Introduction to the Organ by Gene Roberson

Are you ready to learn everything you need to know about the ORGAN? This comprehensive post about all things ORGAN applies to:

  • Church Pipe Organs 
  • Digital Church Organs
  • Theater Pipe Organs 
  • Home Console Organs
  • Hammond  Tonewheel  Organs

In other words, ANY organ! Let’s get started…

American Classic Pipe Organ

The classic pipe organ has been the primary musical instrument of the church for many years. Even with the use of piano, guitars, drums and other orchestral instruments, the organ remains the best musical instrument for most church worship services.  Lets get started.

The basic pipe organ has two keyboards with 61 keys on each manual. The standard American Guild of Organist Pedal board has 32 pedals mounted in a CONCAVE design.

The basic groups of ORGAN SOUND (Pipe types) are the following

Principal or Diapason.  These pipes will have different names and are usually chosen by the organ builder.

Flute     Builders also use different names based on the timbre of sound coming from the pipe, including the volume or voicing of the pipe rank. (Row of pipes).

String –  The most popular string pipe is the Viole and Viole Celeste. These stops are sometime combined as one. There are also different names in the string family such as Dulciana, and Salicional.  Again, named for the volume and the timbre, or brightness.

Reed – These are the Trumpet – Oboe, Clarinet stops on the organ and usually have  RED printing on the stops.  This is also considered the BRASS section of the organ.

Principal Mixtures .  These are the very high pitched stops on the organ, related to the Principal family. They provide brilliance and help with the broad spectrum of the organ, mainly for full organ use.

Does your organ have more than 2 manuals?

Some larger pipe organs have up to six manuals. The standard is three. The bottom keyboard is the extra one called the Choir or Positiv.  If it is a choir manual, there will be more softer stops like the swell, which is the top manual, the GREAT manual would be in the middle. If it is a Positiv manual, the sounds would be more Baroque and the pipes are usually located in a special place in the building. Other manuals (more than just three) are Solo Manuals and other special functioning manuals and are located above the Swell manual.


This is the most important subject when learning the pipe organ!  Some pipe organs have all the pipes (usually not displayed to be seen) in a specially built sound chamber. They use organ SHUTTERS to muffle the sound. This is a slight volume change based on the quality of the shutters and where the pipes are located in relation to the console (Control desk with stops and keyboards)

Pipe organs that include displays of organ pipes usually only display the GREAT pipes. The Swell and Choir pipes are in two different chambers. So the main issue here is to determine the loudness of each set (rank) of the GREAT pipes. Remember, they will sound at the volume that the organ builder or your pipe organ tuner has voiced them at.  Also, some of the pedal pipes will be included in this UN-ENCLOSED group of pipes.  It is the duty of the ORGANIST to learn how to use a set volume of sound (both one rank at a time or with a combination of Great pipes)

IN CONTRAST to the Swell or Choir pipes which can be softened in volume. The way we change the volume is with the EXPRESSION pedals controlled with normally the Right foot. These pedals are located in the middle just up from the pedal board. 

NOTE!! The pedal on the far RIGHT is NOT a volume pedal, rather it is called the CRESCENDO pedal. It incorporated usually 90% of ALL the stops on it and you can hold a chord and increase the pedal from soft stops to loud by pressing it all the way down. There is usually a green light on the console to tell you that this pedal is in use. The light is usually next to the RED Tutti  light which is a piston (button between the manuals) that will play a FULL ORGAN (All the pipes) instantly.

The first lesson I teach for learning to play with expression is:  On the SWELL, put on the Viole Celeste stop(s) and the Flute 8 Stop on the Great.  Also, one 16’ Pedal stop like the Bourdon. (Find the softest pedal stop).  Using your LEFT hand on the SWELL, play a chord and pedal. Then play a one note solo melody on the GREAT using the FLUTE stop. Have your right foot on the Swell expression pedal starting with it closed. Then practice opening the pedal while playing a simple melody. Using this simple method, you can learn to play the pipe organ well.

LASTLY,  Learn to play hymns with a Principal chorus on the GREAT manual. Using the Principal 8 – 4  – 2 and a Mixture stop.  Start learning to play with just manuals before adding the pedals.  The technique of playing is not covered in this lecture. Learning to play manuals and pedals are covered in other publications. I do have a Pedal Method available at my shop on Sheet Music Plus here.

General and Divisional Pistons.  These are the round buttons in between the manuals.

These are similar to your car radio instant channel finder buttons. There are two basic sections. General: These set up ALL the keyboards and pedals and Divisional: These are located under the middle keys below the manuals. They control your settings for the manual above the buttons.  You simply pull out the stops you want to use and hold the SET button (LOWER LEFT below the bottom keyboard) and then push the preset key desired. Some older organs use different methods such as: Hold the piston and then pull out the stop. Most operate the first way I mentioned.

COUPLERS:  These are the stops that make sounds transfer to another division. Great to Pedal, Swell to Pedal, these couplers allow the sounds of that division to be played in the pedals.  Swell to Great brings the pipes from the Swell down to the Great. Same with the Choir or Positiv to Great.

I trust you will find these notes helpful to you as you start your journey on the pipe organ.


For many years, American organ manufacturers like Allen, Rodgers, Walker, and others have build wonderful electronic and digitally sampled pipe organs, many found in our churches today. Most are similar and follow basic guidelines set by the American Guild of Organists as well as more pipe organ builders. The manuals and pedalboards are the same. The only exception is that they do not include wind blown organ pipes. There are exceptions to that also. Some are called HYBRID organs which include a certain amount of real pipes. The Rodgers organ I play is interfaced with 15 ranks of Ruffatti (Italian manufacturer) organ pipes. Most hybrid installations use the real pipes on the Great manual so there is usually no expression.  (Read the expression notes above).

Most digital organs include the option of the Great sounds to be under expression using the foot expression pedal for the Great (or Great and Choir – You can look down at the expression pedals and there is usually a plaque with the division name on it.)  Playing a digital organ is very similar to playing a real pipe organ, so it is important to listen to each stop on the organ and follow most of the system written for the pipe organ (above).

Other feature of the Digital organs are: 

Various Tremolo features
Piston Next  (Changes the General pistons in order)

Manual Pedal – This stop brings the Pedals to the Great manual for those organist who never play the pedals. The bottom key of the chord will play the pedal.

Different Speaker Systems like the Antiphonal Speakers mounted in the back of the church.

Midi  Couplers. This allows the ability to add more sounds using computers and sounds modules even made by different manufactures to be added to the organ.

Theater Organs

The Mighty Wurlitzer – the Robert Morton Theater organs were very popular back in the 1920’s and primarily were installed in movie theaters to accompany Silent Films.

There were also church models made my these companies and many churches and funeral homes bought these organs.

The main difference between the Classic organ and the Theater organs is: The foundation sound (Stops) of the Theater organ is the TIBIA. It is a loud Wood Flute pipe stop that is usually played with throbbing Tremolo for a very spectacular effect. Adding Brilliant String stops and Sassy Reeds give the Theater organ a more Orchestral sound than the traditional classic pipe organ sound.  A large Theater organ sometimes will include Classic pipes and can achieve a good classic organ sound.

The music played on the Theater organ is usually popular tunes, Broadway and show tunes and even Classical orchestral music such as the William Tell Overture to beautiful melodies such as: The Swan.

Theater organs usually have a nice array of solo Reeds like: Post Horn, Tuba, Kinure (a nasty sounding reed) to vox humana (Choir sounds) oboe and clarinet. The Pedal division usually features a scary 16 Reed some are called “The Serpent!”

Theater organs use color coded stops. Red for the Reeds and Yellow for the Stings. The Tibias and Diapasons are White. The other difference from the Classic organ is that most divisions (Swell -Great – Accompaniment – Solo – Pedal use the same stops in each division. The console for a 15 rank theater organ will have as many as 60 stop tabs arranged on different levels on what we call a “Horseshoe” Rail. The basic idea is “Any Sound – Played Anywhere”.

Electronic –Digital Theater Organs

Since the 1960’s  I have played on many different electronic Theater organs build by Allen, Baldwin, Conn, Rodgers, Gulbransen, Thomas and the list goes on and on.

These organs were made for the home and some of the larger models were installed in churches and small theaters and even concert halls.

Today, with digital technology, computers and such, the Theater organ sounds can be enjoyed anywhere. Some companies like Allen and Walker build huge 5 and 6 manual Theater organs for even “Beginner Level” hobby organists who have a lot of money to spend. Upwards to a half million dollars!!  Yes! This is true.

For those looking for an organ for home, there a many of these available for free. Some still in excellent condition.

 Home Digital Organs

There are so many brands of home digital organs, too many to list. But the top of the line organs from the 1990’s  sold in the USA were the Technics and the Roland Atelier instruments. These were primarily purchased for the home by hobby organists as well as professional organists and organ teachers. Some even made their way into churches and concert halls.

I taught people to play (and also sold) the Technics organ in 1985. Many of my students played the Hammond and Conn organs from the 1970s.  The Technics organ are set up a little differently than the standard organ. They are Conductor based organs. This means that all the sounds are put together in sections and controlled by a group of buttons that can be used individually or together by pressing one or more at the same time. Then the sound groups are stored in traditional presets much like the pipe organ. Ultimately, the preset sounds can be stored on a computer disc and saved for use later. They even include a playback system. I have recorded hundreds of songs for people to just sit back and listen to their instrument play by itself. I also have recorded many hymns for churches with these instruments to sing with when they do not have an organist.

The Roland Atelier is similar to the Technics. Except that the Roland does NOT use the Conductor system found on the Technics. They are basically an on-off  button system. Roland, like the Technics features many more sounds found within the organ using the “OTHERS” button in each sound section. For ex. There are many variations on the piano sounds instead of just one basic piano. Virtually, every sound in the orchestra, plus sounds of the Hammond Organ, Classical and Theater organs can be found on these organs. These organs have built in speakers and in many cases, can fill an auditorium with sound with just the speakers installed within the organ console.

They also have head-phone jacks to use in small areas such as apartments. Only the player can hear the sounds.

Hammond Vintage Tone Wheel Organs

The Hammond B-3 has become a household term! The most famous of all vintage organs since the old pump organ and the traditional pipe organ, classic or Theater.

Created in 1935, Laurens Hammond introduced a revolutionary musical instrument that even had to go to court in able to called an organ! This amazing “organ” became a must have musical instrument for home organists, mainly the hobby organist. However, the church model (C-3) became very popular in the small churches around the world that could not afford a large pipe organ. My first Hammond was purchased for me in 1963. I learned to play all kinds of music from Back to Rock!

Playing the Hammond was the same when it came to the keyboards and pedals. We bought a 25 note pedal organ and then traded to the 32 note board when I was in high school learning more complicated classics. The main difference is in the controls.

The switches turning the organ on, uses two switches. First hold the Start switch on for 10 seconds, then keeping the start switch on, add the RUN switch and count to 5. Then let go. The organ is now ready to be played.

The organ uses four sets of Tone bars (also called Drawbars). The main sound that is generated is the FLUTE (Sine Wave) sound. Played at all the different octave pitches, from 16, to 1”  (Low range – mid range and high range, plus other organ related pitches like the 2 and 2/3, 1 and 1/3 , 1 and 3’5 plus the 5 and 1/3, you are able to get some familiar instrumental sounds like the clarinet, oboe, and others.  The sounds are achieved by pulling these tone bars in and out at 8 degrees of volume each! But for those who would rather just touch a button and instantly get sounds, there is that feature. On the left side of each manual, there are Reversed Colored Keys called Presets. Some people used to put the stickers on each key with the name of the sound like Trumpet (Upper G#) Oboe (Upper F#)  Clarinet (Lower D#0  Tibia (Lower G#0 Diapason 8 (Lower F#)   Full Organ (Lower A)  You use the A# and B preset keys to use the sets of drawbars.  The Middle Two drawbars are for the 16 and 8 foot pedal sounds. There are also Vibrato Controls with six types of vibrato including a manual split feature. You can have vibrato off on the lower while the upper is on. On the 3 series (C-3 B-3 RT-3 – A-100) series there is a knob that gives you six variations of vibrato depth. The Chorus feature on the same know give you half off and half on. The four tabs on the right side of the drawbars are percussion effects when the Upper B Preset key is engaged.  The Second is a 4 foot bell and the 3rd is the 2 and 2/3rd  is used with the 16- 51/3 8 and 4 Drawbars (pulled all the way out) with NO vibrato, giving you the famous Jazz Organ effect.

Don’t be afraid of the Tone Bars!!

First of all, do not pay attention to the 8 numbers on the bar. These are simply volume levels. Secondly, there are four sets of NINE tone bars and they are all the same. So you only have to think about nine pitch levels. The pure octave tones start from the LEFT first BROWN bar and is the 16 level. The WHITE bars from left to right are: 8 – 4 – 2 and 1.  The second brown is the 5 1/3 tone, The BLACKS are the 2 2/3, 1/35 – and the 1 1/3 harmonic tones.  Here are a few quick ways to get some usable sound combinations:  Pull the bars out all the way quickly, they wont break!!

Pull out ALL the tone bars and then push the second brown (5 1/3) and the three black bars in a little (like to level 6).  This is a FULL ORGAN setting. Play full chord in the upper range on either the upper or lower keyboard. Push in all the black and 2nd brown bars to have a pure Flute chorus.

Pull the 16 – 8 – 2 2/3 and 1 3/5 bard out all the way for a nice Bass Clarinet. Push in the 16 for a nice 8’ Clarinet,

For Jazz Solo, pull out the 1st FOUR bars. No Vibrato for sharp tone and with vibrato, play sustained Trombone- like solos.

Pull the 5 1/3 – 8 – 4-  1 3/5 – 1 1/3 for the Ethel Smith solo sound when she played the song “Nola”. No Vibrato.

Pull out the last four bars, vibrato on V-3 and in the upper range, TAP all your fingers on five to six white keys at the same time. This is the  SLEIGH-BELL effect. Play Jingle Bells  on the other keyboard. You can also have a friend play the Sleigh Bells while you play the song!

 In Conclusion

A lot of organ music includes Hammond registrations using the numbers from 1 thru 8 on each tone bar. This is another way to set the organ. There are also books written on the subject as well as using the owners manual for the Hammond organ.  Just have fun with the Hammond and treat it just like all other musical instruments.


Hammond Organs sound especially wonderful with the addition of a Leslie Speaker.  The Leslie uses a special Tremolo system with fast and slow moving hors on top of the speaker and well as a moving drum for the lower sounds.

The Hammond organ has met the musical needs of so many keyboard musicians from composers to professional and church organists. It was never meant to replace the traditional pipe organ, but rather add a new sound to the World of Music. The Hammond is here to stay! I mean, I will never get rid of my wonderful Hammond B-3 and Leslie Speaker!!

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