The Classics – Series 2: The Instrument
For the second installment of The Classics I wanted to dive a bit deeper into the cultural aspect of soul music and, in doing so, I wanted to highlight an instrument from the genre that many would consider to be notable and or helped define the genre through its unique sound.
That instrument is The Clavinet and Stevie Wonder’s utilization of it on “Superstition” helped to launch his legendary career along with The Clavinet’s.
For the Instrument Highlight, I interviewed Bill Greenhalgh – a 40+ year employee of M. Hohner, Inc., which is the company that manufactured and distributed The Clavinet overseas and in the US…….
What’s your name and how long have you been with Hohner?
My Name is Bill Greenhalgh, I started working for M. Hohner, Inc. in the spring of 1966
When you first started there, what was your position? What’s your position now?
When I first came to Hohner I was employed as a warehouse worker, pulling orders packing orders, loading and unloading trucks. I have since done shipping, receiving, traffic management, customer service and now I am in Distributor sales.
How did Hohner gets its start in the US?
Hohner has been in business since 1857 and opened an office in New York in 1901. The New York office was managed by Hans Hohner, one of the owners of the company. The demand for Hohner Harmonicas was world wide, and Hohner began opening offices in prime locations throughout the world. It seemed the more harmonicas Hohner produced the greater the demand was. In the late 1800’s almost all of Hohner’s production was focused on exports to the U.S.A.
What was the music industry like at that time?
There was an industrial boom in the late 1800’s enabling Hohner to produce large quantities of instruments for global distribution. The emphasis was on quality and brand building.
Can you give a brief history on the Clavinet as well as how it made its way to the US?
The Clavinet was originally designed by a Hohner engineer to be used as a compact in-home harpsichord for classical music. The first versions to my recollection were the Clavinet I and the Clavinet II which were built into a wood cabinet. There was also a Clavinet L which had the colors of the white and black keys reversed which looked pretty cool for the time period and I believe it was self amplified. Next came the Clavinet C which had a red body with a white top. It was “Little” Stevie Wonder who took this model from the living room to the stage and made the Clavinet famous. Hohner relocated to Hicksville, Long Island in 1960 and by the late 60’s, early 70’s almost every band with a keyboard player was using a Hohner Clavinet. The next and most played model was the Clavinet D6 and then the last one made the Clavinet E7.
What do you think it is about the sound or the instrument itself that musicians enjoyed so much?
It could sound like a piano, it could sound like a harpsichord but everyone loved the Funky sound it could produce, and because it was electro mechanical the player could develop his own style to enhance the sound.
Can you provide any background on its design and if that played a role in its function?
The keys on a Clavinet have a hard rubber tipped hammer which strikes a string when depressed. The sound is then picked up by an upper and lower pick-up. Sound being produced this way gives the player the dynamic to change the sound by the way its played. This combined with rocker switches taking the pick ups in and out of phase gave the instrument a great funky sound that became a part of the music of the time.
How did most acts utilize and or integrate the Clavinet in their setup?
Most keyboard players of the era used a Fender Rhoads for their piano sound and a Clavinet for their breaks and leads. Hohner even offered a set of adjustable telescopic legs for the rear legs of the instrument so you could position it on top of another keyboard and have it back far enough so you could use both instruments.
What’s the model that Stevie Wonder used?
I remember mostly the C and D6
After Stevie Wonder’s success began to mount, did he and Hohner develop a relationship or was it pretty informal?
Stevie came to the Hohner facility in Hicksville for a visit and always had a good relationship with Hohner, not only because he played a Clavinet, he’s also an awesome harp player. He still stops by at the NAMM (National Association of Musical Merchants) show in Anaheim, CA to say hello. Everyone at Hohner is always excited when we get a chance to see him.
After Stevie, the Clavinet seemed to enjoy a lot of success in the mid to late 70s with an array of acts using it. What was the environment like at Hohner during that time?
It was great to have all the big name bands of the time using our Clavinet. Many would stop in just to try out a new one or send their roadies to pick one up. Hohner also distributed Sonor drums at the time and we had groups like Blood, Sweat and Tears, Lovin’ Spoonful stop in when they were in the area.
Did Hohner ever make custom and or signature Clavinet’s for any of the popular acts?
Not to my knowledge. I never saw one other than a stock piece.
What were some of the groups and or songs that you liked that used the instrument?
Stevie Wonder and Superstition is the best known Clavinet Song, but there were recordings by the Stones, Led Zep, Billy Preston and others that used them.
Why do you think there’s such a big resurgence in the Clavinet?
Musician’s who want to reproduce the sound, as it was, need the original instruments to do it. A lot of the drums, guitars and basses used in this time period are produced basically the same today, but the distinguishing sound of the Clavinet can’t really be felt by hitting the Clav button on a modern day electronic keyboard. They want the real thing.
Why did Hohner decide to disassociate themselves from the instrument and how did Clavient.com come into the picture?
Hohner really didn’t disassociate themselves from the instrument. The musician’s changed their needs to lighter weight instruments that could do a hundred different things electronically. The Clavinet weighed in at about 90lbs and had limited sounds. Time moved on and left the Electro-mechanical Clavinet behind. By the mid eighties Hohner sold its last trailer load of Clavinet E7’s to a music store chain and it ended. Hohner had replacement parts available for years afterward but many of the factories in Germany that were outsourced for parts were closed and slowly parts became hard to come by. Hohner in the U.S. sold our remaining parts inventory to Clavinet.com and they sourced their own replacement parts and have helped musicians keep their Clavinets alive.