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All My Keyboards: Roger O'Donnell

Introducing a brand new written series: All My Keyboards, thought up by our friend, musician, composer and keyboardist of The Cure, Roger O'Donnell.

In this series we highlight the stories behind... well, you guessed it, a musician's keyboard collection! And who better to start us off than the creator of the series. As a member of The Cure since 1987, Roger has been instrumental in shaping the band's unique sound and style. He has previously been a member of a number of iconic bands, like The Psychedelic Furs, Thompson Twins and Berlin in addition to having an active solo career as a composer.

Without further ado,

All My Keyboards: Roger O'Donnell.

Roger O'Donnell of The Cure.
Roger O'Donnell by Ambar Navarro.

Murdoch, Murdoch & Co. Upright PIano

The piano I learnt to play on. I was actually born next to it in the dining room of our house in East London. The piano was always there and my Mum used to stop and play it when she was cleaning the house. I would sit underneath the keys and press them up or run around the living room while she played. My father could also play, but he rarely did. They could play anything by ear and I guess I inherited that ability from them.

It was an upright piano that was never, ever tuned; but it didn’t really matter. My oldest brother George taught me how to play a 12-bar blues and that was how it all started. I had some lessons when I was at school, but I was way more interested in just making things up or playing along to my favorite albums. There was some sheet music in the piano stool and I would occasionally buy sheet music of pop songs. I bought “Hey Jude” by The Beatles even though I was never really a fan. When my parents died in the early 80s, my sister Christine couldn’t bear to get rid of the piano, so she kept it at her house. It inevitably got moved into the garden and gradually disintegrated, but she managed to save the lid for me, which I still have. I have no idea how we ended up with a piano in our house, but it wasn’t unusual or rare for East End homes to have a piano. It was for many years the only form of entertainment… sadly quite rare these days.

I did find some information about Murdoch Pianos once, but doing a quick search I haven’t been able to find anything apart from their address, as 461/3 Oxford Street London.

Hohner Pianet N

When I first started hanging around with bands in the early 70s, it was pretty obvious that I would need some sort of electric piano or organ if I was going to play with them and as I pretty much hated organs, it had to be a piano. There wasn’t a lot of choice in the early 70s; if you were into jazz, it was the Fender Rhodes, and for pop most people used a Wurlitzer. These were both pretty expensive, especially if your pocket money was £1.50 a week. There was another choice though, which was considerably cheaper, but still sounded pretty good, and was made by a German company, Hohner: the Pianet N. It had a series of metal reeds that were tuned and plucked by a sticky foam pad on the end of a key. It had vibrato and the sound really cut through in a rock band. I told my Dad I wanted to get one and he said that if I got a job and earned half the money, he would give me the other half. I have never forgotten this, and what a lesson it taught me. It also meant a huge amount to me that he would encourage me to do this.

So, I got a summer job working as a messenger for an insurance company in the city of London and earned £20. I found a Pianet for sale for £40 and went and picked it up on the bus and brought it home. I was and have always been very protective and careful with my instruments and was worried about it getting scratched, so I got some leatherette material, and my Mum sewed me a case for it.

The next problem was that I didn’t have an amp… I discovered that I could plug an aux input into my parents’ bedside clock radio! My Dad then found an amplifier kit in the back of a newspaper and bought it for me and we soldered it together. We always had a load of weird speakers lying around upstairs in our house and we made them work with the amp. I got a wah-wah pedal and played it in my bedroom and a couple of jams. I think I got used to it with my first ever band, Frenchie.

It was never really considered a pro instrument and you rarely saw one on stage, but according to Wikipedia, it was used by The Beatles, The Zombies and some other surprising artists, and is enjoying a renaissance now thanks to Bugge Wesseltoft. 


Fender Rhodes 73 Suitcase Piano

So, I knew that if I was going to be a professional musician, I needed a Fender Rhodes. I wanted the one with the stereo speaker cabinet underneath it. I don’t remember exactly when I bought mine or how I got the money, but I still have it. I had it restored in 2005, but it never sounded or played how I wanted it to. I had a conversation with Custom Vintage Keyboards at his shop in the valley a few years ago, and he told me that that particular serial number was from a batch of not-great pianos.

It did however see me through my formative years of being a professional musician and allowed me to earn money from playing music. During this time, I toured continually around England and a couple of gigs in Europe. We were the backing band for a US trio called The Flirtations: keys, guitar, drum and bass. We would play six-night residencies in working men's clubs and cabaret clubs; our pay was £85 a week or £15 for a one-nighter. This is when I met Boris Williams, with whom I would go on to play in the Thompson Twins and The Cure. We didn’t have re-amplification, just our on stage amps. I'm not sure how anyone ever heard us.

The Rhodes is a classic instrument and was the piano in jazz fusion and jazz funk bands - Herbie Hancock, Jan Hammer, Joe Zawinul - these were the guys I wanted to sound like, but of course they had hyper-tuned and worked-on instruments and mine never sounded like that. It has a very cool optical stereo vibrato that works from two glowing light bulbs. The action is quite complicated, but the sound is generated by a hammer striking a thin tine that is connected to a tuning fork. There's a spring on the tine for tuning and it vibrates in front of a pick up. I play quite heavily, and even more so in those days as the built-in speakers were only 40, so the hammer would get stuck between the tines and I would have to karate chop it in the middle of a song to get it free again. Most often I would play without the lid on the piano. I would also regularly break tines and have to replace them or migrate them from the ends of the keyboard into the “heavy traffic” zone.

I had flight cases made for it and it really was a beast to move around. In those cabaret days, when we got back to London, we would argue as to who got dropped off first because of the unloading. Boris lived up three flights of stairs in Notting Hill Gate, and I lived down some precipitous concrete stairs in a basement in Camberwell. I still own this piano, but it's not really playable. I'm tempted to buy one of the new ones, but my music rarely calls for a Rhodes anymore, unless Boris and I reform our jazz fusion project...


EDP Wasp

There were a couple of very famous streets in London in the 60 and 70s for musical instrument shops, sadly of course all gone now. One of them was Denmark Street, which was also known as Tin Pan Alley, as all the music publishers' offices were there.

Amongst the row of shops was Rod Argent's Keyboard store.  To me, this was Aladdin’s cave; they always had everything in there, all the latest instruments. I would go and hang out there so much so that in the end they gave me a job, albeit for one day! On that day I sold a WASP and then bought one of my own. It was the synth you could afford to buy; it retailed for £199 and was distributed by Argent's. It had some drawbacks though, the major one being the keyboard, or rather the lack of one! The notes were just painted on, so no action at all. It was hard to play, but it was a synthesizer and you could make synth sounds with it. I only played it once or twice on stage, and tried to make a keyboard for it, but failed! It’s become something of a legend, and was the basis I believe for the Sequential Pro-One. It was black and yellow and made of plastic; it was nasty, but as I said, you could make synth sounds. 



My first real synthesizer was a Micromoog, I think after Bob sold the company and it became more of a consumer electronics manufacturer rather than a purist keyboard company. I guess they were just trying to make money. The Micro was a monophonic 2.5 octave, single oscillator synth with a ribbon instead of a pitch wheel. It was pretty plasticky and nothing like the Minimoog; it shared a similar layout with the Multimoog. It was a much paired down version of the Mini, but allowed musicians on a budget to play a Moog.

It played an important part in my musical development, as at around the same time, I bought a Tascam multi track cassette recorder (Portastudio) and was able to record and overdub. I used the Micro as the source of all sounds, bass, strings, brass; I learnt to orchestrate and to synthesize on this instrument. To make up sounds and layer them. You can only play one note at a time, so if you want to play a chord, you play them one at a time and overdub. I revisited this process 30 years later when I recorded two albums using just a Moog Voyager.

I still have this synth, and it's only in writing this that I realize how important this one was to me. 

Prophet 600

Around the early 80s, it became clear to me that I wasn’t making enough money at music to get anywhere; I didn’t have enough money to buy the keyboards I needed. Boris had got himself a job as a motorcycle messenger in London, and it made sense, as I had a motorcycle, and I knew London like the back of my hand. Most importantly, the pay was very good and mostly cash. I thought, “Ok, I will do this for six months and earn enough money to buy some gear.”

I ended up doing it for a couple of years and it actually led to my biggest break in my career, being asked to join the Thompson Twins in the summer of 1983.

Early in 1983, Sequential Circuits, under the guidance of its guru, Dave Smith, whom I later became close friends with, released the Prophet 600, the first instrument with MIDI. A huge landmark for synthesizers, recording and even washing machines! I don’t think any of us realized at the time how important MIDI would become and how it would change our lives as musicians, we just saw it as a way of one keyboard being able to control another. Dave didn’t patent it, it was a gift to the world, one of those moments when the greater good was more important.

The 600 itself was like what the Micro was to the Minimoog, a paired down budget version. When the Prophet 5 first came out, it was about the same price as a small apartment in London, I think the 600 was around £1200? Sonically, it was great, the only downside was that the filter wasn’t as smooth as the 5, you could hear it step if you swept it. It was 6-note polyphonic, so you could play a nice sized chord. It had preset memories, a short un-clocked sequencer, which was a sort of musical notepad and one feature I really liked was a latch button. You could latch a chord and then play it with one finger.

This was the keyboard I used when I first joined the Thompson Twins. In fact, on the first tour of the US opening for The Police on the Synchronicity tour, I didn’t even have a flight case. It stayed in its original shipping box. I used this keyboard throughout my time with the Twins and then with the Furs through until 1987. I still have this one too. 

Prophet-T8 & 600.
Prophet-T8 & 600.


Towards the end of 1983 and into ‘84, I became good friends with the guys that imported SC products into the UK, they were involved with the WASP and Argent's. They told me about the new keyboard that Dave was working on, the T8, and I ended up buying one as did Joe Leeway from the Twins.

The T8 was a monster of an instrument, and had a huge amount of innovations and features. It was eight note polyphonic and had a touch sensitive weighted wooden keyboard that featured release sensitivity. The keys had flags attached to the end of them which broke the plane of an LED. It was hugely complicated, the main attraction for me, coming from a piano playing background, was the keyboard action. It also had a very, very good piano sound, for a synthesizer.

On our first trip to the US, after I bought it, I discovered that it had been dropped out of the plane's hold onto the ramp… They didn’t tell me at the time, I wonder why? Haha. It cost me the whole tour's wages, but I loved that keyboard. This was the first keyboard that we started to experiment with MIDI with. Steve, my keyboard tech, was way into tech and loved all this stuff, so he had a foot pedal made up to connect the 600 to the T8, so I could play both instruments from one keyboard. I think we even connected the other keyboard player’s DX7, Carrie’s, just to try it out. We were pretty pleased with ourselves, until I clicked the button to disconnect whilst still holding a chord and both keyboards locked. We had no idea that an “off” message had to be transmitted before we could disconnect, so I had to keep rebooting both keyboards on stage until we worked out why.

Luckily, we became good friends with all the guys at Sequential during this period, as this keyboard needed a lot of love and attention. We would always visit the factory when we were in the Bay Area. Never met Dave during this time and he remained an elusive character to us; little did I know what an amazing, humble guy he was. I became friends with him in the early 2000s when he started making the Evolver instruments. I got him to sign one for me and used a sample from it on one of my solo records. He sadly died last year and he is greatly missed.

I was also just reminded of the connection between the T8 and Rhodes Chroma, it looks almost identical, but of course is entirely different… interesting. 



During the mid to late 80s, samplers started to change the world of keyboard players. The first instruments were horrifically expensive - the Fairlight and Synclavier both over £100k - but inevitably, the tech filters down, and becomes more accessible. My first sampler was the 612 and I loved it! It had a floppy disc drive to store the sounds on and I was able to sample anything I wanted. The first instrument I sampled was Andrew Bodnar’s Steinberger fretless bass; he was the bassist in the Thompson Twins and had an amazing tone. It was great for things like bass and vocals.

I believe this is the first instrument I bought from Steve's Music Store on Queen Street West when I lived in Toronto from the mid 80s until 1988. I used to go there every Thursday evening for late night closing and hang out - they never gave me a job though. I bought this when it first came out and they ended up giving me another one at half price. This is also where I got my Minimoog. 


Roger O'Donnell & Minimoog by Ambar Navarro.
Roger O'Donnell & the Minimoog by Ambar Navarro.

Minimoog Model D

So one Thursday evening, I go to Steve’s for a chat, and they say that some guy came in the day before and traded in a Minimoog. Nobody knew what to do with it and they offered it to me for $150… to kind of make up for selling me the 612 at top price. Ha! I had wanted a Mini since I first saw one. It was an icon, a legend, and I finally owned one for 150 bucks.

It was in pretty good condition and at the time, nobody wanted analog synths, it was all about samplers, and if you turned one knob the wrong way on a Mini you ended up with no sound. It had no presets, nothing… but it was beautiful, so logical in the way the signal path flowed across the board from left to right and so, so musical. I don’t think Bob realized what he had created, maybe he did later, but this was the defining monophonic synth. The sound, the playability, the pitch wheel! Did he realize what he’d given musicians? When Jan Hammer unpacked his first mini and plugged it in, did he immediately realize what he had?

Although I finally had this instrument, I never really played it; the pitch was very temperamental and by this time, 1987, analog synths were passé. They just weren’t on records any more. We used this on Disintegration for sound effects- which is what it had been designed for- and some low bass parts, but all of the keyboards on that record were samplers: E2, E3, Prophet 2000 and Mirage.

It still is though the defining synthesizer, and as I said, the signal flow, the way the knobs fall under your fingers and your left hand rests on the pitch and mod wheel; it allowed keyboard players to come out of the shadows, and as one guitarist friend said to me, allowed keyboards to be scary like guitars. Listen to Billy Cobham’s album Spectrum and you will hear what I mean, Jan Hammer... sublime.


Prophet 2002

Around this same period, I bought my Prophet 2002 from Steve’s. I had a 2000, the keyboard version, on stage with The Psychedelic Furs, but they owned that and when I left I replaced it with the rack mount 2002. It was a 12-bit sampler and it wasn’t easy to use; it had this matrix printed on the front of it, but I never got the hang of it. Luckily, there was a Mac-based editor, but I never really got into making my own samples, unlike making analog patches on synths. Other people seemed to be way better at it. The 2002 had a very good library of sounds, but they loaded very slowly from a floppy disc, so live it was a challenge, but then I think Kurzweil made a sample player that played E2, Mirage and 2002 sample discs. I had two or three of them on stage with The Cure in the 80s. They did, however, take 40 seconds to load and my tech Bruno had his work cut out to keep it running smoothly. The opening song from Disintegration, “Plainsong”, was the opening song every night, with just Boris and I playing. One night, I walked on stage, got the thumbs up from Bruno, but then the system went down; Boris had already counted it in and I was silent… 40 seconds later I had sound again.

The 2002 was a great sampler, and again, affordable. I think it was one of the last successful instruments SC made, the Prophet 3000 with 16 bit sampling never worked out. When recreating sounds for the 2016 tour, I was lucky enough to find some of the original DR Sound sample discs, in particular DR Sound Strings, which is all over Disintegration.  

Korg M1

I had been in discussion with the people at Korg about a sponsorship deal, but it wasn’t going anywhere. We arrived in NYC in 1989 to start the US leg of the Prayer tour and we were to play the MTV Awards show in LA, live. Miraculously, when Kong found out, a brand new M1 arrived in my hotel room within about 30 minutes.

I believe the M1 is the most popular, in terms of sales, instrument ever made, 250,000 units. It was a sample player, they were called romplers. The samples were hard loaded in ROM memory - you couldn’t sample into it and you couldn’t really edit it - but the samples were of such an incredibly high standard you didn’t need to. It was also a workstation, so you could program songs into it, which is something I've never done. It also had onboard effects, which really was the start of a whole new wave of instruments. I loved the fretless bass and used it on many recordings. I also used it on some Cure recordings, specifically the session for the Arista anniversary record, and our versions of “Hello, I Love You” by The Doors. I had it onstage during the remaining Prayer tour shows but I don’t think I played it much. 


Prophet VS

On one of our many factory visits to Sequential in the 80s, they took me to the secret back room and showed me what they were working on... the VS. This was a whole new world of synthesis, and the sound was entirely different. It was also stereo, which was a first for synths at the time. Vector synthesis is something I’ve never really gotten deeply into but it had huge potential.

Apparently, it was the last synth model SC made and they made very few of them. It was a great looking synth, and I remember seeing it in a Big Audio Dynamite video and really wanting one. I finally bought one for quite a lot of money in the early 90s. It became my go to lead synth sound and also had some incredible sounds that were not replicatgible, like the voice chorus sound. One of my favorite synths, I just have no clue how it works or how to program it! Here is a very in-depth analysis from the guy that invented it.  

Prophet Pro-One.
Prophet Pro-One.


On the last US tour I did with the Thompson Twins we had the American band Berlin as the opening act. I think it was quite weird for them, as they were already pretty big in certain territories, but this was before their big hit, “Take My Breath Away”, from the original Top Gun movie. I became good friends with them, and when David Diamond, one of the founding members, said he was leaving before their Australasian tour, they asked me if I would step in.

I told David the other day that I learnt an invaluable lesson when I arrived at rehearsals in LA not knowing any of the songs. Never ever come to rehearsals unprepared, even if you think the songs are easy… he actually offered to rejoin as I was so bad but I managed to pull it together. I played Prophet 5 mainly but on one song, “Sex”, I played the Pro-One arpeggiator part.

I finally got to own one of my own when I was living in Toronto again in the 90s after I left The Cure. I put an ad in Now Magazine for any analog synths, and bought quite a few. The Pro-One was SC’s version of the Minimoog, but it had an arpeggiator and some other cool stuff. I don't think I ever played it. I still have this one too.

Prophet 5

My Prophet 5 was also the product of the ad I placed, and I think I got it for $500. It was pristine. I had wanted a 5 ever since I rented one for a session in the early 80s. Another classic synthesizer, the first with a memory and five note polyphony. Dave Smith must have known what he created here, it is as beautiful as a Minimoog, and again, logical and musical to play. All of the classic 80s synth brass sounds are 5s. I used mine quite a lot on solo projects, but by the time I owned it, it wasn’t fashionable. 


Yamaha CP-70

Every time Herbie Hancock came to London, I would go and see him, I still do. Every time he would have some new tech, new instrument; but when he brought his Yamaha CP-70 grand we were all like what the fuck is that?! How can you have a grand piano that small?! Of course it's not that small and it's incredibly heavy, but it sounds pretty much like a grand piano and it's portable.

I got mine through the same ad in the 90s, and like this group of instruments, it was part of a wish list, that by the time I got the wish, tech had moved on. I sold mine a few years ago, as it was just gathering dust.  


Another wish list ad-purchase. Never really played it, I just turned it on to impress people with the vibrations from the built in fans! Great looking instrument, but never really took off, probably because it cost so much! 


Moog Source

I can't remember where, but I saw a video of a live Madonna show and one of the keyboard players was playing bass using a Source. I think it was the first Moog with a memory, but I remember thinking at the time that if ever I lost an arm I would become a keyboard bass player. An idea that particularly annoys all bass players!

Hohner Clavinet D6

I remember hanging out with some friends, and one guy called Chris playing Stevie Wonder's “Superstition” and he said, "Do you know what instrument that is?” We were all like, “guitar, its guitar obviously, no question,” haha, of course it wasn't. The Clavinet was an electric harpsichord that Stevie turned into possibly the funkiest  keyboard of all time; he and Herbie made it their own. Its strings are plucked just like a harpsichord, but amplified and with a phaser and wah wah pedal; sounds incredible. I owned a couple of clavinets over the years, and it takes a particular technique to play it like it should be played. It’s very percussive and you have to kind of bounce your hands off it. One of the keyboards I really wish I still had. It usually sat on top of a Fender Rhodes, that was the set up in funk bands.  

Steinway Model 0

In 2001, I bought a house in England with room for a grand piano, so I went piano shopping. I had the intention of buying a Yamaha Grand, and went to The Bristol Piano company shop in Bristol, which was owned and run by a strange religious cult called the Plymouth Brethren. One of their rules was they couldn’t tell a lie so I thought I would get an honest deal. Next to the Yamaha Grand was an old Steinway. It was tired and needed some love, but it was the same price… I played them back to back and although the Yamaha was tight and accurate and very clean sounding, the Steinway was… well it was a Steinway. I also thought one day I will have the work done on it that it needs; that took 20 years haha but it's now being restored.

I always knew there was something not quite right about it, and it turns out it started life as a player piano with a mechanism for playing piano rolls, which had long since been removed. This piano has sat in my dining room in Devon for 20 years and perhaps when it comes back, it will play a bigger part in my composition and recording than it has done up to now. There is a certain gravitas you get when you sit down to play a grand piano, something you don’t get from anything else.  

Moog Voyager

Bob Moog sold his company a long time ago, but in the early 2000s, he started making instruments again and after dabbling in the effects world; he came back with an almost perfect instrument, the Voyager. When I read about it, we were just about to start work on a new record, so I ordered one from the factory, but ended up getting one that was already in the UK and belonged to Keith Emerson. We used it all over the Cure record, I even recorded a solo on one of the B-sides that most people think is a guitar solo.

The Voyager is a Mini for a new generation; the logical development musically, technically and aesthetically. Bob eventually got his name back, and the final instruments are Moog Voyagers. I have had three: an original wooden one, the Anniversary and also a custom painted pale blue edition which Bob signed for me.

In 2003, a documentary was being made about Bob, and I was asked to contribute a song to the soundtrack, “Another Year Away”. When I completed it, the producer suggested I make an entire album using the same approach. I had recorded the song using only the Voyager as a sounds source, revisiting my methods from when I had my first Micromoog. Orchestrating and building up chords one note at a time, after so long using samples and poly synths, it really was a sort of full circle feeling. I made two records with this method, The Truth In Me and Songs From The Silver Box. I also did many remixes in the same vein. This also led me into writing for orchestra, which is what I mainly do now, alongside small ensembles and quartets.

The Voyager, like the Mini before it, just flows; the signal path, the sound and the expression. My hands literally just fall on to the right knobs, and without looking, I can sculpt the sound I want. It's at my left hand in my studio, always plugged in.  


Moog LP

I guess the LP - I can't bring myself to call it a Little Phatty - was the inevitable move towards a budget Voyager. I had a small hand in developing and designing it, so I got one, but I never played it and I gave it away. It's a shame, because I know it had some really cool stuff in it, but I was so wedded to the Voyager at the time, it didn’t really stand a chance.  


Kawaii VP1

I always prefer a weighted piano action on a synth, and when playing a piano sample, I use Synthogy’s Ivory, it's even more important. At the NAMM show in 2013, I wandered upstairs to the grown up’s area where the pianos are, and stumbled across the VP1, which is basically Kawaii’s grand piano action in a MIDI controller, and I loved it. It's my main controller in my studio for playing orchestral samples. It has a built in preset velocity curve for Ivory which works really well.  

Prophet 6

I bought this in the middle of a period when I'd only been composing for strings, so I have never got to grips with it. It was also the last SC instrument that I had a chance to thank Dave for, the last time I saw him at NAMM in 2020.

Moog One

From when I first got to know the guys at Moog in 2003, there was always talk of a poly, and for years I would meet and talk with Cyril, who’s baby it was, and he’d ask me what I wanted and what was needed. We talked about design, the tech behind it, what he could do and what was available. I pretty much wanted a poly Voyager, but what came out was way beyond that and is probably the pinnacle of analog synthesis. I'm sure Bob would be proud.

I don't think I have even begun to scratch the surface of what this instrument can do, and before the pandemic, Cyril was going to come over to my studio and give me the lowdown, but sadly that never happened, and he's no longer with Moog. In some ways, there's way too much to this instrument, and way more than I ever asked for or even could imagine. That’s the amazing thing about working with musical instrument engineers. They can give you things you didn't even know you wanted, and perhaps you don't even need, but when you have them, you could obviously never live without them again.

Synth History Exclusive.

Written by Roger O'Donnell.

Edited by Danz with additional editing by Connor Gilbert.

Photographer: Ambar Navarro.

Camera and Lighting Assistant: Max Flick.

Lighting Assistant: Charles Han.

HMU: Letica LLesmin.

Retro scans via Retro Synth Ads.


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