Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: The Clavinet

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to another edition of Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays – our occasional Campari and soda drenched probe into the rainbow and glitter world of artistes who are quite simply fabulous darling.

This week, for a change, we’ll be examining the case for the defence. Accusations of excessive flamboyance have been made against one of my favourite musical instruments and I wish to present an alternative view. As a result, things are gonna get funky as we be a-probin’ and a-proddin’ around a rather unusual keyboard instrument and take a listen to some of the splendid artistes who have exploited its unique properties to great effect. laydees and gentlebodies, FFF proudly presents – the little keyboard that could – the one and only Hohner Clavinet – not ‘arf!

This article was spawned, as is so often the case, by an unexpected tumble down an internet rabbit hole. I was idly browsing some LGBT message boards (researching current opinions on fabulously flamboyant artists, swapping recipes and Friday night fashion tips) when I stumbled upon a conversation about the gay credibility or otherwise of various musical instruments. This was a surprise to me as the perceived suitability of musical instruments for different sexual orientations (apart from the triangle, of course) was not an subject I’d previously considered. The suggestion was that certain instruments were far more attractive to members of the LGBT community than others, and once the conversation had settled down (i.e. once we got past the inevitable jokes about trombonists, woodwind and magnificent organs) some actual musicians began to chip in and a consensus began to emerge. The gentlemen of the board were much in favour of the piano, saxophone and the violin, whereas the ladies were far more enthused by the driving rhythms of percussion and the electric bass. However, during this conversation, one chap made some very unkind and disparaging remarks, which I won’t repeat here, about the Hohner Clavinet. He was quite cutting in his criticism and the core of his assertion was that this particular instrument was guilty of excessive ostentation, was irredeemably limp-wristed, and was in fact both naff and fey. Well, my claws were out, I leapt to the defence of this plucky underdog and this article was born.

So what is a Clavinet? Well it’s the stringed electronic keyboard at which you can see both Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Lea bashing away in the two videos above. It’s ancestor, the clavichord, was invented in the 1400s as a kind of low-rent version of the concert harpsichord. It was created for home and small chapel use, with a volume level suitable for not much more than a domestic parlour. It did all right, but didn’t exactly set the world on fire. Nevertheless, fast-forward to the early 1960s, when German instrument makers Hohner decided to expand their keyboard range, and it was the clavichord to which they turned for inspiration when they set out to create an instrument that could broadly reproduce both harpsichord and clavichord sounds for the home keyboard market. The German engineer Ernst Zacharias was tasked by Hohner with the challenge of creating this instrument, he duly obliged, the Hohner Clavinet was born and subsequently debuted to public indifference in 1964. Ridiculed by classical musicians and largely ignored by the home market, it was not a roaring success, but did sell well enough to stay in production. Eventually some bright spark realised that if you cranked the onboard pickups (essentially microphones for the strings) through a decent amplifier until valve distortion began to rough up the sound (overdrive), this tinkly little keyboard would begin to develop a unique and pretty decent sound all of its own. As a result, by 1967 the humble Clavinet had started to make the occasional appearance on recordings by artists such as The Lovin’ Spoonful, Booker T. & The MG’s, Sam & Dave and The Band. Importantly, The Band realised that not only did the Clavinet sound great when it was over-driven into mild distortion, it was also a very good platform for effect pedals. They subsequently used a guitar wha-wha pedal (essentially a foot-operated tone control) to shape the sound of the Clavinet, took it up to Cripple Creek for a huge US hit single and made the little Clavi growl and groan and groove.

The Band – Up On Cripple Creek

Stevie Wonder was of course another 1960s high-profile user of this keyboard. He made extensive use of the Clavinet on his 1968 album, For Once in My Life, and subsequently delivered high profile exposure for the instrument with both his utterly magnificent 1972 album, Talking Book, and its worldwide hit single Superstition (video at the head of this article). The impossibly funky main riff of that track would go on to inspire untold legions of Clavinet-wielding groove merchants and sales of the keyboard really began to take off. Eddie Kendricks gave the keyboard further exposure with his US hit, Keep On Trucking, and suddenly the Clavinet was a genuine musical phenomenon and the funkiest little keyboard in town.

Eddie Kendricks – Keep On Truckin

I had the opportunity to play one of these legendary keyboards back in the late 70s and, cards on the table, I have to say it was not a particularly gratifying experience. To my surprise, the actual keyboard was genuinely horrible to play. There was almost no feel to the keys, no weighting or action as you would expect to find on a piano, for example, and at first I thought that perhaps I was playing a particularly badly maintained specimen. However, a friendly keyboard tech, far more knowledgable than I, assured me that it was in fact a very good and thoroughly well maintained example of the breed. “They’re all bleedin’ ‘orrible”, was his considered opinion. As a result of these weirdly lifeless keys, pretty much everyone who plays the Clavi eventually starts playing in an aggressive manner, attacking the keyboard, thumping away, almost as if it were a percussion instrument – and it works! The Clavinet produces those uniquely funky staccato sounds because it almost forces you to play in that typical staccato manner that eventually all Clavinet players seem to adopt.

Anyway, It wasn’t only funk and soul musicians who enthusiastically adopted the Clavinet, it was also a particular favourite of ’70s prog rockers, with Yes, ELP, King Crimson, The Moody Blues and many others all exploiting the keyboard’s unique abilities at one time or another. Here’s the much-missed composer, keyboard maestro, upside-down piano player and Hammond organ stabber, Keith Emerson, giving his poor ol’ Clavinet a damn good seeing to.

It has to be said that, as a general rule, bass players of the time were not overly enthused by this sudden explosion of Clavinet use. With almost no warning, bass players suddenly discovered they were no longer the sacred keepers of the funky groove, and in fact found themselves in the unhappy position of being usurped and thoroughly out-funked by a tinkly little home-use keyboard from Germany. They were not amused. However, bloodied but unbowed, the bass playing fraternity went back to the drawing board and decided to pull their finger out. In truth, they actually decided to pull their thumbs out, and subsequently responded to the funky threat of the Clavinet with highly commendable and at times quite bombastic aplomb.

Faced with the percussive funk of the Clavinet, bass players began to pay far more attention to the (at that time) primitive techniques of slap bass. Slapping is a widely used technique on stringed instruments (Flamenco guitarists, for example, use it to great effect), but on the double bass this technique was largely developed by jazz bands in the early 1900s. It quickly spread to other genres (rockabilly, for example) and was eventually adapted for the electric bass, with the credit for this development usually going to Larry Graham of Sly and the Family Stone. He described his version of this technique as “a-thumping and a-plucking”, but it soon became widely known as slap and pop.

Slapping on a bass guitar involves using the edge of one’s thumb knuckle to strike the string against the fretboard; popping refers to pulling the string away from the fretboard and quickly releasing it so it snaps back against the fretboard. The skilful deployment of this technique results in a very bright, funky and percussive sound. Faced with the funky threat of the Clavinet, bass players fell on Larry Graham’s development with glee and were soon fighting back, determined to reclaim the funky high ground from the keyboard upstart and return the bottom-end boys to their rightfully elevated groovy position. As a result, the primitive slap bass style of the late ’60s began to develop and evolve with great speed, and was subsequently mastered and deployed by an impressive roster of legendary bass players including Stanley Clark, Marcus Miller, Bootsey Collins, Bernard Edwards, Flea, Victor Wooten and many, many more. By the late ’70s, bass players had elevated the art of slapping to quite extraordinary levels of skill. As a perfect example, here’s Level 42’s Mark King delivering a thumpingly funky lesson in advanced bass guitar abuse.

But it wasn’t just funk and jazz players who embraced the Clavinet. Glam rockers such as Slade (as seen in the video above) adopted the Clavinet and used it to great effect, as did the biggest ’70s rock band on the planet, Led Zeppelin (sit down, Keith. After a very good start, you and Mick had a very lackluster decade). The Zeppelin song that immediately springs to mind is of course Trampled Under Foot, a song inspired by Robert Johnson’s Terraplane Blues that emerged from the band’s legendary Headley Grange sessions.

Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones has credited Stevie Wonder’s Superstition with the inspiration for Trampled Under Foot, and Jimmy Lea has in turn credited Zeppelin’s Trampled Under Foot with the inspiration for Slade’s Thanks For The Memories. It is also interesting to note the Clavinet on both recordings is played by the bass player in the band, underlining the impact this keyboard had on the world of bass botherers.

Reggae, too fell under the spell of the Clavi. In the 1970s, reggae, like funk, was a genre heavily driven by bass lines. As such, the Clavinet was well suited to this musical environment and was soon given a warm welcome in the recording studios of the West Indies, with reggae giant Bob Marley using the keyboard to great effect on both his albums and singles.

But the best was yet to come, as it wasn’t just funky and percussive bass lines at which the Clavinet excelled. Keyboard players soon realised they could use this plucky little instrument to steal some of the much-coveted limelight generally reserved for the masturbatory plank-spanking antics of rock music’s nimble-fingered guitar fraternity. And this was particularly the case once a chap called Buddy Castle had decided, in a moment of Heath Robinson madness, to see what would happen if he fitted his Clavi with a whammy bar (aka tremolo arm) similar to the ones guitarists use when ostentatiously spanking the plank. Accordingly, he connected the strings of his Clavinet to a rotating bridge and fixed the rotating bridge to a lever on the top of his instrument. The results were extraordinary and took the plucky-little-keyboard-that-could to a whole new level of bombastic versatility (limp-wristed and fey, my arse). Here’s Lachy Doley (a Clavi specialist) giving a splendid demonstration of the whammy-Clavi’s guitar-like versatility.

Lachy Doley – Voodoo Child

However, despite all the fun and games, by the time the ’80s rolled around, the humble Clavinet was in sad decline. It was heavy beast, didn’t travel well, took ages to tune, was susceptible to temperature changes and spare parts were very, very expensive. Inevitably of course, digital synthesizer technology contributed hugely to the instrument’s decline. As soon as reliable poly-synths began to emerge, with the near-legendary Yamaha DX7 striking the first serious blow (to be followed quickly by Roland’s D-50 and Korg’s M-1) it was clear the writing was on the wall and the plucky Clavinet would soon become largely redundant. In addition, during the 1980s, replacement parts for Clavinets became hard to find as Hohner ceased to support the model. Prices fell and sadly many of these wonderful instruments were cannibalised to keep their luckier brethren viable. However, once again, the plucky-little-keyboard-that-could simply refused to lie down and die. Recording studios still used them because the many digital emulations (as good as they are) never quite managed to capture the funky magic of the original. Slowly a revival of sorts has taken place and the humble Clavi is once again (well, occasionally) back out on the road, and a healthy cottage industry has built up around the instrument, dedicated to keeping the remaining Clavinets in spankingly tip-top condition. As a result, both the popularity and the price of Clavinets have been on the rise for quite some time and their use in the music industry is currently higher than it has been for about a couple of decades. It’s been written off many times, but it’s still here, it’s still funky, it’s still groovin’ and it just keeps on truckin’.

And on that cheerful note, we shall wrap up this week’s FFF with a fine set from some young bucks who know a thing or two about the strategic deployment of Clavinets.

The Crash Kings – The Evolution Of The Guitar – With No Guitar

TTFN Puffins – not ‘arf!

Featured Image: John Athayde, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

© Ivory Cutlery 2023