Pat Blythe – The Synthesizer…..and music

Note: OMG!!!! This is a very, very long and winding wormhole. What started out as simple piece on the synth guitar has blown up and created a universe all its own. If there was even a choice among door number one, two or three, I think I’ve now walked through door 100 and counting.

My innocuous remark about the amazing sounds Pat Metheny’s guitar was emanating at a particular point in a video garnered a sidelong glance, and the comment, “he’s playing a synth guitar”. WTF! I had never heard of a guitar “playing” the synthesizer….hadn’t a clue what that was. I think I’ve been living under the wrong rock for far too long. I would never have associated one instrument with the other. So……here we go! Where’s that wormhole?

The song that started this journey….

Are You Going With Me? – Pat Metheny Group

First up…..the synthesizer.  I can’t believe the amount of information I’m unearthing, going all the way back to the late 19th century. The “digger I deep” the more I discover. The synthesizer’s story rides almost parallel with the story of electrical and computing technology, providing a broader picture of this instrument’s history…..which is of course, is one of my favourite subjects. This ain’t just the story of Green- Eyed Lady looking a little Whiter Shade of Pale or Lucky Man feeling a bit Lazy on Tuesday Afternoon.

The Evolution of the synthesizer

We begin with the Telharmonium. Let’s take a step back to 1893 and gentleman named Thaddeus Cahill. Influenced by Hermann von Helmholtz’s book, On the Sensations of Tone, Cahill began devising a machine that could synthesize sound. Helmholtz’s book showed that each note was made of component parts – harmonics – creating discernible “tone colours”, distinguished by different instruments when they played the same note. Touted to replace entire orchestras, the new instrument would be called the Telharmonium.  

By 1905, and weighing in at a hefty 200 tons (yes tons!), the Telharmonium was ready for its New York debut. Hotels, theatres and restaurants across the U.S. were eagerly anticipating the broadcast, keen to replace their large human orchestras. A harbinger of the future, the Telharmonium was cumbersome and didn’t adapt to change well. Burdened by a mountain of debt, its size and the ongoing maintenance cost, the Telharmonium and Cahill were bankrupt by 1908, and by 1916 the Telharmonium was a museum piece. The arrival of other technologies such as the Wurlitzer (not the jukebox) and player piano sealed its doom. Next to step up to the plate would be the Hammond organ almost 30 years later.

I had no idea Wurlitzer built pianos and organs, never mind guitars!

Next up….. the humble Hammond

There’s an incredible amount of fascinating history I just have to share regarding Laurens Hammond, the inventor of the Hammond organ. (I’ll keep it short) A prodigy’s prodigy, his creative mind never stopped. At age 14 he designed the automatic transmission system for automobiles. Among many of his inventions was the spring-driven, ‘tick-less clock’…..and those 3-D glasses we wear in the movies right up to the present day……yep…..Hammond. This barely touches on all his inventions. However, the clock made him enough money to leave his full-time job and start his own company. Mention the name Hammond though and all thoughts race back to the 1970s and that magnificent B3 with that distinctive, blistering Leslie speaker.

In 1936, $1,250 was anything but cheap and out of the reach of many households!

Resolved to create a more economical church organ without the pipes, 1933 saw Hammond ripping apart a piano, salvaging only its keyboard mechanism. Without getting into all the details, suffice to say the internal workings of the Hammond organ are based on the internal workings of a clock. The same principles apply to both. In 1935, the Hammond organ was launched. Producing similar tones to the Telharmonium, but much smaller in size, the new Hammond organ was aimed not just at churches, but the living rooms of the general public as well.

The Hammond organ’s popularity hit a high note (pun intended) between 1954 and 1974 due the increased popularity of the B3 model with the Leslie speaker (which is actually a combined amplifier and loudspeaker). The rotation of the speaker (a spinning horn) could be modified creating an assortment of effects from tremolo to chorus and some really strange and unique sounds in between.

The famous duo….the Hammond B3 and its sidekick, looking like a large chest of drawers, the Leslie speaker

Invented by Donald Leslie, the Leslie speaker was initially created for the Hammond organ to better reproduce the sounds of a pipe or theatre organ. An “add on” product, Leslie, however, was not interested in selling them himself. The speaker was ready for public consumption in 1942 but Hammond was having none of that and refused to market them. In fact, Hammond kept changing the speaker interfaces to make them “Leslie proof” but to no avail. Although Leslie made speakers for other manufacturers, “the Leslie” hit centre stage with the star of the show, the now legendary Hammond B3, which was produced in 1955. The combination of the B3 with Leslie speaker was launched on an unsuspecting public by countless musicians and there is still nothing that can match that pairing today. By the way, Suzuki, who own the rights to both the Hammond and Leslie names, continue to manufacture “the Leslie” to this day.

Hang on a sec…..Hammond wasn’t done yet. Out of his back pocket comes the Novachord. Weighing in at 500 pounds, the Novachord was released in 1939 and is considered to be the world’s first commercial, polyphonic synthesizer. It was touted as “piano keys playing a vacuum tube orchestra”. Although the Novachord was manufactured by The Hammond Co., the design and creation had the input of three people, Hammond, John M. Haners and C.N. Williams.

Margie – Brother Bones

The Novachord carries the melody in this song

Not intended to sound like an organ, the Novachord was better suited to producing unique sounds, particularly for science fiction film and TV scores. It required frequent adjustments to control or create new sounds, so was not appealing or well-suited for organists or pianists. There was a shortage of parts in 1942 and sales were lagging, so it was farewell to the Novachord. It’s estimated that fewer than 200 Novachords exist today out of the 1,069 built.

…..behind door number (I’ve lost count) is the

Kudos to a Canadian, although the name of this instrument begs the “what was he thinking?” question. Hugh Le Caine, from Thunder Bay, Ontario (then Port Arthur), started building musical instruments at a very young age. Fascinated all his life with electronic music and sound, his idea was to build “beautiful sounds”. Jump ahead a few years to adulthood and loads of creations, and Le Caine eventually moved his “lab” to NCR. It was here he gained funding to open the Canadian Electronic Music Laboratory. During a 20-year period Le Caine built over 22 different new instruments and was instrumental (bad pun) in Canadian universities establishing their own studios in the electronic music medium.

The Electronic Sackbut

The Electronic Sackbut is considered the world’s first voltage-controlled synthesizer. The left hand was used to “work” the three-dimensional (volume, pitch and timbre) continuous controller, which modified the sound during live performance, while the right hand played the keyboard.  Apparently such control is still rare in electronic instruments to this day.

The “Multi-track” very early prototype

I love this!! One of the other devices Le Caine invented was the Special Purpose Tape Recorder, later renamed the Multi-track. In the early 1950s he built the prototype. Several designs later and by 1955 it was ready for use and could play six tapes simultaneously while each tape could be controlled independently. He had also added variable speed control for playback. ….and the damn thing is CANADIAN!!!


We then graduate to RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer in 1957. This monolith read punched paper tape and contained 750 vacuum tubes! We segue into the 1960s with Moog synthesizer, designed by Robert Moog, which used all those patch cords you see a couple of photos back. The 1960s also witnessed the appearance of the Mellotron, an electro-mechanical instrument coming out of Birmingham, England. Designed to use at home, it provided a wide variety of sounds and automatic accompaniments. The Mellotron was hugely popular, with everyone from royalty (Princess Margaret had one) to bands of all stripes. Think Watcher of the Skies (Genesis) or And You And I and Court of the Crimson King. The 1970s then saw the Minimoog, a much more affordable and portable version for the traveling musician.

RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer

In the late 70s, a company called Sequential Circuit (rather prophetic name) released the Prophet-5 (there ya go). This was the first synthesizer that allowed the user to store sounds using microprocessors for patch memory. Remember those patch cables? Every time a sound was created, the user had to turn knobs and change those cables around, one sound at a time! There was no guarantee of recreating precisely the same sound either, so the Prophet-5 was, quite literally, a godsend. The 1980s was the digital era and the introduction of the MIDI.

The Minimoog

Everyone from Roland to Yamaha to Korg started producing digital synthesizers. The 90s to the present day, it’s all about the software. Nostalgia for the analog days has also taken hold in the 21st century as Moog, Korg and others have introduced analog synths for those who miss the “patch cord” days. Like those who love the richness of sound on vinyl, there are those who love the imperfect “organic” sounds an analog synth produces.

So….what is a synthesizer you ask?

In seriously technical terms, a synthesizer is an electronic musical instrument which creates sounds by generating audio signals through what’s called “subtractive synthesis, additive synthesis” and “frequency modulation synthesis”. The sounds are shaped and modulated by filters, oscillators and envelopes (not the kind you lick).

More understandable maybe? A synthesizer is an electronic keyboard that can generate or copy virtually any kind of sound, making it able to mimic the sound of a traditional instrument, such as a violin or piano, or create brand new, undreamed of sounds…”Explainthatstuff

Then the references to the word MIDI come into play. MIDI is actually an acronym for (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). It’s a technical standard describing a communications protocol, digital interface and electrical connectors allowing various musical instruments and computers to communicate with each other. Did I lose you?

Keith Emerson synthesizer in the Met Museum

Since most of us are not science majors or electronics engineers I’ll put this in laymen’s terms. In short, a synthesizer makes really cool sounds and can replace anything from a bird chirp (cool) to an entire orchestra (not so cool….no people….but still really cool). More closely associated with keyboards than guitars, the early synthesizers looked like giant, old-fashioned telephone switchboards with that rat’s nest of cords and cables plugged in and draped all over the place; the entire unit rather precariously perched on top of a piano or set of keyboards. Every time I visualize a synthesizer I “see” Ernestine at her switchboard, once again harassing the phone company.

Okay….so her “board” is a bit smaller than Keith’s but you get the gist. Just don’t perch a coffee on it!

As for the MIDI, it tore down the “language” barrier between and among electronic instruments from different manufacturers. Plug your instruments into the MIDI and all of a sudden the snyth can communicate with any digital piano or the electric guitar. It’s kind of like……no never mind.

Switched-On Bach

A significant turning point in the synthesizer world is the release of the album Switched-On Bach by (then) Walter Carlos. Carlos came from a musical background, writing her first composition, “A Trio for Clarinet, Accordion and Piano” at the age of 10. She met Moog at Columbia University in the 60s and began working with him, providing technical assistance and advice in the development of Moog’s new electronic keyboard instrument, which became “the first commercially available keyboard instrument created by Robert Moog,” aptly name the Moog Synthesizer.

Switched-On Bach, performed entirely on the Moog synthesizer by Carlos and Benjamin Folkman, was a groundbreaking album and its popularity was completely unexpected. A collection of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach, it was the first album released by Carlos.  It certainly drew rapt attention from the music community, winning several Grammy awards and topping the Billboard Classical Albums chart from 1969-1972. It proved the synthesizer could be taken seriously as a musical instrument.

“According to Carlos, Switched-On Bach took approximately five months and one thousand hours to produce.As the synthesizers were monophonic, meaning only one note can be played at a time; each track was assembled one at a time…you had to release the note before you could make the next note start, which meant you had to play with a detached feeling on the keyboard, which was really very disturbing in making music.”

Wendy/Walter Carlos – I chose this photo to depict the size and complexity of the Moog

A note from author: I feel it is also important to mention Carlos personal story. She became aware of what we now term “gender dysphoria” at a very young age. It wasn’t until 1962 while at Columbia she became aware of transgender issues for the first time. Remember, this is 1962! She began hormone replacement in 1968 which created a few challenges with the release of the album. Having to give live performances, Carlos would dress as a man, including  for her appearance on the Dick Cavett Show. However, in 1972 the sales of the album provided enough money for sex reassignment surgery, but it wasn’t until early late 1978 and early 1979 that she began to discuss it publicly. According to Carlos, “The public turned out to be amazingly tolerant or, if you wish, indifferent … There had never been any need of this charade to have taken place. It had proven a monstrous waste of years of my life.”

Wendy Carlos in 2007, with her cat Pandy

From an interview in with UNEWS by Allison Harris, “When Switched-On Bach was released, it stimulated strong reactions. Those who were comfortable in all forms of music, those who were open to novel variations, loved it. Transsexuality, too, is an emotional, action-prone situation, in that it tends to polarize people, depending on the attitudes one brings to sexuality and human rights. In both cases, there’s no middle ground.” 


The most famous synthesizer sound of all time! We’re all familiar with the song Lucky Man by Emerson, Lake and Palmer (ELP). If you’re not, you must be living on a completely secluded island in the middle of nowhere that no one knows exists.  Greg Lake wrote Lucky Man at the age of 12, based on the first four chords he learned on the guitar. Fast forward to 1970 and recording ELP’s first self-titled album…..the band is short one song. Lucky Man was suggested and Lake recorded the song with some help from Carl Palmer.

Maybe this isn’t exactly what Keith Emerson looked like playing his “cord board” Moog synth for the first time but I’ll bet it’s not far off!

Originally an acoustic, folksy kind of song, Keith Emerson decided there was no “room” for his part, so he left, heading to the local pub (as you do in England). Lake and Palmer decided to “tart” up the song at bit adding a few bits and pieces to fill it out. Lake played the bass, electric and acoustic guitars as well as singing the lead vocal and vocal harmonies.

Flash, pizzazz and oozing talent

Now, that very day, a brand new Moog synthesizer had been delivered to the studio. When Emerson returned from the pub, Lucky Man had morphed from a simple acoustic piece to one with five-part harmony, drums and triple-tracked guitars. Emerson figured he better add something to it so Lake suggested breaking in the new Moog? The conversation went like this, “I (Lake) said: ‘Why don’t you try out the new Moog on it?’ Of course, Keith said: ‘I haven’t had the chance to experiment with it yet; I’m going to need some time.’ I said: ‘Give it a go anyway.’ He went out there and started experimenting with the pormento – you know, how long it takes to go from one note and then to slide up to the other note. What the recording is, is Keith experimenting with the pormento.”

The classic Emerson “Moog” stance

It just so happened Lake had the presence of mind to hit the “record” button, and so the amazing sounds of the Moog synthesizer were unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Lucky Man…..the first rock composition in which a Moog was the featured solo instrument. According to MTV’s Kurt Loder, “‘Lucky Man’ demonstrated, for delighted keyboard players everywhere, that it was at last possible for them to blow amp-shredding lead guitarists right off the stage, if they so choose. Alas, with so many overdubs and track, this was one song ELP could never reproduce live, much to the dismay of their audiences.

….then there was the Hammer and Mahavishnu Orchestra

The original Mahavishnu Orchestra was together for only a short period of time, performing 530 shows before their farewell concert December 30, 1973. Their impact on the world of fusion is legendary, and the ripples continue to spread, enlightening and introducing the world of fusion to new audiences every day.

Jan Hammer performing with the Mahavishnu Orchestra in 1972

Jan Hammer, fortunate enough to be part of the original band, was another early pioneer of performing live with the Minimoog synthesizer. Graduating from electric piano to organ and eventually the synthesizer (much like this article), it was listening to albums such as Switched-On Bach that were pushing Hammer towards the sounds and capabilities of the synthesizer, although he felt it wasn’t being used “expressively” enough. The Minimoog was his eureka moment. Controlling the pitch-blend with the Minimoog was hugely advantageous. However, looking to expand his repertoire, Hammer began to experiment with other special techniques and equipment, such as guitar amps.

Mahavishnu Orchestra – top (l-r) John McLaughlin, Jerry Goodman, Rick Laird; bottom (l-r) Jan Hammer, Billy Cobham

According to Hammer, “It really started in the Mahavishnu Orchestra when I was looking for something to cut through that incredibly busy sound that we were creating. I had to have a sound that would project, so I used guitar amps and that’s when the sound got really exciting.” He goes on to say, “Mahavishnu Orchestra was like the Olympic Games of music — higher, faster, stronger,” says Jan. “It was all superlatives, so I wanted to back off and see what I could do with less. It was almost a visual approach, even though you don’t see anything, but you can close your eyes when you are listening and imagine things.” Hammer continues to be a major influence in the world of electronic music.

I love this, an early all-in-one photo.

Devotion keyboardist Rick Blechta playing both a Minimoog and Mellotron. Greenwood Park, 1975.

But we’re not finished…..

OMG….there’s so much more. I still have to wend my way to the “keytar” and the synth guitar….that will be next week, and I promise a much shorter(ish) piece. This is one hell of a wormhole. I’ve been getting lost in it for over a week and I’m not out yet. I really have to be careful of those innocuous remarks. One of these days I might just disappear!

Wendy Carlos Interview – BBC (4 minutes)

Wendy Carlos Demonstrates the Moog Sythesizer – BBC (3 minutes)

The 50th Anniversary of the Moog Modular Synthesizer

(For you Suzanne – featuring the EMMS (Emerson Mode Modular System), the biggest, most powerful system of its time)

Bach: Sinfonia to Cantata No 29 (from the album Switched on Bach) – Wendy Carlos

This classic 1980s single by David Bowie is driven by a multi-tracked choir of Roland GR-500s.

Ashes to Ashes – David Bowie

Salle Pleyel – Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith, Cannonball Adderley, Dave Brubek and Charlie Mingus – Newport Jazz Festival, 1971

Green-Eyed Lady – Sugarloaf

White Shade of Pale – Procol Harum

Lazy – Deep Purple

Ernestine calls General Motors

This was the first recorded use of an Electro-Theremin, a precursor to the synthesizer, on a rock album, and the first rock album to incorporate a Theremin-like instrument.

I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times – Beach Boys

….and we have the Mellotron.

Nights in White Satin – The Moody Blues

And You And I – Yes

Watcher of the Skies – Genesis

In The Court of the King – King Crimson

Tuesday Afternoon –Moody Blues

For all you synth and keyboard players…..the following video is well worth six minutes of your time. I highly recommend it.

Synth Sounds of “Africa” by Toto (a demonstration and explanation)

The Monkees were among the first groups to use the synthesizer in pop music, and featured the instrument throughout their 1967 album Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones

Another Pleasant Valley Sunday – The Monkees

Don’t Call On Me – The Monkees

A masterful use of his Moog synthesizer, Emerson creates an entire orchestra. The following piece is from The Trilogy album…..although I do think it sound very much like Carl on drums……

Abaddon’s Bolero – Emerson, Lake and Palmer

Fanfare for the Common Man – Emerson, Lake and Palmer

From the Beginning – Emerson, Lake and Palmer

Lucky Man – Emerson, Lake and Palmer

Jan Hammer, another electronics innovator and his award winning theme for Miami Vice (2006). It reached #1 on the Hot Billboard 100, the only TV theme song to hit the top spot since 1992.  ALL done on synthesizer.

Miami Vice – Jan Hammer

Darkness/Earth in Search of Sun – Jan Hammer

…..and finally, Hot Lips. A local indie band whose instruments are drum, bass and yes….synth. Mixed with Karli’s voice…..blows my socks off everytime!

Cry Wolf – Hot Lips

I’m done…..for now…..but there is so much more……


P.S. The latest podcast, Ep 11 is Sarah Smith. A fabulous singer/songwriter/performer.

Photo of Wendy Carlos with Pandy ©Serendip LLC


Pat’s column appears every Wednesday.

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“Music and photography….my heart, my passions.” After an extended absence —  33 years as a consultant and design specialist in the telecommunications industry — Pat has turned her focus back to the music scene. Immersing herself in the local club circuit, attending the many diverse music festivals, listening to some great music, photographing and writing once again, she is eager to spread the word about this great Music City of ours…..Toronto. Together for 34 years, Pat also worked alongside her late husband Christopher Blythe, The PictureTaker©, who, beginning in the early 70s, photographed much of the local talent (think Goddo, Frank Soda and the Imps, BB Gabor, the first Police Picnic, Buzzsaw, Hellfield, Shooter, The Segarini Band….) as well as national and international acts. Pat is currently making her way through 40 years of Chris’s archives, 20 of which are a photographic history of the local GTA music scene beginning in 1974. It continues to be a work in progress. Oh…..and she LOVES to dance! 

One Response to “Pat Blythe – The Synthesizer…..and music”

  1. Rick Blechta Says:

    Bob! Where the hell did you find that photo of me at Greenwood Park? Thanks for the shout-out. And that was a very odd gig for Devotion. There’s a good story behind that remark, involving the weather and our road manager.

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