Skip to main content

5 essential techniques for Hammond organ

(Image credit: Hammond)

There comes a time when every Hammond organist needs a little help finding improvisational inspiration. 

The following examples are meant to supply some potent techniques for creating compelling jazz and funk lines with ease. Remember that you can hear pieces of these licks in many classic organ solos, so use them with care!

Ex. 1.

Ex. 1. (Image credit: Future)

1. Squabbling

Ex. 1 demonstrates the classic organ technique known as squabbling. Sometimes it’s referred to as the Erroll Garner style, named for the famed jazz pianist who popularised its sound. Pull your bottom and your top four drawbars out for the historically authentic sound. The idea is that the thumb and pinky of your right hand play octaves while your other fingers “smush” notes in the middle. Some people do this by curling their middle three fingers and playing with their knuckles. I simply use a flat palm to play sloppily. Hear this technique in action on Jimmy Smith’s solo on “Satin Doll” from his Organ Grinder Swing album.

Ex. 2.

Ex. 2. (Image credit: Future)

2. Jimmy and Jack

Ex. 2 rolls a few of the most popular jazz and blues licks into one neat package, and salutes Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff . Bars 1 and 2 show one of the most popular organ phrases of all time. Practice it by changing the direction and shape of the line. Bars 3 and 4 include some common and pentatonic ideas, while bars 5 and 6 utilise the shake technique, which comes from blues piano but is extremely effective on organ.

Ex. 3.

Ex. 3. (Image credit: Future)

3. Chester-field

Holding a note while playing other notes simultaneously is a very common and compelling device on organ. Ex. 3 is reminiscent of Chester Thompson, the original keyboardist in Tower of Power. Here’s how I play it: The pinky of my right hand holds the high D. The second finger of my left hand plays the low D. The first and second fingers of my right hand play the notes in the middle. Also, try holding the lowest note down instead.

Ex. 4.

Ex. 4. (Image credit: Future)

4. Larry lines

Ex. 4 is a group of jazz licks inspired by organist Larry Young, whose sound was very different from, say, Jimmy Smith. By arpeggiating two triads over a chord, we can achieve great sounding melodic lines. In the first bar, I use Eb and F triads over an F7 chord. In the next bar, I use F minor and Eb triads over Fmin7. In the third bar, I mix an F triad with an Ab minor pentatonic scale to get interesting altered lines. Th e last bar of this example mixes triads in minor thirds from the root (F, Ab, Cb [B], and D). Th is gives us a quick vehicle for creating interesting diminished sounds while also adding intriguing interval combinations.

Ex. 5.

Ex. 5. (Image credit: Future)

5. Modal magic

Ex. 5 illustrates using unusual intervals to create modern-sounding modal lines. Be aware of the “shape” of the mode you’re playing in. Here, we’re using G Mixolydian. Play random notes using unusual intervals and rhythms. The idea is to think of shapes, not scales.

(Image credit: Future)

Practice tip

“It’s great to throw in a few of these classic organ lines in the middle of a very modern-sounding solo,” says New York-based keyboardist and composer Brian Charette. “Practice them in all 12 keys and different time signatures.” Charette has performed and recorded with Joni Mitchell, Lou Donaldson, Bucky Pizzarelli, Michael Bublé, and Rufus Wainwright, in addition to leading his own jazz groups. His latest album is Music For Organ Sextette, on SteepleChase Records.