Playing the Hohner Clavinet

Intro to the Clavinet

The Hohner Clavinet is an electromechanical keyboard instrument which is quite popular. It consists of 60 keys, each of which does a "hammer on" to a guitar-type string when it is pressed, just as the clavichord did in the old days.

The Clavinet has two pickups, which are positioned like, and function as, the two pickups on a guitar that guitarists call the treble and the rhythm pickup.

Setting up to play

Use a footpedal

It is very difficult to control the clavinet without a volume pedal unless you intend to play one-handed. (Volume pedal technique is explained below.) Place a standard guitar volume pedal on the floor under the Clav.

I generally set my normal volume level with the volume pedal depressed only half way. This gives me extra room to boost the volume at the end of long sustains.

Amplifier considerations: type and location

The Clav sounds great through a guitar amp. I prefer to use a tube amp, and crank it. It's good to give the Clav its own amp to avoid harmonic distortion and the unwanted interference of other instruments on the feedback effect. Although I have used a single amp for both Rhodes and Clavinet quite often, this is not the best way to go. Even if you intend to play only one of the instruments at a time, the Clavinet needs less treble than the Rhodes. You end up unable to boost the amp's treble setting to get a better Rhodes sound because this would make the Clavinet sound bad.

The amp will interact with the instrument in many ways. First of all, the apparent sustain of a held note on the Clavinet depends on both the compression effect of overdriven preamp and power amp tubes and on the feedback from the amp.

If the amp is loud enough or close enough to the instrument, some strings on the Clav will start to feed back when held down, sooner or later depending on the room and the amp settings.

Every room produces different feedback effects. (In fact, the feedback effects change each time the instrument is set up due to minute changes in position, although the characteristics of the room seem to have the greatest overall effect on feedback.)

Let's say you are set up so that when seated at the Clav you are facing the audience. If you put your amp behind you so that it is also facing the audience you will get much more feedback than if you put the amp at your left or right side facing across the stage. In my experience I have found that the sideways amp produces plenty of feedback and the forward facing amp produces too much. I usually set my Clav up facing away from the band, at a right angle to the audience, with the left side towards the audience. My amp (usually a 15" Mesa Boogie, which has 4 6L6 power amp tubes) goes at my right, an arm's length away. (Then I use a cotton earplug in my right ear.) If there is enough room, I elevate the amp by either putting it on top of its (Anvil) road case lid, or on top of the amp that I play my Rhodes through.

Once the equipment is set up, crank up to normal onstage volume and play a bit to find out which notes are troublesome. (Note that this cannot be done if audience members are already present, as it will be shocking.) Certain"troublesome" notes will bark or start to honk rather quickly in some rooms. These will have to be played less or compensated for in other ways during the performance. Certain other "lucky" notes will have a pleasant long feedback sustain. These notes will be used to advantage during the gig.

Using feedback

Feedback on the Clav is similar to feedback on a guitar, but it is much harder to control because the Clav is fixed in position relative to the amp. A guitarist has the luxury of being able to more his guitar in space relative to the amp to control his feedback. He can also (and usually does) play from farther away from the amp than the Clav player does (keyboard players play within arm's reach of the amp so that they can adjust the amp's settings; the guitarist can always walk over to his amp if he has to tweak settings).

Here are some recommended techniques for using feedback:

  1. Play a note or chord with the volume pedal turned down to about 1/2 volume. As the note or chord dies, carefully increase volume with the pedal to maintain a constant volume level.

  2. If you have to play a "troublesome" note, play it soft and/or short to avoid bad feedback.

  3. If you notice a note changing to a harmonic when it feeds back, you can use this note to great advantage.

    Suppose you are holding down an E major chord composed of B below middle C and the E and G# above it, and, as the chord dies (while you increase the volume pedal to keep volume constant), you notice that you start hearing a growing B two octaves above middle C.

    The first thing to figure out is which of the held notes is producing the nice feedback B. To do this you need to understand the harmonic series. This B could be from either the E or B notes you are holding down. It cannot be from the G# because the B is not an upper harmonic of G#. If you can figure out which note the overtome is coming from, the E or B, you can use the feedback to greater advantage. You can figure it out by lifting either the E or the B and seeing if the high note goes away.

    Let's say that it is the E that produces the high B feedback on this particular night. (This effect will remain for the duration of the night, but will probably go away if you pack up your equipment and set it up again differently.)

    Now you can do tricks, such as playing the E during a solo, letting it slowly change to the B, and then continuing your solo on a different range of the keyboard as if the B were the last note you hit.

Using the Clav's onboard controls and switches

The Clavinet has six rocker switches on the left. The first four control the tone and the next two select the pickup combinations.




The pickup switches

The pickup switches are cleverly wired.

The Clav has two pickups on the strings: a rhythm and a treble pickup. When the left switch is on "D", the right switch chooses between the pickups ("A" is treble, "B" is rhythm). When the left switch is on "C", you get both pickups, and the left switch chooses whether they are in phase ("A") or out of phase ("B") with each other.

CA Rhythm pickup only
CB Treble pickup only
DA Both pickups in phase
DB Both pickups out of phase

In practical use, the CA and DA settings (rhythm pickup with or without treble pickup) are frequently used, the CB setting (treble pickup only) is rarely used and the DB setting (pickups out of phase) is never used.

The filter switches

The sound coming from the pickups goes to four bandpass filters hooked in parallel.

Each of the four rightmost switches turns the output of one of these bands on and off. The "soft" switch is on the filter which passes the bass end of the spectrum, and the "brilliant" switch is on the filter which is very high up in the treble range.

If all four switches are off, the Clav produces no sound.

When a filter rocker switch is towrds the musician, the switch is "on". Most of the time I just keep all four switches on during a perfomance.

Outboard effects to use

Since the Clav has great harmonic content, it works very well with most effects.

Mutron 3 - This is a classic Clavinet sound. Listen to the Stevie Wonder tune "Higher Ground"; it has two clavinets throughout, one with and one without Mu-tron. (Both clavs have all four filters on, and the rhythm pickup only.) One advantage to using a Mu-tron is that it tames feedback; in a difficult room, turning the Mu-tron on will either eliminate feedback problems or control them and make them more musical (although it does change the tone of the instrument significantly.)

A Mu-tron 3 can make you sound like Jerry Garcia on solo lines. That's because Jerry used a Mu-tron 3 too. With the Mu-tron 3, Jerry sounded like a Clavinet, not the other way around. He seemed to be aware of this; the Garcia/Hunter song Cats Under the Stars includes the line "Someone plays guitar that sounds like clavinet".

DDL flange - Since the Clav has so much high harmonic content, flanging works very well. Use a digital delay to get a good flanging sound. With a flanger, and using the treble pickup, you can sound a lot like John McLaughlin's guitar in "Birds of Fire".

Tape echo - Tape echo works very well with the Clav, as it does with most keyboards.

Wah pedal - Used sparingly and occasionally, a wah wah pedal works well.