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In music, the tack piano (sometimes referred to as jangle piano, junk piano, honky-tonk piano or harpsipiano) is a permanently altered version of an ordinary piano, in which tacks or nails are placed on the felt-padded hammers of the instrument at the point where the hammers hit the strings, giving the instrument a tinny, more percussive sound.
Perhaps this preparation attempts to emulate the sound of a poorly maintained piano: as the felt hammers age and compact through use they become hard and cause the piano to yield a similar sound. A piano tuner will use a tool consisting of a number of fine pins to open and loosen the striking surface of the hammers, called voicing, a precision job calling for a good ear and lots of experience.
Another method of achieving that "percussive" sound without using real tacks is through the use of lacquered hammers in the piano, like a piano popularized by Mrs Mills which resides at Abbey Road Studios.
Lastly, a "honky-tonk" sound can be achieved by detuning one or more strings for each piano key, creating the characteristic "wah-wah" or beating effect of an out-of-tune piano.
Problems and disadvantages
Using tacks on a piano runs the risk that the tacks will be ejected from the hammers and can then become lodged in other parts of the mechanism. If the jammed mechanism is then forced by hitting the keys, parts of the action may be broken. More importantly, the holes created in the hammers by the tacks dramatically weaken the hammer felt (which is stretched at high tension over the hammer wood), and may permanently reduce the sound of the piano to dark mush once the tacks are removed.
A safer alternative to real tacks is a device called a mandolin rail. It is a curtain of felt hanging between the hammers and strings. The felt is slitted on the edge, and paper fasteners or paper clips attached. The device can be purchased commercially or built by hand, and ultimately causes the piano hammers to be worn away from repeated impacts with hard metal. Mandolin rails could regularly be found in home pianos at the turn of the century, but were most popular in commercial coin-operated pianos.
Use as a musical instrument
Canadian pianist Glenn Gould experimented with a tack piano made especially for his use by Steinway, which he called a "harpsipiano" (a portmanteau of "harpsichord" and "piano"). It was intended to recreate (somewhat, at least) the sound of the harpsichord, but unlike a harpsichord, whose strings are plucked instead of struck, it could be readily placed amongst an orchestra and capable of dynamic expression as on a piano. Gould used it in a 1962 television broadcast in which he played Contrapunctus IV from Bach's Art of Fugue. One of the few occasions he conducted was while playing the harpsipiano: he directed Bach's Brandenburg concerto no.5 from the instrument and realized the continuo part of Bach's cantata Widerstehe doch der Sünde, BWV 54, in a 1960s television recording (now to be seen in The Glenn Gould Collection).
Lou Harrison called for a tack piano in his Symphony No. 2 (Elegaic), the octet Solstice, and the song May Rain; two tack pianos, preferably retuned in a form of just intonation, are required for his Concerto in Slendro. Harrison's experimental tack piano suite Incidental Music to Corneille's 'Cinna' (1955–7), in 7-limit just intonation, was created for a puppet opera that was never performed, and based on the story of a Roman general as told by the French Baroque playwright Corneille.
On jazz drummer Shelly Manne's Daktari album, affiliated with the CBS television series of the same name, Mike Wofford plays a tack piano. On the jazz combo Weather Report's Mysterious Traveller leaders Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul play tack pianos. On Don Ellis' Autumn, Pete Robinson plays tack piano on Scratt and Fluggs, a jazz-inflected version of Earl Scruggs' Foggy Mountain Breakdown. On Count Basie's "Li'l Ol' Groovemaker" LP on Verve, Basie plays the tack piano on the title cut to great percussive effect.
Pop and rock music
The German pianist Fritz Schulz-Reichel had considerable success c. 1955–57 on the hit parade with his tack piano recordings, released under the name "Schräger Otto" ("Crazy Otto" or "Slanted Otto" in English). During the craze, ragtime and blues pianist Johnny Maddox also recorded "The Crazy Otto Medley" with a tack piano, starting a "honky-tonk piano" fad. Both purportedly used thumbtacks in the felt hammers.
Daryl Dragon of The Captain & Tennille made extensive use of the tack piano on many of their recordings, including "Shop Around", "Dixie Hummingbird" and most notably, their 1975 hit "Love Will Keep Us Together".
The Stories used a tack piano on the song "I'm Coming Home".
A tack piano was used briefly in the studio version of Cheap Trick's "I Want You To Want Me".
Ben Folds first experimented with the sound in the 1999 album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. The piano can easily be heard on the third track "Mess". He made more extensive use of the modification in 2001's Rockin' the Suburbs.
John Mayall used a tack (jangle) piano on the track 'Sonny Boy Blow' off the album The Blues Alone recorded May 1st, 1967. (See album/CD sleeve notes.)
An uncredited Spanky and Our Gang session musician used a tack piano to great effect on the Hoagy Carmichael tune, "Hong Kong Blues" on their 1969 "Without Ryme or Reason" album.
Nathan Johnson used tack pianos along with a number of other non-traditional or invented instruments for his score to the film Brick.
Avenue Q uses a Tack Piano in many of its songs, played by Keyboards 1 (Conductor).