The trouble with making a portable version of the Hammond organ, that I talked about in my post about the Clavia C2D, is in no way a recent phenomenon. Way back in 1962, Pop and Rock & Roll bands were starting to use Hammond organs, particularly semi-portable versions like the M-3. Though lighter than a B3, they were still monstrous, heavy machines to carry around. At the time, the Hammond company was still attached to using tonewheels as sound generators, which is basically a set of spinning metallic wheels, one per note, spinning in front an electro-magnetic pickup. Without getting into the details, for one organ you need a lot of spinnings metallic wheels (typically 96), a motor to spin them, a lot of pickups, and the result is a very heavy instrument, no matter how you try to reduce the size and weight. So there was a huge market for an innovative company to come up with a new way to generate the sound, and create a light, portable organ.
The Vox Continental
That company was JMI from the UK, who by the early sixties were already having an enormous success with their VOX amplifiers. One of the owners of the company had a history in organ production, and came up with a transistor-based design that, while maintaining an interface fairly similar to that of a Hammond organ (including drawbars), was completely different from Hammond’s technology under the hood. This allowed for a much lighter instrument, suited to the many bands touring at the time.
John Lennon on stage with a Vox Continental
The VOX Continental organ was instantly a huge success, and became an integral part of the sound of the 60’s. One of the most famous users is Ray Manzarek of the Doors – it is impossible to imagine the sound of the Doors without the VOX Continental – and there is a long list of other users that have helped make this instrument a classic.
Ray Manzarek live with the Doors and the Vox Continental in 1966 at the Whisky A Go Go
I have had a VOX Continental for several years now, and while I don’t dare take it on the road (my trusted Nord Stage does a very good imitation for live uses), I use it on almost every session I do. It can create soft, flute-like textures, aggressive chords, psychedelic tones, cheesy vintage sounds.. Used with effects pedals, the applications are endless.
The model I own was built in Italy in the late sixties. JMI could barely keep up with demand in the UK, so to supply the booming American market, JMI licensed the design in 1964 to their North American distributor, the Thomas Organ Company, and the story of the VOX Continental took a strange twist. The Thomas Organ Company started building Continentals in America in 1965 using American labor, but they soon realized that it would more cost-effective to set up a factory in Italy, where workers from accordion manufacturing had the necessary skills, but were much cheaper than their American counterparts. JMI was strongly opposed to this move, but had no legal way of stopping the plan, and though JMI did manage to ban the Italian models from the UK market, by early 1967 the Thomas Organ Company were producing VOX Continentals in Italy in huge numbers. While I have never had a chance to try a UK or American model, I am very happy with the model I own which was built by the inexpensive Italian workers.
Needless to say, an instrument of this age requires maintenance from time to time, and just this week the incredible Stéphane Archambault fixed a dead note on my Continental in less than 2 minutes. This operation could have taken hours or days for somebody not familiar with the complicated wiring of the instrument, but Stéphane identified a dead soldering in a matter of seconds, and the instrument is almost as good as new.
Stéphane at work on my Continental
For further reading, I strongly recommend this site: Vox Showroom. They are a very good source of information on every piece of VOX gear ever built.