A Brief History of Keyboards

19 Nov 2014

There are many different types of electric keyboards.  Electronic organs—instruments designed to imitate acoustic pipe organs—first appeared in 1934. 

Organs appeared in the home beginning in the 1950s and became very popular through the 1970s.  The Hammond B3 was originally marketed as a home organ but was adopted by musicians who were looking for a loud overdriven (i.e. distorted) sound.  Many linked their B3s to Leslie speakers, an integrated speaker/amplifier cabinet with a rotating horn which offered interesting Doppler effects.  Jon Lord of Deep Purple and Rob Collins of the Charlatans UK were famous for their B3 sounds.


Electric pianos are electro-mechanical instruments.  Hammers strike reeds or strings and the sounds are amplified by pickups similar to those used by an electric guitar.  Popular manufacturers include Rhodes, Wurlitzer, Hohner and Yamaha.  Billy Preston can be heard playing an electric piano on “Get Back” by the Beatles.

Tape replay keyboards such as the Mellotron and the Optigan used pre-recorded analog tapes to produce sound.  Pressing a key triggers a tape machine to play.  The pre-recorded notes on these tapes (usually a maximum of eight seconds long before the tape stopped and rewound) could theoretically be anything, from a flute to an electric guitar.  A Melltron is used in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Tuesday’s Gone” and “Turn the Page” from Bob Seger.

Synthesizers are keyboard devices that generate waveforms that can be manipulated in an infinite number ways to either imitate other instruments or to produce an unimaginable variety of new sounds.  The technology used in synthesizers has names like FM synthesis, subtractive synthesis and physical modeling synthesis.  Synthesizers are not restricted to being keyboard devices.  They can also take the form of foot pedals and outboard units used in conjunction with guitars, wind instruments and drums.

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