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Vintage Vibe’s Chris Carroll Talks Company’s Past, Future

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Nick Russ
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fullbleed photography
Chris Carroll (left) and Fred DiLeone (right)

Chris Carroll is owner and founder of Vintage Vibe, a company that manufactures electric pianos as well as offering instrument repairs and restoration.

The company’s roster of artists continues to grow a decade after it began building its own electric pianos. Among those who use or have used Vintage Vibe pianos are Stevie Wonder, Chick Corea, Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, Jamiroquai’s Matt Johnson, Greg Phillinganes, Robert Glasper, Anderson.Paak, Grammy nominee Rachel Eckroth, Richie Kotzen, Gregg Allman, The National, and Peter Levin.

The Vintage Vibe team also includes Carroll’s partner, Fred DiLeone, head fabricator Adam Kaniper, head electronic technician James Theesfeld and Alberto Hernandez, lead technician, as well as Tom DiCianni, Chris Flynn, Steve Capecci, and Janet Carroll.

Carroll recently spoke with KMUW about the company’s origins and its future.

Find out more about the company at Vintagevibe.com.

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How did this business start for you? You’re a musician and I’m guessing that that played some role in this. 

I was playing in bands in New York City, in the ‘80s, and ‘90s. I met a girl, who I ended up marrying, and she was the manager of the Magic Shop in New York City, a pretty famous recording studio. Toward the end of my musical career, as far as playing live and so forth, I started finding Wurlitzers and Rhodes [pianos] at garage sales out in New Jersey. Back in the day you could find them for $10-15 dollars. I started buying them, fixing them, and then selling them to clients that would come through the Magic Shop.

Eventually, I started collecting gear to rent to recording studios. After a while, I was spending more money repairing old vintage keyboards than I was actually renting them out. This was before the vintage curve really took hold. At some point, around the mid-to-late ‘90s, I got an offer to work with Jeff Blenkinsopp, who was owner of EARS, Expert Audio Repairs and Services. They were looking for someone to run their keyboard department. I trained with them on fixing old Wurlitzers and Rhodes and other keyboards. I was basically being left in the trenches to figure it all out, all while moonlighting with Vintage Vibe. Then 9/11 came and it drove a lot of people out of the city. I had just had a son and, at that point, decided to continue with my own business, fulltime. I left and never looked back.

That’s the story of a lot of businesses. Your back is against the wall and you have to do something. 

I was going all around New York City, repairing Hammond organs, Wurlitzers, Rhodes. One day I was on 14th Street, probably around 2002, and, after not finding parking, then finding parking and getting a ticket and having a hell of a time with an organ, I said, “I can’t be doing this when I’m 60 years old.” The internet had just really started to take off. I put up a really crude website and started manufacturing aftermarket parts for old keyboards. I started to see that there was a real need for aftermarket parts. People from all over the world needed these parts for instruments that were starting to become hip again. That’s really how it started, I was just focusing on the parts.

There was a period where vintage didn’t seem all that desirable. I remember, in the early ‘90s, hearing gear that today we’d call vintage being referred to as archaic. 

It was a slow process. You could get these things for next to nothing. There are people who always loved the old gear and never stopped loving it. Then there’s people who stopped using it in favor of lighter, more modern instruments. Some of those people say, “What was I thinking, playing this DX7 when I could have been playing the real thing?” Then there are those younger guys who grew up not knowing that these instruments existed before digital. These guys who are starting to see these Rhodes and Wurlitzers and saying, “What’s that?” Those three scenarios are really what turned it around. It was a slow thing and I think it’s still growing.

Eventually you got into making your own pianos. What are the indicators for success with that? How do you know that people are embracing it? 

That has to start with, “Will we like it?” We’re a bunch of players. If we didn’t like it, we’d never go in and start producing it. But there’s also a question of authenticity. If it’s not authentic, no one’s going to like it and it’s not going to last. But we’ve built off a classic instrument that was already invented by Harold Rhodes. Our only job is to honor that tradition, honor his genius with the piano that we build and improve upon the simplicity that Harold designed and patented. I think people really respond to that.

It has to be pretty meaningful to have people such as Stevie Wonder and Chick Corea play your instrument. 

With Stevie Wonder, I was just beside myself. Welling up with tears watching him perform at Madison Square Garden. Chick believed in our company and supported us. Chick was very particular. We worked with him for years. Around 2015 he called and said, “I love the piano but can we do [some things differently]? I’d like the action to feel a certain way.” We had a meeting with him and he played it in front of us and expressed to us what he was looking for. We went back to the drawing board and Fred came up with an incredible action modification that we lovingly refer to as the Chick Mod. Working with Chick brought out the innovation in us as a company and brought us to a new level. We owe him a world of gratitude.

What’s the future like for the company? 

A few months ago, I said to my partner, Fred, “I feel it in my bones. Something big is about to happen.” It manifested itself. Alicia Keys purchased one of our pianos because of word of mouth. And H.E.R. used one of our pianos on Colbert. So, 2022 is going to be a really amazing year for us, not just because of who we’re working with but because of our own technical advancements. When you’ve been producing a piano for 11 years, the thing that really excites you is how you can make it better for other people. The pride that you have in figuring stuff out, troubleshooting it, and taking it to a new level is unbelievable. That’s where we’re headed. There are new advancements that are going to translate to even more people loving what we do.

Jedd Beaudoin holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in English (writing) and a Master's of Fine Arts in creative writing from Wichita State University, where he was a Creative Writing Fellow. He has taught English at both WSU and Butler Community College and has served as faculty in the WSU’s School of Art, Design and Creative Industries. His academic interests lie in the areas of Public History, English Composition, Art History and Subcultures.