Instruments | Mellotron | Electric & Electronic

The Mellotron and its predecessor the Chamberlain were in effect the earliest examples of a sample playback instrument.


In 1949, Californian inventor Harry Chamberlain, patented the Chamberlain MusicMaster. It was the first commercially available instrument to use pre-recorded lengths of tape mounted within a keyboard in such a way that, whenever a key was depressed, a corresponding length of tape was moved across a tape play head. The resulting sound was heard through the instrument’s built-in amplifier and speakers. The Chamberlain employed finite lengths of tape and required a spring mechanism to return each length to the beginning every time a key was released. The limited playback time of seven or eight seconds led players to develop a spider-like movement between chord inversions in an attempt to sustain sounds for longer. However, the system did have the advantage that the attack portion of the recorded instrument was heard with each new note sounded.

Mellotron Models

In 1962, Chamberlain’s agent, Bill Fransen, in search of suppliers of tape playback heads, visited Bradmatic, a small company in Birmingham, England. Fascination with the idea of a musical instrument based on tape playback led the owners – brothers Bill and Lesley Bradley – to join forces with bandleader/broadcaster Eric Robinson and the Mellotronic company was born.

The Mellotron Mark I appeared in 1963 but, although it was technically superior to the Chamberlain, it remained temperamental and a year passed before the first truly playable instrument was produced. The Model 400, first produced in 1970, is widely regarded as the classic Mellotron. Approximately 2,000 were made. In 1976, after commercial problems and dispute over the Mellotron name, the Bradley brothers continued to produce instruments under the name Novatron. (A similar instrument, the Birotron, was an ill-fated venture by long-time Mellotron player Rick Wakeman.)

Mellotron Music

Despite its weight and unreliability, the Mellotron proved to be a very popular instrument. Made famous by The Beatles on ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and The Moody Blues on ‘Nights In White Satin’ the Mellotron was widely adopted by progressive-rock bands such as Genesis, Yes and Pink Floyd throughout the 1970s.

Introduction | Electric & Electronic Instruments
Instruments | Synthesizer | Electric & Electronic

Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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