The Gonzo Leslie: A modern discourse in subtle savagery

There’s little hope once I get something in my head. In late 2018, I got it in there that I needed an upgrade to my live Leslie situation. For us foolhardy organists still trotting out the big iron on a Wednesday night dues-payer, it’s a tale as old as 4/4 time. My existing 147 was a good cabinet, but was getting lost in the mix onstage. It was also my only Leslie at the time. I wanted a dedicated “road” cabinet, designed specifically for such. The off-the-shelf options were cost prohibitive, and lackluster–to me–in their specifications. While many of my more well-heeled compatriots would rather log on to Sweetwater and take Todd Rundgren’s 1972 advice to “just throw money,” being of simple means (read: po’) forces one to get creative; so does being exceptionally demanding of one’s gear. So does the desire simply to experiment. The only solution was to build what I needed. It would be as loud and clean as practically possible, giving more than enough headroom for any situation. And it would hook up just like a regular 147. Thus, the Gonzo Leslie was born. It thumbs its witchy nose at purists and the status quo. This is what it’s all about.

(Coming eventually: a video on the Gonzo Leslie, produced in conjunction with Heckler Films)

Specifications, Gonzo Leslie Mk 1:

  • Cabinet: Electro Music Leslie Model 21H cabinet, finished in Dark Walnut Danish Oil
  • Amplifier: Maxwell Butler-designed and built chassis, fully solid-state, bi-amped Class D power stage, fan-cooled, DSP-controlled signal chain, audio and motor circuits on separate AC buses for safety
  • Audio power: 500W @ 8Ω LF, 250W @ 8Ω HF, 750W total
  • Tremulant configuration: Two-speed (chorale/tremolo/+brake for organs so equipped), Trek II solid-state relay, 6W/147-type switching
  • Driver complement: Eminence Delta 15A 8Ω 15″ woofer, PRV D4400Ph-Nd phenolic neodymium horn driver
  • Processing: MiniDSP digital signal processor for active crossover/EQ/driver balance, USB connectivity allows computer programmability of parameters

Yes, this Leslie has a USB port. How many Leslies have you ever seen with a USB port? I can see the traditionalists lighting the torches from here.

Why “Gonzo?”

The canonic definition of Gonzo journalism maintains that it injects the author and their personal experience into a story, without an attempt at objectivity in the classic sense of journalism. Its most famous exponent was, of course, the late H. S. Thompson who mixed in the jarring, mordant, substance-informed style that became married to the genre’s identity. It was forged in a demented and feverish era of televised tumult, one whose changing landscape begged a new lens through which to view it. It didn’t follow the rules. It made its own path. It wasn’t for squares. It was at various times outlandish, depraved, literate, upsetting, enlightening, savage, and beautiful. It was a quiet revolution. My own upbringing on the fiercely iconoclastic, self-reliant, paleo-hippie outpost of Martha’s Vineyard in the 80s and 90s is what gives me the belief that sometimes the only way to get what you need is to make it yourself. I thought “Gonzo” fit the ethos of this thing.

I know I said this was motivated by my being po’, but do not think this was a cheap, tossed-together, electrical-taped bit of weekend doodlery. This took months of designing, consideration, testing, going back to the drawing board, drinking boba tea, and hang-wringing. And it did cost a fair amount of money, though still much less than a comparable new Leslie, but it turned out better than I even hoped. It’s clean, clear, and louder than Zeus stepping on a Lego in the wee hours. It cuts without being shrill, and the DSP control allows total control of the voicing. You ought to watch the video (coming late summer/fall 2019) for a full rundown of how I built the thing, how it all came together, what it sounds like, and the philosophy behind it.

Want one?

For those who want to sail the seas of jeez, I will build one. But here’s the deal. It will not be cheap, it will not come quickly, and it will be built to my painstaking standards. Keep in mind also, this Leslie is pure solid-state and is meant to be as loud and clean as possible. There are various ways to get variable “tube overdrive” on a real Hammond or simulator if you need. If any of that is an issue, then this thing isn’t for you. But it will be worth it if you’re a working cat with the means, and will blow the doors off any modern store-bought solid-state “Leslie” in terms of build and audio quality, flexibility, and sheer Memorex-ad volume. You will first have to provide the following:

  1. A suitable empty wooden Leslie cabinet that passes my muster; I will not convert a functioning tube cabinet on principle. End of story. 21/22H, 122, 147, 145, 142, 251, 44/46W, 51C cabinets–again, empty–are all acceptable. “Pro Line” solid-state cabinets like the 760 are a possibility, but are as yet untried. I will work with neither lowboy cabinets (222, 247) nor tallboy cabinets (31H), because the former suck and there’s not enough room in the cabinet, and the latter because they are too magnificent.
  2. A set (that’s two) of two-speed motor stacks; not the modern single-unit variable-speed motors, but the proper old-school dual-motor stacks. Note that these may need more work beyond just a simple rebuild, as many have shot bearings from years of neglect. I will also not build a cabinet using any sort of one-to-two-speed conversion circuit. Do it right, or don’t do it at all, I say.

I will help you find these things if you don’t already have them, and will advise you on what to get if need be, but you will be doing the work as far as procuring them and getting them to me before work starts. I ask you to do this because their availability is entirely dependent on the used market; they don’t make them anymore (well, there are one or two companies making reproduction wood Leslie cabinets, but those are a pretty spicy meatball). They’re unknown quantities as far as their price and location. It’s up to you as far as how much you’re willing to spend/how far you’re willing to go to get them, and I want there to be as few surprises as possible. I’m not willing to drive to Muncie, IN, to get an empty cabinet, but you may be. Every other part of the build is readily available and has a known price.

The components will be new where sensible, and “vintage” where necessary or desirable. For example, drivetrain parts like the pulleys, belts, bearings, and grommets will be brand new stock. The drivers and amplifier components will likewise be all new. The motor stacks will be old stock, but fully rebuilt. However, the rotors could go either way. The new OEM Hammond-Suzuki horn rotors do the job, and are significantly cheaper and easier to find, but aren’t made to nearly as high of a standard as the old Bakelite ones. A lot of times empty cabinets will come with a bass rotor, but if not, there are both “experienced” and good modern reproductions of the wooden rotors out there, usually without much price difference between the two.

Prices for decent empty original cabinets range from about $100 on the low end to a few hundred, and then there are always the repro cabs if you’re willing to pony up. Motor stacks go for about $100-170 each generally. I won’t give exact prices, but all told, with labor and everything, you’re looking at about $3,000-$3,500 for this. If you’ve got the means, and you’re not one of those who scoffs at the idea of a Leslie with silicon chips inside it, then this will be something that solves almost all of your problems. It’s still heavy, though.

Watch the video (coming late summer/fall 2019) and look at the pictures. Contact me and let’s get a dialogue going if you’re interested.

Author: Bunny Butler

I'm the last of the good old-fashioned steam-powered trains.