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 1954 Hammond B-2, born a few 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 pedals. 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 the 12K resistor used in later production 3-series organs. This boosts the C/V volume. And more recently, I totally re-built the vibrato line box (with all new capacitors and resistors), which transformed the C/V, giving it a sparkle and strength that changed the entire nature of those effects. (A major improvement!)
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. The B-2s and earlier B-3s were calibrated slightly differently than the later models, giving them a deeper bass and a more mellow sound in the highest tones than the later tonewheel Hammonds. Beyond that, aged wax capacitors in the tone generator have also mellowed the sound. It’s a perfect organ for that classic, moody, smoky jazz tone. To my ear, my organ sounds a lot like the organs I hear in early Jimmy Smith recordings.
This is really a magnificent, extraordinarily well-built instrument. With a little care, it’ll likely last another 60+ years. I feel privileged each time I sit down at it. Of all the instruments I own, this is the one that would be my choice if I could only own one of them.
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:
Selling clocks sustained the Hammond company until Laurens Hammond decided the world needed a practical alternative to the pipe 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. It’s a good accessory to have if you’re like me, and when you start playing your Hammond, you enjoy it so much that you lose track of time.
August 2020: When I was researching my “Classic Keys” book, the late Sal Azzarelli, who hands-down knew more about Hammond organs than anyone on the planet, told me that the Jensen V-21 Hammond drivers in vintage Leslies all sound different. “Take any ten of tem,” he said. “Two-three sound great. Five-six sound muddy and mellow. The rest buzz and don’t work.”
Years after Sal told me that, I finally realized that the reason my 21H Leslie didn’t sound as good as my 31H was a “muddy and mellow” treble driver. My Hammond tech and friend John Doyle graciously offered to select a great one for me from his stock of Leslies. I jumped at the chance. It makes a huge difference!
Hear the sounds of the Hammond organ