Keyboards have been making music since the third century BC when the Ancient Greeks invented the hydraulis, a primitive pipe organ. Since then, keyboard-like instruments have taken many forms, eventually becoming the electronic instruments that we know and love today.
The modern Casio keyboards and their equivalents that we play nowadays are essentially miniature computers and are capable of making a variety of sounds, but this wasn’t always the case. In the sixties, seventies, eighties, and even the early nighties, keyboard manufacturers were known for their signature sounds – here are four historic keyboards and the mark that they made on musical history.
Listen to the opening flute quartet at the start of The Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields’, and you’ll be listening to the iconic sound of the Mellotron. The Mellotron was invented in the early ’60s and used actual tape loops as its samples. Pressing a key on the Mellotron was physically putting a tape into motion, with each of its 35 keys having its own 8-second loop tape ready to play. With so many tapes to hold, it’s no surprise that the Mellotron was both very large and very cumbersome, and with tapes wearing out frequently the instrument didn’t catch on.
The Minimoog was designed to be a portable version of the cumbersome synthesizers that became popular in the 60s and was also one of the first keyboard instruments to be sold commercially in keyboard stores. Between 1970 and the end of production in 1981, the original Minimoog featured on countless tracks including ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’ by the legendary Pink Floyd! If you want to try writing your own music on a Minimoog, then a reproduction of the original Minimoog was released in 2016.
The Fender Rhodes
The Fender Rhodes, also known as the Fender Piano, was designed to look like a piano and made its sound when hammers hit thin metal tines. The Fender Rhodes was first manufactured by Harold Rhodes to help teach recovering soldiers during World War II, becoming mass-produced in the 1970s and popular in the music industry. Many of Stevie Wonder’s recordings from the 1970s feature him playing the Fender Rhodes, and the instrument also makes an appearance on the Beatles’ hit single ‘Get Back’.
The Synclavier was another early synthesizer produced from the 1970s to the 1990s but what makes it so special is that it was one of the very first electronic keyboards to allow a musician to sample a sound, including the human voice, and to store it on an on-board computer. Another reason why the Synclavier is still so famous is because of its extortionate price tag, costing upwards of $250,000!. Perhaps the most famous example of the Synclavier in action is the gong at the beginning of Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’, but the instrument was also used by Stevie Wonder and other musical legends.
So there you have it – four of the world’s most influential and famous historical keyboards, do you recognize their signature sounds?