Keith Emerson


Keith Emerson : biography

2 November 1944 –

With Billy Sherwood

  • "In The Flesh" (and Steve Porcaro + Vinnie Colaiuta, on Back Against The Wall) (2005)
  • "Black Dog" (and Alan White, on Led box The ultimate Led Zeppelin tribute) (2008)

Instrumentation and playing style

On stage Emerson started out on Hammond organ, with a grand piano toward the back of the stage. By the end of his time with The Nice, the standard arrangement was two Hammond organs, a C-3 (only cosmetically different than a B-3) and an L-100, placed facing each other with the C-3 to the left from the audience point of view. The L-100 took plenty of abuse during the stage act and was usually reinforced, to the point where it weighed so much that, on at least one occasion, Emerson became trapped beneath it and had to be rescued by a roadie. At any given time Emerson has owned several L-100 models, in various stages of repair, to support his act. The C-3, in contrast, seems to have lasted for years.

Although the Hammond L-100 with its shorter manuals is considered a "poor man’s" Hammond, Emerson not only played much of the early Nice music on his L-100, but also made good use of some of its unique features which his bigger Hammond C-3 does not provide. The L-100 has a self-starting motor, which – if turned off and on in short intervals – renders the whole organ into a wailing howl while the note generator, which is tied to a synchronous motor, tries to recover to pitch. The L-100 also features a spring-loaded reverb tank, which produces bomb-like noises if shaken. Both effects can be heard in abundance on "Rondo 69". On "Ars Longa Vita Brevis" Emerson uses the reverb tank as a musical instrument, tapping the internal spring against the tank bottom in an effort to create a chromatic scale of "boings".

With ELP, Emerson added the Moog synthesiser behind the C-3 with the keyboard and ribbon controller stacked on the top of the organ. The ribbon controller allowed Emerson to vary pitch, volume or timbre of the output from the Moog by moving his finger up and down the length of a touch-sensitive strip. It also could be used as a phallic symbol, which quickly became a feature of the act. When the Minimoog entered the act it was placed where needed, such as on top of the grand piano. The same location was also used for an electric Clavinet keyboard, used almost exclusively for the encore piece "Nut Rocker".

During the Brain Salad Surgery tour of 1974 (one show of which was documented on the 3-LP set, Welcome Back My Friends, to the Show That Never Ends), Emerson’s keyboard setup included the Hammond C-3 organ, run through multiple Leslie speakers driven by HiWatt guitar amplifiers, the Moog 3C modular synthesiser (modified by addition of various modules and an oscilloscope) with ribbon controller, a Steinway concert grand piano with a Moog Minimoog synthesiser on top of it (used for the steel drum part on Karn Evil 9, 2nd Impression), an upright acoustic-electric piano that was used for honky-tonk piano sounds, a Hohner Clavinet and another Moog Minimoog synthesiser. Emerson also used a prototype polyphonic synthesiser produced by Moog, which was the test bed for the Moog Polymoog polyphonic synthesiser. The original synthesiser setup as envisioned by Moog was called the Constellation, and consisted of three instruments – the polyphonic synthesiser, called the Apollo, a monophonic lead synthesiser called the Lyra, and a bass-pedal synthesiser, called the Taurus. Moog eventually produced the Moog Taurus bass pedal synthesiser as a separate instrument, as well as the Polymoog Synthesiser and Polymoog Keyboard. The Apollo polyphonic synthesiser is currently at a keyboard museum in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Emerson still owns the Lyra synthesiser.

Occasionally Emerson used a pipe organ, when available. In particular, at the Newcastle City Hall he used the Harrison & Harrison pipe organ for the introductory section of Pictures at an Exhibition. The organ is located at the rear above the stage, at the top of a series of steps where choirs can stand. The end of the introductory passage is followed by a drum roll, covering the time while Emerson descended the steps. While all went well for the recording used to produce the album, the debut tour performance at the same venue ground to a halt as the power failed, just as Emerson arrived at the Hammond organ to open the next part of the piece. After a lengthy delay the performance continued with only the Hammond L-100 functioning.