If it’s good enough for Stevie Wonder…
For a while I played with the notion of buying a Clavinet. But they all seemed grossly over-priced on eBay, which seemed to encourage local sellers to ask ridiculous prices, too. In spring 2015, I saw one for sale near me, but the seller was asking roughly twice its typical value, and wouldn’t return my calls. A couple of weeks later, my opportunity happened.
A near-mint Clavinet D6 was for sale about 45 miles from my home for a very reasonable price. The Tolex, keys and woodwork were like new. It came with the lid, legs, plastic music stand, the vinyl bag for the legs — and even with about 40 spare strings. The seller was the original owner. He gigged with it for a couple of years in a lounge band (always using a flight case) and then tucked it away for decades. All its parts were original, a major plus, since many Clavinets today are full of bad replacement market parts that have destroyed the character of the instrument.
There was only one problem — and it was a big one:
He had been unhappy with the usual noisy electronics of the Clav. So, he went on a quest to make his D6 quiet, and decided to go with a direct out design. He threw away all the electronics in the Clav except the pickups. No switches, preamp, wiring, volume control, etc. He lined the entire case with grounded copper foil (good shielding for minimizing electromagnetic interference), replaced the 1/4″ output jack with a balanced XLR jack (not good for originality) and drilled three small holes in the right cheek block to add three switches. (Why would someone do that, when he could have used the original switches? Argh!) He had essentially destroyed the value of a “mint” instrument to collectors. And where would anyone ever find replacement electronics without buying a second Clavinet and stripping it of its parts?
Still, I was intrigued by the amazing cosmetic condition of the instrument. I offered the seller a low price, thinking he would reject it and I would search elsewhere. But he took it. I called techs around the nation, looking for the original electronics. Finally, I found one who was converting a D6 to use an after-market preamp, and was willing to sell off the original pieces to me.
So I went to work: I installed and wired all the replacement electronics. I replaced some bad strings. I replaced the XLR output with a 1/4″ one. I cleaned the insides. Installed new hammer tips. Tuned it up. Lubed some balky keys and replaced a couple of rubber key bushings. Not bad!
Then I attacked the usual noisy Clavinet preamp. I replaced a handful of capacitors and replaced its two transistors with modern, low noise ones. That made a significant reduction in the noise level. And then, after a lot of trial and error, I realized that the copper foil that was lining the lid was acting like an antenna, even though it was well-grounded. I removed it, and the noise level fell further. Finally, moving the instrument away from some fluorescent lights helped, too. Now, it seems quiet for a stock Clav.
Next, I needed to deal with the three holes that were drilled in the right cheek block. Since this was the only thing that kept this Clav from looking like new, I decided to entrust a furniture repair pro to work on the cheek block, and make those holes “invisible.” He did very nice job. You can still see some evidence that there were holes there. But this is about as clean a Clavinet as you’ll ever see today.
Then, on to some fine-tuning: Touching up a few small marks in the teak wood. Shining up the Tolex with a little 303 Marine Protectant (which left no greasy residue like Armor-All). Leveling a few keys. Adjusting the alignment of some of the hammers. Using some guitar string cleaner to clean the anvils and the strings near them. (That eliminated a few sticky spots left over from the residue of the old hammers, and got rid of a nasty “thunk” overtone I was hearing upon releasing some keys.) Using some plastic polish on the keys. Looks and plays great now.
One interesting Clavinet fact: I was concerned that it might require frequent tuning. Maybe daily, like a guitar. But the strings are under very little tension, and keep their tune for a long time. I was talking to the keys tech for a leading touring artist, and he told me that while the artist’s acoustic piano is tuned before every concert, his Clavinet is tuned before each tour — and never gets touched again unless the Clav is dropped.
I’m glad I gave the Clav a second chance. I had never actually played one until about six months before I bought this one. My first Clav experience was at a local used instrument store — and the experience was underwhelming. It sounded wimpy. There was just no bite and thump to the sound. But I now realize that that instrument was full of bad aftermarket parts (strings, hammer tips and pickups). Mine sounds like a different instrument, and I’m really enjoying playing it. It sounds especially cool through the Dunlop Cry Baby Classic wah pedal I bought to use with it.
I now have a list of classic Clav songs I need to learn…