The Beatles were not just a guitar band - they made extensive use of keyboards too!
By Phil O'Keefe
While they are often thought of as a "guitar band", the Beatles also used keyboards regularly on their recordings. Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney played keyboards on various Beatles songs, and producer George Martin also contributed his keyboard playing to several recordings, including the brilliant Baroque-inspired piano solo (that sounds like a harpsichord) on In My Life. The unique sound of this keyboard part was achieved by recording the piano with the tape deck running at half speed and then playing it back at full speed. Billy Preston also played keyboards on some of their later recordings, including the Rhodes electric piano parts heard throughout the Let It Be album on such songs as Don't Let Me Down and Get Back.
The Beatles were always eager to try practically anything in their quest for new and different sounds. John Lennon's use of a Hohner Pianet N electric piano on The Night Before being a good early example. A Hohner Pianet would also later be used on songs such as I Am The Walrus and Revolution. The Mellotron flutes on Strawberry Fields Forever is another classic example of their use of emerging keyboard technology, as was their use of the Moog IIIP synthesizer that can be heard on Abbey Road.
The Abbey Road studios were also well-equipped with keyboards, and the Beatles took advantage of that and used them on several recordings. The studio's 1905 Steinway Vertegrand upright, which was nicknamed the Mrs Mills piano by the studio staff, was kept slightly out of tune, and that, coupled with its lacquer-hardened hammers, gives it a very distinctive "old-time" sound that was used on many songs, including the piano parts on Lady Madonna and She's A Woman. The studio's Lowrey DSO-1 Heritage Deluxe Organ was used for the harpsichord-like sounds on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, the organ parts on Sun King, as well as for some of the organ sounds on Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite. Abbey Road's Mannborg Harmonium was featured prominently on We Can Work It Out, and the studio's Steinway D grand piano was used on several songs, as was their Hammond RT-3 tone wheel organ - a close relative of their more famous B-3 model. Leslie speakers were also used by the Beatles - not only paired with organs, but to process everything from guitars (You Never Give Me Your Money) to vocals (Tomorrow Never Knows). George used Leslie speakers to amplify his guitars fairly often, and it became a easily-recognized component of his later-era Beatles guitar sound.
Other keyboard instruments that they used included harpsichord (Fixing A Hole, Piggies), Moog IIIP Modular synthesizer (used on several songs on Abbey Road), Baldwin Combo Electric Harpsichord (Because), Celeste (Baby It's You, Fool On The Hill, Good Night), Clavioline (Baby You're A Rich Man), Clavichord (For No One) and a Vox Continental organ, which John Lennon played on I'm Down.
Short of purchasing a ton of hard-to-find vintage keyboards, today the easiest route to similar sounds is through virtual instruments. Propellerhead offers their Abbey Road Keyboards Reason ReFill Collection, which includes samples for Reason of several of the actual Abbey Road studio keyboards. There is also Fab Four, a virtual instrument from EastWest with samples of Beatles-era instruments recorded on original EMI equipment by former Beatles Engineer Ken Scott.
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.
When I was a kid I remember seeing an ad in a music magazine that said 80% or something of hit records had a Fender Rhodes on them. As I've gotten older I've developed a much better ability to pick out the sounds of vintage keyboards and I think that 80% is way overstated. I now know that a lot of the electric pianos that I used to assume were Fender Rhodes were actually Wurlitzers. As a matter of fact I think I hear more Wurlitzers than Fender Rhodes on most 60s and 70s music.
A lot of bands in those days had either a Rhodes or a Wurlitzer but I think the Hohner Pianet has one of the coolest keyboard sounds ever recorded.
Early Pianets were used on a number of hit recordings from the 1960s and 1970s, including "She's Not There" by The Zombies; "Louie, Louie" by The Kingsmen; "Summer in the City" by The Lovin' Spoonful; "I Am the Walrus", "Getting Better", "The Night Before" and "You Like Me Too Much" by The Beatles; "Everlovin' Man" and "Sad Dark Eyes" by The Loved Ones; "This Guy's in Love With You" by Herb Alpert; "These Eyes" by The Guess Who; and "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night.
About ten years ago I was at a studio that had an old Hohner Pianet sitting on a shelf. The guy said he would sell it for $50. I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't buy it only because I didn't know what it was.