In preparation for writing this issue’s cover story, I had the enviable task of spending an afternoon in a New York City recording studio with Benmont Tench. Huddled beside a vintage Hammond A- 100 organ and a Wurlitzer 200A, Benmont showed me some of his trademark fills and flourishes that have become such an integral part of the rock keyboard pantheon. He graciously let me into his tonal toolkit, showing me drawbar stops and piano parts to venerable hits like “Refugee,” “Breakdown,” and many more.
At one point while I was shooting video, Benmont launched into the ambidextrous piano and organ intro to Tom Petty’s “Don’t Do Me Like That.” With the precision of a neurosurgeon, he comped the song’s rhythmic piano parts on the Wurlitzer with his right hand, while effortlessly stating the tune’s Hammond organ melody with his left. After finishing the intro, Benmont unassumingly interjected, “It’s pretty dead simple stuff. You hear a texture, and you reach for whatever’s up here, [points above the Wurlitzer], or whatever’s up here [points above the Hammond organ]. . . .”
Watching that video over and over again, it occurred to me that Benmont was absolutely right. It is a remarkably simple idea. You hear a sound, and find a way to execute it. Right hand, left hand, both feet — whatever gets the job done. I never knew that Benmont played that timeless organ line with his left hand, but seeing him cover a virtual symphony of sound with his hands spread across two keyboards and organ drawbars (and his feet working both the expression and Leslie pedals), made me realize that often times, the solution to our musical problems is closer than we might think. We need only to listen to what a song needs, create that missing part, and play it any way necessary to make the music sing.
My time with Benmont lasted only a couple of hours. But the lessons he imparted to me will last a lifetime. Now, if I can only find a way to get that Hammond organ up four flights of stairs, I can really start practicing what he taught me.