Instruments | Electric Piano | Electric & Electronic

The piano has occupied a special place in music and, since the advent of amplification, musicians have sought ways in which its expressive, versatile sound could be made louder in order to carry above the sound of other amplified instruments and also how it could be packaged into an instrument more easily transportable than the traditional acoustic piano. Electric pianos fall into three categories.

electro-acoustic pianos

These instruments simply amplify the sound of what is, essentially, a traditional acoustic piano mechanism – hammers hitting strings. Perhaps the best-known examples of this type of piano are Yamaha’s 73-note CP-70 and its bigger brother, the 88-note CP-80. Though still large and heavy, the Yamaha CP pianos were relatively portable due to the fact that they could be split into two sections – one containing the keyboard and hammer mechanism, the other containing the actual strings on the harp-like frame. Behaving like an acoustic piano, the sound of the CP-70 and CP-80 could be still be heard with the power off, albeit much quieter than a comparatively sized conventional baby grand.

Of course, the use of a traditional piano-string mechanism meant that these instruments still needed constant tuning, more so during life on the road. The sound was amplified through a sophisticated piezo pickup and pre-amp system that turned the acoustic vibration of the strings into an electrical signal. Because of their imposing stage presence, responsive keyboard and bright, rich tone, the Yamaha CP-70 and CP-80 found favour with many keyboard players, including Tony Banks, Howard Jones and Vangelis.

Amplified Tines

Like the Yamaha CP-70, instruments in this category used a pickup system to amplify the acoustic sound of a mechanical action. However, instead of strings, these pianos used the percussive quality of hammers hitting metallic reeds or tines – rather like a tuning fork. Perhaps the best-known example of such instruments is the Fender Rhodes. Developed by Harold Rhodes (1910–2000), the Fender Rhodes had a distinctive bell or celeste-like sound that could be, by turns, soft and lyrical or aggressive and biting. Classic models include the Suitcase 73 (which included a tremolo system, a 50W amplifier and built-in speakers) and the Fender Rhodes 88, available in Suitcase or Stage variants. This latter version stripped the instrument of its built-in amplifier and speakers to make it lighter and less expensive. The sound of the Fender Rhodes can be heard on tracks such as Herbie Hancock’s ‘Chameleon’, Billy Joel’s ‘Just the Way You Are’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘You Are the Sunshine Of My Life’.

Other manufacturers, such as Wurlitzer and Hohner, employed similar technology to produce their own models of electric piano. Songs featuring the Wurlitzer include Queen’s ‘You’re My Best Friend’, Supertramp’s ‘The Logical Song’ and Ray Charles’s classic ‘What’d I Say’.

Electronic/Digital Pianos

These instruments do not use mechanical action or amplified acoustic sound, but generate sound by purely electronic means, usually by replaying samples of instrumental sounds stored in...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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