My guess is that unless you’re used to toting a baby grand piano to your gig on Friday night, if most of us tried to do so with a Leslie Cabinet we’d have a Saturday morning appointment with the chiropractor.
What I love most about the story of the Leslie is that it was never meant to be a guitar effect. Rather, it was birthed out of a gear hack to create a bigger, better, bolder sound for home organ. So rock and roll. Donald Leslie sat disappointed at a home organ back in the late 1930s, wishing the sound he pumped away could contend with the saintly, cavernous sounds of the organs that graced the halls of churches and theatres. If you’ve ever heard one of these you know the sound: it’s that airy yet endless sound that seems unconfined by physics until the tone resonates in the room and creates a warm flutter.
As Leslie reflected on this sound that is the result of a physically moving air in a confined space, he began experimenting and prototyping a speaker cabinet that created a multi-tiered organ sound. While his designs evolved, the basic idea was to anchor a downward facing bass speaker bellowing into a rotating drum, while the top of the cabinet housed a set of spinning mid-range and treble horns. The real magic of the Leslie occurs when the speed of the drum is changed. Since the drum and horns accelerate/decelerate at different rates, the result is a pulse and pound that is not only heard but felt.
After an initial pass on the concept from Hammond Organs, Leslie forged on solo and founded Electro-Music in 1941. This would be vehicle for bringing his design to market, which found success among organists almost instantly. While the product evolved over the decades in terms of circuitry, design, and connectability, its fundamental premise of manipulating air through moving components stayed the same. In the process of this creativity and engineering, Leslie acquired a total of 48 patents for the speaker’s design and those of other musical innovations.
By the mid-1960s, Leslie’s big box of sound attracted a big buyer: CBS. In 1965, the very same year that CBS picked up Fender, they also acquired Electro-Music. In fact, these sudden siblings resulted in one design that drew upon the assets of both companies: The Fender Vibratone. While guitarists had been experimenting with using the Leslie cabinets designed for organs for years, the Vibratone was the first design geared for use with the guitar. In this iteration, the speaker faced frontwards like a usual amplifier yet had a front loaded Styrofoam rotor-cone in front of it. When this spun at various speeds, the result is a blend of chorus-vibrato as the air moves and pulses. If you’ve heard Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Cold Shot,” then you know the sound I’m talking about.
As CBS began to shed its non-broadcast oriented companies in the early-1980s, Electro-Music was one of the first to go. In 1980, the company was acquired by Hammond Organs, the very company that turned Leslie away four decades earlier. While that is the most recent chapter of the story for the full-size Leslie Cabinet, the Leslie sound has met a new generation through guitar pedal renditions including the Strymon Lex and Electro-Harmonix Lester G. So, the gear that started as an oversized effect for organs ended up finding a place on modern, compact pedalboards.
No matter the size or amount of gear you’ve got, enjoy some time with it this weekend and have a great #RiffCitySunday.