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What Instruments Were Used in Motown Music?

Motown band, The Four Tops, performing at an event.
Frazer Harrison/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

For a record company and recording studio started in a modest two-story house northwest of downtown Detroit, Motown's influence has been anything but modest. Emulating the production lines of the Motor City's car factories, the label churned out hit after hit through the 1960s and beyond. The songs were built on the rock foundation of bass, drums, guitars and keyboards and sweetened with orchestral instruments, vocals and percussion aided by systematic recording techniques. This resulted in singles loaded with sonic excitement.

Let's Rock -- The Rhythm Section

The rhythm section, bass and drums, is the cornerstone on which much of rock and jazz is built. Berry Gordy combed the jazz bars of Detroit to put together the collection of musicians known as the Funk Brothers. Electric bass was the main bottom end instrument, although upright basses were also used sparingly. Drums were conventional kits that included kick and snare drums, hi hat, tom-toms and cymbals. Two drummers were often used to enhance the force of the beat. "Dancing in the Street" and "Tears of a Clown" are two notable examples.

Soul Stomp -- Guitars and Keyboards

The harmonic framework was usually laid out with a Steinway piano and guitars, particularly in the early days, when recording tracks were limited. The studio had a Hammond B3 organ and Leslie speaker that shared an isolation room with a harpsichord. Stevie Wonder made great use of a Hohner Clavinet, and Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos featured as well. The electric keyboards and electric guitars were recorded directly through a custom-made amplifier to assure separation between instruments in the tiny live recording room, dubbed the Snakepit.

A Thrill a Moment -- Tambourine and Other Percussion

With drums recorded in a song's original session, technology of the early 1960s meant that the drums would be mixed and transferred to other tapes up to four times. Each transfer using magnetic tape reduced sound quality, predominately in high frequencies. Restoring excitement to the beat was often done with additional percussion. The tambourine features so prominently it's a key element of the Motown sound. "A Simple Game" by the Four Tops is dynamically controlled by the tambourine throughout. Congas and other hand percussion also contribute when needed, such as in "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye.

How Sweet It Is -- Additional Instruments

Brass and woodwind instruments were used so frequently that Motown's chief engineer, Lawrence Horn, had tracks systematically assigned in his early three-track recording system. Strings, vibes, harmonica, saxophones and other instruments could be added to fill spaces between vocals, but rarely did an instrumental solo ever feature. Indeed, the Funk Brothers remained largely anonymous. Motown quietly moved to Los Angeles years before the "official" move in 1972. In fact, mid-'60s Motown tunes were played by the cream of L.A.'s studio musicians, such as bassist Carol Kaye, who played on a number of Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye recordings.

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