Magnatone Guitars!

New for Fall 2013, a complete guide to Magnatone guitars and the stories behind them!

1938-1960 Steel Guitars

1956-1963 Bigsby/Barth Era

1964-1966 Starstream Era


Estey Organs: 1959-1968

For the history of Estey prior to 1957, see Estey Organ museum. For details about the takeover of the bankrupt Estey by Arnold Bernard, and the move to Torrance, Calif., see my article on the history of Magna and Estey.

Torrance and Harmony organs

New York financier Arnold Bernard knew nothing of the music business when he took over the Estey Organ Company. Injecting cash into didn't help, so his next attempt to rescue it was to buy another company (this time a successful one), and let the other company sort out Estey into something profitable. That company was Magna. Bernard made Magna's president, F. Roy Chilton, the new Estey president.

Magna had a successful tone cabinet in production, but needed to quickly get an organ off the ground. To show some traction (and perhaps Estey continuity), Chilton announced the development of a new reed organ in April of 1959.  1  It is unclear if this organ was ever produced in Torrance or not. It seems like a catalog carryover from the Brattleboro era, and the only record I had of it was in a press release Chilton made about taking over the original company.

Prior to Magna's involvement with Estey, Harald Bode had developed an electric tube-based organ. By 1959, it was too expensive to build and perhaps too heavy to compete in the market, so the new electric organs were designed from scratch.

Neon Bulb Tone Generators

The early electric organs designed and built in torrance used neon bulbs as oscillators. A sawtooth wave originated a signal for each note, and lower octaves were produced with frequency divider circuits. This made the organ light-weight compared to other organs that produced the same with 40+ twin-triode tubes. The neon lamps had small high voltage current draw and didn't require massive transformer windings to handle the filament amperage draw.

For the vibrato, reverb, and power sections, the organs would have looked a lot like the guitar amps at the time. Compared to the competition's organs that were fitted with up to 50 tubes, the Estey organs might have had a dozen.

The neon lamp designs suffered some instability issues with the oscillators due to temperature and humidity, and there were some problems with quality control during assembly that caused production waste and delays. The divider circuits for the lower frequencies were finicky, and each oscillator and divider stage had its own trim pots. The organ needed to be tuned much like a piano. Furthermore, engineers found that the neon bulbs had to be aged and graded for the same trigger voltage threshold. Once assigned a grade, the bulbs were color coded based on what tone generator they would be used for.

Due to the characteristics of relaxation oscillators, power supply voltage irregularities would change the tuning of each note, so Estey engineers needed to design strict voltage regulation into the power supplies.


The 900 series electric organs

These organs were called the President Series and model numbers were in the 900's including the 931, 932, 933, 934 and 935. The list prices were in the $1,400 to $1,500 range, and the dealer cost was half of that. Exterior finish wood was the primary distinction between the different models, the circuit was the same for all models. For this reason, engineers simply referred to the President as the 931. The 931 had five speakers (3 tweeters and 2 larger speakers), volume "expression" pedals, sustain draw-bars, two seperate vibratos, and Hammond tank reverberation.

By 1966, orders for the 900 series organs were non-existant. It is unclear if they were ever made in Harmony or not.

The 800 series

The 800 series organs was Estey's premium line of home organs. Early versions were tube driven, and later versions were advertised as fully transistorized. These were produced at the Torrance Calif. plant, and later after 1965, at the Harmony Penn. plant.

The 801/802/805 was called The New Yorker. It had two 37-key overhanging keyboards, a 13 note foot pedal clavier, an expression pedal (volume), vibrato, and seven voices. The 851/852 was called The Philadelphian.

At minimum, this organ was produced from 1961 to 1966 (quite possibly earlier). The early tube versions used a single-ended 6V6 driven amplifier and an 8" or 10" speaker. The tone generator section used neon oscillators for the 12 notes, and six twin-triode 12AU7s for the lower octaves.

The Twin-City model was the 807.

The 500 and 700 series

The 500 and 700 series were transistorized electric home organs, usually with a single speaker The retailed in the $240 to $300. They all were 37-key, and various numbers of chords (40-72). Some had integrated rhythm/percussion devices (foxtrot anyone?) The 700P was a portable organ that came with a BP-1 battery pack.

The 721/722 were called the Americanna, and the 741/742 were called the California.

The 200 and 300 series reed organs

Prior to the 1961 merger with Estey, Stan Green and Sonny Knazick established ORCOA as a inexpensive student organ company. The keyboard assemblies were imported from Italy At the ORCOA facility on Long Island, wooden cases were constructed and the keyboard assembles installed along with a AC motorized impeller fan. The fan was the extent of the electrical aspect of these organs. Air moved through key selected reeds as if it were an accordion (hence the Italian sourcing of guts).

These organs were inexpensive to make and sold for $50-$100 retail. The ORCOA name remained on the organ as ORCOA by Estey. For the 300 reed chord organs were basically the same, but with walnut laminate cases and 37 keys instead the 27 that came with the 200 series. The 300 series boasted swedish made stainless reeds.

The 200's were small portable units, and the 300's were the same type organs built into furniture for the living room.

There were also a bunch of small portable models (1010,1020,1025,2708,2709,2710P) called the "1000 series" that were similar to the 200's.

The reed organs were produced on Long Island until 1965 or 1966, after that, assembly was carried out in Harmony.


The most popular models were the 300 series, especially the 324 and 350. As the organs got more expensive, demand was naturally lower.

OEM brands

Besides building organs for under their own name, Estey built the same organs for Bradford, Sears, Montgomery Ward and other organ retailers.

Model Numbers

Model Name Type Description Years
212 Princess reed 27 key, 12 chords 1966
300 Symphony reed walnut console, 49 keys 1966
324 Charlotte reed walnut console, 24 chords, 37 keys 1966
340 Imperial reed walnut console, 40 chords, 37 keys 1966
350 Grand reed walnut console, 50 chords, 37 keys 1966
356 Grand reed walnut console, 50 chords, 37 keys 1966
372 Concert Symphony reed walnut console, 72 chords, 37 keys 1966
505 Revere electric solid state chord organ walnut console, 24 chords, 37 keys vibrato, voicing 1966
551 552 556 electric solid state chord organ
741 742 Americanna California electric solid state chord organ Torrance*
751 752 electric solid state
801 802 803 805 New Yorker electric solid state two manual organs walnut console, two 37 keys 8 voices 12 pedals 1961-66
807 Twin Cities electric solid state two manual organs walnut console, two 37 keys 8 voices 12 pedals 72 chords 1961-66
821 822 tube based,neon lamp based 1961-65
851 852 Philadelphian electric solid state 1966
931 932 933 934 935 neon lamp based Torrance*
941,942 Lexington neon lamp based Torrance*

1: The slated console chord organ was listed as "adult size" with 8-foot diapason reeds and a 40-bass chord section. The organ was priced at $199, and featured wide large keys for beginners.




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