Digital Organ Basics – Drawbars, Rotary, Percussion

How to Use Drawbars and Rotary on a Hammond Organ
Image: Hammond Zone

If you can play piano, you can play the organ. However, you mustn’t assume that the two are the same. In fact, you will find that playing the organ requires an entirely new set of skills! First and foremost, you must understand how to use your drawbars, rotary, and percussion to obtain the desired tone.

The drawbars on your organ are quite literally the sound of the organ. On a traditional Hammond organ there were 2 sets of 9 drawbars for the upper and lower sets of keys (called Manuals on an organ), as well as 2 drawbars for your pedals.

Nowadays, big physical Hammond organs are less common, replaced onstage by more versatile digital organs found in Nord Keyboards, Hammond Digital Organs, Roland keyboards, Korg keyboards and others. They weigh in at around 25 pounds and can create not just organ sounds, but pianos, electric pianos (EPs), clavs, etc. It’s no wonder they’ve replaced the traditional (and cumbersome) Hammond/Leslie combo!

On your digital organ, you will probably have just one set of nine drawbars (either digital or physical) and a button that selects your upper and lower manuals. Let’s run through the basics:

  1. Pulling a drawbar out (towards you) increases the volume of that partial from 0 – 8 incrementally.
  2. Pushing it in (away from you) lowers the volume incrementally.
  3. Each drawbar produces sound in relation to the note being played

Here’s where things get interesting. An organ takes advantage of ‘fundamentals’ and ‘harmonics’ (overtones). Every instrument has both fundamentals and overtones when played, and it’s the combination of the two that creates an instrument’s unique sound. Organs were originally created to mimic other instruments (oboe, flutes, bass, trumpet, etc.). When we pull out or push in the drawbars, we alter each harmonic (or fundamental) present in the sound. Thus, we can imitate other instruments, and create unique “Hammond” sounds.

Here is a helpful diagram explaining what sound each drawbar creates in relation to Middle C:

Full organ

Having understood the basics, let’s move on to using drawbars in a practical setting.

The first thing to explore when discussing drawbars it their effect on the sound of your instrument. I’ll demonstrate a few different sounds. The drawbars will be shown with the red dots, and will be pulled all the way down for the purpose of this demonstration.

Organ drawbars

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1. Foundation Note – No Overtones

Organ foundation noteIn this example, I began with the rotary in ‘Stop Mode’, then turned it on, and then added percussion with a third.

2. Classic Rock B3 Sound – 3 Drawbars

Organ rock B3 soundHere I started with rotors spinning slowly and turned them on afterwards.

3. Big Ol’ B3 Sound – All The Drawbars

Organ big ol' B3 soundThis can be used for ragtime or rock ‘n roll!

4. Light and Rootsy – A Few Drawbars

Organ light and rootsy sound

Used in Americana and Roots Music.

5. Moving The Drawbars Around – Ballad

Tips For Using Drawbars and Rotary on OrganOne can push or pull the drawbars around while they’re being played for a great effect. For example, in a ballad, you can start off with ‘Classic Rock B3’ setting, and add in some of the upper drawbars to create more interest to your part! Here is my audio example:

As you can hear, this is a very effective way to add some interest, some sparkle to your organ part. Particularly if the organ is being used as a pad (as demonstrated here).

6. Moving The Drawbars Around – Soloing

It’s also common to move the drawbars around while soloing to create interest and change tones during a solo. In this example, I will demonstrate a couple of common ways to use your drawbars during a solo.

It’s worth noting that on my Nord Electro there are only digital drawbars, with physical drawbars you can make these moves more effective by doing them quickly. For a masterful example of this watch Cory Henry pay tribute to the gospel great Melvin Crispel.

Pay special attention to how Cory uses drawbars to shape the sound, and his foot pedal to control the volume.

Learning How To Use Rotary

The other big part of a classic B3 sound is the rotary. The rotary effect is famously created by a rotating Leslie speaker. Traditionally this was operated via foot pedal or a switch on the organ. These days, your digital organ will have a simple button to press, a foot pedal to connect, or in some cases a modulation bar to use. A foot pedal is often preferable, because it frees up a hand to do more work.

There is an art to using a rotor effectively, and I’m going to show you the basics! Essentially, when the rotors are spinning fast, it’s a more exciting sound. Similarly, a rotor spinning slowly will provide a nice sense of space, but without very much momentum.

There are a number of ways to use this to your advantage. Here’s 4 basic tips on using your rotary.

  1. Turn your rotors on high when you approach a chorus, an exciting moment or a series of shots
  2. Use the rotors lightly when changing chords
  3. Always use your rotors when sliding
  4. Use the effect created by the rotors slowing down

In the following audio example, I demonstrate these four tips.

Using Percussion

Finally, to create the perfect tone, you should be using the percussion setting to your advantage. In the previous examples I used percussion, but never explained it. Never fear! Explanation incoming.

The B3 and C3 model organs introduced ‘Harmonic Percussion’; designed to emulate a xylophone or marimba. Essentially, an overtone (remember those?) of a second or third is triggered when a new note is played. However, this overtone does not sustain and instead fades away leaving only the notes you’ve already played.

The volume of this effect can typically be selected as “Normal/Fast” or “Soft”. The 3rd or 2nd harmonic is also selectable.

It’s important to note that this effect on re-triggers after the notes have been released. This means that the effect will only work on the first strike of a legato passage or chord progression.

This effect is demonstrated in the example:

Lesson Summary

Playing organ is an art that’s at once similar and completely different from piano. This guide should get you off to a good start. With a basic understanding of drawbars, rotary and percussion, you’ll be able to create just about any sound you like. Keep playing, keep learning, keep listening, and soon you’ll be creating organ parts with the best of them!

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