Written by Chris Carroll / First Appeared in Keyboard Magazine, May 2015
For almost 20 years, I’ve spent the majority of my time around vintage keyboards. It all began when my tech and mentor Jeff Blenkinsopp asked me to join his company E.A.R.S. in New York City and run the keyboard department. I learned in the trenches how to troubleshoot and take things apart, and we didn’t have the plethora of online resources that are available today. Over time, I learned many things and created systems for restoring electric pianos. To this day, I apply these strategies to the work I do here at Vintage Vibe. Here are five things I’ve learned about maintaining vintage keyboards.
1. Educate Yourself
Read manuals thoroughly and watch videos on electric piano repair as much as possible. Open up your instrument and become acquainted with its inner workings. Once you have an understanding of its mechanical operation, start experimenting by making small adjustments on a single note to see and feel how the tone and action is altered. Note what works and what doesn’t. These findings will allow you to change your instrument effectively and fine-tune its sonic possibilities. It’s at this point that your journey begins and your relationship with your muse deepens.
2. Be Cautious, Not Afraid
When you first lift the lid of an electric piano and take a look at its inner workings, the thought of attempting a restoration or even a minor repair can be daunting. However, finding the courage and time to take on the job can be extremely rewarding. Electric piano actions are based on simple mechanisms. By understanding the principles of these mechanisms and remembering that every action causes a reaction (and often multiple reactions), you can optimize your piano’s performance. Nowadays, most of the parts needed for repairing or restoring your vintage keyboard are readily available for purchase. Don’t be afraid—there’s help out there if you get stuck!
3. Make a Repair Plan
Time is money. So in order to waste less and save more of it, plan your restoration or repair in a logical order. Always start with the keybed, as this is the foundation of your piano. Everything is affected by this groundwork and if you don’t address it first, you may encounter issues later that could’ve been prevented. Set the ideal key height for the lowest and highest notes on your instrument, then level all other keys to this height. Square any horizontally misaligned (or slanted) keys. Ensure properkey dip. And, if it pertains, check the aftertouch. With careful planning, you won’t have to spend extra money and waste time going over the same tasks twice.
In my experience, whether it’s a Rhodes, Wurly, or Clavinet, the point at which the hammer strikes the tone source is of utmost importance. Setting the strike line correctly can be the difference between a note that has a rich fundamental and a complexity of harmonics, and a note that’s dull and lacking in character. Many a tine or reed have been needlessly replaced due to an improperly set strike line. The sweet spot of the strike line can be altered with mechanical adjustments to the hammer or harp. In addition to the strike line, the relationship between the tone source (tine, reed, or string) and the actuator (hammer or tip) plays a major role in the tone that’s produced, and should be observed and experimented with as well.
5. Factory Specs Aren’t Necessarily Optimal
You’ll often hear technicians talk about restoring a vintage keyboard to “factory specifications.” This is something to be wary of. Most electric pianos were built to dimensional standards in order to accommodate mass production on assembly lines, and therefore most always need tweaking for optimization. That’s why a proper setup is so important. You can achieve great feel and tone on your instrument just by articulating the parameters I’ve addressed in this article. A proper setup can turn an average electro-mechanical piano into a a dream machine.