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An electric piano (e-piano) is an electric musical instrument whose popularity was at its greatest during the 1960s and 1970s. Many models were designed to replace a (heavy) piano on stage, while others were originally conceived for use in school or college piano labs for the simultaneous tuition of several students using headphones. Unlike a synthesizer, the electric piano is not an electronic instrument, but electro-mechanical. Electric pianos produce sounds mechanically and the sounds are turned into electronic signals by 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.
It should be noted that no electric pianos are currently in production; the last instruments of this type were made in the mid-1980s.
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 therefore 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 metal reeds which are struck by hammers activated by a scaled-down version of a traditional grand piano action. The reeds are placed near a set of metal plates, and the reeds and plates together form an electrostatic or capacitative 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 Columbia Elepian, also branded as "Maestro" uses an almost identical system.
The term "tuning-fork" here refers to the struck element having two vibrating parts - physically it bears little resemblance to a traditional tuning-fork. In the (Fender) Rhodes instruments, the struck portion of the "fork" is a "tine" made 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. The Rhodes piano has a distinctive bell-like tone, fuller than that of the Wurlitzer, with longer sustain and with a "growl" when played hard. Hohner's Electra-Piano uses a similar system but with a metal reed replacing the Rhodes's tine. Its sound is correspondingly somewhere between that of the Rhodes and that of the Wurlitzer.
Hohner's original Pianet uses adhesive pads made from foam rubber and leather impregnated with a viscous silicone oil to 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. The same firm's Cembalet uses rubber plectra and separate 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 has 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.
Although not technically pianos, mention should be made of 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' mid-point. 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.
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 far end. Two electromagnetic pickups under the strings detect the vibrations which are then preamplified and filtered. The sound of a Clavinet can vary from very sweet and harpsichord-like to aggressive and percussive, like a slapped bass guitar.
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 recognisable vocabulary of percussive riffs and figures which owe less to conventional keyboard styles than to funk rhythm guitar and slap bass.
- Fender Rhodes (Mark I, Mark II, Mark III)
- Hohner Cembalet, Clavinet, Pianet, Electra Piano
- Wurlitzer EP-200A
- Yamaha CP-70 Electric Grand Piano
- Popular songs with electric pianos:
- Fender Rhodes:
- The Beatles: "Get Back" (played by Billy Preston)
- Chick Corea: "Spain", "La Fiesta", "Crystal Silence"
- Herbie Hancock: "Chameleon"
- Billy Joel: "Just The Way You Are"
- Stevie Wonder: "You Are the Sunshine Of My Life"
- The Doors: "Riders on the Storm"
- Styx: "Babe", "Don't Let It End"
- Pink Floyd: "Sheep"
- Hohner Cembalet:
- The Stranglers: "(Get a) Grip (on Yourself)"
- The Stranglers: "No More Heroes"
- Manfred Mann: "Do Wah Diddy Diddy"
- Hohner Clavinet:
- Commodores: "Machine Gun", "Young Girls Are My Weakness"
- Foreigner: "Urgent"
- Stevie Wonder: "Superstition"
- The Band: "Up On Cripple Creek", "The Shape I'm In"
- Gorillaz: "Dirty Harry", " Hong Kong ((Song)) "
- Led Zeppelin: "Trampled Under Foot"
- Hohner Electra Piano:
- Led Zeppelin: "Stairway to Heaven", "Down By the Seaside", "No Quarter", "Misty Mountain Hop","
- Fender Rhodes:
- Hohner Pianet (N):
- Beatles: "The Night Before", "You Like Me Too Much", "I am the Walrus"
- The Guess Who: "These Eyes"
- Herman's Hermits: "I'm Into Something Good"
- The Zombies: "She's Not There"
- The Kingsmen: "Louie Louie"
- Wurlitzer Electric Piano 200 A
- Cannonball Adderley Quintet: "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy"
- Supertramp: "Bloody Well Right", "Dreamer", "The Logical Song", "Goodbye Stranger", "Lady", "Oh Darling", "You Started Laughing", "Poor Boy"
- Steely Dan: "Do It Again", "Dirty Work", "Your Gold Teeth", "Everyone's Gone To The Movies", "Jack of Speed", "Two Against Nature", "Slang of Ages", "Pretzel Logic"
- Little Feat: "Fat Man in the Bathtub (live)", "Day or Night", "One Love Stand", "Mercenary Territory", "Hoy Hoy"
- Ray Charles: "What'd I Say"
- Beck: "Where It's At"
- Van Halen: "And The Cradle Will Rock"
- Queen: "You're My Best Friend"
- Baldwin Combo Harpsichord:
- Beatles: "Because"
- Paul McCartney: "Fine Line"
- Yamaha Electric Grand:
- Boomtown Rats: "Rat Trap"
- Cold Chisel: "Choir Girl"
- Keane: "Somewhere Only We Know"
- U2: "New Year's Day"
- Ultravox: "Vienna"
- Hohner Pianet (N):
- Digital piano
- Electronic piano
- Electric Piano - Selections From This Page (a Rhapsody Playlist)
- (evolution of the) Electric Piano - 1970 to 1984 (a Rhapsody Playlist)
- Simon's Hall of Electric Pianos - a complete listing including photos