Beginning around the late 19th century and up until the early 1990’s, night clubs, hotels, and restaurants throughout the world still had real pianos in them. They represented class. A grand piano was a status symbol. If you had a well dressed man or woman sitting at one playing nicely then you created a sound and image of sophistication.  The popularity of digital keyboards was directly responsible for disappearance of piano in public venues but they didn’t invade the scene until the 1990’s. 

In the 70’s the only electric keyboards were the small Wurlitzers and the Fender Rhodes and they were considered band instruments. No one really thought of playing behind one of those alone in public. Organs were also considered band instruments for the most part. Not counting the church pipe organs of course. The Hammond organ was a big part of the rock sound beginning in the 60’s and there were other electronic keyboards being invented hoping to gain purchase in the world of rock. The Farfisa organ got popular for a while and really surged forward because of The Doors success. Their keyboardist, Ray Manzerick created some lasting musical images with the Farfisa sound. I had one for a while in the 70’s as well as one of the old Wurlitzers. I got a Fender Rhodes in the 80’s when it becomes a popular jazz sound because of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. They were very heavy instruments because that had actual piano keyboard action and metal tynes on every key that looked like tuning forks. This created a lot of weight. The tynes were struck by the piano hammers and produced overtones. The Wurlizer electric pianos, which were smaller and lighter, used thin metal reeds to in a similar way. Both instruments had hammers that struck the tyne or reed and produced a natural tone that vibrated and had overtones. They were both actual, original instruments with unique sounds. The Wurlitzer could even be tuned by filing the reeds. If you are familiar with Judy Collins you will hear the sound of the Wurlitzer electric piano featured on the song Woodstock where she accompanied herself, playing solo with it.

What came later, in the 90’s were the digital keyboards. These are, like everything else in the digital world, made of samples that are a collection of 1’s and 0’s. They are not acoustic instruments in anyway. They digitally replicate the sound of acoustic instruments. There are no overtones and no acoustic vibrations from a key striking a string, metal or a reed. Their sound is generated by on and off electronic switches that sends the sound out to speakers. The sound depends upon the placement and quality of speakers in or around the the keyboard. I have often had a dislike for digital keyboards because to me they have stolen real acoustic pianos from the world. They have erased much of the class, sophistication and beautiful sounds that a real piano can produce. Club and restaurant owners world wide now opt for a cheaper alternative than having a piano, citing cutting costs and saving space, they depend on a piano player bringing their own portable keyboard when needed. Artistic realities and aura of a grand piano have become worthless. Convenience and saving money are the prime consideration. 

If this is perhaps a new viewpoint to you please consider this comparison. If you have a pianist in a tuxedo and you place him with a beautiful grand piano and then place him with a digital keyboard with knobs wires running out of it and a skinny metal pedal that slips around the floor when pushed, which would you rather have? I haven’t mentioned the most important aspect in this comparison, the sound. The difference between the sound of a fine piano compared to a digital copy of that sound coming through speakers is immense. A piano is made of wood and strings that vibrate and emanate in the air with natural, pleasing overtones. The digital keyboard is devoid of any natural sound or overtone. It is 1’s and 0’s coming out of speakers. Also a real piano has an aura or charisma somehow. When one looks at a piano, big or small, they get a feeling from it. It actually has a magnetism. It makes one want to touch it even if they don’t play. For a pianist the magnetism is strong. One longs to sit at it and make music. The digital keyboard sitting against the wall has none of these qualities. It has no magnetism , isn’t nice to look at and doesn’t make anyone want to go and caress the keys and create music.  

I point out all of this not only because of my personal bias against them but also to illustrate how people and establishments saw pianos and pianists before the electric music and digital age swept in to take over not only music but many things in our lives. Up until the mid 60’s when an establishment considered music they always knew they needed a piano, whether for a band or solo player. They slowly started phasing out in the 70’s when guitar featured bands could set up and play. No piano was needed. If there were a piano in the band it would in fact be over powered by the high volume. Then when the Rhodes electric piano came in during the 80’s, keyboard based bands sometimes also didn’t need a real piano. They needed volume that a piano couldn’t provide. This was another avenue for club owners to take. Then the digital keyboard came on the scene and there was a big advertising campaign aimed at establishments and musicians about how it was a miraculous discovery that would now make cumbersome and expensive piano obsolete. Club owners only saw the bottom line and slowly but surely phased out real pianos. They could depend upon the pianist to bring his own keyboard so they had no need for the expense of a piano. It is a notorious complaint of musicians that club owners have no ears or sense of taste in music and this trend seemed to verify that claim. However the musicians were also to blame because they now were mostly concerned with getting a gig and if they had a keyboard they would work more. 

I excelled at classical piano when I was young and had been playing in bands since I was 18. But playing solo without a rhythm section requires a different set of skills. I dabbled at it in my late 20’s but was never serious about it. I was a band player. But more work opportunities were coming up more often for a background cocktail pianist. I faked it for a while but realized I was pretending and I hoped no one was listening too closely. I was around 34 when I started thinking about traveling around Europe. I dreamed about getting work there and knew I had a lot of work to do if I was going to sell myself as a soloist. I started listening to the great jazz pianist solo albums to see what I could pick up from them. I could also draw from a lot of my classical technique. I just had to sort out the skills. I knew when I was studying solo styles I was aiming at cocktail style piano. I knew also I would be playing on a piano somewhere, preferably a grand piano. There was no such thing as an electric or digital piano in a cocktail lounge. I listening to recordings and studying the music of the worlds great jazz pianists, George Shearing, Bill Evans, Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Oscar peterson , Tommy Flanaghan, Jimmy Rowles, Teddy Wilson, Fats Waller, the list is unending. 

Anyone who studies the art of solo piano studies and plays it on a real piano where the full spectrum of the piano is available and endless possibilities are available to the pianist. One can play with thundering ferocity or with a delicate touch or anywhere in between.  These dimensions aren’t available on electric instruments. Only a small spectrum of sound is available. Single lines in a band setting work nicely on a digital piano. Chords blending in with the other instruments sound appropriate. The volume knob allows the piano to compete with the volume of the other instruments. If you take the other instruments away and the electric piano is played on its own the sounds are harsh,  hollow and not appealing to the ears. It’s an electric sound with uneven volumes because of the speakers are not able to blend notes played at different places on the keyboard. 

If you try to play like Errol Garner with big splashy chords or like Teddy Wilson or Art Tatum the sound can be almost calliope sounding. It just won’t be right and the listener will want to move away from it, not toward it, longing for more. When sound comes from natural, vibrating strings on a wood sounding board a natural aural beautiful is created. When 1’s and 0’s are triggered with switches and sent out speakers there are only limited sound possibilities. Played alone, the digital played solo will sound best and is palatable if it’s kept at low volumes. But even then the ears and sensibilities tire of the sound before long. 

It is often said amongst piano aficionados that we can tell who the pianists is on a recording simply by their touch. When we do a blind fold, needly drop test it is always a great game to identify the pianist by their style and touch. We can even for instance say that that is not Bill Evans playing but a good imitator. A talented well trained pianist can run through a gamut of various styles imitating various famous piano artists styles, almost like a mocking bird. Every developed pianist has their own personal touch that identifies them on the instrument. None of this is true on a digital piano. If we have our great artist play on digital instruments their personal identity is lost. They all ending up sounding too much the same. Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans both experimented with recordings on electric pianos. Their style and individuality  was dramatically reduced by the limitations of the instrument. 

Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock succeeded on electric piano in the jazz world in band settings. They did creative and innovative things based the instruments inherent sound and ablilities, not trying to use it to imitate a real piano. Chick used it very percussively and was able to create a single line style that was unique and identifiable. So much so that pianists everywhere on electric were trying to imitate his innovation.  

 The emperors new clothes.

I bring all this up because many people and piano students aren’t aware that there is a great disparity between the two instruments. They see that the keyboards look the same. The salesman in the music store has assured them that there is virtually no difference between the two and sells them on the space and money saved and also the money saved on piano tuners. They convince the buyers that they will be happy with the fake piano and the buyer thinks all is well. They bring it home, take it out of the box, plug it in and never think about that there might be a difference. Maybe they are happy that there is a volume knob and headphones so they can practice without bothering anyone with their practicing. What they lose sight of is that they don’t feel the natural beauty and sounds of a real piano. They usually don’t have a real piano in the house to compare it to. They get used to the electric sound. They don’t understand why they don’t want to sit and play it for long or why they don’t practice as much as they might like to. They also usually want to display their accomplishments for others. When they do play something for someone it’s not very glamorous for the listener. It just sounds like an electric piano being played alone and it’s usually not very appealing. But that salesman at the store told them it was the same so they keep believing it. I call this “the emperors new clothes syndrome.” Just like in the famous fable of that title, people keep believing that there is no difference between the instruments because the advertising and the salesman have told them so. They in turn tell others that there is no difference and everyone believes it without ever stopping to really compare or think about it on their own. 

I’m not suggesting that everyone should put their digital pianos in the garbage can, even though they would actually fit there very well. ( just joking, just joking!!) The imitation pianos have merit with their attributes for practicing and in bands for sure.

I know when I get on this topic I offend a lot of proficient band musicians and they can’t wait to stand on a chair and clobber me when I stop to take a breath in the middle of my rant, so let me clear that up. The digitals can sound terrific in a band setting. They are used creatively in that setting. Thousands of professional musicians around the planet make their living with them. They have become an integral part of the fabric of the electric sound of pop music. They are used in wedding and corporate party bands on stages everywhere. They allow the pianist to compete with the volume of the drums, guitar and amped vocalist by merely turning up the volume knob. I know many professional pianist who absolutely love their digital and electric keyboards. They can teach classes with them and give workshops on them. But….you won’t see them sit down in their homes and entertain guests for an evening playing solo piano on them. Playing beautiful George Shearing arrangements, The Rhapsody in Blue perhaps or  Chopin or Mozart. There is a giant difference between the instruments and a giant chasm in the discussion on just where the instruments fit and do not fit.     

What I am focused on here in this discussion is the studying, returnng, beginning or non-professional piano player who has one of these digital or is considering buying one and is not aware of the difference. I encounter endless digital pianos in homes and apartments everywhere around the world that are set up and don’t get played or get played or practiced on very little. 

I meet an endless amount of wonderful people who studied piano when they were young and want to get back into it now that the kids are raised and they can start to see a little daylight in the constant demands that have been on them for many years. They now have some free time to do other things than raise a family or chase a career and they want to get back into playing the piano. They want to reconnect to the dream that they put on the shelf.  Now let me point out strongly here that all these people studied piano when they were young on a REAL PIANO, not an initiation piano. No one anywhere on the globe studies classical piano on a digital keyboard. Yes, the world is full of beginning piano classes that all use digital pianos set up so ten people can play at the same time in the class. It’s an ok starting point but it has to be gotten away from quickly as soon as the young or beginning adult has been introduced to the keyboard in this classroom setting. It’s a beginning point where the student has a lot of camaraderie and can effectively not be embarrassed or feel intimidated as a beginner because they are in a classroom setting playing along with other students.  But it ends there. There is no place to evolve in that setting. Its a short cup de sac. If the student doesn’t step out of that environment and get serious on their own they will quit. This introduction experience will be the end of their interest in the piano. That classroom setting is not part of this discussion.

So these returning pianists want to play again. I hear from many of them when they are trying to make a decision on how to get back into it and they often are steering in the direction of buying an imitation, digital piano instead of a real piano. I have the words too many times, 

“ …it’s more practical, there’s no space in the house, my partner doesn’t want to take up the living room with it, it won’t match the furniture, it’s less expensive, I’ll just start out with this and if I like it I’ll get a real piano” Unfortunately what follows is the interest dies and the returning pianist doesn’t know why they can get the steam or interest going to get back into it. They don’t make the connection that this is not the same kind of instrument that they studied on and loved when they were young. That was a real beautiful sounding piano, this is plastic and speakers. I can’t blame them for not understanding because they have’t been informed about the difference. The salesman has told told them that there is no difference. “They will save a lot of money and enjoy endless hours of enjoyment. Just pay $700 and enjoy!” They take it home and they never find the joy and they think it’s their own lack or interest or inability to recapture the dream they once had.

 Once upon a time long ago…..

 There was a time when real pianos were a common sight and fixture in public places and in peoples homes. In the old days, up until about the mid 1950’s it was common that people would gather around a piano and sing together. families, friends, gatherings of any kind. The piano brought people together to sing together. If you look way back to the turn of the century, before radio, piano was the main force to generate music in the house or in public places. In the first half of the 20th century throughout the 1940’s, magazines and newspapers would publish piano music to new songs in their publications. People would look forward to what piano music might be included in the newspaper. Just ask grandma about it. Department stores had song plugger pianists to play sheet music to new songs for you and if you liked what you hears you could buy it and take it home to play it or have someone play it for you. In the late 30’s and 40’s bands started making records that competed with the song pluggers and sheet music sales and finally edged them out. People started opting for records they could take home and play on their home record player instead of on the piano but they still had both. My personal feeling is that something has been lost to the world because the acoustic piano is now a rare sight. Some people still buy pianos and study but it’s a shrinking phenomena.

The rise of the popularity of the guitar in the late 1950’s was a wonderful addition to everyday music. It was another terrific way to bring people together to sing and for one to express ones self. The guitar changed the face of popular music. Popular music switch to the youth market and overpowered the adult tastes of orchestra and big band music. Everything changed gears to appeal and sell to the kids, not the adults. But still the piano was popular with all ages.

Having said all of this, I must say that I have always had a digital piano of some kind around. I don’t play it much but it is useful at times. I used to play one in bands of course.  I still keep one because sometimes I like to practice quietly. It is a great way to practice in the wee hours of the morning or when I don’t want to bother anyone. But my ears get disappointed with the sound and feel quickly. I can’t play on it for hours like I can on a real piano. Also I live a life on the road and at times it’s all I can get my hands on. But it’s always just to practice until I can get back onto a piano. 

Teddy Wilson

Piano vs. Digital Keyboards

Bill Evans
Wurlitzer Piano
Oscar Peterson
Digital Keyboard

There are very few great pianist associated with digital pianos. Hmmmm.... can't think of any

Art Tatum

Me playing on a Fender Rhodes

with a band in the 1970's

Glen Rose
Roger Williams
Dave Brubeck
Nat King Cole

A few of the great icons of popular piano

Keith Jarrett

Wurlitzer piano, circa 1960's