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

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Meet the Dr. Who Com­pos­er Who Almost Turned The Bea­t­les’ “Yes­ter­day” Into Ear­ly Elec­tron­i­ca

The Genius of Bri­an Eno On Dis­play in 80 Minute Q&A: Talks Art, iPad Apps, ABBA, & More

All Hail the Beat: How the 1980 Roland TR-808 Drum Machine Changed Pop Music

The “Amen Break”: The Most Famous 6‑Second Drum Loop & How It Spawned a Sam­pling Rev­o­lu­tion

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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