All the gear: The equipment that made Rock ‘n’ Roll

Part two of a review of the gear that made the sound of Rock’n’Roll

In the previous article, we covered electric guitar and bass amplification, electric guitars and the electric bass. Here we look at keyboards, drums and vocal microphones.

Hammond B3 and Leslie Cabinet

The Hammond organ in one shape or another has been around since the 1930s. Initially designed to replace the much more expensive pipe organ in Churches it became very popular with Jazz, Blues and Soul players as the draw-bars, which emulate the pipes of the pipe organ, gave excellent scope to express through the sound. There is an interesting story about the accompanying Leslie cabinet.

Mr. Donald Leslie worked as an engineer for Mr.Laurens Hammond. Mr. Leslie came up with the groundbreaking idea of a speaker cabinet in which the speakers revolved around a central drum (not un-akin to a washing machine) to provide a tremolo type effect. Mr.Hammond didn’t like it, so in 1941 Mr.Leslie set-up his own company and created his first Cabinet, it proved enormously popular. Today the two machines are virtually inseparable.

Side 3 of the Jimi Hendrix double album ‘Electric Ladyland’ begins with the track ‘Voodoo Chile’, not the more famous Voodoo Chile ( slight return ) with ‘that’ wha-wha guitar intro, but a slower bluesier version featuring Steve Winwood on the Hammond organ and Leslie Speaker. It is epic, the organ and guitar flirt around each other like Greek gods in a Da Vinci sculpture.

The deep warbling sound of a Hammond organ and its draw bars combined with the very physical chorusing effect of a spinning Leslie cabinet is just about the most popular of rock-keyboard sounds. Without that Hammond trill leading to the chorus’ of Procol Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade of Pale’ the record whilst a great song would quite probably sound flat like a tuneless pancake. The Hammond can be sweet, it can be angry, and everything in between. It certainly deserves its place amongst classic backline.

Fender Rhodes: The Electric Piano

Another Fender innovation. although this time not at the hands of Leo Fender, he had already sold the company to CBS some years before. Harold Rhodes came up with a simple method of amplifying the sound of his ‘Stage Piano’. Each string or ‘Twine’ has below it a magnetic pick-up just like an electric guitar. When the keys are struck, the twines vibrates and the pick-up translates this magnetic vibration when plugged into an amplifier into the delicious sound of the Rhodes. The Rhodes is synonymous with players like Stevie Wonder and gives that particular soulful sound. A similar instrument is the Wurlitzer piano, a smaller and more portable keyboard instrument that works on the same principal but has a more biting, edgy sound.

Five piece drum kit: ‘ Like an artillery barrage!’

There are many popular and even legendary drum kit manufacturers. Ludwig, Pearl, Premier and Yamaha have all earned their place on the classic Rock’n’Roll stage. Essentially though, despite minor variations in hardware and construction materials and methods they all adhere to a shared format, the five-piece kit. This refers to a kick drum, two rack toms, one floor tom and a snare drum. These are invariably joined by a pair of hi-hat cymbals on a stand with a clutched foot pedal, a crash cymbal and a ride cymbal. The drum-kit has evolved since it was first used in the 1920s and continues to do so, but the principals remain the same. A balanced, if loud, set of drums and cymbals that perfectly compliment each other a give a variety of sounds, soft and loud, sweet and harsh. There are few finer exponents of the five-piece kit than Led Zeppelins’ John Bonham, although like most drummers he upgraded and personalized his standard kit, the five drums remain the core.

Shure SM58: The voice of Rock’n’Roll

On our virtual stage, we now have Stevie Wonder on Rhodes piano, Stevie Winwood on Hammond with the obligatory Leslie Cabinet. Let’s have Pino Palladino on his Fender precision bass cooking through that fat Ampeg SVT. John Bonham takes to the drum riser and cracks the snare as a warning shot. Jimmy Page picks up his Les Paul and rolls all the controls round to ‘11’. What about the singer? The only microphone of choice is a Shure SM58. Designed in 1966 the ’58 is undeniably the voice of Rock’n’Roll. Solid, reliable and virtually indestructible, everyone from the singer down the pub to global arena- rock superstars all feel very comfortable with the reassuring weight of a Shure SM58 in their hand. Whilst other microphones have far better frequency responses, technical sheet statistics and clearer sounds it’s the’58 that holds the key. It is more than any other piece of equipment listed in these articles genuinely the sound of Rock’n’Roll. The ’58 is supposed to be shouted in from less an inch away, it is supposed to be dropped angrily to the floor. It is supposed to distort a hi-octane vocal sound. In fact, the ’58 thrives under these circumstances. One famous ’58 stalwart is Roger Daltrey of The Who. The microphone perfectly suits his screaming spine-tingly rock vocal, and he has made the abuse of an SM58 very much part of the show.

“Standard backline, yeah?”

There are companies that specialize in renting backline to travelling acts or for festival stages. Such Matt Snowball or Music Bank. Its possible to rent all kinds of weird and wonderful musical equipment from them for a price. However more often than not the phrase ‘Standard backline, yeah?’ will be heard in a phone conversation when ordering what is required with the answer ‘Yeah, standard backline’. This means that the equipment listed above has become so much a part of Rock’n’Roll that it doesn’t even need to be itemised.

That order may look something like this

Festival Stage standard backline:
5-piece Drum kit, Hi-hat = stand and felts, crash, ride, hardware, + stool
2 Fender Twin
1 Marshall Stack
1 Ampeg SVT
Hammond B3 and Leslie + stool
Fender Rhodes with Bassman amp + stool

There it is, the recipe for Rock’n’Roll just add some musicians.


Written by: R. Vee – 2018

Instruments and musicians in this article:

Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton: Voodoo Chile

Procol Harum : A whiter shade of pale

Stevie Wonder ‘living in the City’ (Rhodes piano only)

John Bonham (Led Zeppelin): drum solo

Roger Daltrey: ‘spinning the microphone’