The Clavinet Chronicles: From Modest Keyboard to Funk's Secret Weapon

Stevie Wonder (1970). Photo by: Steve Morley / Redferns, Getty Images.

It was just about the funkiest thing anybody had ever heard. When Stevie Wonder released "Superstition"—the first single from 1972's Talking Book—the deep, churning, percussive sound driving the whole thing along came from an instrument unknown to most people at the time: the clavinet. In fact, it had already been around for years.

But once the wider world picked up on it, the quirky little keyboard from Germany became the centerpiece of so many hard-grooving '70s tunes that the Soul Train logo should have been altered to incorporate the instrument's outline.

The clavinet's '70s heyday wasn't only about R&B either. With its utterly unique combination of bottom-end bump and upper-register bite, the keyboard cut a powerful path through roots rock, prog, fusion, and plenty of other styles. But the story of the sound that helped define the '70s actually starts with 15th century classical music.

The Early Clavinet

The clavichord was invented in the 1400s as sort a the little sibling of the harpsichord. Pressing the keys brought down blades that struck the metal strings inside the instrument.

1978 Double French Harpsichord. Photo by ML.

But the clavichord was created strictly for home use, with a volume level suitable only for the parlor, not the concert hall. So, in the long run, it didn't achieve the relative ubiquity of its louder counterpart.

Fast-forward all the way to 1964. West German instrument makers Hohner—best-known by that time for their harmonicas and accordions—had been making electrified keyboards since the late '50s, including electric pianos like the Cembalet and Pianet, and the two-and-a-half octave bass keyboard the Basset.

Within a couple of years, other companies would be making electric harpsichords, presumably responding to the baroque touches cropping up in pop and rock via the enterprising likes of The Beatles and The Beach Boys. But Hohner designer Ernst Zacharias beat them to the punch by basically slapping electric pickups onto the clavichord template and mutating that most fragile of classical instruments into a big, bold bruiser, ready for the rock 'n' roll age.

Hohner's Clavinet I debuted in '64, followed the next year by the Clavinet II. It was initially marketed to both classical and pop musicians, but the former pretty much laughed it off, and it seems to have taken a couple of years to really pick up steam on the pop side.

The clavinet apparently didn't turn up on record until 1967. Its first appearance is generally reckoned to be "Let Go of You Girl" from the debut LP by New York baroque-pop pioneers The Left Banke, released in Feburary '67.

"Let Go of You Girl"

But plenty more followed later that year, including The Lovin' Spoonful's "6 O'Clock," jazzer Don Ellis's "Indian Lady" from his Electric Bath album (played by Mike Lang), Emil Richards' electronic lounge pop LP New Sound Element (played by Paul Beaver), and Jamaican rocksteady group The Termites' "Attractive Girl."

Breaking into R&B

In '68, the clavinet started finding its way onto R&B records, like Booker T. & The M.G.'s' "The Beat Goes On" and Sam & Dave's "I Thank You."

Unsurprisingly (and most importantly), the most visionary R&B artiste of all began his love affair with the clavinet that year. It's all over Stevie Wonder's For Once in My Life album, on "Shoo-Be-Doo-Be-Doo-Da Day" and "I Don't Know Why," but "You Met Your Match" is where he really digs into the funky, staccato low-end riffs that would come to define the instrument in the '70s, largely thanks to his own subsequent work.

By this time, Hohner had already released the Clavinet C and the short-lived L, with its reverse-color keys and weirdly angled body. In 1969 rock 'n' rollers really started ripping into the keyboard. On the underground end of the spectrum, budding clav virtuoso Terry Adams tears it up on NRBQ's "Stomp."

"Terry Adams, my God, that guy can do anything with a clavinet," says power-pop cult hero Van Duren, "he makes it talk. Not to mention riding it all over the stage. He's the master as far as I'm concerned. There are many NRBQ tunes that I have to listen to really closely to realize that it's not a guitar, it's a clavinet. It's amazing."

"Up on Cripple Creek"

But Garth Hudson's crackling clavinet lines in The Band's "Up on Cripple Creek" marked the first time the instrument really turned the heads of young rockers in the musical mainstream.

"The way The Band used it, there wasn't just a straight clavinet sound, it was treated," enthuses Duren. "On 'Cripple Creek,' he's using the wah-wah pedal on it, which makes it sound almost like a Jew's Harp. And shortly thereafter [1970], "The Shape I'm In," Richard Manuel played it through a phaser pedal or something. He got a great sound out of it too and I was really turned on by it. It just sounds like a clavinet underwater, it sounds really punchy and cool."

With instrumental hits like Billy Preston's "Outta Space" and Emerson, Lake & Palmer's "Nut Rocker," the new decade's first couple of years weren't lacking in clavinet spotlights. But it was in 1972, after having had a few years to really dig into the axe, that Stevie Wonder changed the game forever with "Superstition."

Stevie Wonder Changes the Game

In the world of the clavinet, the tune from Wonder's Talking Book album is the Mona Lisa, Arch de Triomphe, and Great Pyramid of Giza all rolled into one. Aside from the synth bass, drums, and horns, it's the only instrument on the track, and it's overdubbed multiple times.

The impossibly funky main riff would inspire untold legions of clavinet-wielding groove merchants for generations to come. And its chattering, sometimes guitar-like overdubbed siblings on the track opened our ears that much wider to the instrument's possibilities. Though "Superstition" employed a Clavinet C, Hohner had already introduced the D6 in '71, which would become the standard-bearer for the line.

"Superstition"

Only a tune as epochal as "Superstition" could steal the spotlight from Bill Withers' "Use Me," released a few months ahead of Wonder's track, where Ray Jackson's indelible clavinet lick feels deliciously dirty in both the tonal and sexual sense.

Joe McGinty, best known for his work with The Psychedelic Furs and as ringmaster for New York City collective Loser's Lounge, is among the many keyboardists whose head was turned by the Talking Book track. "I remember when a friend picked up the Stevie Wonder album and put 'Superstition' on," he says, "My friend was like, 'That's not a guitar, that's his keyboard,' and [I remember] not knowing how a keyboard could make that sound."

It took Wonder to lead the way, but the clavinet really lent itself those funky staccato figures. "You have to approach it like a percussion instrument," says McGinty, "almost play it like a drummer. That's why Stevie Wonder, all his songs are in all the flat keys, because it's easier to attack those keys that way."

Journeyman Charly Roth, who has been a keyboardist for everybody from Suzanne Vega to Ozzy Osbourne, concurs. "There was no action, literally, you would put your finger down on the key and it would just go dink. That's why that funk style came up, because it just kind of enticed your hand to play like that. You would never think of playing anything like that on a Rhodes or a Hammond. It was literally where the instrument led you to play."

When former Temptations singer Eddie Kendricks scored a huge hit less than a year after "Superstition" with the clavinet workout "Keep on Truckin'," it was clear the funky keyboard was a full-blown phenomenon.

"When you started hearing these funk records," recalls Roth, "it really became 'We're gonna put this instrument up front.' 'Keep on Truckin'' to me is still the clavinet song of all time, it really puts the instrument through it's paces of the different ways it could be expressive as a featured instrument, but also the unbelievable range it has as a comping instrument."

"Superstition"

But even while it was becoming the keyboard du jour for funkmeisters, the clav found plenty of fans in the rock camp in the first half of the '70s. Most famously, John Paul Jones tore into it on Led Zeppelin's "Trampled Underfoot," The Edgar Winter Group took it for a "Free Ride," and Grand Funk harnessed its power for their hits "The Loco-Motion" and "Bad Time." But Todd Rundgren's guitar-like use of the instrument represented an entirely different aspect of its sonic personality.

"Once you plug it through a very slow-moving not too heavily regurgitated flanger and a distortion box," says Roth, "it essentially becomes an electric guitar through an amp. The sort of runs you can do also lend itself very well to become an accompanying instrument for electric guitar. Rundgren, it's all over his records, but he uses it in a very different way. He basically uses it as a thing that could achieve a guitar-like tone but you could play keyboard voicings on it."

In 1975, Van Duren and Big Star's Jody Stephens laid down a batch of demos at Memphis's now-legendary Ardent Studio, which began the long path to Duren's cult-classic debut, Are You Serious. "I used the Ardent clavinet," he remembers, "a 1960s Clavinet C, which they still have.

By then I'd heard Stevie Wonder and his application of it, which is more like a lead instrument. And Rundgren's, the way he used it in recordings, which is a lot of times doubling the piano. Which is what I ended up doing just to give it a different texture. It's like a keyboard guitar in a lot of ways."

"Grow Yourself Up"

By the time the '80s rolled around, though, the clavinet was in decline. "It was heavy, it was expensive, and you had to store it somewhere," says Roth. Evolving synthesizer technology also contributed to the instrument's endangerment. "The same musical space the clavinet would have taken up was now being taken up by these analog stabby synth pads and these tight little '80s chordings. Even something like the [Yamaha] DX7 had such a fast attack time that clavinet sounds were fairly easy to do on it."

When more sophisticated digital synths like Roland's D-50 and the Korg M-1 arrived in the late '80s the clavinet might as well have been on the AARP mailing list. "Not only did the sound of that instrument fall out of style for a while," sums up Roth, "but it did it at exactly the same time when another technology could approximate it enough where the real instrument wasn't needed."

The Clavinet Today

"Water Brother"

These days the clavinet's rarity rivals that of the Sumatran rhinoceros, especially onstage. "Nowadays all your gig keyboards like the Nord [Electro and Stage] or the Yamaha Motif, they all have pretty convincing clavinets" says Joe McGinty.

"I haven't used an actual real clavinet probably since the late '70s" affirms Van Duren. "In a live context you're using one or two keyboards, and if you can get that sound just by switching patches, that's far more convenient. When I got to using synths in the early '80s and on, every one I owned had a great clavinet sound."

But as any analog devotee will tell you, as close as digital approximations may come, there's nothing like the real thing. Onstage substitutes aside, McGinty still keeps a clav in his studio setup. "There are some synthesizer patches that are pretty close but they're really not the same," he says, "they're kind of their own thing. Close enough for live. It's definitely better in the studio to have the real thing… you can change the pickup combination and things like that." Duren agrees, "The real thing sounds better as long as you know how to record it properly."

The clavinet still sounds as good today as it did when keyboardists like Wonder and Winter were flailing away at it in the '70s. "It's a distinct sound," agrees McGinty, "you can cut through really well. It's very satisfying and a lot of fun. When you dig into it you can really feel it, it's definitely a very tactile and direct instrument. It's like a percussion instrument, you can really just whack it [laughs], it'll sound great."

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