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You Too Can Score Cheap On The Open Market For Dead People’s (Hammond) Organs

George Harrison and Eric Clapton, playing their guitars, in a black-and-white concert photo from the 1970s
Getty Images

Bad guitarists spend most of their time wondering what more they can acquire so they can sound like good guitarists. I know this, having spent my entire adult life as a bad guitarist and hoarder of guitar toys. And because I now have a Leslie speaker

For the uninitiated: Leslies are big, heavy (mine is 150 lbs.) musical implements introduced as an organ accessory in the 1940s. The hope 80-something years ago was to find a way for then-newfangled smaller electronic keyboards to produce sounds emulating the older and often gigantic pipe organs found in theaters and churches. A Leslie cabinet generally contains a single 15-inch speaker (or “woofer”) and horns that, combined with a system of motors and pulleys and rotating baffles, will give a “whoosh” sound to any musical signal put through it. Smartypants people will explain that the Leslie’s aural enhancements are a byproduct of the Doppler Effect, the same physical phenomenon that gives a siren’s wail a higher frequency as it passes you by; aging dirtballs like myself will just tell you a Leslie makes cool sounds. 

Essentially every classic pop and rock tune with prominent keyboards, from “Green Onions” from Booker T and the MGs to “Dreams” from the Allman Brothers to “Us and Them” from Pink Floyd, featured the dulcet tones of a Hammond organ through a Leslie

I’ve never owned a Hammond or thought about acquiring one, but I’ve long obsessed about all things guitar. By now I have more tube amplifiers than books. And more guitars than amps. And let’s not even talk about pedals! (For a few paragraphs, anyway.) Thanks to the Beatles, I’ve long longed for a Leslie. The Beatles started experimenting by running their guitars through Leslies at least as far back as 1965’s “It’s Only Love.” Soon enough, George Harrison was regularly relying on the Leslie whoosh, perhaps most famously on first-wave psychedelia, “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” and when playing alongside homewrecker and fellow god to guitar geezers Eric Clapton on Cream’s “Badge” from 1969.

From the start, there have always been big hindrances to my actually obtaining a Leslie. Firstly, they used to be ridiculously expensive. There was a time when a Leslie in great shape could fetch $1,000 and more. I’m cheap as hell and in decades of hoarding have only spent four figures on one thing ($1,600 on a 1964 Gretsch Country Gentleman. A steal!). Plus, again, Leslie's are big as hell and unwieldy. And size matters to hoarders.

Plus, technology has gradually rendered the Leslie all but obsolete. Stomp boxes, or effects pedals, are out there now that can create digital tones that reproduce the whole Doppler Effect whoosh to a dang near identical degree. Pedals are the guitar toy obsessive's best friend and worst enemy, since they take up so little room and there’s an infinite supply of them. Being, again, a bad guitarist in search of anything that might help me imitate a good guitarist, I have boxes and drawers and road cases full of pedals. I could no sooner sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan by buying a pedal of the sort that he used than I could sound like Eddie Van Halen by taking brown M&Ms out of my diet. Yet over time I’ve had maybe two dozen Ibanez Tube Screamers and clones specifically because SRV had ‘em on his pedalboard. (Here’s something neither Dave McKenna nor any crappy guitarist has ever thought: “I have too many overdrive pedals!”) 

But for some reason I’ve never gotten around to acquiring a faux Leslie pedal to help unleash my inner Quiet Beatle. And, as luck would have it, in recent years the value of big and unwieldy musical implements, including rock guitar staples such as combo amplifiers and 4x12 speaker cabinets, has been dwindling.

The market for organs and pianos, meanwhile, has all but vanished: If you have any piano but a Steinway you want to get rid of, there’s every chance you will have to pay a crew lots of money to haul it out of your home. Go search “piano” on your nearby Craigslist to see the horrible truth for yourself.

And I recently discovered, in the best way possible, that Leslies might also be on their way to obsolescence. Last week, I saw an ad on a D.C. social media site from somebody giving away organs and pianos. A shot of what looked like a classic Hammond organ complete with a Leslie was among the photos in the post, though no brands or models were named. I answered the ad, and the woman texted back saying a renovation of her dead musician father’s house would begin in a matter of days and she had been unable to find any takers for any of his old instruments.

I brought a hand truck with me just in case my intuition was right. She lamented that a work crew was showing up a day later to haul her dad’s grand piano to the public landfill. Though the piano had surely seen better days physically, her pain was real. “That piano played at Carnegie Hall,” she told me. 

Everything else in the basement was also headed to the dump. “Take whatever you want,” she said. 

Sure enough, as I’d hoped with all my being, there was a Hammond C3, as prized an organ as has ever existed, with a Leslie attached. Taking both items would have been the right thing to do, and would have effectively annulled my marriage. I left the organ for the trash crew, but hand-trucked the Leslie to my minivan and put it in my garage. 

A Leslie speaker, looking resplendent in Dave McKenna's garage
Dave McKenna

Now all I have to do is figure out how to use the thing. I’ve spent every spare minute the last week reading up on how to pair a Leslie with a guitar instead of an organ. And the key thing I’ve learned so far is that the conversion isn’t intuitive or easily accomplished. I’ll likely have to spend a good bit of money after all, to get my free but ridiculously heavy and unwieldy and all but obsolete guitar toy to make whoosh sounds.

But it’ll happen eventually. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. And for now I’m going to focus on what’s really important. I have a Leslie. You know, just like George Harrison.

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