Vintage keys are all the rage. From hulking Hammond B-3 and Vox Continental organs, to ’80s relics such as Casiotones, everyone is chasing the vibe. In my native New York City, any hipster band worth their current blog buzz wouldn’t be caught dead without a shopworn keyboard. Or three.
My current one of choice is the Wurlitzer 200A electric piano. Much like the acoustic piano (my mainstay), the 200A has an immediacy few other keyboards can match. You turn it on, and the internal speakers rumble with attitude. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a real electro-mechanical beast — complete with a hammer action whose design is very close to a grand piano’s. Maybe it’s metallic reeds that bark and growl with each hammer blow.
Whatever the reason, the Wurly is my go-to songwriting ’board these days. Nothing even comes close.
Far beyond just sounding great, vintage instruments can teach us a lot about music, and in many instances, life. They’re imperfect by nature — notes sound at different volumes, for example. Actions go out of regulation. Outputs hum and distort unpredictably. Just like human life itself, they present challenges and force us to look beyond them for solutions. During our interview for the July ’09 cover story, veteran hitmaker Rob Thomas told me, “I love my Wurly because it’s crazy. Every key sounds different. It has a ton of personality.”
Jazz great Kenny Barron once said that the way he dealt with problem pianos on gigs was to focus on what was right about them. How, despite poor tuning and regulation, he’d still seek out the redeeming qualities of each instrument. In the end, it was about the music, not the deficiencies of the piano it was played on.
The shortcomings of vintage instruments show us that musical beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Vintage keyboards rattle, hum, and groan just like the musicians that play them. That’s what makes them so inspiring to use: Perfection doesn’t exist. As hip and desirable as vintage keys have become, the biggest thing they can teach us is not to bemoan whatever instrument we have available, but to squeeze every drop of sound and usage possible out of it, because the main point is to make music that matters.