Another Italian Story: Gian Luigi and the art of vintage musical instruments

Gian Luigi is one of the very few repairers of vintage electric musical instruments left in Italy.

Just as vintage cars are no longer repaired by the dealer, vintage musical instruments need specialized people who take care of their mechanics and aesthetics. The new digital-only instruments do not have the sound and charm of analogs which are therefore highly sought after. When they broke down, and frequently, in the 1950s to 1980s, each city had its own specialized technician. Now it is increasingly difficult to find who can restore them to their former glory without causing damage.

How did you start?

It all started at the age of 14. I came from classical music studies, which I did by taking piano lessons from a piano teacher. Since I had been promoted to high school, my dad bought me a used Farfisa Compact [one manual electric organ], coupled to a Davoli amplifier, and with that, along with some peers, I started playing rock. We played pieces by Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Orme, PFM, Led Zeppelin. One day the organi is out of tune. The technician comes home and begins to open it, check the cards, change transistors. I started asking him, what is this? What is that? Why do you do this, why do you do that? And the next time  the organ was out of tune or broken, I tried to get my hands on it. From there I started, and I began understanding something.

Then I sold the first organ and got a Vox Super Continental [two manual electric organ], and even that, when there was a small fault, I tried to fix. Over time the Tolex cladding had all peeled off and the wood deteriorated. I went to see and let the carpenter explain to me what he was doing. So I began to work on both the internal electrical part, the mechanics, and the external aesthetic parts.

After that I started playing more professionally, so I needed a Rhodes [electric piano]. You had to understand how the Rhodes work, why the keyboard was so hard, why a key sounded louder. How to make another key sound softer. Another even more shrill, and the other less. The technician who made these adjustments was in Bologna at Casale Bauer, his name was Zamboni and everyone went to him. I too met Zamboni with my piano and learned from him, watching what he was doing, and then I tried it at home. Later I added an ARP Odyssey [monophonic synthesizer]. One day we were in a club in Cervia and it made the same note on the whole keyboard! I ran again to Casale Bauer, to the technician Giuliano Ratti, who opened it. I watched what he did and learned from there. So, once a thing, then another thing, once again another, in the end I learned and was autonomous.

You have to understand the philosophy of how the machine is built, that all ARPs are built with that philosophy, all Roland’s are built with another philosophy, and so on. If you have the passion and the will, and document yourself, by dint of opening up and understanding, schemes, looking for patterns, in the end you will understand how these machines work.

Much more, there is the aesthetic part, like when you are faced with structures, like the wooden Hammond organs, or the Leslie [amplifier and rotating speakers system] in wood. What to do then? Do you turn to the carpenter? No! You ask your friend who restores antique furniture, who explains how to use the paint, the paint remover, the primer, the stucco, the sandpaper. It takes this here instead of that there, and so on. A little at a time, the first few times you make mistakes, as long as you learn and then after you manage to do decent things that will never be exactly like the original ones, but they are beautiful and so they work.

How did you make yourself known, how did you promote your business?

Well, first came everyone who played in my area, and then they spread the word. Later, being known by other repairers, doing things well and specializing. For example, Piazzo [technician who lives in Veneto] for certain jobs tells his clients that they must come to me. This was after he saw some Farfisa that I had remade, and he told me I was crazy doing things like this, that it takes a lot of time, a lot of passion. There are certain particular things that I do not do, in fact the market for the repair of these instruments is very varied and very vast. If I get a board to be repaired where there is a 40×4 pin SMD chip, I have to stop because I can’t get there. I don’t manage to take it off and put on another one, which are things that Ruffini does. For example, Piazzo doesn’t even take Farfisa cards with germanium transistors into consideration, because for him it’s a pain in the neck, while I enjoy making them, and I make them working. It takes all sorts to make a world! 

One day I get a Roland keyboard with red glue, the famous infamous red glue under the keys, which melts and inexorably ruins the circuits. I try, I try again, I try hardder, and I am wrong. Someone says to do this and I try to do this, but it’s not okay. As long as one day, by chance, with some kitchen products that my mother had, I try and manage to dissolve the red glue without causing damage. After having made 1, 2, 3, I put an ad online on Mercatino Musicale [Music Market] and from here it is a “disaster”, why? From all over Italy I get JD800, E70, E20 [Roland synthesizers], all with red glue and later when they call me they tell me: “I also have this keyboard here. Would you know how to fix it? ” So comes a lot of stuff that would be irreparable through the common channels of the manufacturers. Something with pieces that are missing, but that I have because I have preserved them by some semi-destroyed or completely irrecoverable instrument that I had. It is important to have many pieces preserved!

With a little patience and many schemes and many hours spent thinking about what it can be, sooner or later we get to the bottom, but it takes a lot of passion. In the end, satisfaction is when it works, not when they pay you, because when at the end they pay you, if you count the hours it took you to understand …

For example: once I get a Roland Juno 60 that doesn’t work, and I go back to a chain of 11 chips connected one to each other. You cannot understand which one is wrong, because if a chip doesn’t work, no other chip works. So how do you do it? You start taking them off one at a time. and replacing them. The bad luck was that out of 11 the one that didn’t work was the tenth, the penultimate. If I had started the other way around it would have been the second. If you put that to take it down, clean the board, socket the circuit, get the chip, half a day has passed, then another half day. Finally, after three days you find the fault. At this point how much should you ask the owner? A figure perhaps greater than the value of the instrument. You ask him to pay you for the coffee and we are practically fine, so it takes a lot of passion, a lot of passion and a lot of time available.

How do you earn trust, reliability?

As for reliability, I consider myself reliable. But if they bring me a [Moog] Polymoog or a [Moog] Memorymoog, I say go to Alessi [repairman in Calabria, probably the best in Italy]. Because I’m sure I don’t get there, or rather, to get there, it would take too long, as things are too complicated.

For reliability, if one understands how it works, he puts the right pieces in, tests it for a week, 10 days, and sees that it works, that is reliable. But nothing is eternal, so the next day it can break in another place, or it can break the same thing you just repaired. Certain chips are known to damage themselves over time when standing still. After that, however, one learns a bit what the 4011s, 4051s and 4052s are, all that series of chips. If you see that the machine has certain kinds of defects, you know that more or less the defective ones are there. Over time, even if you haven’t used the machine, those can be damaged, they are not eternal, nothing is eternal. Reliability afterwards is one to eight, that is, you say I have repaired it. It works, but it can break elsewhere.

The reliability of the person also depends on how he does the job, because for example, sometimes I open tools that have passed through other hands, and I immediately see that they have done things slapdash ​​that is, without love, because if the black screws have to be there, and the yellow screws must be somewhere else, you can’t mix them, because there is a logic in the arrangement of the screws, the arrangement of the clamps that bind the wires, etc.

If the owner opens the instrument, and understands that it is in order, that it works well, that everything is fine, you also gain a certain reliability in this sense. But, for example, I got a [Roland] D70 the other day, which went through an official service, which I had seen before doing dishonest things. Here for me they scrub the screws, that is, these here make the screws that are inside them crave, and they pull them down. I don’t know if they keep them, where they put them, and they put instead ugly screws that suck. It is already the second or third time that I am faced with such a thing.

Now I tell the owners, look that if you bring the stuff there it is not that in the end the job is done well, it is done, but it is not a wonder. Then perhaps over time these repairers lose reliability. It depends on the quality and reliability you have based on the work you do, if the job is done well. When someone comes to me I say that the job is guaranteed.

A young man who wants  to start?

A young person who wants to start should have a lot of passion for old instruments, and for the sounds these instruments can make. Now there is the Internet that once did not exist. He must begin to read up, to see how it is done.

Why does it work that way? What is it that makes it sound that way? Understand something in the schemes a little. Sometimes even the schemes are incomprehensible because they are badly done. There are some very well done with initial explanations, even in the service manuals, which help you a lot.

But, in short, if you have the passion, the time and the desire to do it, you will get to understand how it works, and why it works that way. For example: Oberheim OB8 is a synthesizer that needs a lot of special calibrations, which were kept secret by the parent company. I, the owner of an OB8, one day went to one of the major assistance centers in Italy. I had a problem that the technician, with a procedure that only official repairers knew, solved me completely. And then he taught me how to do it, if it would happen to me again, because it’s not like these repairmen kept these things hidden. In addition, he also gave me a top secret printout, with all the calibrations to be carried out for the machine to work well.

Paper documentation, of course, and on several pages. Of course saying “You know, don’t disclose them too much, because they are things that I couldn’t even give, but I see that you understand. Keep them for yourself “. Today these things that were kept hidden, you can normally find on the web. We are fortunate to have the Internet. So nowadays, it is also easier than in the past, because then there was not even the Internet and these things only were known by two or three technicians in Italy.

Today it’s all in the public domain, so it’s even easier. But it takes a lot of passion because they are written in English, you have to try to translate it. You have to try to understand what the translation means, because the translations sometimes are not easily understood. The technical terms they use are not commonly translatable. little by little, if one has the passion, he gets there. 

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