Hammond Model S Chord Organs: The Non-Musician’s Instrument of Choice
by Wayne Jordan (03/02/14).
The Hammond Model S6 chord organ. The Model S organs were designed to have non-musicians “playing lovely organ music within 30 minutes.”
Americans value their leisure time. I know I do; it’s nice to have some time to spend however I see fit. My ancestors (yours, too, I suspect) worked all day and had little time for hobbies and amusements. Now, middle-class families have a wide range of leisure activities that they can engage in.
As the middle class grew in the late 19th and 20th centuries, entertainment technology grew as well. We all love to be entertained, and over the years manufacturers have fed our desire for amusement. From machine-age diversions like mechanical arcade games and player pianos to digital-age gaming consoles and smartphones, our leisure hours have been filled with technology for more than 100 years.
Some technologies (player pianos, for example) took a while to reach their market saturation point. Other technologies—like radio—gained a foothold quickly. Every technology needs an infrastructure to support it, whether retail distribution, phone lines or radio transmitters. Whenever a new entertainment technology was introduced into an existing infrastructure, the possibility of a sales explosion existed. Such was the case with America’s first electric chord organ, the Hammond Model S.
Introduced in 1950, the Model S was designed to have non-musicians “playing lovely organ music within 30 minutes.” The Model S chord organ was laid out in easy-to-navigate divisions: keyboard on the right, chords on the left, and two pedals underneath. Would-be musicians needed bother with sheet music; they could learn songs from easy-play “picture music.” All the chords needed for most popular music could be played by pushing a button with one finger of the left hand, and melodies could be played with one finger of the right hand. Indeed, the organ could only play one note at a time on the keyboard, no matter how many keys were pressed down, so it didn’t really many how many fingers were used to play a melody.
Today, this approach to playing music seems rather simplistic; most of us are familiar with the one-note-chording features of modern digital keyboards. In 1950, though, two-finger play was a novel concept. Musicians may point out that a chord organ is no easier to play than an accordion (which is true), but the quality of a chord organs’ cabinetry and the fullness of the organ’s sound appealed more to the aesthetic sensibilities of 1950s homemakers. The organ keyboard and electronics were installed in a nicely executed walnut cabinet that fit well into a home’s decor. In the 1950s, many consumers chose a Hammond organ instead of a piano for their homes. Offered initially at a price of $975, the Model S chord organ was only slightly more expensive than an entry-level spinet piano.
This Hammond Chord Organ ad from 1954 promised consumers that they could play lovely organ music within 30 minutes.
For those who couldn’t read music, Hammond provided easy-to-read “picture music.”
The Model S chord organ capitalized—incorrectly—on the larger Hammond organs world-famous tone. In 1934, clockmaker Laurens Hammond patented a tone-generation system for organs that was purely electro-mechanical. Until that time, all organs had relied on either wind alone (pipe organs) or a combination of wind and reeds (pump organs) to generate their sound. Hammond’s system consisted of a series of “tone-wheels” (resembling table saw blades varying in size and tooth length) that would spin in front of a magnet. The resulting fluctuations in the magnetic field generated electric currents of varying wave-lengths that could be made to correspond with the wavelengths of musical notes. The volume of each wavelength could be adjusted with “draw-bars” above the keyboard and the resulting tones were amplified by a tube amplifier. The ability to customize the sound of a Hammond organ to one’s personal taste made them hugely popular with professional musicians, churches and schools.
The S model chord organs, however, generated tone through electronic vacuum tubes rather than tone generator technology. Nonetheless, the 37 notes and 96 chords of the Model S produced quite a lush sound and retailers found it easy to sell consumers on the “Hammond tradition of great sound” in spite of the instrument’s small size. It didn’t hurt that the instrument was also easy to play. The 96 chords could be activated with the push of a button on the chord panel. A variety of sounds could be created on the keyboard by pushing one of 20 tabs above the keyboard. A player could control the overall volume of the organ by means of a knee-operated lever under the keyboard, and the volume balance between the keyboard, chord and pedal divisions of the organ could be controlled by adjusting the balance knobs above the keyboard.
The button layout for the 96 chords of the Model S.
A cutaway of Hammond’s tone wheel generator system.
From 1950 to 1956, Hammond produced three Model S chord organs: the S, S1 and S4. They were available in walnut or ebony cabinets ranging in price from $975 to $1025. The features of these models were essentially the same, with variations in the number of speakers and the types of tubes used. In 1956, Hammond upgraded the chord organ to the S6 Model, which continued in production until 1963. The S6 was Hammond’s most popular chord organ. It added percussion bars to the chord division, and two more cabinet styles were added (Limba and Provincial). The various features and cabinet styles of the Hammond S series can be found in the documents Hammond Chord Organ Playing Instructions and The Blue Book of Hammond.
In the 1950s, Hammond spent millions of dollars training music teachers and dealers to build their student base by introducing the Hammond chord organ to non-players. To do so, Hammond employed a method that had proven successful for Singer Sewing Machine Company: offer free lessons and a loaner instrument to build interest, and then sell the consumer the product on an installment plan. In 1951, Hammond taught more than 6,000 music teachers in more than 200 one-day workshops how to build students’ confidence and enthusiasm. An aggressive print advertising campaign emphasizing ease-of-play and family-values resulted in the sale of thousands of Model S chord organs each year.
For Hammond retailers, the S6 was used to enroll consumers into an ongoing marketing system. Many Hammond retailers were also piano retailers. For most families, a piano is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, and dealers had to market heavily to find new piano customers. The home organ market, however, provided a built-in source of repeat business: about 40 percent of the families that purchased an organ would purchase several more in subsequent years. To achieve these extra sales, dealers would sponsor or host local chapters of the Hammond Organ Society.
The Hammond Organ Society was a network of social clubs built around playing the organ as a hobby. Meetings were held monthly and featured performances by local organists, refreshments and socializing. Dealers would provide an organ for the performance and be on hand to demonstrate new models. Regular exposure to “bigger and better” organs (as well as better organists) and the support of other club members would motivate students to want to play and sound better. Better sound usually required a bigger organ and (of course) the dealer was more than ready to offer a liberal trade-in on a new instrument.
This 1971 piece in the Ohio’s Bryan Times announced the formation of a new chapter of the Hammond Organ Society.
The Hammond Times newsletter kept club members informed of happenings across the country.
Hammond had such great success with its organ marketing system that other organ manufacturers jumped onto the bandwagon. Soon, such programs were offered by Lowery, Kimball, Thomas, Conn, Wurlitzer and Baldwin. In the 1980s, organ dealers shifted their marketing focus to senior citizens (because they had sufficient free time and spendable cash). As this generation passes away, the market has become flooded with once-very-expensive and now-nearly-worthless home organs.
In the 1970s, most Hammond Organ Societies changed their names to “Home Organ Club” (or something similar) to reflect the variety of brands in the marketplace. The Hammond Organ Company was slow to adapt to changing technologies and fell behind the competition. Hammond went out of business in 1985. All rights associated with the Hammond name were subsequently sold to the Suzuki Musical Instrument Corporation, which now makes digital versions of the classic Hammond models.
There are still Home Organ Societies in most major U.S. cities. Early Hammond organs are collected by both amateur and professional musicians, and the Hammond S6 has somewhat of a cult following. There were so many S6 chord organs produced that they turn up regularly on eBay and at estate sales. Parts and schematics for the S6 are available online. For the time being, collectors can acquire these instruments for a very modest price.
Finally, here’s a 1950s favorite played on the S6:
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions or Resale Retailing with Wayne Jordan.