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5 Ways to Play Like Dr. Lonnie Smith

(Image credit: Getty/Jack Vartoogian)

Dr. Lonnie Smith is considered by many organ aficionados to be the greatest living master of the Hammond B-3 organ. Hailing from the Buffalo, New York area, Smith sang in vocal groups as a child before the owner of a local music store, Art Kubera, gave him a Hammond organ and encouraged him to start playing. Smith was soon gigging in Buffalo and New York City, where he caught the attention of jazz musicians like Lou Donaldson and George Benson. Not long after after, he embarked on a solo career that thrives to this day. Let’s look at a few key elements of Smith’s unique organ style. Drawbar settings for are written at the beginning of each example above the clef. Click sheet music images to enlarge.

1. Boogaloo Basics

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In his years working with George Benson and Lou Donaldson, Smith codified “boogaloo” organ playing, demonstrated in Ex. 1. Here his bass lines are usually very simple, consisting of roots and fifths. The pedals tap the B in the middle of the pedal manual on beats 1 and 3. In the right hand, we see blues voicings played with percussion. In your own explorations, try playing these voicings in all 12 keys. In bars 1-2 from the bottom up the chord tones are the flat seventh, third, and 13th. In bar 3 the chord tones are the third, seventh, and ninth. Note that the right hand uses the thirdharmonic percussion.

2. The No Vibrato Zone

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In contrast to many other organists of the day, Dr. Lonnie Smith would often play with the Hammond’s vibrato scanner turned off. This is especially true when he solos. In Ex. 2, I’ve kept the bass line and pedals from the previous example and added a blues improvisation. Smith often slaps and stabs at the organ with his fingers—and you should too! The solo lines come from the blues scale: C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, C. Also notice the use of the “blue note” as a grace-note.

3. Boogaloo Bass Pedals

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Another key element of Smith’s style is his use of the bass pedals. Ex. 3 is inspired by Smith’s playing on Lou Donaldson’s song “The Kid.” Here, the left hand again plays a simple bass line while the bass pedals tonics and fifths on beats 1 and 3. As you can see, it’s not so important to pedal every off-beat note of the bass line. Instead, aim for the strong beats. Try using your heel on C and toe on Bb.

4. Bebop Lines

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Besides his arsenal of burning funk riffs, Smith also employs highly evolved Charlie Parker-style bebop lines. Ex. 4 begins with an Ab chromatic embellishment to a triplet, F arpeggio, and descending Mixolydian mode. Bar 2 continues the line with the Bb bebop scale: Bb, C, D, Eb, F, G, Ab, A, Bb. In Bar 3, notice the Cmin9 arpeggio on beats 3 and 4. The last bar of the example uses smooth voice leading from the seventh of Cmin7 to the third of F7. The bass line is made up of dominant scales with a few chromatic embellishments. The pedals again tap B with a heel-toe walk-up at the end of bar 1 and a toe-heel walk-down in the final bar.

5. Snake Charmer Time

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In live shows, Smith will often use the V3 organ vibrato setting to play “snake charmer” type music. The scale used in this example is Hungarian minor: G, A, Bb, C#, D, Eb, F#, G. On your own, try using other ethnic scales like the Harmonic minor or Neapolitan minor. The bass line has a simple root-to-fifth movement, and pedals here just tap ghost notes.

Tap That

“Note heads marked as an X in the examples mean that you should tap the bass pedal (often B in the middle of the register) quickly enough that you hear just a ‘ghost note’ or rhythmic pulse, not an actual pitch,” says Brian Charette, who has worked with Joni Mitchell, Michael Bublé, and Rufus Wainwright in addition to leading his own jazz groups. Charette placed first in Downbeat’s 2014 Rising Star rankings for organ and released two new albums entitled The Question that Drives Us and Square One. Find out more at