THE  BEGINNER'S  GUIDE  TO  STREET  ORGANS

If you are thinking of buying a street organ,  here is a useful guide that will help you decide what sort to buy.  This article was written in 1997 by the late  Peter Churchard, the founder of BOGA, in response to the many enquiries he received from new and potential members.  Where builders and music suppliers have their own web pages, links are provided to these as appropriate.

Present Day Organs

A new interest in Street Organs began to develop in the 1970s and since so few old ones were available, a small number of enthusiasts began thinking about producing copies of these old models.  Some of them went on to become organ builders themselves and others persuaded people who had previously been involved mainly in Church Organs or Fairground Organs to revive the art of building street organs.

Because of the necessary limitation on size and weight the street organ needs to be kept compact, and this is achieved by limiting the number of notes (and therefore pipes) to anything from 20 to 45.  Since each note can play on one or more ranks of pipes the actual pipe count can range from just 20 to a staggering 150 plus and, in order to accomodate them in a small space, pipes are often bent round corners (mitred) and generally tightly packed to fit the case.

At this point it should be mentioned that, in addition to pipe organs, buskers in the 1900s also used a much lighter type of organ using brass reeds (like those in accordions) to produce the sound.  Until very recently the only small reed organ available was produced by Josef Raffin in Germany - now they are being produced by Peter Trueman in England.

The revival of street organ building started first in Germany, the home of the street organ, with builders like Raffin and Hofbauer; and spread principally to the United Kingdom, France and Belgium.

Possibly the best-selling small street organ is the 20 note paper roll player built by Josef Raffin in Ueberlingen in Southern Germany, and these have been sold all over the world in substantial quantities.  In the UK the best seller is probably the 20-note Harmonette, built by Alan Pell.  Another best-seller in the 1990s was the 21-note organs built by Peter Trueman from Chaddesden near Derby.  These play cardboard book music like that used by fairground organs.

The smallest and simplest organ will play just 20 notes and may have only 20 pipes but it's more usual for a 20 note organ to have pairs of pipes playing the nine or eleven melody notes.  These pipes are tuned slightly differently from each other (called celeste tuning) to give a pleasant flutey, slightly wavering sound.

In addition to the pairs of melody pipes which increases the number of pipes from 20 to either 29 or 31, the two or three bass pipes will also be doubled up to give them more power and the ability to respond more quickly; which means that the total number of pipes has now increased to between 31 and 34.  The remaining pipes are used to provide the 'Accompaniment' that is those notes pitched above the bass and below the melody.  The same kind of arithmatic applies to organs with a larger number of notes, and a typical 31 note organ has a total of 84 pipes.

Registers and Ranks

Where the organ has 'Registers' ie knobs that can be pulled out to vary the tone produced, each of these registers will be associated with its own set or 'Rank' of pipes and thus a 20 note organ with 11 melody pipes controlled by 3 registers will actually have 33 melody pipes and either 44 or 45 pipes in all.

Choosing the Right Model

Street organs vary widely in price with the simplest costing around £1500 and the most sophisticated and expensive £20,000 or more.  Generally speaking, second-hand models are little different in price from new ones and sometimes sell at a premium.  This is partly due to effects in inflation, but also a reflection of their comparative scarcity and the fact that if you ordered an organ today you might have to wait for anything up to 2 years for it to be built.

Your first decision in selecting an organ almost certainly has to be how much you can afford to pay; but since many grinders become aware of the limitations of their first organ and then decide to trade-up to a better model, it might be worth considering paying more to begin with.

Your second decision is which model within your price range you will be happy to live with long term and this is closely linked to the quality of sound it produces.  Please don't buy the first organ you hear - you need to listen to as wide a variety of makes and models as possible before you make a final decision.  The best way of doing this is to attend festivals or events were street organs are playing and take the opportunity to listen and talk to some of the organ grinders there.  On the whole they're a very friendly bunch and will answer your questions and even let you have a go at playing.

Types of Music Storage

Mixed up with the two decisions above is the question of whether the organ you buy should play paper rolls, cardboard books, or music stored on microchips.  Each has its own particular advantages and snags.  In favour of cardboard are the facts that it is extremely hard wearing and that you can play virtually continuously since once the book has run through the organ it can be immediately replaced and played again.  Cardboard music is however larger, heavier and costlier than the equivalent on paper, and books have an annoying habit of blowing all over the place if there's anything of a wind.

Paper roll music beats books on cost, weight and size but suffers from the fact that like a tape player with no fast forward you can't play a tune halfway through the roll without playing those before it first and, once you've finished the roll you must stop and rewind the whole thing back onto its spool before you can start playing again.  You'll have to make up your own mind which of the various advantages and snags are most important to you and choose on that basis, unless of course you've already set your mind on a particular organ - in which case you have to take whatever system the builder uses.

There is a third alternative and that is to buy an organ which stores its music on microchips - nothing to carry apart from a few chips!  Hofbauer in Germany and Alan Pell in England are the two builders most advanced with the use of microchips but please don't think of their organs as being 'Electronic' except in this one respect of having their music stored on a chip instead of paper or cardboard.  True, they do use electronics to read the music and some of them even substitute an electric blower to provide the wind in place of the normal bellows, making them capable of totally automatic playing; but the music is still produced from real organ pipes.

Build-It-Yourself

If you have some practical skills, it is possible to build your own street organ, either from plans or by buying a kit.  Many people have successfully built their own organs in this way.  By far the most popular self-build organ is the John Smith Busker Organ.  This plays 20-note music on paper rolls.  John also sells plans for a more advanced 26-note model.  These organs have been specially designed to be built by the home constructor, needing no special skills and using readily-available materials.  More information about the John Smith organs can be found on this John Smith web site.  Another option is to build from a kit of parts.  At present there is only one supplier of a kit-built organ, and that is Castlewood Organs in Australia.  They supply a complete kit to build a 20-note roll-playing organ, which plays the same music as the John Smith organ.  More details can be found on the Castlewood web site.

Organ Builders

Rather than try to give a comprehensive listing of all known organ builders, set out below are some of the better-known ones, both here and on the Continent, whose organs are reasonably easy to obtain and who have three or more examples in this country:

Buying 'Foreign'

Street organs of one kind or another are produced in Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and France.  The most widely known of these is undoubtedly the little Raffin 20 note pipe organ together with their 20 note reed organ in their painted cases.  The Raffin 31 note is also well represented in the UK.  There are a few of the more expensive German (up to 45 note) roll playing trumpet organs in the UK built by Hofbauer, Bruns, Niemuth, but the prices of these are £12,000 plus.  French organs (almost always book players) are available from Robert Hopp and Le Ludion but they both have an unfortunate (possibly deserved) reputation for a general lack of support and service in the UK.  French organs also tend to be voiced with a low volume, as the French normally use them as an accompaniment for singing purposes.

The 36 note book player made by Johnnie Verbeeck in Belgium is a beautiful and highly regarded organ, but it is rather large and plays heavy books which are only available from the builder.  He is more businesslike than the French, and makes one or two trips to this country every year. 

The 'English' Builders

Dean Organs - 01275 834474
Dean Organs from Bristol is a small family firm established in 1970 who manufacture & restore a range of mechanical pipe organs of all specifications and sizes. Father Michael (now retired) and sons Richard and Nicholas built the first of the English 20 note book playing street organs in 1974 and a version of this model is still available. The Deans mainly build and restore to order and to enable faster delivery times of smaller Street Organs are sole UK agents for Stuber organs. These traditional "Berlin" style Street organs are generally available from stock playing standard 20 note paper rolls with larger 31 & 33 notes available within a short delivery time. Their own make of street organs that would interest BOGA members are traditionally made and range from 14 to 36 note (including standard 20-note roll players).   

Paul McCarthy  -  01256 389067
Paul McCarthy from Basingstoke in Hampshire was one of the original builders of a reasonably priced little 20 note book playing organ, and was responsible for introducing many people to the hobby during the 80s.  In addition to his original 20-note he now produces models with two, three and four registers and also a small 14-note book-playing organ.

Alan Pell Music  -  01406 330279
Alan Pell from Whaplode Drove in Lincolnshire builds both fairground and street organs, and has one of the largest ranges of any of the English builders.  His street organ range includes 21, 25, 31, and 45 note models, and in addition he is the only builder able to supply a powered 'hand-turned' organ using microchips for the music.  He produces the Harmonette, a small portable buskers pipe organ which is easy to carry around, and playing music which is instantly selectable on small microchip cartridges.  The Harmonette has turned out to be the fastest-selling street organ of all time.

Rob Barker Organs  -  01406 330162
Rob Barker builds busker, street and fairground organs, and has one of the largest ranges . His small organ range includes 20, 31, and 42 note models. His specialty is bespoke instruments created for any budget, large or small. Rob builds paper roll, cardboard book or SD MIDI controlled organs or DUAL Format which can combine the best of both. Trained as a Church Organ builder and becoming a self employed organ builder in 1989, sub-contracting at Alan Pells for many years before concentrating full time on his own projects. Rob also services and repairs harmoniums, organettes, barrel pianos etc. Supplier & arranger of music for all scales and formats. Advice given to amateur organ builders, help & parts supplied. See web site or give Rob a call on 01406 330162.

Peter Trueman  -  01332 673010 (now retired from mainstream organ building, but still dabbles!)
Peter Trueman from Chaddesden in Derbyshire has probably been responsible for introducing more people to the joys of owning a street organ than anyone else in the country, by producing an affordable, well-built and sweet sounding 21-note (the 21st note is a little bell) book-playing organ at an affordable price.  He has also introduced  21-note models with added pipe ranks and a glockenspiel on sliders.  Peter also builds roll playing organs of 20 and 26 notes and produces a lovely 20-note buskers organ which can be carried around on a strap.  Peter also builds organs which play on reeds instead of pipes.  Peter takes great pride in his organs; his mechanisms and valve actions are extremely sensitive and responsive, and both he and his organs are held in great affection by the organ grinding fraternity.

Alderman & Davis - 01935 891437 (no longer producing organs)
Ian Alderman and Roy Davis from Poole in Dorset produce various models of 26 note roll playing organs.  The 26 note scale was developed by Ian Alderman and Melvyn Wright to overcome the limitations of the 20 note scale.  It uses exactly the same size paper rolls as the 20 note organs and will play them quite happily, but given 26 note music the versatility is increased considerably and a wider selection of music can be played. 

The Music Itself

We have already seen that organ music comes in three quite different forms: paper roll, cardboard book, and on microchips.  The arguments about the relative merits of the different systems have been raging for years and are still going on today.  In this section however, the subject is the musical arrangements themselves - who makes them, where can you buy them, and how much do they cost?

Music Cutters and Arrangers

There are a number of music arrangers and an even larger number of music cutters in the UK, but some of them only produce music for sale on a very occasional basis.  The list that follows includes the majority of suppliers of music for street organs: 
 
English Music Suppliers
Supplier Arranger /
Producer
Books

Rolls

Microchip Link
20-22 20 25 26 31 33 42 45
Melvyn Wright A and P YES YES YES YES YES       YES click
Alan Pell A and P   YES YES    YES     YES YES click
Stephen Simpson A and P YES YES YES             click
Ian Alderman A and P   YES YES YES YES YES YES YES    
N.J.Dean & Co. A and P YES YES               click
Jeremy Brice A and P YES                      
Francis Stapleton P YES                  
McCarthy Music P YES                    

Organ music is normally sold by the metre, and some cutters actually quote a 'per metre' price.  Others show a price per tune, but this is based on the length and therefore equates to a price per metre.  Let's face it, book and roll music is expensive and this is a reflection of the fact that the majority of it is individually hand cut, but both Melvyn Wright and Ian Alderman have computer-controlled punches which automate the process to a great extent.

The price of music varies between different arrangers/cutters, with some being considerably cheaper than others.  The paper roll material used by most (but not all) suppliers is not actually paper, but is a plastic material that is much more durable than paper, but also more expensive.  Since the music is fed through the organ at a speed of 62 mm/second (books) or 72 mm/second (rolls) each minute's playing time uses 3.72 metres or 4.32 metres of music.

As Melvyn Wright is the only arranger producing music of every kind, his prices provide a good comparison of the relative costs of the various types and sizes.  Prices for his 'Aces High March' in the various formats are shown in the table below.  Melvyn's music is amongst the cheapest available, so you can see that book and roll music is extremely expensive compared to music on microchips.

 
Music Price Comparison

Music Format

Price (2007)
20-note book version £47
31-note roll version £33.40
20-note roll version £21.60
Microchip version £9

Cardboard book music is normally supplied as one-tune-per-book (some medleys are the exception to the rule) whilst paper music is sold by the roll of some 30 to 40 metres long containing a number of pre-determined tunes. A recent development that overcomes one of the criticisms of roll music is that arrangers like Alan Pell and Melvyn Wright can now supply rolls containing your own selection of tunes in any order you care to choose.

Peter Churchard 1997 (Revised 2010)

Links to some of the suppliers mentioned in this article:

Organ Builders:

Alan Pell
Rob Barker
Dean Organs
John Smith
Castlewood Organs

Music Suppliers:

Melvyn Wright
N.J.Dean & Co.
Alan Pell
Stephen Simpson

 

If you want more advice about the various organs and music available, contact BOGA

If this article has whetted your appetite to own an organ, why not check out our Classified Ads. page?  You might find yourself a bargain.


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