Electric Organs

When I was a kid, television commercials for electric organs were ubiquitous and every shopping mall had an organ/electric piano store. It was a common living room accessory for people who aspired to a higher class, but didn’t really know enough about music to have a piano.

I still remember the jingle from the large local organ retailer –

“B.H.A. means Better Home Appliances …”

I suspect electric organs have been largely replaced by keyboard synthesizers, but I wondered what the Teeming Millions could teach me about the fate of electric organs. Are they still made? Are they still played?

More importantly, I remember that there was a long row of buttons that had a series of generic synthesized beats, like “samba,” “shuffle,” “salsa,” “mambo.” Anyone know of a complete list of the rhythms featured on these buttons?

Also known as the “Boom-chucka-chuckas”, or, if you were into PDQ Bach, the “continuo automatico”.

I don’t think the average middle class adult aspires to play the electric organ like they used to. The piano is more popular, particularly electric pianos amongst those who are afraid of commitment.
I don’t know if consumer model organs are still made (I’m sure they still make church organs), but I can tell you that it’s next to impossible to get rid of them once you have one. A coworker of mine just tried to unload one that they had acquired from his wife’s (grand?)parents. People weren’t interested. Goodwill and the Salvation Army weren’t interested. It ended up in a dumpster. They’re forever being listed on Craigslist.

I just picked up one of these, the Wurlitzer 950, made ca. 1983. It has a small synthesizer keyboard besides two manuals and all the classic stops. Haven’t had it delivered yet, but I know it works perfectly.

$26,000 when built. Worthless now, except to collectors, which I guess I have become.

The rhythm boxes in those days were synthesized (not sampled), but the basic sound components were pretty cheesy. Not like modern drum machines.

Bingo. Electric pianos are far far far far better than models of twenty years ago. There were good reasons for companies to invest heavily in developing them - they could sell them not only as home appliances, but once they were good enough, as an alternative to acoustic instruments in schools, music colleges, all sorts of places with the need for many reliable instruments with as low maintance costs as possible.

I’m guessing another factor is that home computers can fully replicate all of the cheesy synthesized sounds (as well as the not-so-cheesy sampled sounds, the bizarre purely artificial sounds, etc.) you once needed special-purpose hardware to produce. (Not that the organs’ hardware was that special, else they would be bought up by wireheads looking for chips to cannibalize.)

Anyone have any insight on the list of rhythms available?

The brand name “Kimball” comes to mind. Was that a big one?

KIMBALL: The Kimball name goes way back, being a Chicago-based pipe organ and piano builder (W.W. Kimball) who got in financial straits and firm was bought by the Habig family of Jasper, IN who built the autochord organs. One of the largest producer of electronic organs in the 1960’s and 1970’s. from Organ Tradenames

As mentioned upthread, most electronic pianos produced today go a long way toward having more features, as well as the flexibility to be used as MIDI controllers with a computer based soft-synth. My CP300 is a lot more portable than anything that was made in the 70s, and has a lot more features.
Of course, if the organ mentioned on craigslist happens to be a Hammond B3, $12,000. seems to be the lowest starting price for refurbished ones. If it can be proved to have been played by Jimmy Smith, Rick Wakeman, Keith Emerson or Jon Lord, the price will likely go up a bit.

I have fond memories of those ‘home entertainment centre’ kind of organs - a friend inherited a ‘Yellow Bird’ special from his Grandmother, and he did some bizarre modifications on it, including rigging it so it could play any number of different drum patterns overtop of one another and replacing the potentiometer of the drum machine so that instead of going from a range of about 40 - 210 beats per minute, it ran from a couple of beats per hour, to about 200 hz (itself an audible frequency). No fine control whatsoever, either. He’d set it as slow as it could go, stick a knife or two in the keyboard to hold the notes down and listen as this thing would play a samba/waltz in geological time. It would tick and about 2 minutes later, when you’d totally forgotten the thing was still going, it would tick again. Shades of John Cage, which was the kind of stuff Dinos was into anyway.

B3 & C3 Hammonds are still very popular with churches, despite their antique (tube-based) innards. And they do not have any sort of built-in rhythm features. I know; I’ve played too many of them. I have to admit that I’m nostalgic about them. A C3 (with a Leslie speaker, of course) was the first organ I ever played - other than antique pump organs (my dad was an antiques dealer). I’ve also played C2s, which I don’t recall as being all that different, but musical instrument makers like to come out with new models, just as the carmakers do. “Get the latest/greatest”. That, of course, is aside from when there are genuine improvements - such as switching from tubes to transistors.

What’s the Leslie speaker about? It’s all about reverb(eration). You can get vibrato from a switch on an electric organ, but it takes a speaker (or at least it used to; dunno that much about modern audio generation) to produce the reverb (which I think is correctly described as a different sort of sound oscillation?). They don’t take up as much space as the organs, but they’re still huge - and tall. A control switch fastens to the organ case just below the lower manual (keyboard) to turn it on or off.

More modern Hammond organs are, of course electronic, rather than electric. Unfortunately, many church decision-makers don’t understand that the modern ones have greater sound capability, in addition to being a lot easier to repair, when something eventually goes wrong (bar abuse, it takes a long time; those suckers were built to last).

There are a few companies who specialize in repairing/reconditioning those old Hammonds. I dunno where they get the tubes, but maybe somebody, somewhere is still making tubes for them? It could, I suppose, be modestly lucrative, given that traditional attachment to the old Hammonds that seems to range across just about all of Protestantism. And no decent organist is happy with a pedal clavier that has fewer than two octaves.

And then there are still some people who play them in entertainment venues. There’s even a specially designed dolly (“handtruck” for those who learned a different terminology) for moving those big Hammonds. Necessary, IMO, to avoid damaging both human backs and the organs themselves. Those suckers are heavy, as well as unwieldy.

Those old Kimballs - and Baldwins, etc. (it was a big market, and all the organ makers tried to get their piece of it - even companies that were in related fields, IIRC), all the ones with only a single octave pedal clavier (13 pedals) have no attraction at all (see above) for someone who actually knows how to play an organ. All we get from the effort is frustration. That’s why they’re basically un-sellable. They take up too much space, and they’re not as versatile as modern keyboards. You can see pages of them on eBay, any day.

As a church organist, I often get a call from someone wanting to donate one of those things on the church. I used to suggest calling a funeral home, but no more! Because I have had to play one or two at funeral homes! Disaster!

Once my friend had to play one at a funeral and another friend was going to sing. Because it was a school snow day they barely got there on time and didn’t have and time to rehearse. The oom-pah-pah rhythm was on and my friend could not figure out how to turn it off. It sounded pretty strange with Ave Maria or whatever it was that was sung.

No one wants it–don’t bother to try to sell it unless it actually has a full pedalboard (32 pedals, radiated out and convex, or at least 25). If it has a full pedalboard you might find an organist who would want it at home for practice.

We never had a home organ, but I was fascinated by them and used to play them when visiting friends who had one.

Hammond: Too heavy, damned hard to move, hard to connect up to modern recording equipment. Stopped being manufactured in the mid-1970s. The Hammond tonewheel sound is now being replicated digitally on so-called “clonewheel” DSP keyboards.

Lowrey: Continues to be manufactured to this day. Typical buyer probably has a median age of about 65-70.

Thomas: Out of business 1979.

Wurlitzer: Keyboard division purchased by Baldwin Piano and Organ in 1988. Baldwin itself was later sold; it now owned by the Gibson Guitar Company.

Rodgers: Still in business, but now a subsidiary of Roland.

Technics: Once manufactured digital organs, but no longer. The brand still exists as a subsidiary of Panasonic and Matsushita.

I always wanted one, but never had the bread to buy it when they were popular. So when I got a call from someone who had a mint-condition Wurlitzer, wanted to dump it but couldn’t find a church that would take it, I accepted the offer. That’s how I got my 950.

I think it has a 2-octave pedalboard, but I’m not sure, since it won’t get moved to my home until October.

I guess the moral is: if you wait long enough, your dream will come to you.

The link you gave showed a 25 key pedal clavier. That’s 2 octaves, from C to C to C (non-shining, and not from the mountains to the valleys, either). :wink: If it adds to your joy, consider me green. I wish I had room for an organ, but they just don’t fit in apartments. Congrats on your dream come true!

Not to tangent too much, but I just got one of the schools to work at to get a CP300, and I’m loving it!

I realize that you are (I think) giving the ‘simplified’ description of Leslie, but let me take it a step further.

A Leslie cabinet has a set of speakers; the high frequency speaker rotates parallel to the ground. The low frequency speaker points at the ground, and a sort of sound blocker/gate spins below that. The rotating can be turned on and off; when it’s on it gives a sort of vibrating, warbling sound (either slow or fast).

A Leslie speaker is a rotating speaker unit. It consists of a rotating horn and rotating baffles around the bass speaker. It produces a nice swirling effect and is a fairly complex sound as the bass and treble parts aren’t synchronised and rotate at slightly different speeds. Reverb is something different altogether, it can be produced by a variety of means. My guitar amplifier has a spring reverb, and my digital piano has a purely electronic reverb.

Hammond are still selling home organs, as are Roland and others. As others have said, modern technology is making home organs redundant unless you’re just after an interesting piece of furniture. Rather than buying the Roland organ linked to above I can download a heap of different organ sounds from the net for my digital piano or I can get something like this organ module which can be connected to my keyboard and gives a lot of the flexibility in organ sounds that dedicated organ has.

Edit: To slow with the Leslie stuff. The Leslie also has a fast and slow speed, the sound of it spinning up is quite distinctive and can be heard in a lot of rock music.

The effect of the Leslie is a combination of vibrato (variation in pitch due to the doppler effect of the rotating sound source), tremolo (regular variation in volume as the speaker points toward/away from the listener), variable reverb (from the sound bouncing off different surfaces that it is aimed at) and some variable filter effect from the sides of the horn/directionality as well.

It is absolutely distinctive and wonderfully complex, used for all sorts of things (not just Hammond organs).


Thanks. I don’t have room for it, either, but I plan to make room, next to the 8 ft grandfather clock that I also don’t have room for. And it has a Leslie! (the organ, not the clock)

I never could understand the popularity of “spinet” organs. I always figured most of them were sold to folks who liked to watch that guy on The Lawrence Welk Show.

At one time, that guy was the bee’s knees. Or the cat’s pajamas. Everyone liked to watch.

It should be noted that such classic rockers as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Pink Floyd, Santana and many more used Hammond organs on one or more songs, to great effect.

Some audio clips from notable examples.