Yah di Buckety…
I have a new adventure to report. I have entered the world of tube organ ownership.
Here’s the story.
In the Twenties, a man named Laurens Hammond invented a circuit that kept good time. He used it to create the first accurate electric clocks. He created the Hammond clock company.
At some point, he realized he could generate accurate tones using his gadgetry. He decided to make some kind of novelty machine that made sounds, but his accountant suggested he create musical instruments instead.
This is how the Hammond organ was born.
The Hammond company made organs for about forty years. They used tube amplifiers and other weird old analog circuitry. And they were amazing. They were nothing like as big or expensive as pipe organs, but they were able to compete with them musically. They exuded mojo. Eventually jazz and blues musicians discovered organs, and we ended up with classics like “Whiter Shade of Pale” and “House of the Rising Sun.”
Eventually transistors and digital circuits ruined the market for Hammond organs, and Hammond’s competitors beat it to death with cheesy features that allowed people to push a couple of buttons and essentially make their organs play without much human input. Hammond folded, and later, his competitors folded. Now you practically have to pay people to take tube organs, except for four or five Hammond models that have developed a following. Even those can be had for one to three thousand dollars, which is very little, considering the complexity and quality of the instruments.
I have a friend named Travis. He plays on my church’s worship team. I believe he plays 12 instruments. Right now, he’s on scholarship at the Frost music school at the University of Miami. He has been pushing the team to go for a little more soul, and sometimes he throws in some organ licks on a small, crummy keyboard they use. Our pastor is also trying to steer the team in this direction.
I told the worship leader they could get a great old organ cheap if they watched the ads, but he thought it would take up too much room. Unfortunately, by the time he turned the idea down, I was already hooked on Craigslist, and I had found several nice Hammonds for sale.
The one that finally got my attention was an E133. This is a variant of the E100, which is one of the last good Hammonds. Someone was advertising it for a hundred bucks. I believe she originally wanted a thousand, but that doesn’t mean anything. If you watch Internet organ ads, you will see them start very high and end very low. Sometimes owners will actually pay to have organs hauled off.
Her organ sold for something like two thousand dollars when it was new (c. 1965), so she was probably shocked to learn that it was nearly worthless.
I had a hard time getting in touch with her. Her Craigslist ad expired, and she was slow to respond. Finally, I got ahold of her, and I made a deal. I would give her a hundred bucks for the organ if it was basically sound.
The E133 is one of Hammond’s heavier organs. Not the heaviest, but it’s a console, which means it’s bigger than a spinet. The M3 the hit “Green Onions” was played on weighs around 250 pounds. The E133 is maybe a hundred pounds heavier, before adding the pedals and bench. I decided Travis was going to help me carry it.
Here’s something really sad. I got a pickup so I could haul heavy things, and as it turns out, that plan has not panned out all that well. The organ errand demonstrates my point. It was supposed to rain on the day we planned to get the organ, so there was no way I could use an open truck. I had to rent a van. So aggravating.
I could not figure out how to get the organ to the van, but then I remembered those nylon forearm straps they advertise on TV. The invention is called the “Forearm Forklift.” You run the straps under heavy things and attach the free ends to your forearms, and this allows you to stand relatively straight when you lift. It makes moving heavy things easier. On Youtube, people move refrigerators with people sitting on top. I figured those straps were for me. I bought a pair.
We drove up to Davie, where the seller lived, and we threw the straps under the organ. Yes, it did move. But because it was so low to the ground, it was necessary to bend down pretty far, negating part of the benefit of the straps. Also, the organ threatened to tip to the side, which was not encouraging.
By a miracle of God, we got it to the driveway and put it behind the van, hoping to tilt it gently onto its back, via the rear doors.
At this point we learned something fascinating about lifting straps. Travis said he wanted to put his end of the organ in the van first and then help with mine, and that sounded okay, but when he got his end onto the van floor and let go of one strap, all the tension on that strap disappeared, and of course, the organ headed for the pavement with me shrieking as I strained to hang onto it.
I was positive we were about to drop over three hundred pounds of fifty-year-old cabinetry and tube amps on this lady’s driveway. All my organ dreams, up in smoke. Embarrassing.
By a second miracle of God, we stopped the organ and got it into the van, and then we requested and received a third miracle to get it down onto my driveway.
Here is Travis, trying the organ out. This is probably one of the happiest moments of his life. He likes that organ.
The organ had a few issues. For one thing, it had that “I’ve been in a house with cats” smell, big-time. For another, it made a funny hummy sort of noise. It also had a coating of crud on it. Some mysterious yellow substance. I obliterated paper towel after paper towel, removing filth from the keys and plastic surfaces. It may have been nicotine. That’s not as bad as the other things that it may have been, so I prefer to think that’s what it was.
The vibrato didn’t work, although I didn’t realize that. Also, after we ran it a while, it made hooting sounds. Oh well. A hundred bucks, right? How can you go wrong?
Since Thursday, I have been taking the organ apart and putting it back together. I learned some fascinating stuff.
Mr. Hammond’s organs do not have sealed bearings. Maybe they didn’t exist in the Sixties. Instead, a Hammond organ has a trough running down the midde of it, and that trough is filled with Hammond oil (actually about the same thing as air tool oil). The trough has a sponge in it, and from various points in the organ, cotton threads run to the sponge. At their other ends are weird bronze bearings. There are two plastic funnels over the trough. You pour oil into each funnel, and it goes into the sponge, and then it takes a three-week-long journey down the threads and into the bearings.
I’m not kidding. It really works that way. If you buy a Hammond organ today, and it needs oil, expect it to be ready to play three weeks after the day you oil it.
The hooting sounds came from bearings in the tonewheel generator. I’ll bet you want to know what that is.
You may know what a hurdy gurdy is. Probably not. It’s a gourd-shaped instrumend with strings. Inside it, there is a shaft with discs mounted transversely on it. When you crank the shaft, you can select strings and make them contact the moving edges of the disks. The disks act like violin bows; the rubbing makes the sound.
A Hammond organ is basically an electric hurdy gurdy. It has a motor at one end, and a shaft runs down the length of the organ. On the shaft, there are tonewheels. These are disks with notches around the edges. There are magnetic pickups, like guitar pickups, next to the disks. As the disks turn, the notches vary the voltage in the pickups, and you get a signal that produces a tone. The more notches a disk has, the higher the frequency of the tone.
The beauty of this system is that you can blend signals from multiple disks.
Over the keyboards (“manuals”), there are drawbars. These are sliding bars that determine how the tones blend. If you pull a drawbar all the way out, it maximizes the output from a certain wheel. Or certain wheels. I’m not sure. Anyway, it’s sort of like a graphic equalizer. If you always pull the drawbars out to certain lengths, you will always have the same sound. Jimmy Smith, the jazz organist, made a splash by using the pattern 888-000-000 on the nine drawbars of his organ. I should also add that the organ has two manuals, and each manual has its own set of drawbars.
The drawbars explain part of the organ’s appeal. An organ’s tones are not pure. Because you’re combining tones, every time you press a key, what you really get is a chord. If you’re a musician, you know that chords have a more satisfying sound than discrete notes.
The organ I bought is not the most desired Hammond. That would be the B-3. Generally, big rock acts used these to perform the classics we all remember. There are similar organs that are a little less desirable, like the RT2, the A100, and the C-3. The E-133 has some of the B-3’s good points, but it lacks others. And it has some silly features that have to be removed in order to make it sound its best. It’s a fantastic instrument, though. And for a hundred bucks, it’s the deal of the century.
A B-3 will run you two grand or more. I am not blowing that kind of money on what is essentially an impulse buy. But I’m willing to spend a hundred to get 85% of that experience.
Working on the organ is a nightmare. It’s very tight in the cabinet, and nothing is modular, in any sane sense of the term. It would probably take two hours to get the tonewheel generator out. The vibrato is generated in a little can at one end of the organ, and I had to remove it twice and bang around on it to get it working. It takes one hour to remove and one hour to replace. It probably has eighty parts, and they are very small, and they like to fall out of your oily hands and roll under things.
Today I got the vibrato working, and I am well on the way to having the hooting fixed. I still have to fix one pedal. If you don’t know, the pedals on an organ are bass notes. They’re very cool. One of mine is missing a small piece of metal that actuates the switch that plays the note.
I washed the whole organ with Murphy’s Oil Soap, and I should really do it again. I polished it with Scott’s Liquid Gold. The cat stench is just about gone, and now I’m not afraid to eat after touching the keys.
I told Travis he has a lifetime pass to play it.
Once it’s reasonably healthy I may move it out of the garage.
The folks at my church say they want it. NOW. Oh, no. Sorry. You get to wait for the next one, and someone else has to deliver it. I’ll find it and I’ll make it work. That’s more generous than it sounds.
If you like old organ music, get out there and find an old Hammond. Steer clear of other brands. If you’re not handy, you can get a Hammond digital B-3. The Suzuki company bought the name, and they make a fake B-3 as well as a compact version for the stage.
Sooner or later people will rediscover these things, and then you’ll be sorry. Or not.
Anyway, I got mine.