Posted by
Aug 262020

There was a time when I imagined a harpsichord could make anything sound better, even Billy Joel‘s “Piano Man.” I don’t remember specifically how old I was, but I was probably about 15, the year my head exploded with dreams of becoming a professional musician.

I’d long loved the harpsichord – or some electronically manipulated version of a piano to sound like one – on The Beatles‘ “In My Life.” They used the instrument, or some approximation of it, elsewhere, like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” and “Fixing a Hole.”

The Rolling Stones used harpsichord to great effect on “Play With Fire.” Oh, the thought of those savages unleashed on an instrument befitting a man in tights and a powdered wig!

“Walk Away Renee” and “Sunshine Superman” featured the harpsichord. And who could forget the chill that ran up their spine the first time they heard it bang out the chords in The Yardbirds‘ “For Your Love”? Not I, not the day I sat down at the harpsichord in my high school music room and painstakingly figured out how to play that song’s four magical chords. Or more likely it was my close, personal friend Townsman Andyr who figured out the chords and showed me how to unlock the magic. His family had a piano, and he already knew how to play the intro to “Evil Woman.”


  24 Responses to “Devices”

  1. diskojoe

    One of the albums that I bought the first time I went to Stawberries in downtown Boston when I was in high school was a Bach harpsichord record that I loved & still have. I still love hearing the harpsichord, either on Face to Face or those other records you mentioned, even though it was mainly used in the mid 60s in pop/rock records. To me it gives out a tight, crisp sound, as opposed to the bloat you feel from strings and/or horns sometimes.

    One devise that I can’t stand is whatever Zappa used to make those dink, dink, dink sounds in his later work.

    Another devise that I do like is the electric sitar that was used in Cry Like a Baby by the Box Tops. I often wonder what it would sound like going through a fuzz box.

  2. Ooh, the electric sitar is a good one, diskojoe – the real sitar, for that matter, too! There’s a music store near me that has an old electric sitar for sale. I’ve been tempted to buy it for some time. I can’t wait until that store can open again.

  3. cherguevara

    The entire world of 60’s/70’s non-synth keyboards is a textbook, where to begin? My uncle built a harpsichord from a kit, it was not a good one, but it played and it had the sound. When I was in college, they asked me to house-sit, so I spent a week baked out of my gourd, raiding their fridge and rocking that harpsichord for hours. When they gave me money for keeping an eye on the place, I gave it back. It didn’t seem right to accept payment for my lost-weekend of red-eyed, snack fueled Baroque explorations.

    When I moved to NYC, I wanted an electric piano, something I could just sit down and play, no disks, samples, etc. Couldn’t afford a Wurli or a Rhodes (though I trashpicked one about a year later – different story). I was looking at ebay in the back room of a recording studio when my boss saw what I was looking at. RMI Electra Piano. “Those are cool,” he said, “that’s what you want.” I took his word and bought it. It was big and groovy looking, and after some repair I had an instrument that made a crappy rinky-dink sound and had no dynamics. Later I came to recognize that sound in random records – Carole King’s Tapestry, early Genesis (the little I’ve heard) and most notably, early Sparks, where it features heavily. All I can imagine the Mael brothers were thinking is, “wow, this instrument is really annoying sounding, let’s use it as the foundation of our band!” I sold the RMI and never regretted it.

    The other day my wife asked me why there were so many horns in 1980’s music. I wasn’t sure. I said maybe it was part of the 1950’s revival of the 80’s. She said, “50’s revival?” and all I could come up with was Stray Cats. She was playing the Psychedelic Furs and pointed out the sax. I remembered an interview with them, probably mid/late 80’s, where they talked about how the band went from six members to three. One of them said the problem with having a sax player in the band is you have to have sax on every song, they had been freed from that burden.

    But anyway, instruments and sounds have always been part of the trends in music. We have kids who grew up listening to so much auto-tune that they’ve learned to sing in a way that emulates that sound. We went through a period of the Sans Amp being used on drums (and loops) and other non-guitar instruments. Reverb, no reverb. What Mr Mod calls a “megaphone,” seems like there was a resurgence of that sound maybe a decade back? That “telephone voice” sound, seemed standard to revert to it in the bridge of a pop or emo song. The Beatles left a wake of sounds that they abandoned before other groups picked them up and turned them into tropes. Now these sounds are pre-packed as software plug-ins, so laptop musicians may not even realize the same sound can be achieved with an EQ, or other standard technique. Hence, everyone uses the same plugin for the same effect, which makes these trends even more homogenous.

    If I’m going to pick out one sound that I can do without, it’s a bit specific, but windchimes. I hate them. They are cheesy and a lame means of supplying “instant sparkle.” Plus, they are often presented in super-wide stereo, panning across the speakers as if they are worthy of being featured. Whenever I see a percussionist with them in their setup, I begin to dread the inevitable moment, often at the end of the song, where this oleaginous Doug Henning of percussion instruments pees on the song with its lilliputian tinkling. Windchimes, they’re the fucking worst.

  4. 2000 Man

    I really liked harpsichords when I was probably in Junior High for a few minutes, too! Can I love something and then begin to hate it almost instantly? That electric jug the 13th Floor Elevators used. I thought it was cool, but they used it on every song and it makes me twitchy. I seriously went from “that’s cool!” to “I’ll never play this again!” in the course of minutes.

    I’ll never get tired of a snare drum that sounds like whatever Charlie Watts is doing in Neighbors. I think it sounds kind of like a trash can lid, and I really love it.

    I love saxophones and I think every band should have them. There’s no reason why the sax has to feature on every song. They do a great job just fattening up the bottom end.

  5. I call B.S. on the talk box. What does it actually do? Isn’t it really just a vocal effect? I don’t get it. It’s a tube you sing into that is feeding through the guitar somehow. Isn’t that really only a vocal with heavy flange/chorus effect on it? I don’t get how it’s related to what you do on the guitar. If it’s based on the fact that you need to sing and play the same notes at the same time, then George Benson did that already without the talk box mucking up the sound. I think we’ve been oversold on how wild the talk box is.

  6. Cher, your percussionist with windchimes section puts you in the mid-week lead for Post of the Week!

    I always though the sax player in Psychedelic Furs was a nod to Andy MacKay in Roxy Music.

    2K, you were wise to quickly dump that electric jug!

    Chickenfrank, thankfully, I’ve got plenty of time to exchange the birthday gift for you that just arrived last week!

  7. Happiness Stan

    I’ve always struggled with saxophones whenever they stray even slightly towards jazz territory, Psychedelic Furs and Roxy Music always got away with it (I’ve never even thought of them in terms of being sax bands), and Red River Rock by Johnny and the Hurricanes is one of my all time favourite things.

    The theremin almost never outstays its welcome, and if any record other than Space Oddity features a Stylophone I’d probably be prepared to give it a go. I picked a fancy modern one up in a charity shop recently, with MP3 input and headphone socket, although the latter removes the pleasure inherent in Mrs H begging me to make it stop.

  8. Happiness Stan

    I’m in a positive mood today so not even thoughts of Billy Joel are going to spoil it. After a minute or so thinking dark thoughts with Piano Man running through my brain, it suddenly changed into a John Shuttleworth number and I was surprised to note the striking resemblance. Of the two, I know which I prefer.

  9. No good can come from anything involving a 6 string bass.

  10. Happiness Stan

    I saw Rockpile in about 79 and Nick Lowe was playing a six string bass. It was a great gig, and I wanted one…

  11. Next time you have information like that to share, I’d appreciate it if you would keep it to yourself. I may have to take an elephant tranquilizer to get to sleep tonight.

  12. cherguevara

    Agreed the six string bass, or five, is corny, but make an exception for the Fender 6. Those are cool and I’d bet (or hope) that’s what Lowe was playing.

  13. I stand corrected. In Let it Be, I I believe Lennon is playing one of those on “Dig It”. That it’s necessary for the song’s success is highly suspect, but it sure as hell looks good!

  14. I’m pretty sure that the bass Nick Lowe played was neither a 6 string nor a Fender. He played an 8 string Hamer around that time. It was basically a 12 string guitar concept, with tuned octave strings. Here’s a picture.

    I think the guy in Cheap Trick had a 12 string version with each note tripled!

  15. The DX-7 sounded so wonderful when it first showed up. It had strikingly convincing sounds for all kinds of neat things including marimbas, vibes, as well as pianos and organs. Really. I worked with a guy that had one early on and it seemed really sweet.

    But once it became ubiquitous, the sounds suddenly seemed less like the instrument being simulated and more like the DX7 simulation of an instrument. It reminds me of the story regarding the Vermeer forgeries and how although in isolation they fooled experts, when lined up as a group next multiple Vermeer originals, it was perfectly obvious to the untrained eye which were which.

  16. I’m afraid that with extremely rare exceptions, I agree with Sir Thomas Beecham: “The sound of a harpsichord – two skeletons copulating on a tin roof in a thunderstorm.”

  17. Happiness Stan

    Good heavens, I stood a few feet away from him and had it in my head ever since it was a six string, but seeing that picture brings it all back. I know my memory is prone to playing tricks now, I’m surprised it was so untrustworthy back then as well. It was bright red, and the same tour, I’m convinced.

    EPG, I hope you managed to get off to sleep without tranquillisers, I’ll walk around the park behind our house three times in the howling gales we’re expecting later by way of atonement.

    I bet he owns one, though, even if he keeps quiet about it, and I’d still like one.

  18. 2000 Man

    I always thought the theramin was an attempt to make an electric saw. As opposed to the acoustic saw, not the sawz-all.

  19. diskojoe

    I went to my favorite record store yesterday after finally finding a parking space & then putting on gloves & wearing my mask, I browsed around until I found something I wanted to get which was the Stranglers’ Greatest Hits 1977-1990, which included a song called “Golden Brown” which was an excellent song that used a harpsichord.

  20. cherguevara

    That Hamer bass is something. Never saw that before, I kind of dig it. The one time I saw Nick Lowe was probably about two years ago, playing solo at our local small “arts center.” He was awesome, I love when a show I go to on a whim turns out to be one to remember. And a master at shutting down hecklers, he’s got that down. Also, I dig his recent tunes and even his Christmas album.

    The thing about the theremin is it’s really hard to play properly. Most of the time it seems to be used for making wooeeeee glissando sounds, which a dog could do. It does the instrument a disservice. I guess some instruments are like that – autoharp, perhaps. When you see somebody who can actually play them it is a moment of realization.

    There’s a book about the vocoder, called, “How to Wreck a Nice Beach” (how to recognize speech) with a section about the talk-box. Apparently the tube for the thing goes into the users mouth and it vibrates the teeth, causing damage if used extensively. It also gets gross, loaded with bacteria, some users experienced illness, stomach problems, etc. Roger Troutman aka Roger aka Zapp, according to this book, soaked his tube in Remy Martin to sterilize it and to make it “smell like the after-party.” Perhaps the most sleazy of musical accessories.

  21. Making the talk-box one of the most dangerous musical devices next to Wendy O’Williams chainsaw, and whatever guitar Keith Relf was playing.

  22. BigSteve

    I loved the harpsichord on KInks records and other late 60s stuff. I generally hate theremin, Good Vibrations being the only exception I can think of. I loved it when Andy Mackay played the oboe in Roxy Music, and I usually like it in other pop music. I’ve been listening to southern soul music this morning, and a Hammond B-3 organ can’t be beat.

    And let’s not forget the original percussion instrument — handclaps!

  23. BigSteve

    A corollary to the harpsichord is the electric clavinet, which is an essential feature of funk music (see Stevie Wonder and Bernie Worrell). It’s also used extensively and brilliantly by Terry Adams in NRBQ.

  24. cherguevara

    If you like the oboe in rock music, check out album by the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble, which included a young Michael Kamen:

    If we still had the means to do “Mystery Date,” I’d have posted it in that format. Oh well!

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