Electro-Harmonix has a penchant for the weird and the wacky. The company is not afraid to get messy and push the status quo in a world embroiled in Tube Screamer clones and “mojo.” With Mike Matthews as the mad conductor of this crazy train, Electro-Harmonix has been pumping out old classics, new interpretations, and strange, unique offerings in the world of guitar effects for the last 47 years. However, in the last couple years with the expansion of digital technology, Electro-Harmonix has been really prolific, cooking up all sorts of GAS-inducing oddities in its New York City HQ for the “tastefully strange” guitarist. From vocoders and analog synthesizers, to formant filters and optical envelope filters, there is almost no sonic stone left unturned within the product line.
Their latest in a line of strange-but-gotta-have offerings, is the Key 9. Preceded by the B9 and the C9, the Key 9 is made to emulate some of the classic electric piano sounds of yesteryear, as well as a few more percussive and mellow tones. The B9 and C9 were made to emulate our favorite organ sounds, from John Lord, to Rick Wright, Keith Emerson, and Ray Manzarek. Being a keyboard nut as well as a guitar nut, Tone Report asked me to run through this line of faux key pedals, and give you a few tips and tricks on maximizing their use for both the stage and studio. Having experience with Hammond organs, electric pianos, and Leslie speakers, I hope that I will help you unlock a little of the strange and smelly mystery we call a keyboard player.
HOW THE HELL DOES IT WORK?
To be honest, I’d be lying if I told you exactly how the strange magic of these pedals work. I imagine the more inner workings are a closely guarded secret, but they basically work like a Whammy pedal, by digitally tracking your notes (without MIDI) and adding harmonic content to them. The organ sounds are absolute genius, adding percussion and extra harmonics by way of attack, sort of like the way an envelope filter works. The harmonic content (both upper and lower registers) are generated not unlike the Electro-Harmonix POG (octave up or down pedal), except with filters and harmonic tone generators specially tailored to sound like an organ, like the way the drawbars add upper or lower order harmonics to a Hammond.
The B9 - The B9 is first in the line of the keyboard emulators, sounding dark, smoky, and vintage. Featuring sounds like classic Hammonds, old Vox Continental or Farfisa transistor organs, and even pipe organs, this cool little pedal set the stage for the rest of the pedals in the line, and has won numerous awards for its ingenuity.
The C9 - The sequel, if you will, to the B9, the C9 adds more genre- and artist-oriented sounds as opposed to the one-size-fits-all approach of the B9, with settings inspired by great hard rock keyboardists like John Lord, and progressive rock virtuosos like Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman. It ain’t Electro-Harmonix if it didn’t add some cool and wacky sounds outside of just organs, so there are also warm Mellotrons and even a Clavioline! (Think Telstar by The Tornadoes.)
The Key9 - The latest in the bunch, the Key 9 is meant to emulate those smooth and funky sounds of the electric piano, found most famously in The Doors’ Riders on the Storm (Wurlitzer), Herbie Hancock’s Chameleon (Fender Rhodes), and almost every hit of the ‘70s. Featuring all manners of classic electric piano sounds, in true Electro-Harmonix fashion, there’s also vibes, marimbas, and a really cool steel drum sound.
HOW DO I MAKE THEM SOUND GOOD?
A wise man who has been working on Hammond organs for longer than I’ve been born once told me, “You could play a Casio through a Leslie and fool almost anyone.” Having bought a Leslie speaker myself just a few weeks back, I can completely attest to that statement. There is something magical about having a real rotating speaker that completely fills the room. It sounds very 3D, and adds such a depth to your tone that absolutely no pedal could emulate. It’s a simple yet brilliant concept that can be approximated, but never truly replicated. In my humble opinion, the best way to make the B9 and C9 fool even yourself, is to use a real Leslie speaker. You don’t need the most top-of-the-line Leslie speaker, really any will do; what we want is that physical effect of movement, or the Doppler Effect. The “lower-end” models like the Leslie 125 or the 760 that Hammond organists scoff at can usually be found at great prices locally wherever you live. Remember that you will need to convert it to quarter-inch inputs to accept your guitar cable, and a preamp to boost your signal (any old boost pedal will do here). If you can’t find a Leslie, or simply don’t have the space or patience for one, a good simulator like the Neo Ventilator or Strymon Lex will get the job done.
You now have the tone of a big old Hammond, but you still sound like a guitar player! To really squeeze the best out of this line of pedals, we need to adjust the way we play. The best way to do this is to first listen closely to the style and tone of the player or style you want to emulate. Notice how they roll the keys, play chords, and play lead. Hammond organs have two tiers for playing rhythm and melody, and most rock players will utilize both. Experienced Hammond organists will also use the bass pedals, but this is not really common in the most popular uses of the organ outside of jazz. First, ditch the pick. We want to make this sound as natural as possible, and the attack of a guitar pick only accentuates one note at a time. Start out by creating a barre chord, and notice where the low E and A strings are in relation to that chord. Then, pick the E or A string with your right hand thumb, and then “grab” other notes of the chord with your remaining four fingers. Practice playing this “boom-pluck” technique, as it will get you into the habit of swinging like an organ player. Resist the urge to play lead, but instead focus on the groove. Using this same technique and moving up and down the neck at different positions is a great way to start learning how to play like a keyboard player, which can be invaluable for those of you who do solo live looping shows.
WHY SHOULD I BUY IT?
If you are a solo player with a looper, this line of pedals will be a great addition to any board. Either one will make the heads of your audience turn in confusion, wondering where the keyboard player is, and in the dog-eat-dog world of today’s oversaturated music scene, it can set you apart from the rest and make you stick out in people’s minds (when done right of course). If you need an organ or keyboard on a track in the studio, and you don’t want to hire a keyboard player or try and play it yourself, the B9 or C9 paired with a real Leslie (or good emulation) can do an excellent job. Or if you just want to be plain weird and awesome, and bust out a crazy organ guitar solo with your band, Electro-Harmonix has your back.
That said, these pedals aren’t for everyone. Unless you’re willing to take the time to experiment and learn how to control these pedals, your time and money is best spent elsewhere. They can be finicky and sometimes difficult, but with time and patience you can start adding a new dimension to your studio or live tracks with the stomp of a switch. Like most digital tone generator pedals, you want them at the very front of your chain. Electro-Harmonix even provides its own power supply with each one to ensure steady and concise operation (a good move I’d like to see more big pedal makers doing). If you feel the tracking isn’t good enough, you can always place a compressor before the pedal to even out your attack and improve accuracy. See you later highway stars!