The clavinet is an electronically amplified instrument developed and later manufactured by Ernst Zacharias of the Hohner company, which is based in Germany.
It’s related to the Clavichord of the late 1700s, a favorite instrument of J.S. Bach. Originally, Hohner intended the instrument for home use, early European classical music, and folk music.
From 1964 to the early 1980s the Hohner company made seven different models of the Clavinet: the I, II, L, C, D6, E7, and the Duo. Musicians involved in jazz, funk, reggae, rock, and soul genres quickly adopted the instrument.
The Clavinet L, introduced in 1968, was a domestic model with a wood-veneered triangular body and wooden legs. In the fashion of an 18th-century harpsichord, it had reverse-color keys and an acrylic glass music stand.
Execution happens by means of a rather simple mechanism. Every key engages a small rubber tip when pressed, like in a traditional clavichord. This motion results in a ‘hammer on’, or forceful fretting, to a guitar-type string. The string then presses a metal bar, allowing it to vibrate.
The end of each string moves into a weave of yarn at the farthest end from the pickups. This yarn helps the string to automatically stop vibrating when releasing the key.
A simple electromagnetic pickup senses the vibration and converts it to a musical waveform that is output to the amp. Many clavinets have two sets of pickups located above and below the strings, with corresponding pick-up selector switches.
This mechanism is completely different from that of other Hohner keyboard products such as the Cembalet and Pianet, since these use the principle of plectra or sticky pads plucking metal reeds.
Maintenance issues for the clavinet
In the 1980s and 1990s, replacement parts for clavinets became harder and harder to find. By then, Hohner had ceased to make them.
Additionally, the original hammer tips were made of a polymer compound that decomposes with age. That means they developed grooves and occasionally split. Nevertheless, Hohner did make these pieces replaceable. Thus, restorers and players had to work hard to fashion their own tips from rubber or polymer extrusions, to keep their instruments functional.
In 2000, Hohner USA relocated to a new facility and sold the remaining spare parts inventory to Clavinet.com. This company manufactured the first aftermarket replacement hammer tip set in 1999. That lead to an increase in the number of working clavinets and renewed interest in the instrument.