An electric piano is an electric musical instrument.
Electric pianos produce sounds mechanically and the sounds are turned into electrical signals by pickups. Unlike a synthesizer, the electric piano is not an electronic instrument, but electro-mechanical. Instead of having lengths of wire to produce the tones, short slivers of steel only a few inches long are vibrated by electricity. The earliest electric pianos were invented in the late 1920s; the 1929 Neo-Bechstein electric grand piano was among the first. Probably the earliest stringless model was Lloyd Loar's Vivi-Tone Clavier.
Early electric piano recordings include Duke Ellington's in 1955 and Sun Ra's India as well as other tracks from the 1956 sessions included on his second album Super Sonic Jazz (aka Super Sonic Sounds).
The popularity of the electric piano began to grow in the late 1950s after Ray Charles's famous 1959 hit record "What'd I Say," reaching its height during the 1970s, after which they were progressively displaced by electronic pianos capable of piano-like sounds without the disadvantages of moving mechanical parts. Many types were initially designed for home or school use including use in school or college piano labs for the simultaneous tuition of several students using headphones. Another factor driving their development and acceptance was the progressive electrification of popular music and the need for a portable keyboard instrument capable of amplification. Musicians adopted a number of types of domestic electric pianos encouraging their manufacturers to evolve them for stage use and then subsequently develop models primarily intended for stage use.
Digital electronic stage pianos have replaced most of the original electro-mechanical instruments in contemporary usage due to their size, weight and versatility. However, in 2009, Rhodes Music Corporation started producing a new line of electro-mechanical pianos, known as the Rhodes Mark 7 followed shortly by an offering from Vintage Vibe.
The actual method of tone production varies from one model to another:
Yamaha, Baldwin, Helpinstill and Kawai's electric pianos are actual grand or upright pianos with strings and hammers. The Helpinstill models have a traditional soundboard; the others have none, and are more akin to a solid-body electric guitar. On Yamaha, Baldwin and Kawai's pianos, the vibration of the strings is converted to an electrical signal by piezoelectric pickups under the bridge. Helpinstill's instruments use a set of electromagnetic pickups attached to the instrument's frame. All these instruments have a tonal character similar to that of an acoustic piano.
Wurlitzer electric pianos use flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fit within a comb-like metal plate, and the reeds and plate together form an electrostatic or capacitive pickup system, using a DC voltage of 170v. This system produces a very distinctive tone – sweet and vibraphone-like when played gently, and developing a hollow resonance as the keys are played harder. The reeds are tuned by adding or removing mass from a lump of solder at the free end of the reed. Replacement reeds are furnished with a slight excess of solder, and thus tuned "flat"; the user is required – by repeated trial and error – to gradually file off the excess solder until the correct tuning is achieved. The Japanese "Columbia Elepian," also branded as "Maestro" uses a reed system similar to the Wurlitzer but uses electromagnetic pickups similar to the Rhodes piano.
The tuning fork here refers to the struck element having two vibrating parts – physically it bears little resemblance to a traditional type. In Fender Rhodes instruments, the struck portion of the "fork" is a tine of stiff steel wire. The other part of the fork, parallel and adjacent to the tine, is the tonebar, a sturdy steel bar which acts as a resonator and adds sustain to the sound. The tine is fitted with a spring which can be moved along its length to allow the pitch to be varied for fine-tuning. The tine is struck by the small neoprene (originally felt) tip of a hammer activated by a greatly simplified piano action (each key has only three moving parts including the damper). Each tine has an electromagnetic pickup placed just beyond its tip (see also tonewheel). The Rhodes piano has a distinctive bell-like tone, fuller than the Wurlitzer, with longer sustain and with a "growl" when played hard. Hohner's "Electra-Piano" uses a similar system, with a metal reed replacing the Rhodes' tine. Its sound is correspondingly somewhere between the Rhodes and Wurlitzer.
Hohner's original Pianet uses adhesive pads made from an undressed leather surface cushioned by a foam rubber backing. The leather is saturated with a viscous silicone oil to adhere to and pluck metal reeds. When the key is released, the pad acts as a damper. An electrostatic pickup system similar to Wurlitzer's is used. The tone produced resembles that of the Wurlitzer but brighter and with less sustain, largely owing to the design having no sustain pedal mechanism. The same firm's "Cembalet" uses rubber plectra and separate urethane foam dampers but is otherwise almost identical. Hohner's later "Pianet T" uses silicone rubber suction pads rather than adhesive pads and replaces the electrostatic system with passive electromagnetic pickups similar to those of the Rhodes, the reeds themselves however being magnetized. The Pianet T has a far mellower sound not unlike that of the Rhodes instruments. None of the above instruments have the facility for a sustain pedal.
A close copy of the Cembalet is the "Weltmeister Claviset," also marketed as the "Selmer Pianotron." This has electromagnetic pickups with a battery-powered preamplifier, and later models have multiple tone filters and a sustain pedal.
Other electric keyboard instruments
Although not technically pianos, the following are electric harpsichords and clavichords.
Baldwin's "Solid-Body Electric Harpsichord" or "Combo Harpsichord" is an aluminum-framed instrument of fairly traditional form, with no soundboard and with two sets of electromagnetic pickups, one near the plectra and the other at the strings' midpoint. The instrument's sound has something of the character of an electric guitar, and has occasionally been used to stand in for one in modern chamber music. Roger Penney of Bermuda Triangle Band worked on the design and development of the original instrument for the Cannon Guild Company, a premier harpsichord maker located in Cambridge Massachusetts. This instrument had an aluminium bar frame, a spruce wood soundboard, bar magnetic pickups, and a Plexiglas (clear plastic) openable lid. The prototypes and design were sold to Baldwin who made some modifications, and then manufactured the instrument under their own name.
Hohner's "Clavinet" is essentially an electric clavichord. A rubber pad under each key presses the string onto a metal anvil, causing the "fretted" portion of the string to vibrate. When the key is released, the whole string is theoretically free to vibrate but is immediately damped by yarn woven across the tuning machine-head end. Two electromagnetic single-coil pickups, one under and one over the strings, detect the vibrations which are then pre-amplified and filtered in preparation for amplification by a guitar amp.
Playing technique and styles
As with electric vs. acoustic guitars, the sound of most electric pianos differs considerably from that of an acoustic instrument, and the electric piano has thus acquired a musical identity of its own, far beyond that of simply being a portable, amplified piano. In particular, the Rhodes piano lends itself to long, sustained "floating" chords in a way which would be impossible on an acoustic instrument, while the Hohner Clavinet has an instantly recognizable vocabulary of percussive riffs and figures which owe less to conventional keyboard styles than to funk rhythm guitar and slap bass. Early Wurlitzer models had vacuum tube amplifiers, which could be over-driven to create a distinctive distortion. Later transistorized models, while sharing a similar mechanical approach to sound generation, didn't replicate the "fat" sound of the tube-based models, but instead sported a soulful and useful tremolo.
- Popular pieces with electric pianos:
- Fender Rhodes:
- The Beatles: "Get Back", both on record and on the famous roof concert, "Don't Let Me Down", "One After 909" (played by Billy Preston)
- The Doors: "L.A. Woman", "Riders on the Storm"
- Chick Corea: "Spain", "La Fiesta"
- Herbie Hancock: "Chameleon"
- Billy Joel: "Just the Way You Are"
- Stevie Wonder: "You Are the Sunshine of My Life", "Isn't She Lovely", "I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)"
- Pink Floyd: "Dogs", "Hey You"; "Sheep", "Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 6-9)"
- Elton John: "Daniel"; "Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word"; "Little Jeannie"
- Phil Collins: "In the Air Tonight"; "If Leaving Me Is Easy"
- Peter Frampton: "Baby, I Love Your Way"
- One Day as a Lion: "Wild International"
- Hohner Cembalet:
- Hohner Clavinet:
- The Band: "Up On Cripple Creek"
- Stevie Wonder: "Superstition"
- Led Zeppelin: "Custard Pie", "Trampled Underfoot"
- Steely Dan: "Kid Charlemagne"
- Pink Floyd: "Pigs (Three Different Ones)", "Shine On You Crazy Diamond (Parts 6-9)"
- Gentle Giant: "Cogs in Cogs", "Experience", "So Sincere"
- Van der Graaf Generator: "The Undercover Man", "Scorched Earth", "Arrow"
- Hohner Electra-Piano:
- Hohner Pianet:
- The Association: "Never My Love"
- The Beatles: "The Night Before", "I Am the Walrus", "Tell Me What You See", "You Like Me Too Much"
- The Guess Who: "These Eyes"
- The Zombies: "She's Not There"
- The Kingsmen: "Louie Louie"
- The Lovin' Spoonful: "Summer In The City"
- Soft Machine: "Slightly All The Time", "Out-Bloody-Rageous"
- Van Der Graaf Generator: "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers"
- Genesis: "Supper's Ready", "The Musical Box", "The Cinema Show" (the pianet was usually also used to replace acoustic piano parts during live performances, as the band did not transport a grand piano while on tour)
- Wurlitzer Electric Piano:
- Ray Charles: "What'd I Say"
- Cannonball Adderley Quintet: "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" Only first studio recording, all subsequent live versions are Fender Rhodes.
- The Buckinghams: "Hey, Baby (They're Playing Our Song)"
- Steely Dan: "Do It Again"
- Pink Floyd: "Time", "Money", "Have A Cigar"
- Queen: "You're My Best Friend"
- King Harvest: "Dancing in the Moonlight"
- Supertramp: "Dreamer", "Lady", "Bloody Well Right", "The Logical Song"; "Goodbye Stranger"
- Baldwin Combo Harpsichord:
- Yamaha CP-70 Electric Grand Piano:
- Fender Rhodes:
- Fritz W. Winckel (1931). "Das Radio-Klavier von Bechstein-Siemens-Nernst". Die Umschau 35: 840–843. ISSN 0722-8562.
- Hans-W. Schmitz (1990). "Der Bechstein-Siemens-Nernst-Flügel". Das mechanische Musikinstrument. 16. Jahrgang (April 1990) (49): 21–27. ISSN 0721-6092.(Technical report)
- Hans-Joachim Braun (2004). "Music Engineers. The Remarkable Career of Winston E. Knock, Electronic Organ Designer and NASA Chief of Electronics". IEEE Conference on the History of Electronics.
- Wolfgang Voigt (1988). "Oskar Vierling, ein Wegbereiter der Elektroakustik für den Musikinstrumentenbau". Das Musikinstrument 37 (1/2): 214–221. (2/3): 172-176.
- "#732: Story & Clark Storytone (1941) artdeco design electric piano" (PDF). Collection Checklist. National Music Centre. p. 50.
- Story & Clark EST.1857: Where Tradition Meets Technology (catalog). Quaker Drive Seneca, PA: QRS Music Technologies, Inc. 2008. p. 2. "The first electric piano, the Storytone, was built in 1939 in a joint venture between Story & Clark and RCA.”, “The company went on to develop the first electric piano in partnership with RCA in 1939 and today they continue the tradition with PNOscan™."
- "RCA Storytone Electric Piano". Antiquity Music, LLC. "the RCA Storytone piano was built in 1939 in a joint venture between Story & Clark and RCA. The case was designed by John Vassos, the famous American industrial designer. This piano is one of only 150 made and comes with its original bench. It is the world's first electric piano, and it debuted at the 1939 World's Fair, ... The piano has normal strings and action but no soundboard -- the sound is amplified through electromagnetic pickups, circuitry and a speaker system, making it the world's first commercial electric piano."
- Jon Regen (21 November 2012). "Vintage Vibe Electric Pianos". Keyboard Magazine. Retrieved 27 June 2013.