In praise of the clavinet

It's 40 years since Stevie Wonder showed off the otherwordly range of this keyboard.

If you listen very closely to "Sweet Little Girl" from Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind album you can hear him mumble: “You know your baby loves you more than I love my clavinet”. It is certainly a song full of self-parody, but this is no mere joke because for him it was the ultimate compliment. The clavinet was the instrument that defined him and it was also, though few people recognise it, the instrument of a decade.

The notes made by this unobtrusive little rectangle sparkle through the 1970s like space dust falling on the disparate worlds of a musical galaxy. And 2012 is a double anniversary for the clavinet: 30 years since the German company Hohner ceased production and 40 years this month since the release of Wonder's "Superstition" in the US, the song for which it is best known and on which it was stretched to its fullest and most glorious extent.

From funk, soul, fusion and reggae and then to country rock, hard rock, disco and west coast AOR, this sonic will-o’-the wisp seemed somehow suited to whatever purpose it was applied. Originally created for classical music in European homes, the clicking, clucking, quacking noises it produced went on to make funk funkier, soul more soulful and rock darker and more decadent. But when the decade ended it too disappeared, superseded by new keyboards beside which it suddenly seemed tired and obsolete.

Before peering deeper into "Superstition" it’s worth looking at how the clavinet came to be made and how it generated such a unique sound. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Hohner – best known for harmonicas – had been experimenting with portable versions of familiar keyboard types. They produced the cimbalet, inspired by the harpsichord, in which strings are plucked, and various models of pianet, in which the keys activated a sticky pad that on release would vibrate a reed. In 1964 the first clavinet was produced, based on the venerable clavichord, an instrument with a 400-year pedigree that used blades called “tangents” to strike the strings. Clavichords were impractically quiet and a clavinet got round this by replacing the tangents with hammers that plunged down on to a string when a key was depressed. That string was pressed into a metal strip, or “anvil”, which made the string vibrate. The vibration reached magnetic pickups for a sound that could be fully amplified.

Not only did it produce a magical percussive twang across five octaves of 60 keys, but it was also dynamic, meaning notes could be sustained and pressed with lesser or greater force to vary volume and attack. The high notes were bright, the middle range punchy yet mellow and low notes had a visceral growl. Following a few false starts Hohner made the clavinet C in 1968, the keyboard Wonder used during his golden years. After a left turn with the L - triangular with reverse-colour keys and now as rare as a mountain leopard - in 1971 they introduced the more durable D6, the keyboard hundreds of bands relied on for the next 10 years.

Of course, most people recognise the clavinet best in the hands of one man and in the opening bars of one song. For Wonder it became not merely an accompaniment, but his second voice. In a most basic sense it meant he could play his own version of lead and rhythm guitars through a keyboard, but it developed into something much greater, allowing him to express his vision and emotions on a canvass painted from a palette all his own.

His clavinet first shows up, tellingly, as he began to grow as an artist of independent means through songs such as "I Don’t Know Why I Love You" and "You Met Your Match" in 1968 then again on his album of creative transition, 1971’s Where I’m Coming From. Another famous early appearance is on the The Band’s "Up On Cripple Creek" in 1969, on which Garth Hudson plays it through a wah-wah pedal and makes it wobble like an electrified Jew’s harp. It was around this time that almost every major funk and soul act caught on to the edge the clavinet gave their sound.

In just a couple of years the Isley Brothers, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Preston, The Commodores and countless others worked the clavinet into the fabric of popular music while in the more esoteric world of fusion it became a natural staple of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

The throaty pulse of the clavinet also reached Jamaica where it emerged on reggae. Bob Marley exploited both the higher and lower range to great effect, from his mainstream breakthrough on the Catch A Fire album in 1973 (played by the American sesssionman John “Rabbit” Bundrick) through to near the end of his life on 1980’s "Could You Be Loved".

Wonder was busy throughout the period creating his own distinct song cycle, leaning heavily on the clavinet and moog synthesisers, and much of the unity of his output is down to his innovative and technically minded producers, Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff. The second album in his run of five consecutive masterpieces, Talking Book, is dripping with the sound of multiple clavinets – sometimes honeyed and at others venomous and mean.

Bands often talk about being “tight” and this is a concept that involves a lot more than technical ability. It requires an unfakeable simpatico. Wonder achieves a kind of other-worldly tightness on "Superstition" – at the age of 22 - by being in synch with himself. The syncopation of his percussive style of keyboard playing is so idiosyncratic that the only way for this track to work is for one person to play it all, including the drums. This is taken to a state of incandescent – almost absurd – virtuosity through the use of eight clavinet tracks in the recording. In a mix of 16 tracks, half were clavinet; the others being one for moog bass, three for the drums, two for his incredible vocals and two for horns (the only thing he did not play).

Syncopation – playing off the expected beat and putting stress on notes outside regular timing – is one of the keys to funk and to "Superstition". First you hear the shuffling drums and as a typical Motown drummer he makes them sound like a piano hitting the pavement from a 10th-storey window. Next comes the opening clavinet riff, which many people still assume is a guitar. On paper it is a relatively simple pentatonic run (black keys, basically) starting on E-flat around which is added layer after layer of the same keyboard, some doubling up and some syncopated slightly differently to the original). What makes the riffs sound so unusual are the extra touches Wonder makes around the core notes, sometimes called “ghost notes”. Cecil and Margouleff then add delay to two tracks to extend what you hear into a vast harmonic panorama. If grooves were deities, "Superstition"’s would be Zeus.

It is a tribute to the song that the clavinet became a shorthand for funk. Even the Goodies' 1975 novelty hit, "Funky Gibbon", predicated its “funkiness” entirely around a clavinet riff. But while the use of the keyboard was reaching a peak in quantity and quality a subtle contextual shift occurred. As it became synonymous with contemporary black music so, inevitably, a divergent number of white rock acts began to spread - and possibly dilute - its impact and whereas in funk it complemented the generally positive and uplifting feel, in rock it suggested something very different.

In the hands of rock bands it became the background noise to babylonian hedonism. It carries with it, even today, the implied grime, crime and menace of a decade and a culture in conflict. It conveys uncertainty and seediness - anxiety instead of optimism. The first instance of this I can discern is on The Rolling Stones’ 1973 album, Goats Head Soup, especially in the song "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)", which recounts police and criminal violence. Roxy Music’s "Casanova" in 1974 and Steely Dan’s "Kid Charlemagne" from 1976 – arguably the slinkiest record ever made – lay before us a noir-ish picture of nihilism, drugs and charlatans. In the hands of the sardonic Steely Dan the bass notes crackle like a brushfire in the night on the Californian hills.

Other big beasts of the 1970s, including Led Zeppelin ("Trampled Under Foot" and "Custard Pie"), Pink Floyd ("Have A Cigar"), The Eagles ("Life In The Fast Lane") and Fleetwood Mac ("You Make Loving Fun") all used the clavinet in a way that evokes not funky exhilaration, but their own destructive excesses. Even David Bowie used it to add a soiled warmth to the languid soul of several tracks on Young Americans. Although still in use through the high watermark of disco it was beginning to feel dated despite Hohner's new models in 1977 and 1978.

In this way the instrument made a journey of its own through the years from novelty, then to joy and energy and ending in a slightly tawdry darkness. Fashion killed the clavinet and production was halted in 1982. Its successor as the defining sound of a generation was the first digital sampler and sequencer, the Fairlight, which, as if to prove a point, was sounding decidedly old hat by the late 1980s (Wonder himself was one of their first clients). You occasionally still hear the clavinet but it is always as if from a different country. If you want to play one now there is a decent sample to be found in every modern electric keyboard (the real ones sell for between £3,000-6,000). But to be sure of complete satisfaction you are better off reaching for track six of Talking Book and letting Stevie get to work.

Twitter @geochesterton

Stevie Wonder performing in October 1975 (Photograph: Getty Images)

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

Show Hide image

It’s been 25 years since the Super Nintendo and Sega Mega Drive were released – what’s changed?

Gaming may be a lonelier pusuit now, but there have been positive changes you can console yourselves with too.

Let's not act as if neither of us knows anything about gaming, regardless of how old we are. Surely you'll remember the Super Nintendo console (SNES) and Sega's Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're an American)? Well, it's now been 25 years since they were released. OK, fine, it's been 25 years since the SNES' debut in Japan, whereas the Mega Drive was released 25 years ago only in Europe, having arrived in Asia and North America a bit earlier, but you get the idea.

Sonic the Hedgehog by Sega

It's amazing to think a quarter of a century has passed since these digital delights were unveiled for purchase, and both corporate heavyweights were ready for battle. Sega jumped into the new era by bundling Sonic, their prized blue mascot and Nintendo retaliated by including a Mario title with their console.

Today's equivalent console battle involves (primarily) Sony and Microsoft, trying to entice customers with similar titles and features unique to either the PlayStation 4 (PS4) or Xbox One. However, Nintendo was trying to focus on younger gamers, or rather family-friendly audiences (and still does) thanks to the endless worlds provided by Super Mario World, while Sega marketed its device to older audiences with popular action titles such as Shinobi and Altered Beast.

Donkey Kong Country by Rare

But there was one thing the Mega Drive had going for it that made it my favourite console ever: speed. The original Sonic the Hedgehog was blazingly fast compared to anything I had ever seen before, and the sunny background music helped calm any nerves and the urge to speed through the game without care. The alternative offered by the SNES included better visuals. Just look at the 3D characters and scenery in Donkey Kong Country. No wonder it ended up becoming the second best-selling game for the console.

Street Fighter II by Capcom

The contest between Sega and Nintendo was rough, but Nintendo ultimately came out ahead thanks to significant titles released later, demonstrated no better than Capcom's classic fighting game Street Fighter II. Here was a game flooding arcade floors across the world, allowing friends to play together against each other.

The frantic sights and sounds of the 16-bit era of gaming completely changed many people's lives, including my own, and the industry as a whole. My siblings and I still fondly remember our parents buying different consoles (thankfully we were saved from owning a Dreamcast or Saturn). Whether it was the built-in version of Sonic on the Master System or the pain-in-the-ass difficult Black Belt, My Hero or Asterix titles, our eyes were glued to the screen more than the way Live & Kicking was able to manage every Saturday morning.

The Sims 4 by Maxis

Today's console games are hyper-realistic, either in serious ways such as the over-the-top fatalities in modern Mortal Kombat games or through comedy in having to monitor character urine levels in The Sims 4. This forgotten generation of 90s gaming provided enough visual cues to help players comprehend what was happening to allow a new world to be created in our minds, like a good graphic novel.

I'm not at all saying gaming has become better or worse, but it is different. While advantages have been gained over the years, such as the time I was asked if I was gay by a child during a Halo 3 battle online, there are very few chances to bond with someone over what's glaring from the same TV screen other than during "Netflix and chill".

Wipeout Pure by Sony

This is where the classics of previous eras win for emotional value over today's blockbuster games. Working with my brother to complete Streets of Rage, Two Crude Dudes or even the first Halo was a draining, adventurous journey, with all the ups and downs of a Hollywood epic. I was just as enthralled watching him navigate away from the baddies, pushing Mario to higher and higher platforms in Super Mario Land on the SNES just before breaking the fast.

It's no surprise YouTube's Let's Play culture is so popular. Solo experiences such as Ico and Wipeout Pure can be mind-bending journeys too, into environments that films could not even remotely compete with.

But here’s the thing: it was a big social occasion playing with friends in the same room. Now, even the latest Halo game assumes you no longer want physical contact with your chums, restricting you to playing the game with them without being in their company.

Halo: Combat Evolved by Bungie

This is odd, given I only ever played the original title, like many other, as part of an effective duo. Somehow these sorts of games have become simultaneously lonely and social. Unless one of you decides to carry out the logistical nightmare of hooking up a second TV and console next to the one already in your living room.

This is why handhelds such as the Gameboy and PSP were so popular, forcing you to move your backside to strengthen your friendship. That was the whole point of the end-of-year "games days" in primary school, after all.

Mario Kart 8 by Nintendo

The industry can learn one or two things by seeing what made certain titles successful. It's why the Wii U – despite its poor sales performance compared with the PS4 – is an excellent party console, allowing you to blame a friend for your pitfalls in the latest Donkey Kong game. Or you can taunt them no end in Mario Kart 8, the console's best-selling game, which is ironic given its crucial local multiplayer feature, making you suspect there would be fewer physical copies in the wild.

In the same way social media makes it seem like you have loads of friends until you try to recall the last time you saw them, gaming has undergone tremendous change through the advent of the internet. But the best games are always the ones you remember playing with someone by your side.