The Reinvention of the Hammond B3
After its introduction in 1955, the Hammond B3 inspired numerous jazz pianists to plug in, which in turn helped inspired the whole greasy soul-jazz subgenre associated with keyboardists like Jimmy Smith. But despite its popularity, in 1974 Hammond ceased production of the tone-wheel system that gave the B3 its seemingly endless array of sounds, thus discontinuing the organ's production. As was the case with so many other "lost classics" of geardom-for example the Selmer Mark VI tenor saxophone and, more recently, Roland's TR-808 drum machine-demand for the Hammond B3 didn't diminish simply because it disappeared from music stores. And though some were content to play clones, those who wanted the sound and feel of a real Hammond B3 had to enter the used-gear market, where prices soar and product reliability can be spotty-just think about how many of those 400-plus pound vintage B3s were accidentally dropped on their way in and out of clubs.
In the mid-'90s, engineers at Suzuki (which bought Hammond in 1989) began a laborious effort to reissue the B3. The company officially reintroduced the organ, now named the New B3, in January of 2003 and hailed it as "the real deal." As a man tired of classic things being remade with inferior quality (that new Dragnet series on ABC, for instance), I was skeptical of the New B3. How could it sound like the vintage model if it uses-gasp-digital tone generation? For answers, I went to Tony Monaco, a veteran of the original B3 organ and a New B3 owner, whose third CD, Intimately Live at the 5:01 (Summit), just hit the stores.
JazzTimes: The New B3 weighs half what a vintage B3 does. Where were the pounds shed?
It's lighter because it uses digital tone wheels to generate the sound, as opposed to the mechanical moving parts used in the original. They were in this heavy, cast-iron box, which is gone now. Also, the chorus effect generator and preamp of the original have been replaced with digital parts.
JazzTimes: Since the tone-generation is done digitally now, how does the New B3's sound compare to the original's?
I can't tell the difference between my old B3 and the New B3. Joey DeFrancesco and I just recorded together for my next release, an homage to the great Jimmy McGriff and Richard "Groove" Holmes. We used two New B3s. I have sent the recording to several B3 purists and aficionados, and after they listened to it I told them it was the New B3 and they couldn't believe it. Those who know me well know that I can't lie. I try to live a very clean and honest life. This is not a clone; it's the real thing.
JazzTimes: Is there something else that accounts for the replication in sound, because digital still doesn't sound like analog.
The original tone wheel just produced a sine wave. Modern digital tone generation does that just as well. What really made the original sound so good was the nine-contact-per-note keyboard. Each tone was triggered at a slightly different time, creating natural key-click. The New B3 does just that. They spent seven years redeveloping the multicontact keyboard system to act like a vintage B3.
JazzTimes: Let's say you had to pick between the two: Old or new?
I am replacing my vintage B3 with the New B3. I think it is better in many ways. On-the-fly adjustments for treble, bass, levels and types of reverb, overdrive, percussion decays, volumes, 16-inch foldback on lower manual (for deep left-hand bass), MIDI compatibility, etc. In order to do these things with the old B3 you would have a mess!
JazzTimes: There's a "MIDI out" port on the New B3. How will MIDI capability impact the art of B3 playing?
I'm already thinking how cool it will be to trigger an analog synth or a digital module with the New B3. I can now combine other sounds with organ sounds or just use one of the New B3 keyboards to trigger another synth sound. I don't need to carry another keyboard to have the sound of a Rhodes, Clavinet, lead synth etc. I'm going to experiment with all kinds of new sounds to blend with the classic Hammond sound.
Also, the session I did with Joey was recorded on a MIDI sequencer. I'll have the MIDI files available through my Web site [www.b3monaco.com] sometime in May. This marks the first time that a student of jazz organ will be able to learn note-for-note what we played on the recording. We are at the beginning of a brand-new era.