Electric piano

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A Wurlitzer model 112 electric piano plugged into a guitar amplifier. Wurlitzer model 112 electric piano 1956.JPG
A Wurlitzer model 112 electric piano plugged into a guitar amplifier.

An electric piano is a musical instrument which produces sounds when a performer presses the keys of a piano-style musical keyboard. Pressing keys causes mechanical hammers to strike metal strings, metal reeds or wire tines, leading to vibrations which are converted into electrical signals by magnetic pickups, which are then connected to an instrument amplifier and loudspeaker to make a sound loud enough for the performer and audience to hear. Unlike a synthesizer, the electric piano is not an electronic instrument. Instead, it is an electro-mechanical instrument. Some early electric pianos used lengths of wire to produce the tone, like a traditional piano. Smaller electric pianos used short slivers of steel to produce the tone (a lamellophone with a keyboard & pickups). 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. A few other noteworthy producers of electric pianos include Baldwin Piano and Organ Company and the Wurlitzer Company.


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 (a.k.a. Super Sonic Sounds). The popularity of the electric piano began to grow in the late 1950s after Ray Charles's 1959 hit record "What'd I Say", reaching its height during the 1970s, after which they were progressively displaced by more lightweight electronic pianos capable of piano-like sounds without the disadvantages of electric pianos' heavy weight and moving mechanical parts. Another factor driving their development and acceptance was the progressive electrification of popular music and the need for a portable keyboard instrument capable of high-volume amplification. Musicians adopted a number of types of domestic electric pianos for rock and pop use. This encouraged their manufacturers to modify them for stage use and then develop models primarily intended for stage use.

Digital pianos that provide an emulated electric piano sound have largely supplanted the actual electro-mechanical instruments in the 2010s, due to the small size, low weight and versatility of digital instruments, which can produce a huge range of tones besides piano tones (e.g., emulations of Hammond organ sounds, synthesizer sounds, etc.). However, some performers still perform and record with vintage electric pianos. In 2009, Rhodes produced a new line of electro-mechanical pianos, known as the Rhodes Mark 7, followed by an offering from Vintage Vibe. [1]


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Vierling-Förster piano (1937) [4] [5]
Storytone electric piano (1939) by Story & Clark and RCA, art deco design by John Vassos, MIM PHX.jpg
Storytone (1939) by Story & Clark and RCA [6] [7] [8]

The Neo-Bechstein electric piano was built in 1929. The Vierlang-Forster electric piano was introduced in 1937. The RCA Storytone electric piano was built in 1939 in a joint venture between Story & Clark and RCA. The case was designed by John Vassos, the American industrial designer. It debuted at the 1939 World's Fair. The piano has normal strings and hammer action but no soundboard. The sound is amplified through electromagnetic pickups, circuitry and a speaker system, making it the world's first commercially available electric piano.

Many types were initially designed as a less-expensive alternative to an acoustic piano for home or school use. Some electric pianos were designed with multiple keyboards that could be connected for use in school or college piano labs, so that teachers could simultaneously instruct a group of students using headphones.


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Yamaha CP-70M
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Strings and hammers of Yamaha CP-70

"Electric piano" is a heterogeneous category encompassing several different instruments which vary in their sound-producing mechanisms and consequent timbral characters.

Struck strings

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.

Struck reeds

Wurlitzer EP-210
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Struck reeds of a Wurlitzer electric piano (shown here with the hard cover removed)

Wurlitzer electronic pianos (sometimes called "Wurli" as a nickname) 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 Columbia Elepian (also branded as Maestro), the Brazilian-made Suette, and the Hohner Electra-Piano use a reed system similar to the Wurlitzer but with electromagnetic pickups similar to the Rhodes piano.

Struck tuning-forks

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Rhodes Mark II Stage 73
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Tuning forks of Fender Rhodes Mark I

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.

Plucked reeds

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Hohner Pianet (below)

The Hohner 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

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Hohner Clavinet D6
Tangent action of a Clavinet :
1. Tuning / 2. Damper / 3. Tangent / 4. Anvil / 5. Key / 6. String / 7. Pickup / 8. Tailpiece

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.

See also

Related Research Articles

Rhodes piano Electric piano

The Rhodes piano is an electric piano invented by Harold Rhodes, which became popular in the 1970s. Like a conventional piano, the Rhodes generates sound with keys and hammers, but instead of strings, the hammers strike thin metal tines, which vibrate between an electromagnetic pickup. The signal is then sent through a cable to an external keyboard amplifier and speaker.

String instrument Class of musical instruments with vibrating strings

String instruments, stringed instruments, or chordophones are musical instruments that produce sound from vibrating strings when a performer plays or sounds the strings in some manner.

Clavinet Electric keyboard musical instrument

The clavinet is an electrically amplified clavichord that was invented by Ernst Zacharias and manufactured by the Hohner company of Trossingen, West Germany, from 1964 to the early 1980s. Hohner produced seven models over the years, designated I, II, L, C, D6, E7 and Duo. Its distinctive bright staccato sound has featured most prominently in funk, jazz-funk, reggae, rock, and soul songs.


A lamellophone is a member of the family of musical instruments that makes its sound by a thin vibrating plate called a lamella or tongue, which is fixed at one end and has the other end free. When the musician depresses the free end of a plate with a finger or fingernail, and then allows the finger to slip off, the released plate vibrates. An instrument may have a single tongue or a series of multiple tongues.

Hohner Pianet

The Hohner Pianet is a type of electro-mechanical piano built by the Hohner company of Trossingen, West Germany and designed by Ernst Zacharias. The Pianet was a variant of his earlier reed-based Hohner electric piano, the Cembalet, which, like the Pianet, was intended for home use. Hohner offered both keyboards in their range until 1968. The Pianet production consisted of two distinctly different mechanism groups with characteristically different sound. The first group, lasting from introduction to 1977, had ground stainless steel reeds, a pick-up using variable capacitance, and leather-faced activation pads. The second group from 1977 until the end of production used rolled spring-steel reeds, electro-magnetic pick-ups, and moulded silicone rubber activation pads.

Stage piano Electronic musical instrument

A stage piano is an electronic musical instrument designed for use in live performance on a stage or a studio, as well as for music recording in jazz and popular music. While stage pianos share some of the same features as digital pianos designed for home use and synthesizers, they have a number of features which set them apart. Stage pianos usually provide a smaller number of sounds, with these sounds being of higher quality, unlike regular digital pianos and home synthesizers.

Stretched tuning is a detail of musical tuning, applied to wire-stringed musical instruments, older, non-digital electric pianos, and some sample-based synthesizers based on these instruments, to accommodate the natural inharmonicity of their vibrating elements. In stretched tuning, two notes an octave apart, whose fundamental frequencies theoretically have an exact 2:1 ratio, are tuned slightly farther apart. "For a stretched tuning the octave is greater than a factor of 2; for a compressed tuning the octave is smaller than a factor of 2."

Wurlitzer electronic piano Mid-1950s – early 1980s electric piano

The Wurlitzer electronic piano is an electric piano manufactured and marketed by Wurlitzer from the mid-1950s to the early 1980s. The sound is generated by striking a metal reed with a hammer, which induces an electric current in a pickup; although conceptually similar to the Rhodes piano, the sound is different.

Electric grand piano

The electric grand piano is a stringed musical instrument played using a keyboard, in which the vibration of strings struck by hammers is converted by pickups into electrical signals, analogous to the electric guitar's electrification of the traditional guitar.

Helpinstill is a US-based company that produces a unique electromagnetic pickup system for amplifying grand and upright pianos on stage. During the late 1970s the company also marketed a range of portable pianos ready-fitted with the pickups. These instruments were built by Kimball to Helpinstill's specifications. The company's founder and namesake, Charles Helpinstill, performs in Houston with his band, Ezra Charles and The Texas Blues Band.

Acoustic guitar

An acoustic guitar is a musical instrument in the guitar family. Its strings vibrate a sound board on a resonant body to project a sound wave through the air. The original, general term for this stringed instrument is guitar, and the retronym 'acoustic guitar' distinguishes it from an electric guitar, which relies on electronic amplification. Typically, a guitar's body is a sound box, of which the top side serves as a sound board that enhances the vibration sounds of the strings. In standard tuning the guitar's six strings are tuned (low to high) E2 A2 D3 G3 B3 E4.

Bridge (instrument) Part of a stringed instrument

A bridge is a device that supports the strings on a stringed musical instrument and transmits the vibration of those strings to another structural component of the instrument—typically a soundboard, such as the top of a guitar or violin—which transfers the sound to the surrounding air. Depending on the instrument, the bridge may be made of carved wood, metal or other materials. The bridge supports the strings and holds them over the body of the instrument under tension.


The Cembalet is a type of electro-mechanical piano built by the Hohner company of Trossingen, West Germany from the late-1950s to the late 1960s. The designer of the Cembalet was Ernst Zacharias. The Cembalet was a reed-based electric piano intended for home use. It was the first keyboard produced by Hohner as a piano-like instrument rather than an instrument having the sustained note of an organ. It was adopted by popular musicians for recording and performance in the early 1960s due to its portability and ability to be amplified by electronic means.

An electrostatic pickup converts mechanical motion to an electrical signal by means of varying electrical capacitance. This type of pickup, in which the moving plate is a vibrating metal reed, is used in some types of electronic pianos and organs as an inexpensive method of generating tones.


The Guitaret is an electric lamellophone made by Hohner and invented by Ernst Zacharias, in 1963. Zacharias also invented similar instruments like the Pianet, Cembalet and the Clavinet.

Vintage Vibe is a manufacturer of electric pianos, based in Rockaway, New Jersey. The company also offers repair and restoration services for electric pianos, keyboard instruments and amplifiers, brand new parts for vintage electric pianos, and manufactures a modern tine based electro-mechanical piano.

Music technology

Music technology is the study or the use of any device, mechanism, machine or tool by a musician or composer to make or perform music; to compose, notate, play back or record songs or pieces; or to analyze or edit music.

Music technology (electric) Musical instruments and recording devices that use electrical circuits

Electric music technology refers to musical instruments and recording devices that use electrical circuits, which are often combined with mechanical technologies. Examples of electric musical instruments include the electro-mechanical electric piano, the electric guitar, the electro-mechanical Hammond organ and the electric bass. All of these electric instruments do not produce a sound that is audible by the performer or audience in a performance setting unless they are connected to instrument amplifiers and loudspeaker cabinets, which made them sound loud enough for performers and the audience to hear. Amplifiers and loudspeakers are separate from the instrument in the case of the electric guitar, electric bass and some electric organs and most electric pianos. Some electric organs and electric pianos include the amplifier and speaker cabinet within the main housing for the instrument.

The history of home keyboards lies in mechanical musical instrument keyboards, electrified keyboards and 1960s and 1970s synthesizer technologies.


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  3. Hans-W. Schmitz (1990). "Der Bechstein-Siemens-Nernst-Flügel". Das mechanische Musikinstrument. 16. Jahrgang (published April 1990) (49): 21–27. ISSN   0721-6092.(Technical report)
  4. Hans-Joachim Braun (2004). "Music Engineers. The Remarkable Career of Winston E. Knock, Electronic Organ Designer and NASA Chief of Electronics" (PDF). IEEE Conference on the History of Electronics. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2012-03-09.
  5. Wolfgang Voigt (1988). "Oskar Vierling, ein Wegbereiter der Elektroakustik für den Musikinstrumentenbau". Das Musikinstrument. 37 (1/2): 214–221. (2/3): 172-176.
  6. "#732: Story & Clark Storytone (1941) artdeco design electric piano". Collection Checklist (PDF). National Music Centre. p. 50. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-06-30.
  7. 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.
  8. "RCA Storytone Electric Piano". Antiquity Music, LLC. Archived from the original on 2013-06-28. 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.