updated: 01 Nov 2005

The Quest for the Elusive B-3

I've heard it said that you don't really own a Hammond. They're so over-engineered that they'll run forever. It's like having a parrot - chances are, it's going to outlive you, so you don't own it so much as hold it in stewardship. This, then, is how I became entrusted with the stewardship of Hammond C-2 s/n 38593. This organ was manufactured in 1950 which means it's over fifty years old. I hope I still rock this hard when I'm fifty.

I've owned three M-3 spinet Hammonds, and several clones, but I've always dreamed of owning a console Hammond. The dream was sort of accelerated by Baja Bash III. At least once per year for the past several years my band plays at a large outdoor festival near Ensenada, Mexico, called Baja Bash. The first two bashes it was just my band. For the third one, they added Merl Saunders and the Rainforest Band. They were playing in Colorado the night before, so for them it was a fly-in gig. The promoters were handling all the backline, and I was put in charge of renting a B-3 for the weekend. Because the event was being held in Mexico, it turned out that it would cost a lot of money to rent one, so instead I focused on trying to buy one intead. Amazingly, the next week there was an ad in the Reader (weekly rag) for a B-3, Leslie 122, and dollies for $550! I called about every 15 minutes, couldn't get through.

It was getting down to the wire, and I eventually decided to quit hoping for a miracle and just buy a Hammond from a dealer. I called a local Hammond organ tech named Bob Blake, and we discussed my dilemma. He had an old Hammond A-102 that he thought would probably be the most cost-effect solution for me. The A-100 series is essentially a B-3 in a home-style cabinet. I think there are some differences in the chorus/vibrato circuit, and the A-100 has its own power amp and speakers, but it's pretty much the same deal as a B-3. Within the A-100 family, there were various cabinet designs, and the A-102 was no doubt the silliest of them all by rock and roll standards. (The A-102 was described as "The Most Hideous Hammond Ever" in Mark Vail's Hammond book "Beauty and the B") Technically the cabinet style is French Provincial - lots of swoopy woodwork, and it has these dainty little legs in the front. Yeah, take that on the road and those legs'll be snapping off in no time. Anyway, whatever, something had to be done, compromises were to be made, blah blah blah. The reality is, the fact that these home organs are less desirable than a B-3 can work to your advantage if you happen to be on the buying end of the deal. Apart from the silly cabinetwork, there's not really anything wrong with these organs - their most attractive feature might be that they have suffered much less price inflation simply by virtue of not being a B-3. Still, the B-3 does have some cachet, not to mention that beautiful four-poster cabinet...

Anyway, I drove over to his shop fully prepared to go home with the A-102. The shop was located in a small industrial park with roll up steel doors, etc, and you go inside and it's Hammond heaven! Consoles and Leslies and motors and parts and shit stacked up everywhere. I don't think I can accurately describe how much stuff was crammed in there, Think of the last scene in Indiana Jones, except instead of the Ark of the Covenant, it's just crates and boxes of Hammond organ parts, with narrow little trails where you could snake your way through the madness, but only if you were careful not to bump anything and topple any of the inventory. It was a truly beautiful sight. Bob turned out to be a really nice guy, in his 70s I figured, and even though his shop was clogged with this phenomenal backlog he was happy to chat for as long as you wanted to. So, we get to talking and at some point he indicates to a C-2 maybe twenty feet away buried under blankets and other stuff. It's an old one, with the hip old quatrefoil inlays on the side. Very old skool. Then I heard that he'd gotten it from a Pentecostal church. ("Hey, it's been pre-blessed!" my friend Jerry later said). I don't know, you just gottta go with your gut feelings on these things, so... that was the last thought I had about the A-102. Without having played it or heard it or anything I bought the C-2. It came with the bench (with matching quitrefoil) and pedals. It did not come with a Leslie, but since I owned two Leslie 145s aready, it wasn't too much of an issue. We agreed upon a price, and that was it. I didn't actually take it home that day, because it was set up for a 122, and Bob needed to convert it to a 147-type interface.

(I was saddened to hear the news of Bob's passing last fall. He was truly a gentleman in every kind sense of the word. My condolences go out to his family, friends, and customers. I don't know what we're going to do without him, but God's B-3 couldn't be in better hands.)

If the A-102 is a first cousin, the B and C series are siblings. (The Hammond B and C series organs are identical apart from the woodwork.) The B-3 comes in a four-poster style which looks really cool, and is easier for four people to carry. Mine, being a C instead of a B has a church-style cabinet with those quatrefoil inlays on the sides and on the bench, with a full back that goes all the way down to the floor. It also looks cool, but it makes the organ really hard to carry. I wasn't too into the idea of having to remove the back every time I wanted to move the organ, so I took the pedals and the back and put them into storage for safekeeping. For the Mexico trip I made a back panel out of plywood which I stained and Verathaned, so it kinda matches, but not really. (I've been meaning to redo it, but it's been, what, eight years as of this writing and that still hasn't happened yet.) I also bought a set of Roll-r-Kari dollies which are absolutely indespensible when it comes to moving these things around.

Since this is a '2' series organ, it was manufactured before Hammond developed their now-famous key percussion circuit which the B-3 made famous. So, I had Bob install a Trek II percussion kit. The Trek II percussion is interesting in that you get 5th harmonic in addition to 2nd and 3rd, and the volume of each harmonic can be controlled independently using three little slider things. A fourth slider gives you continuous control of attack velocity. Pretty cool.

Anyway, that was it. We went to Mexico, and the gig went great. We played two sets on Friday, and one set Saturday evening and then turned the stage over to Merl, and I think he played till 3 or 4 in the morning. There was one weirdness, though. When we were setting up on Friday afternoon the organ was almost a whole tone flat. At first I thought, OK, maybe the other guys can tune down, and then I remembered, oh yeah, I've got the Rhodes too. As you may know, Hammond organs never need tuning - they get their tuning information from the line current, which in this country is 60 Hz. The frequency of the juice coming out of your wall is very strictly regulated, and that's a good thing - the Hammond's tones are mechanically generated, and inside there's a synchonous motor (a clock motor, really) which turns the little wheels which generate the sound. This motor has a little closed-loop control mechanism, and it relies on the wall current being an accurate 60 Hz. If in fact you're not getting 60 Hz out of the wall, you're in trouble because the Hammond's pitch will follow the change in line frequency. The Hammond is pretty robust when it comes to voltage changes, but AC frequency changes make it go nuts.

It turns out, of course, that portable generators do not have very good frequency regulation - and on Friday night the show was delayed for about an hour while we dealt with the generator which was way "flat" - it was putting out fifty-something Hz. Fortunately, the generator had control panel which displayed frequency and voltage, so you could read what it was putting out. The frequency was controlled by the generator motor's throttle position, which was set by this weird linkage. You could take a wrench and give it a crank, and it would slightly change the motor speed (you could hear this) and then you could look at the frequency counter and see what happened. If not for the frequency counter built-in, I don't know what we would have done. I guess we would have had to tune the generator by ear. We were even more fortunate, because Don K. (if you're out there you know who you are and thank you again) was kind of enough to spend the weekend periodically wandering over to the generator and give it a tweak when it needed it. It got us through the weekend.

Not wanting to relive this particular problem, I have since installed a Trek II SC-60D-2 frequency reference kit which synthesizes a precise 60.0000 Hz which is provided to the Hammond's synchronous motor. Now the Hammond is happy in just about any AC environment. I've heard a horror story about (I think) Melvin Seals' Hammond going wacko at some outdoor festival up in LA. So, if you play Hammond and you play outdoor festivals, you need to install one of these kits. Don't say I didn't warn you.

The next thing to deal with was the ratchet drawbars. Hammond made a great improvement to the drawbar design in about 1954. Organs made prior to this date (such as mine) have the "ratchet" style drawbar which are not nearly as cool as the smooth-action drawbars that came later. With the older drawbars, if you like to change drawbar registrations on-the-fly, various harmonics drop out until you stop fiddling with the drawbars. I upgraded my drawbars, and for those who are interested, here's a description on what that was like.

The organ is much more fun to play as a result of this conversion.

Lastly, two or three years ago I installed a Trek II spring reverb, which is a lot of fun, and surprisingly easy to install. Anyway, that's about it. After all this work, I don't gig with the organ anymore, but I play it often in my home studio whenever we rehearse. After all these years, it is still the coolest thing in the world. If I had to chuck every other instrument and only play one more till the end of time, this would be the one I choose.

Click on the photo for a close up look at my Hammond.

Here you can see the Leslies too.

Apart from its annual trip to Baja Bash, the organ does not see much road time anymore. It's probably just as well. Here is a photo of it safe at home next to its good friend the Yamaha CP-70.



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