Combo Organ Classic: The Vox Continental

Running a small–town vintage instrument business, I never know when, where, or how the next musical treasure will surface. Such was the case when my phone rang one afternoon a couple years ago.

A fellow named Jerry Scott had a Vox Continental combo organ for sale. That phone call was the precise moment my fascination with combo organs began.

As a lifelong guitar player, I have generally been very guitar–oriented in my vintage instrument interests. Yet, Scott piqued my interest because he said it was, “the same model the Doors used.”

Back then I didn’t even understand what a “combo organ” really was. I thought it was a combination of an organ and something else. Instead, it’s a portable stage organ meant to be used in a combo, quaint Brit–speak for a band.

When I first saw Jerry’s Vox Continental, I was stunned by its looks. It had reverse color keys, with the white keys turned black and vice versa. Its boxy body was upholstered in bold orange and charcoal waterproof Rexine, all sitting on top of chrome Z–legs. It looked like a Mod work of art.

Jerry waited until after I bought the organ before he told me about his musical career. As a teenager, from 1969 to 1971, Jerry played organ in Dayton, Ohio’s premier acid rock band, the Crystal Rain.

The Crystal Rain, Dayton, Ohio 1970. From left Bill Moan, Chuck Hodell, Jerry Scott with Vox Continental, Ralph Wilson

In 1969, when the everyone in the quartet was all of 17 years old, they released two superb original singles (“Hey Ma Ma”/”Funeral at Dawn” and “You and Me”/”World on Fire”) that now sell for upwards of $200 each.

The band would practice in the drummer’s parents’ psychedelically painted living room and drive to shows in a red and white 1956 Cadillac ambulance. They even made the top 40 on the hot local radio station for six weeks. That Continental was central to the sound that would make them local rock stars.

Vox is, of course, most famous for its amplifiers that graced the British rock scene in the mid–1960s. Known for both quality circuits and Mod stylings, its AC15 and AC30 amplifiers were favored by the likes of the Beatles, Jimmy Page, and The Kinks.

On top of amplifiers, Vox was renowned for some truly innovative guitar designs, like the teardrop Mark VI and the pentagonal Phantom VI.

But the British company actually started 1940s as an organ manufacturer. As a cutting edge company in its prime in the early 1960s, Vox returned to its roots upon noticing the need for a truly portable stage organ for gigging bands.

The company debuted the revolutionary Vox Continental around 1962. Its design aesthetics serve as a prime example of mid–century modernism as much as do Eero Saarinen’s tulip chair or an old NASA rocket ship.

“This was the early days of the Space Age, 1962,” says Robert MacNutt, founder of the fabulous Combo-Organ.com website. “The whole world was space conscious. [The Vox Continental] was cool and futuristic looking.” Gladly for Vox, not only was it cool looking, but it was very cool sounding.

One of the Continental’s virtues is its simplicity: one 49–key keyboard, six slider drawbars to vary tones, and a single vibrato rocker switch. There’s no second register or bass section.

Under the hood, it was built with then state–of–the–art analog transistor technology. The tones were generated from 12 separate tunable tone wheel oscillators. For service, by removing a few screws, the orange wood lid lifts off to reveal the electronics.

1969 Vox Catalog. Paul Revere & the Raiders.
From left, Mark Lindsay, Paul Revere

Many have tried to describe the Continental’s sound. In his classic book Vintage Synthesizers, Mark Vail describes it as a, “brittle, edgy sound.” In his seminal essay on combo organs in the same book, Barry Carson calls it a, “thin, reedy sound.” Supposedly, the revered, late rock critic Lester Bangs called it, “the cheesy organ sound.”

However one chooses to describe it, the Continental is certainly piercing enough to cut through amplified guitar like a clarion.

Within a handful of years, the Vox Continental starred in a number of smash rock hits, including the Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” and the Iron Butterfly’s “Inna Gadda da Vidda.” Ray Manzarek also played one on The Doors’ first couple albums.

In its 10–year production run, Vox had the Continental manufactured in Britain, then Italy and America. One prime difference is that both the British and American organs had superior wood keys covered in plastic, while the Italian organs had all–plastic keys.

Even though the majority of the Continentals were made in Italy, the British– and American–made Continentals are generally considered superior on account of those wooden keys and some electronic differences.

By 1965, competition began to erode Vox’s combo organ market primacy. Farfisa introduced the Combo Compact organ, notably less expensive than the Continental. “The Farfisa and Vox organs were certainly the Big Two back then,” Carson recently wrote me in an email.

Soon, there were a couple dozen makers and models of combo organs, available in every color of the rainbow. Gibson had the G101. Fender had the Contempo. Ever the opportunist, Teisco had its own combo organs. Still, the Continental and the Farfisa “represent, in sheer numbers, 70–75% of the organs out there,” according to MacNutt.

Though combo organ lovers have strong opinions on the rivalry between the Continental and the Farfisa, it hasn’t always been easy to discern the difference between them on recordings.

Take the organ riff on Question Mark and the Mysterians' 1966 classic, “96 Tears.” Is it a Farfisa or is it a Continental? I called Bobby Balderrama, the Mysterians’ amiable guitarist, and asked him to settle the 50-year old debate once and for all.

He told me that Frank Rodriguez, the Mysterians’ organist, brought his Farfisa to the “96 Tears” recording session, but the studio engineer kept getting an annoying buzzing sound from the Farfisa.

To keep the session going, the engineer offered the only organ the studio had, an ordinary wooden Thomas home organ. Rodriguez rocked that Thomas to rock ‘n’ roll immortality, proving in the process just how hard it can be to discern one organ’s sound from another.

With the runaway success of the Continental, Vox continually refined the organs design while expanding its organ selection with new models. While some of the new models were fancier and some were simpler, all looked super cool and ultimately similar to the Continental.

For example, the Super Continental features two registers and a bass section while the Jaguar was sort of a budget Continental. Vox being Vox, there was also a slew of oddball variants like the Vox Guitorgan (Continental electronics inside a Phantom VI body), and, of course, the celebrated Voxmobile (a hot rod car shaped like a Vox Phantom IV with a Super Continental built into the trunk).

By the early 1970s, the first combo organ heyday was definitively over. All sorts of new keyboards and early synthesizers became popular, many almost comically heavy. The Hammond B-3, the Fender Rhodes, the Hohner Clavinet, the ARP and Moog are but a few of the new breed of keyboards and synths that displaced the combo organ.

With musical tastes shifting, Vox stopped making the Continental in 1972. In all, MacNutt guesses that something like 10,000 were made. By the late 1970s, Vox Continentals, and combo organs in general, were “incredibly cheap,” maybe $75, according to Carson, if not free or in a trash pile on the curb.

However, perhaps due to their economy, aesthetics, and sonic utility, the Vox Continental enjoyed another wave of popularity in the late 1970s. Though permanently out of production, the formidable Continental made a comeback in New Wave–era bands like Madness, the Specials, and Elvis Costello & the Attractions.

Vox Continentals, and combo organs in general, have remained popular with a loyal fringe. Today’s vintage combo organ market is bustling. Vox Continentals routinely sell for $1,000 to $3,500. MacNutt even saw a Continental sell for close to $4,900 a few years ago, mirroring in dramatic inflation seen on the vintage guitar market.

Continentals complete with Z–legs, volume pedal, and leg and pedal case are particularly valuable. The most expensive Continental yet sold was the one John Lennon played (with his elbows) at the Beatles 1965 Shea Stadium concert, selling for $182,500.

And if by any chance you’re still wondering just what a Vox Continental sounds like, please go and listen to The Doors "Light My Fire." It may just light a fire for vintage combo organs in you, like it did for me.

Vox Continental Combo Organ Shop Now on Reverb

Chris Till is a vintage instrument dealer and music copyright attorney.

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