What Were the First Mass-Produced Electronic Instruments?

Piano attachments may have been prominent on big international hits such as Del Shannon's "Runaway" and The Tornados' "Telstar," but they are something of a lost chapter in electronic music history. Designed as solo melody devices to be attached to a piano or organ, they were the first mass-produced and widely used electronic instruments. And while they lack the cultish aura of the Theremin, the Ondes Martenot, or the Ondioline, they introduced the possibilities of electronic musical instruments to tens of thousands of musicians and millions of listeners.

A Hammond Novachord, sold on Reverb by NewOldSounds
A Hammond Novachord, sold on Reverb by NewOldSounds.

In 1939, Hammond launched the Novachord, a polyphonic electronic keyboard that's a legitimate contender for the "first synth" title. Built into a walnut case, it weighed 500 pounds and looked like a harmonium crossed with a grand piano. It was expensive, complex to maintain, and hard to play. Though admired for its sounds, only about 1,000 were sold before production stopped in 1942.

It's an intriguing proposition, mentioned here because it lent some technology to the Hammond Solovox, the first in a series of instruments sometimes described as piano attachments.

The Solovox was launched in 1940. Production was suspended in 1941, to run again from 1946 to 1950. Although the Solovox shared Novachord technology, it introduced the idea of the piano attachment, a different concept altogether. In common with all subsequent piano attachments, it has two main components.

First, a three-octave monophonic electronic keyboard, designed to fit underneath a piano or organ keyboard. Second, a "tone cabinet"—a combo amp. A knee-operated volume/expression lever was another feature copied in later, similar instruments. The idea was that you'd play Solovox melodies with your right hand, leaving the left free to play chordal accompaniment on the host instrument.

A Hammond Solovox. Photo by Andrew's Junkyard.
A Hammond Solovox. Photo by Andrew's Junkyard.

The Solovox's keys are smaller than a piano's, and that, along with the chunky rocker switches that select the Solovox's various sounds, lends the unit something of the appearance of an accordion. These features survived in subsequent instruments, too.

The Solovox was aimed at the popular and home musician—an instrument for dance halls, supper clubs, and living rooms. Though production didn't survive into the rock 'n' roll era, you can hear one on "Sugar Shack" (1963) by Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs. By that time, the Solovox had long since given way to another piano attachment that had a distinct advantage over Hammond's instrument.

Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs - "Sugar Shack"

The Clavioline was designed in 1947 by a Frenchman, Constant Martin (1910–95). Martin also built church organs, and he was responsible for the electronic bells in the city hall that sounded the liberation of Versailles in 1944. He licensed widely the manufacturing rights to his Clavioline, notably to Gibson and its parent company Chicago Musical Instrument (USA), Selmer (France and the UK), Jörgensen-Electronic (Germany), and Farfisa (Italy). Made in the tens of thousands, Claviolines were produced well into the '60s.

Like the Solovox, the Clavioline comprises a three-octave monophonic keyboard with under-sized keys, a combo amp, and a knee-operated volume control. The difference is that the keyboard packs into the back of the combo, making a single portable unit.

Max Crook, Del Shannon's keyboard player, was like many musicians who found this feature persuasive. He had considered a Solovox, but he told me the instrument was "very heavy, not to mention awkward to carry." You could pick up the Clavioline with one hand—just—and put it in the trunk of your car. More of Max Crook shortly.

A 1950s Martin Clavioline. Photo by Dave's.
A 1950s Martin Clavioline. Photo by Dave's.

Though visually similar, the Clavioline's keyboard includes another advance on the Solovox: a sliding switch that transposes the whole instrument an octave either way, giving it five octaves. In its day, the Clavioline was admired for its ability to mimic conventional instruments. Ads claimed it could reproduce "with amazing fidelity the tonal quality of more than 30 different musical instruments." The contemporary listener might beg to differ, although the alternately buzzy, droning, whistling tones retain a charm.

The Selmer Clavioline launched in 1950, with Gibson's appearing at 1952's NAMM trade show, where footage of it was broadcast daily over a closed television circuit. Both companies promoted Claviolines for domestic use, with ads showing genteel ladies at the home piano thrilled to "have a full orchestra at [their] fingertips."

It was working popular musicians who embraced the instrument. In the UK in particular, the Clavioline caught on. It dominated "Little Red Monkey" (1953) by Frank Chacksfield's Tunesmiths, thought to be the first British hit to use an electronic instrument. The John Barry Seven, an early vehicle for the film composer John Barry, used a Clavioline on their only album, Stringbeat (1961). In the USA, the Clavioline had a lower profile, until that same year when Del Shannon's "Runaway" was an international hit.

A Gibson-CMI Clavioline ad.
A Gibson-CMI Clavioline ad.

Written by Shannon and Max Crook, "Runaway" is now so familiar that any sense of its originality is lost. But it is an unusual record, with its minor to major key shift and the absence of a conventional repeated verse–chorus structure. And there's the instrumental break, taking up more than a fifth of the song, played by Crook on his Musitron—a contraction of music and electron—which was, in fact, a modified Clavioline.

Crook had bought a standard Gibson instrument in a pawnshop, disposed of the combo, and built up the Musitron. First he modified the keyboard by "putting in pots and resistors and switches into the circuit to make changes," he told me, which enhanced the instrument's range, "right up to where the dogs and cats are screaming."

Del Shannon - "Runaway"

He added a pitchbend by attaching a spring-loaded mechanical lever to the keyboard's tuning pots. He then fed the modified keyboard through a sequence of home-made echo, reverb, and vibrato units into a more powerful amplifier. The Musitron also featured on subsequent Shannon hits, but Crook did not continue in music full-time. He kept the Musitron, though, and used it at Shannon tribute events and nostalgia-circuit gigs well into this century. He died in July 2020.

Back in the UK, the rogue producer Joe Meek had used Claviolines since the late '50s. Of all his productions, the instrument is most associated with The Tornados' international hit "Telstar" (1962). This prompted a brief revival of a quaint advertising war that had taken place in the British music press in the mid '50s.

When Selmer's Clavioline went on sale in Britain, Tom Jennings, whose company Jennings Musical Instruments produced accordions, was interested. He designed an instrument that conceptually was all but identical, but with enough circuit changes to ensure that it wouldn't infringe the Clavioline's patent, and he launched the Jennings Univox in 1952.

Cosmetically, little distinguishes a Univox from a Clavioline. There's the three-octave monophonic keyboard, extendable to five, the volume knee-lever, and the combo amp, all packable together into one handy case. Initially, the Univox was supplied with clips to fasten it under a piano keyboard, like the Clavioline and Solovox before it. Later, a stand was offered so the Univox could be mounted on its own. Claviolines soon had their own stands, too.

From about 1953 to 1956, Selmer and Jennings posted ads quoting celebrity musicians eulogizing their instruments over other "similar products." The Univox was cheaper than the Clavioline at about 75 guineas (£81.15, or $230 then) compared to 125 guineas (£135.25, around $380 then) for the top of the range Selmer (Gibson launched its model at $395, about £140 then), but it was the Selmer that prevailed. Jennings was barely promoting its Univox by the late '50s. That is, until "Telstar" in 1962.

Competing ads for the Selmer Clavioline and the Jennings Univox.
Competing ads for the Selmer Clavioline and the Jennings Univox.

Although most authorities insist that Meek used Claviolines to create the melody line, Jennings ran a Univox ad in 1962—the firm's first for a while—claiming that the Univox was the "Telstar" sound. Who knows? Records of an auction of Meek's equipment after his death show that he owned a Clavioline and a Univox.

"Telstar" and "Runaway" marked the Clavioline's zenith, although the instruments continued to turn up in all sorts of music for years. John Barry and Sergio Leone used them in film scores. Sun Ra used one on his space-jazz freak-outs until he acquired a Minimoog. John Lennon is said to have rolled an orange up and down a Clavioline keyboard on "Baby You're A Rich Man."

Apart from the big three—Solovox, Clavioline, Univox—there were other piano attachments, including the Lipp Pianoline, the Ondiola, and the Hohner Electronium Pi. The Maestrovox was another British instrument, appearing in 1953, and a deluxe version, the Orchestrain, took the concept to its logical extreme. The electronics were attached directly to the host piano's keys so that playing the piano triggered Maestrovox sounds. It doesn't seem to have caught on.

Selmer's last Clavioline appeared in 1964—just the keyboard unit, to plug into any amplifier. Gibson had given up by then. Jörgensen was still promoting its Claviolines in 1965, but the game was almost up. The Minimoog was only a few years away.

Claviolines were consigned to cellars, attics, and garages, or just chucked away. They and other similar instruments turn up for sale quite regularly now—invariably described as "requiring restoration" or something similar. You might find it's worth the effort, and agree with Vangelis, who as late as 1974 told Sounds that his Clavioline was "a very old thing … but it's beautiful … it can give you many, many things."

About the author: Mark Brend is an author and a musician. His books The Sound Of Tomorrow (Bloomsbury 2012) and Strange Sounds (Backbeat 2005) explore early electronic music and musical instruments. He lives in Devon, England. More info at www.minutebook.co.uk.

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