Don Leslie’s Whirling Dervish Speaker Contraption

Don Leslie’s Whirling Dervish Speaker Contraption

Written by Stuart Marvin

There are a few gentlemen in particular who deserve strong recognition for the development and evolution of several modern-day musical instruments.

Included in this distinguished group of instrument makers are fairly well-known names like Leo Fender, Orville Gibson, Laurens Hammond, William F. Ludwig, Friedrich Gretsch, and Adolph Rickenbacker. But none of these guys will likely ever be the subject of a Hamilton-style Broadway musical, especially with names that even Lin-Manuel Miranda would be challenged to work into a rhyming lyric. Mellifluous they ain’t (though a pairing of “Gretsch” with “Kvetch” could be the start of something big).

Another inventor with considerably low name recognition – despite having named his musical invention after himself – is the late Donald Leslie. That’s right, Mr. Leslie, an audio engineer by trade, invented the Leslie speaker system. [He was reclusive enough that we could not find an image of Leslie suitable for use in this article – Ed.]

For Copper readers who aren’t too familiar with a Leslie, it’s an unusual amplification and speaker system that takes a signal from an instrument – usually an organ, sometimes a guitar – and channels its sound through spinning rotors. It is best known as a pairing partner to the Hammond B3 organ.

If you’re still scratching your head about what a Hammond and Leslie can achieve sonically, here’s a few reference tracks to jog your memory: Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” “The Young Rascals’ “Good Lovin,” The Zombies’ “Time of The Season,” and the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Each of these classic songs features a memorable organ riff or bridge played through a Hammond B3 or L-102 and a Leslie speaker.


A vintage Leslie speaker system contains a 40-watt tube amplifier, a treble horn and a bass speaker, though components can vary by model. The bass speaker generally is either 10, 12 or 15 inches in diameter. The highs are produced by a rotating pair of horns and the lows produced by a bass rotor spinning in an opposite direction. On a dual-speed Leslie, the keyboardist controls the rotor speed via an external switch or pedal that can be changed from chorale (slow) to tremolo (fast). Newer models feature reverberation, triple channels, and rotating-cone speakers. By the mid-1960s artists discovered vintage Leslies weren’t loud or powerful enough for playing larger venues, so a solid-state ProLine was introduced.

For all its sonic beauty, a vintage Leslie isn’t going to win any design awards. Its cabinet is large, boxy and exceedingly heavy. It looks like an unfinished junior high school wood shop project (not to be confused with that spectacular lamp I crafted in 8th grade). Several Leslie models weigh in excess of 140 pounds, so it’s gear that isn’t particularly roadie-friendly. The late Gregg Allman frequently toured with two backbreaking Leslies, just in case one wasn’t functioning properly. Newer Leslie models are digital, smaller and far more transportable, though purists say they lack the imaging of vintage tube-based models.


A Leslie Model 122A speaker cabinet.


It’s been said that a “Leslie is to a Hammond organ what a scoop of ice cream is to hot apple pie.” Unfortunately, the relationship between the two companies initially, and for many years thereafter, did not reflect that metaphor. Laurens Hammond, founder of the Hammond Organ Company, held enormous contempt and animosity towards both inventor Don Leslie and his speaker system.

How bad was it between the two companies? Laurens Hammond instructed his engineers to switch the cable connectors on the company’s organs so they were incompatible with a Leslie. He also forbid Hammond dealers from selling Leslie speakers if they desired to continue working with his company. Commenting on their combative relationship, Don Leslie once said, “They tried to stop our growth any way they could. They badmouthed me as much as possible, which turned into a vast amount of publicity for both our company and our products.” Nonetheless, right from its humble beginnings, word of the Leslie’s stellar sound spread quickly throughout the music community.

There are several theories why Hammond so vehemently rejected both the man and his invention. Some say Hammond plainly didn’t like the sound of a Leslie, while others say it was a combination of “not invented here syndrome,” fear, greed, control, ego, and so on. That’s not all that surprising, as inventors are often protective of their inventions, sometimes to a fault.

When Don Leslie purchased his first Hammond organ he did not care for its sound in smaller-sized rooms, so he opted to create his own sound system. Leslie did lots of experimentation with motion and sound, ultimately leading to his rotating speaker design system in 1937. Leslie discovered that by splitting the signal of a rotating drum and horn, he could accentuate the device’s bass and treble frequencies. He characterized the design as “a combination of frequency and amplitude.” Leslie initially called his invention the Vibratone, then the Leslie Vibratone, and then ultimately the Leslie. The Fender Vibratone was introduced in 1967.

Although a Leslie is most closely associated with a Hammond B3, it’s been used with much critical and commercial success modifying vocals, guitars and other instruments. In fact, most musicians today would say that a Leslie is more of a sound modification device than a speaker or amplification system. You’d likely hear, “I use a Leslie speaker to change my sound, not to reproduce it.” Eric Clapton ran his guitar through a Leslie on Cream’s “Badge,” as did Keith Richards on the Stones’ “Let it Loose.” Jimi Hendrix played through a Leslie on the tracks “Little Wing” and “Tax Free,” with some debate on whether he used a Leslie or a Uni-Vibe effects pedal on several other songs, particularly in the latter stages of his recording career when he was prone to in-studio experimentation.


A Hammond B3 going through a Leslie. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/JacoTen.


The Beatles famously used a Leslie on John Lennon’s vocals on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Lennon asked producer George Martin to “make my voice sound like the Dalai Lama chanting from a mountaintop, miles away.” You can say running his vocals through a Leslie achieved that goal (and more), given the track’s richly layered psychedelic sound. After learning about the intricacies of a Leslie, the ever-playful Lennon then asked Martin if hanging him upside down and spinning him like a top as he sang could achieve a similar sound effect.


On Led Zeppelin’s “How Many More Times,” Jimmy Page uniquely used a Leslie to create the song’s main guitar riff. Said Page, “My guitar is going through the (sound) board, then through an amp, which was driving the Leslie. Surprisingly, the sound has real weight. It was a very successful experiment.” A vast understatement, to say the least.

The ever-amazing Steve Winwood frequently plays a Hammond B3 and Leslie without a bass guitarist. A fair amount of Traffic’s earliest recordings consisted of Winwood on keyboards, Chris Wood on horns and Jim Capaldi on drums. Winwood played bass using his left hand and the Hammond B3’s pedalboard. Commenting on a Leslie’s different speed settings, Winwood has said, “When choosing between stationary and chorale (slow), I prefer stationary because it gives the bass more depth and solidity. However, when playing the organ with no bass (guitarist), I would probably utilize chorale.”

Chris Cornell used a model 16 Leslie with great effect to create the space-age guitar tones in Soundgarden’s classic “Black Hole Sun.” The late Rusty Young masterfully paired a pedal steel guitar with a Leslie with the country-rock band Poco. Just listen to the sound of Young’s pedal steel work on the 18-minute instrumental jam “Nobody’s Fool-El Tonto de Nadie, Regresa.” (Poco, 1970).


The inner workings of a Leslie inside a custom-made clear cabinet. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Hustvedt.


When automotive geeks seek to upgrade a car’s stock engine, they may look to add a turbocharger, or improve the vehicle’s airflow or its ignition timing. Similarly, musicians sometimes “hot rod” their Leslies by disabling its drivers, installing new capacitors, and/or replacing the system’s amplifier. Keyboardist Lee Michaels was a known “hot rodder,” asking his organ techs to beef up his Leslie in numerous ways. Just listen to the fullness of his live two-man studio recording of “Stormy Monday” (Lee Michaels, 1969), with Michaels playing a Hammond B3 (with Leslie) and his sidekick Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost (aka Frosty) on drums.

Of course, any discussion about a Hammond B3 and Leslie wouldn’t be complete without including the late organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. Smith melded jazz with funk, and over a long musical career he collaborated with a broad and eclectic range of artists, including George Benson, Gladys Knight, Dionne Warwick, Marvin Gaye, Etta James, Norah Jones and Iggy Pop. Smith self-anointed as a “Dr.,” not due to any medical or academic achievements, but rather as a statement of his musical knowledge and contributions to his craft.  He called himself a “doctor of music.”


On tracks that have a well-known organ riff or bridge, the Hammond B3-Leslie combination generally is front and center. On other tracks that I’ve cited, plus many others, a Leslie speaker is sort of an unsung hero, exhibiting its versatility in sound modification without the listeners’ knowledge or understanding of its specific application. In fact, aspiring musicians frequently grapple with replicating the sounds from a Leslie that many artists created with their in-studio recordings.

While the use of a Leslie as a sound modulation device has grown, the use of a Hammond organ in popular music has declined. This decline is due to a number of factors, including limited access and exposure to the instrument; lack of interest by up-and-coming musicians; a lack of qualified teachers; the growth of plugins and other electronic instruments, including digital pianos, synthesizers, Moogs, Mellotrons, and so on; and changing musical tastes. A Hammond organ is also, like a Leslie, very heavy and challenging to move physically.


After years and years spewing criticism and engaging in “foul play” (no pun intended), Laurens Hammond finally offered to buy out Don Leslie’s company, Electro Music, in 1957. What was Leslie’s response? I’m paraphrasing, but essentially he said, “Take a hike.” Leslie did eventually sell his company to CBS in 1965, and after the death of Laurens Hammond in 1973, the Hammond Company purchased Electro Music from CBS in 1980. Today the company is part of the Suzuki Music Corporation.

Don Leslie was a true visionary whose invention has influenced virtually every genre of music, including gospel, jazz, R&B, pop, rock and even hip-hop. Today there are many electronic devices, such as analog and digital pedals, that can emulate the rotary effect of a Leslie, but purists say nothing tops the sound of a vintage “whirling dervish” Leslie.



Header animation courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Berndt Meyer. Pictured: 1) Horn enclosure. 2) Compression driver. 3) Treble motor. 4) Crossover, 5) Bass motor. 6) Woofer. 7) Drum enclosure. 8) Drum. 9) Cabinet. Amplifier not pictured.

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