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The Mellotron: A Child Of The 60s

Sep 15, 2008
The word "mellotron" (the word is also a trademark and therefore sometimes capitalized) sounds to me like some kind of robot that would be encountered on the original Star Trek series. It's not, of course, but is rather an electro-mechanical polyphonic (able to produce more than one note simultaneously) keyboard. The only resemblance between this instrument and Star Trek is that they are both the progeny of that age of experimentation, the 1960s. A mellotron has a bank of magnetic audio tapes, each of which has approximately eight seconds of playing time. A playback head is located under each key, and the depression of that key triggers the playing of a pre-recorded sound. Although these sounds have varied over the years and on various models, they include strings, flutes, brass and eight-voice choirs.

As mentioned, the development of the mellotron is usually attributed to the early 1960s, although keyboard-driven tape instruments were available prior to that time. However, it was during this decade and the one succeeding it that mellotrons experienced their greatest popularity and in consequentially, had the strongest influence on music. Mellotrons found a home in the rock and roll industry and it was there that they created their strongest legacy. However, it is also interesting to note that at the time of its initial popularity, the sheer novelty of the instrument attracted a number of celebrities. Individuals like King Hussein of Jordan, L. Ron Hubbard and Princess Margaret of England are all known to have purchased and kept these instruments in their homes.

The psychedelic era of the 1960s was ideally suited for the use of the mellotron. Its music was used in a number of songs that are still famous today, including The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" and The Rolling Stones' "2000 Light Years from Home." Artists, like civilians, were drawn to the novelty of the instrument. It usually came pre-loaded with string instrument and orchestral sounds, although as mentioned, other sounds were also available.

In 1970, a new model called the M400 was released. This mellotron had the advantage of easily removable and replaceable tapes. It allowed artists to load banks of tapes containing many different sounds, such as percussion loops or synthesizer-generated sounds. The popularity of the instrument continued to grow during this decade, and it was adopted by many progressive rock groups of the age. Progressive rock is usually defined as an attempt to raise the artistic credibility of the rock genre, and the mellotron was instrumental (yes, that was a pun) in shaping this musical movement. Bands and artists of this era that utilized the mellotron included The Alan Parsons Project, David Bowie and Genesis.

The mellotron continued to be a presence in the music industry, its popularity waxing and waning with the trends of the times. The advent of punk rock in the mid 1970s dampened many people's enthusiasm for this instrument, which began to be viewed as a relic of a bygone and pretentious era. However, the mellotron enjoyed a revival in the 1990s and was used by some of the most famous artists of that decade, including: Lenny Kravitz, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Soundgarden, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, The Smashing Pumpkins, Marilyn Manson, Counting Crows and other prominent names. The mellotron is still occasionally used in the music of the 21st century, and it is doubtful that it will ever entirely disappear from the music industry, at least not until we're all living on space ships.
About the Author
Victor Epand is an expert consultant for guitars, drums, keyboards, sheet music, guitar tab, and home theater audio. You can find the best marketplace at these sites for mellotron, keyboards, sheet music, guitar tabs, and home theater audio.
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