Shop Update: The Wild, The Innocent, and the C-3 Shuffle

At the end of January I caught a wave of impulsivity. One night after a gig with Bobby Bluehouse I decided that my current road organ, the chopped C-2, was good, but not great, as a live rig. It lacked the responsive key feel and screaming, spitting fury of my other organ, the “studio” A-100. That thing will just cut your coolyans off. That one, I felt, should really be for live use. But the chop wouldn’t be ideal for my recording purposes, owing to its clunky ratcheting drawbars that make smooth timbral transitions nigh on impossible–something that would be very noticeable on a record. Yes, I could always swap out the drawbar rail, but good luck finding a good set of smooth drawbars for less than a car payment, if at all, and the money and time spent on the conversion would be better spent on a -3 series organ, I believe. It was time to do the organ shuffle.

I logged onto the southland-area craigslists and began hunting for a new studio organ to take the place of the A-100. Keep in mind, in my humble Northridge bungalow I already had the A-100, the C-2 chop, Leslies 147, 31H, and Gonzo, a broken-down BC for parts, another BC hopefully on the way, a Wurlitzer, a Rhodes, and various other keyboards, amplifiers, and effluvia already taking up real estate. Another organ wouldn’t be prudent. But Prudence isn’t my middle name. It’s Gordon.

I found a 1955 C-3 in unknown mechanical condition at Rio’s Jewelry and Loan in Costa Mesa for cheap. Rio was not well-versed in Hammond organs, and wanted it the hell out of his storeroom before he parted it out. This is exactly the type of seller I try to buy from: no agenda, and motivated. None of the price gouging from a “dealer” on an instrument in “showroom” condition that needs another $1,000 worth of work to undo hacky bullshit or suss out overlooked nightmares. Give me a cheap, original, beat-up organ over a supposedly pristine one any day, and let me do it the right way the first time. I’ve never bought any Hammond for more than $850. You just have to know where and what to look for, and be willing to take the thing down to its very skeleton. Yes, time is money, and so are parts, but when you love what you do, those are costs I’m willing to lay out. I told Rio to hold the C-3 and I’d be down that weekend with a van, a man, and money.

So the talented Ben Matin and I drove down old Orange County way in Vanna White one Saturday morning. On a cursory inspection, the organ’s tonewheel generator was frozen, but it otherwise appeared to be complete and in decent shape. Sold, American. Here’s what I did to get it into studio-grade shape. She wasn’t always the most agreeable patient.

Once I got it home, the generator was promptly de-wired and removed, and the process of cleaning, intravenous oiling and rehabilitation began. Using WD-40, which is not a lubricant but rather a solvent to break up any gummy deposits, I gently massaged the main driveshaft back into rotational order, and fed it plenty of fresh generator oil to replace the WD. A test of the start and run motors revealed healthy, steady operation. I fed oil to each of the individual tonewheel bearings, and restored broken oiling wicks. I installed rubber isolators for the tone generator mounts which eliminates the spring mounting scheme and thus the need to lock the generator down when moving the organ.

As I went through the generator, the vibrato scanner revealed a slight but persistent bearing noise that I couldn’t get to go away, even with disassembly and thorough cleaning and oiling. So I found another scanner up in the wilds of Humboldt County, and the bearing noise was gone. I also discovered a relic of this organ’s provenance:

Thank you for your craftsmanship, Ben

The preamplifier got a refresh in the form of new capacitors all around, new resistors in critical failure points, and chemical cleaning of all tube sockets and controls.

Diagnosis: facacta

I wired the organ for both 122 and 147 Leslies. The Leslie switching is three-speed capable, with a stop function for cabinets that use a Trek II solid-state relay. I repainted the outlet box, and installed Amphenol EP-6 connectors for the Leslie hookups and a modern IEC receptacle for the AC input. I ran new AC lines and established safety ground, something these organs never had.

I can’t get enough hammer-finish paint

I disassembled, cleaned, repainted in hammered bronze, re-bulbed with a 5 watt LED unit, and re-wired the pedal clavier lamp. I’ll never really need this, because my pedaling skills are about on par with my pole vaulting skills, but it looks cool and the details ought to be sweated. Sweaten. Swet.

The least-important and most-cool part of the whole project

I pulled the manuals and gave the delicate and precious busbars a cleaning and lubrication. Thankfully, they were all in totally sound condition, an indicator that the organ had lived an easy life down through the years. Keys, drawbars, and vibrato/percussion switch assemblies were thoroughly cleaned, serviced and lubed. Dust and filth was vacuumed out of everything. The preset key action was tightened so they’re less likely to disengage inadvertently. The percussion circuit was updated with the old resistor-jumpering trick inside the matching transformer, which keeps the manual volume from dropping when the percussion is switched to “normal” volume. Any iffy drawbar wire solder joints were restored.

The manuals fully removed from their prison for service

I fully rebuilt the vibrato line box with all new capacitors and resistors to make the vibrato and chorus smooth and consistent again, and replaced the 25k chorus mixing resistor with a 12k to give the organ the deeper, more pleasing chorus of later organs.

The new film caps (left, orange) and the old wax and paper caps (right, yellow) in the vibrato line box. New resistors are also seen with the new caps

The cabinet was in pretty good shape, nothing egregious as far as scratches, dents, or missing veneer, but could have been improved. I gave it a few doses of Howard Restor-A-Finish, followed by applications of Boston Polish Wax and Howard Feed-N-Wax, and it cleaned up very well. I also cleaned and carnauba waxed the black painted drawbar base, and even the chorus/vibrato knob.

Rejuvenated, waxed, and polished

After this initial round of service, I reassembled the organ to get sound out of it and see where the ball was lying on the field; after all, I hadn’t gotten to play it at all yet. This shakedown period revealed a few issues. Firstly, the 122 side of the Leslie switching wouldn’t go to “stop.” My use of the wrong Zener diode on the “stop” leg was to blame; my thanks to eminent guru Mike Smokowicz of Trek II Products for a supply of the proper spec. Secondly, the organ had an electrical “flit flit flit” noise that I traced to the vibrato scanner, despite being cleaned and rebuilt. I had a feeling the ever-so-slightly but irreparably bent contact pin on the scanner’s rotor was to blame. So I found yet another scanner with a good pin, and to really make sure all was good, I disassembled this one to the very screws, soaked the parts in alcohol overnight, and clear-coated the scanner body to prevent any dendrite formation that could cause shorts and ugly sounds, and that licked that.

Sometimes you really need to get down to the nitty-gritty

Thirdly, there was one intermittent tone. A cracked solder joint on that wheel’s filter cap was at fault. Fourthly, and most importantly, the overall tonality of the organ was very dark, and plagued with unpleasant subharmonic rumble and noise. The solution to this isn’t a quick fix. It requires the infamous tone generator re-cap. The video below explains the theory and my methodology behind this process.

For those uninterested in watching the video, essentially, the treble half of the tonewheels in a Hammond each have an associated LC (coil-capacitor) tuned filter network. These bandpass filters are meant to null out spurious noise, crosstalk, rumble, anything that isn’t the fundamental frequency of the spinning tonewheel. However, as the wax and paper capacitors that were used in these filters until about 1964 age and absorb moisture, their capacitance and equivalent series resistance (ESR) goes up significantly, thus shifting the passband of the LC filter and severely weakening the output voltage of the tones, simultaneously throwing a blanket over the timbre of the organ and allowing an excess of unwanted noise through. Every organ, and indeed every cap, ages differently, so some wax-capped organs sound lovely even today, but most have not aged particularly well and benefit from their filter caps being replaced. This is a hotly-debated topic amongst Hammond players and technicians; some think that new caps sound “too bright” or just not right, but many agree that a properly-done recap to bring the organ back to what it sounded like when new is the right thing to do. I replaced the wax caps with Panasonic polyester caps in parallel, each of them hand-picked and matched to their coils to peak the output of each tone. This ensures that the output is strong and consistent across the board.

Even though I had to take the organ apart multiple times to get it to the level of quality that I was seeking, even though I confoundingly lost the half-moon housing to the Leslie switch I got for the organ and had to salvage one from another organ, even though I went through three vibrato scanners before I found one that worked, even though I kept breaking new oil threads and had to re-thread them several times, even though I was chasing ghosts and noises hither and yon all the way, the organ turned out to be beautiful in its appearance and glorious in its timbre. The old A-100 is a screamer all the time, but this one has a greater depth of character. It has range, like Christopher Meloni or a good Steinway.

I even finished the cabinet on the infamous Leslie 31H tallboy so it would be presentable enough go into service alongside the C-3 in the living room. So last night I moved the A-100 out to the garage, and the C-3 and Tallboy went in.

In nomine patris, et filii, et spiritus sancti

The combination of this C-3, the Tallboy, and the existing 147 is a level of power and expression that I heretofore have not known. It’s like when Carroll Shelby put a 427 cubic-inch Ford V-8 in an AC Ace and made the Cobra, or what I imagine it feels like to fire a .44 Magnum. The 147 gives the sizzle and spit, while the Tallboy gives the Truman-era richness, the 6L6 growl, and, by Jupiter, the bass. The bass is shocking. Shocking. Those field-coil woofers, brother. I can’t pull the pedal drawbars all the way out lest the structural integrity of the house be compromised or seismometers start blaring in the Bay. Even the Gonzo Leslie can’t provide this level of positively hydroelectric force. You’ve been sucked into a penstock of Hoover Dam. You’re wielding Excalibur here. You must use the power wisely. I’ll try.

Author: Bunny Butler

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