Rick Wakeman Tells the Story of the Mellotron, the Oddball Proto-Synthesizer Pioneered by the Beatles


Image Tobias Akerboom via Wikimedia Commons

Did you know that the Spanish guitar intro to the Beatles’ “Bungalow Bill” was not played by George Harrison, but rather by an odd electronic instrument called a Mellotron, the same strange proto-synthesizer responsible for the flute intro to “Strawberry Fields Forever”? You’ll learn quite a bit more about the “rash breaking out all over pop music” that was the Mellotron in the audio story above, narrated by Rick Wakeman.

From the aforementioned Beatles’ songs to The Band’s “This Wheel’s on Fire” to pretty much every song in 60s pop and 70s progressive rock, as well as in 60s revivalists like Oasis, the Mellotron makes an appearance. It even shows up on Skynyrd’s “Freebird” of all things.

Wakeman sketches the history of the oddball instrument, from its humble beginnings in the garage of California inventor Harry Chamberlin, to its popularization by salesman Bill Fransen, who took Chamberlin’s design and made it his own.

Bear in mind, as we enter the world of Mellotronics, that the instrumental bits you hear throughout Wakeman’s story were played by someone, sometime. The sounds made by this keyboard-like thing are in fact actual parts from live orchestras and sundry other musical arrangements, recorded onto tape loops and configured in an ingenious way so that they correspond to a standard keyboard and a variety of presets and knobby-dially-things.

You might even call it an analog sampler. The more technically-minded among you may wish to read this Sound on Sound article for specs. For you enthusiasts, keyboardist Mike Pindar of the Moody Blues—whose “Nights in White Satin” would never have been without the Mellotron—demonstrates the instrument’s inner workings in the short video above.

Inventor Harry Chamberlin originally designed the Mellotron (which he called, of course, the Chamberlin) to re-create the sound of an orchestra at home, or in the local lodge or cabaret, presumably. This is the use Paul McCartney divines in the funky demonstration of his Mellotron above. Sir Paul, in a cabaret setting, does a goofy lounge singer act, then plays the “Strawberry Fields” intro.

Digital synthesizers and computers overtook the Mellotron, as they did all analog electronics. But like all things old, it’s new again, in simulated form, available to iPhone users via the Manetron app (Mellotron also makes a physical, digital version of their vintage instrument). The story and sound of the Mellotron recently inspired a full documentary treatment in the 2010 film Mellodrama: The Mellotron Movie, now out on DVD, which may be the most compelling documentary about a pioneering electronic instrument ever made (far better than 2004’s disappointing Moog). As former Beach Boy Brian Wilson says in the film, “the Mellotron stays cool.” And indeed, it does.

via Coudal

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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Comments (16)
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  • Fistful of Dave says:

    If you want more on the mellotron be sure to check out the “Mellodrama” documentary from Bazillion Points. It’s real good. http://www.bazillionpoints.com/shop/mellodrama-the-mellotron-movie-dvd-by-dianna-dilworth/

  • Michael J says:

    It was a proto-sampler not a proto-synthesizer; there is no synthesis involved only tapes containing note by note recordings of instruments. Also to suggest that The Beatles pioneered it is a little inaccurate, thankfully the article redeems itself by it’s nod to the great Mike Pinder (an ex-Streetly employee who built the Mellotron from Chamberlin’s design) who used it live with the Moody Blues as well as in the studio. But why no mention of King Crimson or Tangerine Dream? They were also pioneers of the Mellotron. Also, Bill Fransen was a salesman – it was Les Bradley and his company that built the Mellotron. You need to copy/paste your sources better.

    • Pete D says:

      You obviously haven’t listened to the Rick Wakeman narration! You’d probably want to withdraw your rather curmudgeonly comments.

  • Wanda says:

    30 minutes of amazing Mellotron here. (violins, flutes, cellos, choir, organ- from 1978). Often called the “holy grail” of mellotron albums: Jasun Martz “The Pillory”

  • Bruce says:

    Thanks Pete D

    King Crimson’s original producer was a guy named Tony Clark who left do to “artistic differences”. Most of In the Court of the Crimson King was so Moody Mike himself could have written it.

    Please listen to the narrations before commenting.

  • Paul Gorrell says:

    They have a great mellotron App for IPad it sounds pretty good.

  • Frank Cajon says:

    Mike Pinder of the Moody Blues was indeed one of the pioneers of the Mellotron, as were other members of that band and his name is spelled Pinder.

  • Denny Bales says:

    I knew Mr. Chamberlin,and talked with him many times about the instrument. According to Mr. Chamberlin, his salesman disappeared with 2 of his instruments, never saw him again. A few years later when Mellotron came to America they ran into all of his patents. Realizing this they flew Mr.Chamberlin to England, picked him up at the airport in a Bentley, showed him the studios they built and using the London Philharmonic to make the tracks. He was so impressed by their investment that he settled with them out of court for a royalty from each one sold. That’s the way he told it to me. I also had the pleasure of listening to him play his personal Chamberlin in his den (Add-on room)he was quite amazing musician.
    He also owns the patents on the window washer used on all cars, he was a very kind and wonderful man and i miss him dearly.
    Denny Bales

  • Garry Byrne says:

    Yes! I have Manetron on my iphone. When I run it through a PA, it sounds great!

  • Garry Byrne says:

    I had a Mellotron M400 in 1975. Bought it used (barely), complete with Anvil flight case for $1,000.00. They were on their way out as Wakeman said, partly, I think, because of Innovations like the Arp String Ensemble, which became very popular. I ended up selling my ‘tron for one because I gave up on trying to keep it in running condition. The Arp never measured up and I missed that sweet (and sometimes grungy) melancholy sound. Glad to have it back again in Kontakt 5 sampler, using Mike Pinder’s sample CD. Yay! I also have it sampled to my Korg TR. No 8-second limit!

  • Richard Cave says:

    Garry was the ARP also known as the Solina string ensemble? I think I played one once long ago.
    Didn’t need 4 men to carry it like the current M4000 which I bought 6 years ago! I would like to sample it to a modern keyboard if only I knew how….Any ideas?

  • AEJOTZ says:

    Mellotron? Two words:

    Tony Banks

  • J.M.Järvinen says:

    Jean-Michel Jarre – Mellotron on
    Bridge of Promises 1972, Oxygene II 1976 , Equinoxe IV 1978,
    Souvenir of China(Moscow live) 1981- 1997,Chronologie IV 1993 [might be
    E-mu Emulator according an article],
    Oxygene VIII 1997

  • John Clancy says:

    The opening guitar on Bungallow Bill was a sound effect on my Chamberlin 200 instrument, played on a single key. The sound effect section of the tapes also included the mamba rhythm section sounds of You Know My Name, and every animal sound effect on Good Morning ( Sgt Pepper). I owned the instrument in the mid 70s, it was horribly unreliable, and sonically a nightmare, but it had its moments.

  • gargravarr says:

    808 – which is about the Roland 808, is also a good documentary about a key piece of electronic equipment which had a profound effect on music.

  • Dennis J. Duffy says:

    “…which may be the most compelling documentary about a pioneering electronic instrument…” Nope, sorry. That was “Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey” (1993).

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