Vintage keyboards just keep finding me…
I’ve never really thought of myself as a terribly handy person. But good advice from folks on the Web, patience and a willingness to learn have paid off: I now have a very nice collection of some of the finest vintage keyboards that have driven rock, jazz and blues music since the 1950s. And I did almost all of the work on them myself.
Here’s how it started:
Many years ago, I quit the garage band scene to go to college. (Who says young people can’t make good decisions?) I guess I was concerned that I wouldn’t stick with my decision, so I made sure there was no turning back: I dumped all my gear. And once I was music-less, I stayed that way for years. Finally, I guess I figured it was “safe” to go back. In the early 2000s, I bought a Korg CX-3 Hammond emulator, a boutique preamp and an amp.
I hung out at the Yahoo Clonewheel group until I got tired of everyone obsessing over how to make their ridiculously expensive digital rigs sound more like vintage Hammonds. Finally, I figured that since I didn’t gig, I might as well go vintage, and never be tempted by the next “Wonder Clone.” (Who says older people can’t make good decisions?)
My first vintage purchase was in 2004, a June 1954 Hammond B-2, born about seven months before the first B-3s were produced, with factory-installed smooth drawbars. Found it on eBay. Looked great cosmetically. It was upgraded to B-3 functionality with a new Trek II percussion unit. (I call it my “B-2 7/8.”) It also had new Trek II reverb. Complete with pedal board, bench and music desk and fallboard.
The deal included two single-speed Leslies (a 21H and a 31H). Both had 20 watt 21H amps, the original Jensen V21 treble drivers and the earth-shaking original Jensen field coil woofers. After selling my clone gear, it was roughly an even exchange. But, oh, what a difference!
Buying an organ sight-unseen on eBay is stupid, but this deal worked out nicely. Most everything was in very nice condition, as advertised. But improvements were possible, too.
I refinished the pedal board and upholstered the bench top to make it more comfortable and conceal some damage. Replaced the power cable. Touched-up the finish. Replaced the upstop and downstop felts (which made the manuals play like new). Re-wired the presets to give some modern, usable settings. Replaced the 22K resistor in the Chorus/Vibrato switch box with a 12K resistor to give the Chorus the strength and sparkle of the later production 3-series organs.
In the Leslies, I disassembled and cleaned the motors, replaced worn belts and bearings. And I installed a Caribbean Controls motor control in each, which added Chorale speed to these old one-speed Leslies. (Now, they are both set up to have a fast, slow and stop setting.)
I had a tech re-build the 50-year-old B2 preamp and replace the capacitors in the Leslie crossovers (both of which made an amazing difference in the sound) and selectively freshen-up some of the components on the Leslie amps.
The whole set-up sounds as great as it looks. The rig has deep, tight bass and a screamin’ high end. I can’t really prove this, but I believe that the B-2s and earlier B-3s were callibrated slightly differently than the later models, making them more mellow in the middle registers. It’s a perfect organ for that classic, moody, smoky jazz tone. Lots of folks say that tone is the result of aged wax capacitors in the tone generator. I think that’s partly the cause. But to my ear, my organ sounds like the organs I hear in early Jimmy Smith recordings — and those organs were new when he played them.
This is really a magnificent instrument. I feel privileged each time I sit down at it.
February 2017 update: My Hammond apparently needed a friend. So I bought this cool, late 1930’s art deco Hammond clock to put on a shelf above the organ:
It has the same Hammond synchronous motor that locks into the AC line frequency to keep the organ in tune. So it keeps excellent time, too.