root-and-fifth power chords to generate a slightly different (though equally aggressive in its own way) texture to match and lock in with the guitars. Jon Lord did this brilliantly with Ritchie Blackmore’s guitar in Deep Purple way back in the early 1970s. To do this today, you’ll need convincing Leslie overdrive (rotors on slow or stop), or just use a tube amp or amp simulation on the pure organ tone. Percussion and Chorus/Vibrato are optional. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!

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2. Borrow from Jazz

Ex. 2 adds a little bit of something to the mix that the root-and-fifth-heavy rock guitar parts tend to lack. A dominant or major seventh, ninth, or even an eleventh or thirteenth chord over a bare-fifths guitar power-chord helps you stand out harmonically and gives three-dimensional depth to a rock band’s sound. (Just make sure to keep things rocking or you may get funny looks from bandmates who frown upon such a show of sophistication!)

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3. Use Percussion

Ex. 3 takes the path that started with Jimmy Smith and moved into rock territory with giants like Ian McLagan, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord, and Rod Argent. Become part of the unbroken line of aggressive Hammond players who use the bite and “thunk” of the Hammond B-3’s percussion to rival the immediacy of attack that a pick has on six amplified guitar strings. In a funky, almost clavinet-like way, you can dance around rock guitars rhythmically.

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4. Add Air

The organ’s upper drawbars provide overtones with a lot of high-frequency information, which our ears naturally hear as more direction-specific than lower and mid-frequencies. Ex. 4 takes a drawbar registration that makes liberal use of those upper partials from the high drawbars, and combines it with some shimmery chorus vibrato and a good stereo-miked Leslie (or stereo Leslie effect). The result is a great swirling soup of sound that floats above all the racket. The emphasis here is on stereo. Some detailed high-end air, swirling between left and right at varying speeds, can pull the whole organ sound into its own space, where it can shine without bothering (or being bothered by) the other instruments. Shout out to July cover artist David Rosenthal for personally impressing upon me just how vital the stereo field is for keyboardists in general. (Note: this effect can also be achieved to an extent with crosstalk and/or capacitor leakage, unintended background noise sources which exist naturally in real tone-wheel Hammond organs and are often provided as adjustable parameters in various clone-wheel simulators out there for added realism).

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5. S is for Sustain

Ex. 5 explores another area where you’ve got the guitars beat: The organ can sustain a note longer than even the sweetest vintage gold-top Les Paul! So while the guitars are chugging away and their notes are dying out, try flying a few held notes above the fray. Keep them changing and moving with something the guitars lack—a sparkling chorus vibrato, churning stereo Leslie, a note choice of a 7th, 9th, 11th, or 13th (see Ex. 2) and/or some upper partials courtesy of the high drawbars that the guitars aren’t covering (see Ex. 4). A little melodic motion and smooth blues inflection won’t hurt either.

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Keyboardist, producer and composer Andy Burton has toured with artists such as John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright, Curtis Stigers, Ian Hunter, and Robert Plant. He has played on Billboard chart-topping and Grammy-nominated albums and television soundtracks, including HBO’s Vinyl. Look for Burton’s upcoming solo album and other all-star collaborations soon. Find out more at

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