Chops: Brian Charette on Five Essential Jazz Organists

Breaking down the styles and sounds of the B3 masters


Brian Charette (photo by Anna Yatskevic)

This piece might have been called “Mission Impossible”: Selecting just five essential jazz organists from such a rich and still-thriving tradition was no easy feat, but I managed to select the players I thought were the most important—the foundational musicians that aspiring organists simply need to study. Here I’ll outline some key elements of their styles as well as the sound settings most associated with them.

I will use a string of nine numbers to refer to the drawbar settings of the different artists. For example, 888000004 means the first three drawbars are pulled all the way out and the last one halfway out. Besides the drawbars, other controls discussed include the vibrato scanner, which should be set to the C3 setting in all but one of the examples. And there is a percussion function that adds a sharp “plink” tone when engaged.

A note on the bass pedals: Most organists like to tap on the B note in the middle of the bass register while playing a left-hand bassline. There are many styles of playing pedals, so if you are newer to B-3 playing, just do this for now: tap lightly with a flat left foot on the B without sounding the whole note. It will add attack to your basslines. As you gain confidence, start playing a few turnarounds with a heel-to-toe method. In all of the following examples, we will be walking a bassline on the lower manual. Use the setting 838000000 for the bass.

Jazz Organ 101: Click here for notation.

Jimmy Smith

Probably the most iconic of the jazz organists was and is Jimmy Smith, who was one of the first organists to popularize the percussion setting, introduced on Hammond’s B-3 and C-3 models. Here we will use the right-hand setting most associated with Smith and jazz organ in general, in which the first three drawbars are pulled all the way out, with the percussion engaged. We will select the third harmonic with soft volume and fast decay, or “all tabs up,” meaning the rocker switches are set to the upper position. Most of the right-hand lines in this example come from the F blues scale (F, A-flat, B-flat, B, C, E-flat, F). In the last bar we have a bebop line, as Smith was very influenced by Charlie Parker. The first half of the bar arpeggiates a C-minor-7 chord, with the last half of the bar containing a chromatic embellishment to the third of the F13 chord. The basslines of ex. 1 consist primarily of the Mixolydian mode (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, flat-7, 1) in F and B-flat, with a few chromatic tones. The vibrato selected is C3 and the Leslie speaker is set to stop. Play with a staccato approach, because the percussion effect is touch sensitive and won’t be as effective with legato lines.

Larry Young

After Smith, arguably the best-known jazz organist is Larry Young. He used almost the exact same settings as Smith, with the exception of the vibrato, which he set to C1. Young mostly played lines and chords in fourths, which gave his music a very modern sound. To work on this sound, try practicing Dorian, Mixolydian and Ionian modes with fourth intervals. Young would also slip in and out of the key by moving his ideas a half-step up or down, or to an unrelated key center. In ex. 2, over a C13 vamp, we play the C-minor pentatonic scale (C, E-flat, F, G, B-flat, C) and C Mixolydian scale (C, D, E, F, G, A, B-flat, C) in fourths. At the end of bar two we slide down to a B-minor pentatonic scale (B, D, E, F-sharp, A, B) to get the “out” sounds indicative of Young’s style. In the last bar we alternate between a B-flat and a C triad, a common device Young used over a dominant chord.

Don Patterson


Don Patterson was an organist known for very quick bebop lines, which, rumor has it, he played using just three fingers on his right hand. Patterson often used no percussion, but he pulled the last drawbar out to get a whistle sound. This example is the first four bars of “Rhythm” changes and uses the techniques for bassline construction we covered in the first example. The right-hand lines come from arpeggios and modes, with a few chromatic notes. In general, for bebop lines you can use three modes: for major-7 chords, Ionian (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 1); for minor-7 chords, Dorian (1, 2, flat-3, 4, 5, 6, flat-7, 1); and for dominant-7 chords, Mixolydian (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, flat-7, 1). Patterson was known for his blistering double-time bebop lines, as heard in the last bar.

Jack McDuff

Brother Jack was an organist very influenced by Jimmy Smith. He, along with Smith, popularized a style of playing called “squabbling,” a technique that emulated block-chord playing on the piano. With the Leslie switch set to fast and the Percussion tabs on the Jimmy Smith setting, pull the first and last four drawbars all the way out. Play octaves with the thumb and pinky, with the notes in the middle smushed. Some players do this by curling the middle three fingers under; I just play with a flat hand and smear all the notes between the octaves. This is a very sloppy style and not meant to be played carefully. Feel free to move your hand back and forth to accentuate the technique. The most important point is to have the octave melodies tight and everything else a little cloudy. This style is often heard on ballads and seems to work very well in the keys of C and E-flat. The melodic material in this example comes from the E-flat major scale (E-flat, F, G, A-flat, B-flat, C, D, E-flat), with one G-flat thrown in for a bluesy feel.

Wild Bill Davis

Wild Bill Davis was the organist Jimmy Smith was checking out early in his career. He had a very shouty organ style influenced by the big bands of the day, and he often used a brash drawbar setting. Here we’re using a setting called “Half Fat,” with the first three and last three drawbars pulled out; this example will also sound great with all the bars pulled out. Set the Leslie to fast. Over a G13 chord with a groovy bassline, play a shout section influenced by the Count Basie band. The chord in beat one is a simple piano voicing for a G13, approached from below by a half-step. The chord on beat four-plus in the first and third bar demonstrates a very typical organ technique of putting a third above a piano shell voicing to make a slightly bigger chord.

Read Gary Versace’s column on jazz pianists becoming Hammond organists, from the January/February 2017 issue of JazzTimes.