In September 2011, I found a distant Craigslist ad for a Leslie 122, in which the seller offered to throw in a Gibson G-101. I called, and he agreed to sell the organ without the Leslie for a bargain price, complete with the legs, volume pedal and optional bass pedals.
He shipped it to me via UPS, and it arrived packed to survive a thermonuclear war. The UPS store had added nearly 30 pounds of packing materials, and it arrived with no damage.
I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was in better cosmetic shape than I had expected from looking at the photos the seller sent me. Among other things, some areas of the Tolex that looked like they they had cigarette burns actually just had some dark substance on them that easily washed away. And it was mostly functional.
The G-101 is best known as the organ that The Doors’ Ray Manzarek began using after he got frustrated by breaking keys on his Vox Continental. You can hear it on most of The Doors’ albums starting with “Waiting for the Sun,” their third studio album, and on most (maybe all) of their live albums. It was built by the Lowrey organ company, which shared a corporate parent with Gibson in the 1960s.
The organ seems better built than many combos, probably due to Lowrey’s longer experience in building organs, and the ability to spec relatively robust parts from Lowrey home organs.
With its tab switches and front modesty panel, the G-101 is often mistaken for a Farfisa Compact series organ. (Although its turqoise and linen-colored Tolex is a giveaway.) It can make Farfisa-like sounds. But it also has some very unique and versatile sounds and effects:
It can do a bad piano or a fair harpsichord sound (in fact, it can nail the “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” harpsichord sound that the Beatles recorded on a Lowrey console organ). It has a piercing voice that cuts through a mix beautifully, without being shrill. Its sustain feature creates a beautiful ringing sound that is often heard on Doors songs. It also has percussion, repeat, vibrato, and two effects triggered by a switch on the volume pedal: Glide, which lowers the pitch of a note by a half step (it can be heard on The Doors’ “Not to Touch the Earth”) and Trumpet Wow-Wow (a wah-wah sound).
All in all, it’s a much more versatile instrument than the Continental. But, beyond The Doors, I can’t think of a single other big rock act that used the Gibson — possibly because Gibson was a little late to the party. The G-101 was introduced in roughly 1967, and combo organs were already beginning to fade, as Hammonds became the staple of rock acts. Relatively few were built, and it may be the most rare instrument of any in my collection.
After I got it, I cleaned all the contacts on the Gibson, scrubbed it inside and out, replaced the neon bulb that controls the percussion and repeat circuit, tuned it and shined the hardware with Brasso. I replaced all the Pratt Read rubber key bushings, a tedious job, but now it plays like new, and there is no typewriter-like clacking. Fixed a broken key stop (which had left one note sticking up above the others) by fabricating a replacement from a cotter pin, and gluing it in place with J.B. Weld. Fixed the bass sustain by replacing the electrolytic caps on the bass board. Patched the one small area of missing Tolex by stealing some from the inside of the case.
One of the most annoying things about the G-101 is that its volume pedal has very little dynamic range. A friend told me how to solve that. Using a jumper wire to short a 10K resistor soldered to the pedal’s potentiometer gives the pedal far more range — and saves you from having to constantly adjust the amp’s volume to play at the volume you want. I consider this to be a big functional improvement in the organ.
Now, my G-101 really sounds great. I love playing along with my Doors “Live in Detroit” CD.