My first “professional” keyboard was a Kawai K1II that I got as a high school graduation present in 1993. I remember being afraid to take it out of the house for fear that I might damage such an expensive piece of gear. I remember bouncing recording tracks on my stereo tape deck and an old boom box so I could make my first home recordings…..piano and strings!
Over the summer, I inherited an old Lowery organ from my grandmother. The coolest feature was the miniature Leslie speaker build into the back of the organ. I couldn’t believe how cool it was! It also had a wah-wah switch for the expression pedal. This developed my appetite for getting that growling Steppenwolf Hammond sound. It never left the bedroom.
My first quarter in college I’d started playing with some guys who were into a bunch of prog rock, so I felt it was my duty to start picking up some more gear. Knowing virtually nothing about keyboards, I turned to an article in an issue of Keyboard magazine from earlier in the summer: the cover story, “Vintage Synths”. In it, there was a lengthy description of all the famed keyboards and synthesizers from years passed, to include a rather in-depth pricing chart of the estimated street value of many keyboards. I knew nothing about old keyboards (or new ones for that matter), except that I thought they were very cool, and I wanted some. So begins my journey.
The first true vintage piece to pass through my hands was an old Farfisa Mini Compact. I paid $55 for it. It never worked right. It made this horrendous sound when it was turned out, like every key was mashed down all at once. You could still play it, but it was totally unusable for any real musical application. Years later I sold it to Richard Goodsell at Numerous Complaints music in Atlanta (a store I would frequent often), where it was rumored to have been repaired and sold to Peter Buck of R.E.M.
A month or so after the Farfisa, I picked up a Roland Juno 6. I fell in love with this thing immediately! I remember looking for a portamento switch, even though I didn’t know it was called portamento. I was sure I could get it to sound just like the synth lead in Karn Evil 9! Even though it had no internal memory (so no preset sounds), it remained a prominent part of my keyboard rig for many years, and it introduced me to the basics of subtractive synthesis, and how these instruments really work. Programming sounds took some work at first, but I got used to it. And since it had no preset memory, I got a lot of practice programming sounds, since you had to tweak it any time you needed a different sound.
Not content with a Juno, a digital synth, and a crappy organ, I continued to expand my collection with a Korg Poly-800 in 1994. Another pawn shop acquisition, this synth sadly didn’t last long in my possession. Though in the short time I owned it, I found that programming it was fairly easy, and it was capable of some interesting sounds. I also began to attune my ears to the subtle distinctions between “analog” and “digital” keyboards. Though both the Poly-800 and the Juno-6 both had DCOs (digitally controlled oscillators), I noticed the Roland sounded much more pleasing to my ears. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but I realized that not all of these instruments were created the same.
By this time, I’d started my first band, and was trying to find my place in the world of sonic involvement in an ensemble. As we all started writing music, I started to understand more the type of sound I wanted to have. All of these boards had a solid space in my bedroom, which was beginning to resemble a keyboard museum. And the next artifact that was added to the exhibit was a Yamaha CS-15. Our drummer purchased it from a guy on campus for $150, but he let me keep it and play it, since he knew nothing about keyboards. It was to be one of the most important instruments in my possession for years to come.
The CS-15 was what we liked to called “the poor-man’s Minimoog”. While not nearly as popular as they are today, the Minis were extremely expensive to come by, and not very common. The CS-15 was a very capable, dual-VCO monosynth, which I think would give any Minimoog a run for it’s money. This synth would later serve to be one of the defining voices in my keyboard rig, and my original music, for many years.
A flexible synth with a unique sound, I coaxed some other-worldly noises out of the CS. I used it primarily for solo sounds, a la Jan Hammer, Rick Wakeman, and Tony Banks. But it could do so much more! I used it for bass a lot, and lots of sound effects. It had an external input which allowed you to route signals through the VCFs, which was pretty nifty.
In early 1995 I found an old Thomas tube organ at the Salvation Army for $40. Thinking I might be able to “rig” it somehow, I lugged it home and added it to the collection. It sounded horrible, though we did our first two gigs with it (along with the Kawai, the Juno, and the CS). But due to the fact that all it had was a speaker (no audio output jack), it was difficult to get enough volume with a band for it to be usable anyway.
That April, I found an instrument…….no…….the instrument that would change everything. I found a Fender Rhodes Stage 73 Mark 1 for $220, and my life was literally changed. The sound of that piano did more to change the way I thought about playing than probably anything else I can think of, short of an acoustic piano. It quickly replaced the Thomas organ, and became the sound I would use for just about everything.
The Rhodes became “my sound”, and was the centerpiece of my rig. I heard melody on the Rhodes and I composed on the Rhodes. There was just something about it that – musically speaking – seemed like an anchor to me (and I’m not speaking of it’s weight……though I could). The sound was just so solid and versatile: it could be mellow, or heavy; light and tinkly, or thick and biting. It was the defining part of my rig for a long time, up until I sold it in 2007.
In the summer of 1995, our drummer came up with yet another surprise: a MicroMoog which he bought from a friend of his. This too earned a distinguished place in my battery of keyboards. It would also round out the collection, and complete what would be the official “rig” of the band.
The MicroMoog was a strange little keyboard, that I didn’t use all that much, though I did enjoy it. Just getting to say I played a Moog was enough, as it was very hip to own one then (as it is now, I suppose). It rested next to the CS-15, which sounded much thicker than the Moog, though I wouldn’t say “better” (though I did prefer the sound to the CS). I understood how to program the CS a lot more than the Moog, so that might be part of it. I used the Moog primarily for basslines, occasional lead melodies, and sometimes as a lead voice played against a lead on the CS (both were monophonic). Brian never sold it to me, so when he moved away a few years later, the MicroMoog went with him.
As time marched on, so did the band. I eventually moved on to another group, using most of the same gear. This time I pared it down to the Rhodes, the Kawai and the Juno. A year into that project, in 1997, I picked up an Alesis QS7, which was lightyears ahead of the Kawai in terms of sound quality. The pianos sounded like real pianos! It lent some realism to an otherwise antiquated set of sounds, and it was a real move into the digital domain.
Packed with over 800 sounds (including loops, drumkits, and sequencing software), the QS7 introduced me to a broader spectrum of music and synth technology that went beyond keyboard instruments. Though I never used the QS7 quite to it’s fullest, it’s range of sounds and programming capabilities put me eye-to-eye with having to learn about computer-based sampling, MIDI librarians, creating loops, and DAWs. Two years later I would purchase a Alesis QS8, which is the 88-weighted-key version of the same synth.
I would eventually purchase a Roland Juno-106 (which has 128 user presets). The Juno I saw at a band rehearsal space. It was resting, derelict, in a corner, so I taped a note to it with my number on it. I got it for cheap since it was in disrepair (a bad VCF chip…..a common problem). Now I had two Junos. After getting the 106 fixed, it went right into the rig (replacing the Juno 6). It didn’t sound quite the same as the 6; not quite as “warm”, as I’ve heard other keyboard players describe it. And it lacked an arpegiator
Not long after that, possibly 1998, I paid another trip up to Numerous Complaints. It’s likely I was there to get some gear serviced, or to pick up a rental. I can’t quite remember……or maybe it was just to salivate over his collection of vintage keyboards, with the hope of finding a gem. And what a gem I found: a Polymoog Keyboard, in need of dire work, and driving Richard crazy. Can’t remember what was wrong with it, but it didn’t play quite right. Real noisy, and he was having a tough time diagnosing the problem. Overcome with the amazingness of my find, I offered him my now-unused Roland Juno 6 as an even swap for the Polymoog, which he accepted.
I only owned it a few months, and I never played it out at a gig on account of the noisiness. But it was a brilliant instrument all the same. It was extremely heavy, and kind of thin sounding. It did have pitch ribbon just above the keyboard, which was interesting, and also a set of about 8 to 10 preset push-buttons. All very hi-tech for 1975! And the additional footpedal connection was pretty smooth too, complete with expression/volume pedals built into it. A very rare piece. I ended up selling it to a guy in Virginia, but I was proud to own it for a time.
Somewhere in this time period, our old drummer sold me a Peavey Spectrum Organ rack unit. Not sure where he got it, but it was a pretty usable organ synth. I only held onto it for 2 or 3 years, eventually upgrading to a Roland MVS-1 Vintage Synth Module in 1999. The Peavy had a fairly realistic Leslie simulator on it, which could be triggered with a foot pedal. To date I’d not owned a decent Hammond simulator, so this really helped out with the organ duties.
The MVS-1 was a synth I’d used on a record a year or so previous, and I fell in love with it! It had what I believed to be the most realistic Mellotron samples that I’d heard in a hardware synth of the time, not to mention a host of very usable synth pads and vintage synth lead sounds. It also had one particular organ preset that was my main go-to Hammond sound for a couple of years. It has retained a distinguished position in my rack, and shall remain there for the forseeable future.
In 2000 I traded the QS7 for a Fender Squier P-Bass and an interesting little synth, a Roland MKS-10. Probably the least-distinguished of the Roland MKS synth, the 10 has only 8 presets, all piano-based. It had some cool effects, like chorus and flanger, and the clavinet and wurlitzer sounds were pretty cool and retro-sounding. But it was largely a novelty piece, and left the house for gigs infrequently. I sold it in a garage sale in 2005.
In 2001 and 2002, I worked at a church where I had access to a Yamaha W5. I never purchased it, but I grew quite fond of a number of sounds in it. I really liked the organs, and a number of the synth leads. One in particular (reminiscent of Lyle Mays signature Oberheim 4-voice lead) was a favorite of mine, and ended up on a home recording or two.
I also had the privilege of holding onto a Roland Juno-60 for a friend of mine. Though I used it infrequently, I held onto it for him for four or five years…….long enough for me to come close to claiming squatters rights. The 60 was really the best of the Juno line in my opinion: it had that classic Juno sound (which was lacking in the newer 106), but it retained the arpeggiator feature, as well as having preset memory. It’s major flaw was in having no MIDI (an very new development of synths of that vintage). The 106 had MIDI, and that was it’s saving grace in my opinion, as my 106 ended up being used as a MIDI controller more than I’d care to admit.
In 2005 I reconnected with an old friend of mine who sold me a Yamaha CP-70, and he let me borrow a Hammond M3 with a Leslie 145 for an extended time, hoping I’d eventually buy it. The Yamaha was a great piano, though entirely too large and heavy for me to justify ever taking out of the house for any good reason. Though I liked the sound of it, I couldn’t stand the action. It was extremely heavy and sluggish, and it my hands always felt like I’d been working on a construction site after playing it for extended periods of time.
The M3 was like a dream come true! I’d always wanted to own a Hammond, and this was the closest thing. I did several recordings with it, though it too never left the house. I did do one show with the Leslie, however, when I opened up for Edwin McCain several years ago. I never did get the money up to buy it, so I gave it back to my buddy a few years later.
Somewhere in this time period, my pastor (also a keyboard player) lent me a Korg SG Rack piano module, to see if I’d be interested in eventually buying it. By this time the pianos on the QS8 had worn thin on me, and I was eyeing an improved acoustic piano sample set. The SG was a very basic unit, having about 48 sounds, largely acoustic and electric pianos, organs and strings. A descent sounding box, the SG was not a knock-your-socks-off kind of unit. I did a number of solo piano gigs with it, and some recording, but little else. I ended up giving it back to my pastor.
In 2007, I finally traded my QS8 with a piano student for a Kurzweil PC88. I’d had misgivings about giving up all the sounds in the QS, as I’d grown attached to several of them. And though the synth overall was not the most amazing thing around, I’d grown accustomed to having a lot of sounds immediately on-hand if I needed them. The PC88 has about 64 sounds, all pianos, strings, and organs, and is very basic from that standpoint. But it was worth it to me for the acoustic pianos alone. They were heads-and-tails above the Alesis, and the action on the PC was wonderful.
Not long after that, a friend of mine called me about an old synth that he had sitting in the back of his closet. He wanted to know if it was any good. Turns out it was a near-mind condition Yamaha CS-60, the little brother to the famed CS-80. My jaw nearly fell off of my face when he told me what it was. I told him I was extremely interested in purchasing in, should I find a way to secure funds, so he let me hold on to it for a month or so in the meantime. I never ended up getting the cash up to purchase it. And unfortunately, I didn’t use my time wisely while I had it, but it was a most glorious instrument.