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Garth's Gear - The Classic Years

by Kerrin

The work of Garth Hudson has long been a mysterious and largely undocumented chapter. Not knowing how he does what he does is part of his magic, of course. Much of his playing seems to defy transciption, even apparently simple phrases are blurred and unresolved. His legendary solo improvisations drift from one idea to the next like a dream sequence, or as though someone kept fast-forwarding some strange movie soundtrack, skipping through the scenes. The timing, seemingly unhinged, is dragged and drawn out with elegant perfection This article, the result of years of listening, peering at photos, pausing videos, and sifting through screeds of internet trivia, investigates his equipment choices through the "classic" years. However, it is by no means the final word, and I'd love to hear from anyone who knows something I've missed - especially any ex-Band roadies, studio engineers, repair technicians - anyone who had a closer look at Garth's rig than the rest of us!
-- Kerrin,

To begin at the beginning: When Garth Hudson joined Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks in late 1961, part of the deal was a new Lowrey organ, a model FL. These first Festival models were physically influenced by the already-classic Hammond B2/B3 series, whose popularity among jazz and blues performers had as much to do with portability as it had to do with the legendary tonewheel sound - their "four-poster" style cabinets were gutted out, working musicians alternatives to the churchier-looking Hammond C3's, A100's, etc. Portability was still a relative term, though, with a B3 weighing 425 pounds, and the Lowrey FL around 390. A separate external speaker, most commonly a Leslie rotary type, would be substituted for the internal ones.

Garth Hudson playing the Lowrey organ
Photo copyright © 2002 John Scheele. All right reserved.

Although outwardly ressembling the B3, Lowrey made no attempt to mimmick Hammonds trademark sound, which they regarded as inferior (it was, in terms of it's resemblance to a pipe organ) and archaic (Hammonds' technology did have numerous limitations). Lowrey's market was the burgeoning home organ trend - essentially still classical style instruments with an peppering of novelty effects mostly inherited from the glamorous theatre organ "tradition". One of these effects, the exclusive Lowrey "glide" footswitch, particularly appealed to Garth. Originally intended to imitate a Hawaiian guitar or slide trombone, Garth modified the factory preset so that the organ pitch could be "bent" down a whole tone, rather than just a half-step. His solo in "The Shape I'm In", from The Last Waltz, is an obvious example of this effect, and his future Lowreys would all have this alteration. The original vaccuum-tube Festivals also had a switch on the internal 40W amplifier to set their overall volume, which could be increased to distortion levels - a capability surely only Garth put to use! An interesting feature on these early consoles was the stereo capabilities - Lowrey had separate outputs for upper and lower keyboards, and Garth would later use a separate Leslie speaker for each of these outputs.

Garth almost certainly used a Leslie speaker with his Lowrey Festival right from the start, although only single speed (fast/off) models were available at the time. The earliest photos I've seen from this period date from 1963, when he appears to have a Leslie model 45 to the right of the Lowrey. The fast/off sound can be heard on the Hawks early singles, right through to Dylan's performances at the end of their European tour in 1966, subsequent Basement Tapes recordings seem to have a two-speed leslie on them. Either Garth bought a 145 around that time, or had his original speaker fitted with an upgrade.

Once The Hawks had been "discovered" by Bob Dylan, the luxury of a road crew meant Garth could add another keyboard to his onstage rig. This was an early example of the Hohner Clavinet, a model II, which sat atop the Lowrey, and offered a kind of electric harpsicord sound. This model was later played - famously - through a wah-wah pedal for the jaw-harp sound on "Up on Cripple Creek", and later still for The Band's cover of "Mystery Train". Even in the early days of the basement sessions, this seems to also be processed through some kind of chorus unit - no doubt the Guild Echorec tape delay mentioned later.

There is an interesting piece of black & white film from around this time which appears in the Authorized Biography video. It shows a clean shaven Garth doodling on an organ during a soundcheck on the '66 tour. Mickey Jones' Ludwig kit is high on it's riser, and Rick and Robbie are there, smoking cigarettes. The organ is a Lowrey - but a Lincolnwood, not Garth's Festival. Were organs rented for each stop of the European part of the tour? Presumably this is D.A. Pennebaker footage - does anyone know where it could have been taken?

When the time came for The Hawks to record Music from Big Pink the setup was much the same, although homemade effects and constant hot-rodding of the Lowrey were an ongoing source of entertainment for Garth. In an interview with Bob Doerschuk (Keyboard Magazine, Dec. 1983) he recalls running the Festival through a semi-automatic telegraph key salvaged from an army surplus store. "I got a little box and mounted some quarter-inch receptacles into it through which you could connect the key to the instrument. Then you set the reiteration rate, and you were ready to play". Shelly Yakus, co-engineer on the New York Big Pink sessions at A&R, remembers Garth slacking off the spring tension on this same morse-key. "He loosened the spring, and whacked this key, and it started bouncing around, making and breaking contact, and then started playing the intro to one of those songs."

For his legendary introduction to "Chest Fever", Garth explained to Terje Mosnes: "We had the song all done, but John Simon wanted an intro. We put the Leslie cabinet, a 145, in a small cubicle and opened it up completely. I played the first three notes from Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D minor", and then I improvised. The intro is longer than what you hear on the album. John edited it down". He has confirmed this since, speaking to Seth Rogovoy: "The sound on "Chest Fever", that was a 145 Leslie cabinet", though it does seem that in 1969 a pair of model 147RV's were employed instead - presumably one for each organ keyboard.

Other changes for the taping of the "Brown Album" in 1969 were few. Garth built a raised platform to the right of the Lowrey's expression pedal and mounted a pair of wah-wah pedals on it for the Lowrey and Clavinet. In rehearsal and studio photos from this period I've also seen a Guild Echorec (by Binson) tape delay unit perched atop the clavinet. It was probably mostly used for a chorus effect on the clavinet; possibly the Lowrey ran through this too, although I've never seen it in any concert shots. Maybe this effect could just as easily have been added by the front-of-house engineers if it was, in fact, desirable at all onstage.

In a recent interview with Seth Rogovoy, Garth fondly remembers his old Festival as "a beautiful instrument that does things that I didn't find on later transistor organs that Lowrey made." Although this and many more of Garth's most sentimental possesions were lost in his Malibu house fire in the mid-eighties, he managed to find a replacement Festival, which has sits in storage at Levon Helm Studios awaiting restoration.

When the band began touring as The Band in 1969 the sudden upturn in their collective incomes spelt trouble for some members, but for Garth it meant an upgrade in gear. Whilst their initial shows at the Fillmore, etc., were done with the old Festival, it's days of loyal service were drawing to a close. Although it's not clear how directly involved with the Lowrey Organ Co. Garth became, it seems they took at least a brief interest in him following the success of Music from Big Pink. Garth remembers: "The Chicago Musical Instrument Company gave me their transistorized model, and then later gave me the update of that one, and I gave them a picture of me standing in a field full of dead bats...." The transistorized model was a Lowrey Lincolnwood Deluxe, model TSO-25. In the same way the Festivals mimmicked Hammond B3's, the Lincolnwood seemed to parallel Hammonds A100. It had much in common with the earlier tube-driven Lincolnwoods/Coronations/Festivals in terms of stops and effects, and made it's debut at the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in August 1969.

And this is where another case of an organ being supplied locally may have occurred. With The Band scheduled to accompany Dylan again at his much-anticipated Isle of Wight appearance, Lowrey arranged with Selmer, their English manufacturers, to have a new instrument waiting for Garth, tailored to his specifications, when The Band arrived to begin rehearsals in late August. In his article "Memories of the Selmer Shop", Patrick Kirby recalls that "Selmer engineers took weeks customising a Lowrey H25 console organ. The result was the most amazing set of sounds you've ever heard." Why would they have gone to all this trouble for one gig? The H25 Theatre model was apparently never shipped back to the U.S., if indeed it existed at all.

Either way, having returned to Woodstock, The Band assembled to tape some promotional film clips in September, and the Lincolnwood was present once again. Like the old Festival, it was a stereo instrument with separate outputs for upper and lower manuals. The upper keyboard and bass pedals were run through the old Leslie 145, while the lower went through a new Leslie 103.

The 103 was a strange beast, designed by Leslie to compliment the new Lowrey Theatre's and Gulbransen's excellent Rialto models. It utilised two "rotosonic" drums - two speakers mounted on a spinning board, instead of the usual spinning horn, and included stationary speakers for non-rotary amplification. The outro of "The Shape I'm In" from Stage Fright is an example of this stationary sound, although it could have been done with an electrical "brake" on the rotary horn of the 145. The TSO-25's offered another interesting novelty - a switch that changed the volume pedal into a wah-wah pedal. This effect is showcased on the studio outtake of "Back to Memphis", and early 70's live versions of "I Shall Be Released", among others.

Starting with their November 1969 tour, the clavinet was now positioned to Garth's left, while studio recordings through this phase were still mostly representative of their live approach, so most of Garth's keyboard work was restricted to the Lowrey, piano, accordian, and occasional clavinet. He also played a borrowed mellotron on Cahoots ("Moon Struck One") and Moondog Matinee ("The Great Pretender", the outtake "Shakin'", and probably the "Third Man Theme").

The Planet Waves sessions in November 1973 were to be the final outing for the Lowrey Lincolnwood, and a completely revised arsenal was planned for the upcoming tour, beginning in Chicago on January 3rd, 1974. It's centrepiece was a new Lowrey Symphonic Theatre Console, model H25-3. This was a logical development of the original H25, with an almost identical layout of voice tabs, arranged in the "horseshoe" style of the old cinema Wurlitzers. The addition of tibia chorus gave them a decidedly brighter, glossier sound, however the most apparent difference, sonically and visually, was the addition of the "brass and string symphonizer". Garth used the brass sounds fairly sparingly, but clearly loved the string voices. The live album, Before the Flood, is simply saturated in them! Lowrey's String Symphonizer was in fact a watered-down adaption of a stillborn instrument called the Freeman String Symphonizer. Where the Freeman unit had three oscillators, the Lowrey version had only two, de-tunable for a rich chorus effect. Still, it had a lovely sweet, soft tone, putting most of it's contemporaries to shame.

Now to those two mysterious-looking Leslies! It seems that Garth had his old pair of 147RV cabinets customised, removing the upper louvres (sacrelige!) to maximise projection onstage. The lower louvres were also sometimes blanked off to control unwanted bass frequencies. Two small louvres on one side of each cabinet denotes it's RV (factory installed reverb) status. Unlike the previous stereo arrangement, I believe all organ voices went through both Leslies, both having their speeds controlled by the same footswitch. The 103 Leslie, although often out of sight, probably served as amplification for the brass and string symphonizer. Mounted at the left hand end of the lower keyboard were two Leslie "half moon" switches, one for the speed and one for the channel selection (rotary or stationary) on the model 103.

The old clavinet, too, was up for renewal, it's replacement being a model C, with it's distinctive orange and white tolex case. The old model II resurfaced, I think, in Richard Manuel's keyboard stack during the 1976 tour.

Although limited and temperamental onstage, early synthesizers were great studio toys for Garth. Starting out with a Minimoog, he soon aquired an ARP2600, a Roland SH2000, an RMI KC-1, and doubtless many others. These all contributed, alongside the Lowrey brass and strings, to the orchestral nature of 1975's Northern Lights, Southern Cross.

Faced with the prospect of touring to support this material, Garth added the more stable of these synths to his live setup. Centre stage was the Lowrey H25-3. To Garth's left was the Clavinet, now only really used for "Cripple Creek", and on top of that his Roland SH2000. These were a very early Japanese entry into the synth market - a short monophonic keyboard (with aftertouch!) obviously designed to sit on top of an organ, judging by the row of coloured preset tabs along the front. Garth loved to blend this with the Lowrey for solos, doubling his organ lines on the SH2000. To his right was the RMI Keyboard Computer 1 (KC-1). A pioneering attempt at digital synthesis, the technology came from parent company Allen's experiments with digital organs. This monster polyphonic synth came with it's own pedalboard, comprising four expression pedals. By all accounts fewer than one hundred of these were ever produced. Atop the KC-1 was a Yamaha SY-2, another preset-based monophonic synth. Finally, a custom swivel chair had to be made to straddle the 25-note pedalboard of the Lowrey, giving easy access to any of these instruments. This arrangement is what he would soon use for The Last Waltz, with only one change.

Around this time Garth was approached by Yamaha to assist in fine tuning a new high-end polyphonic synth, to be released the following year as the CS80. Garth was given a prototype to explore and assess, and it made a couple of tentative cameos on Islands, before it's appearance in The Last Waltz in place of the SY-2 on top of the KC-1. However, it wasn't featured heavily: "I tried a couple of things with it, but I had not fitted in with it, so I stuck mostly with the Lowrey for The Last Waltz." He can be seen playing it when Dr. John takes over on the Lowrey in "Jam 2". The CS80 was to feature prominently in the next phase of Garth's career, before it was stolen in New York in the mid-80's.

A short word on accordians: Garth has used a succession of accordians over the years, without loyalty to any particular brand. His most famous, with the mother-of-pearl belly dancer on the front, he purchased from the Bell Accordian Co., N.Y., in 1970. I understand this one was stolen in the '80's, but he found another one in a similar style, with the name "N. Ferrari" in bejewelled letters down the front. This can be seen in the video Roger Waters: The Wall - Live in Berlin. At various times he has also favoured a Hohner Atlantic, a Galanti, and several others too hard to identify in photos.

The saxophones have also come and gone since Garth mimmicked those Lee Allen solos in the mid-fifties. Although basically relying on a Selmer Mk VI tenor, he also owns one now which once belonged to Vido Musso, the tenor legend from the Stan Kenton Band. However, I have not been able to find out what model Vido played. Soprano's too, both curved and the more common straight type, have been a part of the Band's sound from "Tears of Rage," to "Unfaithful Servant" (straight models), "Last of the Blacksmiths," "A Change is Gonna Come," and "It Makes No Difference" (curved). Once again, like the many other woodwind and brass instruments Garth owns, pictures of them are too few and too vague to determine the exact make or vintage.

More information will gradually come to light. Every time some new film footage is released, or some great photographs emerge, or an interview is published, some other detail presents itself. If Garth had played a Hammond there would be articles about him all over the net, but he's probably just as happy to have his work shrouded in mystery! He really did do a fantastic job, though. The equipment in those days, even the best of it, was very straightforward, and the level Garth took it to was far beyond what most of it was designed to cope with! Any version of "The Genetic Method" is proof enough of his extraordinary talent and vision.

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