On an electric piano, the pressure applied to keys on a piano-style musical keyboard produces sound. The idea of an electric piano was first introduced by Ne-Bechstein in 1929. Further development happened in 1937 when Story & Clark and RCA collaborated in the creation of the RCA Storytone electric piano. Later on, an American industrial planner, John Vassos created the case. Then, the instrument was first presented to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair. At this stage, there were standard strings and hammer movements on the piano, but there was no soundboard. It boasts the title as the world’s first commercially available electric piano, with electromagnetic pickups, electronics, and a speaker system amplifying the sound.
One of the iconical companies whose name strongly connects to the electric piano sound is definitely Fender/Rhodes. In 1965, Harold Rhodes started manufacturing his now well-known and cherished model: the Fender Rhodes Electric Piano. This consists of a Suitcase 73 in black Tolex with a silver top, mono tremolo, a 50W amp, and built-in speakers. Rhodes also credits Leo Fender for a few improvements.
Sound production of the electric piano
As mentioned, an electric piano produces sound by the pressure applied to its keys. This pressure transfers to mechanical hammers, which hit metal strings, metal reeds, or wire tines, causing vibrations that transform into electrical signals by magnetic pickups. These pickups connect to an instrument amplifier and loudspeaker to produce an audible sound. The electric piano, unlike the synthesizer, is not a fully electronic instrument, but an electromechanical one instead. Like a conventional piano, some early electric pianos used lengths of wire to create sound. Smaller electric pianos used short slivers of steel for that purpose.
Construction mechanisms that define electric piano types
The term electric piano refers to a diverse group of instruments that differ in their sound-producing mechanisms and, as a result, timbral characteristics.
Electric pianos models which fall into the “struck strings” category are the Yamaha, Baldwin, Helpinstill, and Kawai among others. The Helpinstill models have a conventional soundboard, while the others don’t and are more akin to a solid-body electric guitar. The sound of the strings transforms into an electrical signal by piezoelectric pickups under the bridge on Yamaha, Baldwin, and Kawai pianos. Many of these devices have the tonal character of an acoustic piano.
On the other hand, we have the category of “struck reeds”. A well-known electronic piano model that falls into it is the Wurlitzer. This instrument uses flat steel reeds struck by felt hammers. The reeds fit into a comb-like metal plate. Coupled with this plate, they form an electrostatic or capacitive pickup mechanism that operates on a 170v DC voltage. This system produces a distinct sound – sweet and vibraphone-like when keys are lightly pressed, and a hollow echo when pressed harder.
Struck tuning fork
The “struck tuning-fork” mechanism is mostly used in Fender Rhodes instruments. The tuning fork term refers to the struck element having two vibrating parts. In Fender Rhodes instruments, the struck portion of the fork is a tine of stiff steel wire. The other part of the fork is the tone bar, a sturdy steel bar that acts as a resonator and adds sustain to the sound.
The tine is fitted with a spring that can be moved along its length to allow the pitch to be fine-tuned. It’s struck by a small neoprene tip of a hammer activated by a simplified piano action. Each tine has an electromagnetic pickup placed just beyond its tip. The Rhodes piano has a distinctive bell-like tone, fuller than the Wurlitzer, with longer sustain and with a certain “growl” when played hard.