For the uninitiated, when one thinks of a player piano, what comes to mind is a harsh, honky-tonk, out-of-tune cacophony of once popular standards. While this may be true of the piano that sits in your grandparents’ basement or in the back of the pizza parlor, untouched by a technician in decades, at the Immortal Piano, we offer rebuilt player pianos. These divine instruments provide unique entertainment, but will also meet your need for a solid, pristine piano. In essence, they are two pianos in one. Yes, these pianos are marvelous self-playing devices. But they are not just novelty items. A rebuilt player piano is an instrument that can be played by hand in the normal way, as the piano action and keyboard are entirely conventional. In fact, it is even possible to play the keyboard while the roll mechanism is in operation, should any additional notes or harmonies be desired! When buying a vintage player piano, beware of an old player piano that is advertised as “partially restored” or just needing “a little work.” We only elect to rebuild player pianos when we know that the piano itself will turn into an amazing beast that will meet the needs of beginning and advanced pianists alike.
Starting in 1898, scores of inventions for an automated piano began appearing. The first devices were designed to be pushed up to a piano, as in the images to the left. The Pianola has metal fingers covered with felt that fit over the top of the keyboard. These early instruments, came to be known as cabinet players or vorsetzers.
Soon inventors placed the machinations within the piano itself, utilizing everything from electro magnets to pneumatic power. At the time, 25 manufacturers competed for the market. They offered dramatically different player systems with each system taking a unique type of roll. In 1907 the Melville Clark Piano Company introduced the first viable player piano. The breakthrough in player piano sales took place in the next year of 1908 when four fledgling manufactures–Peerless Player, Aeolian Inc., Whilcox and White, and the Universal Music Company– established a uniform standard so that the perforated music rolls would be interchangeable on instruments of different makers. The creation of the standard roll changed the industry overnight.
The piano was transformed from a symbol of refinement and accomplishment into an all-purpose home entertainment center. The Music Trades Magazine of that era stated, “Dealers now realize that the player piano is not a passing fad or a bug-a-boo. They also recognize the educational value of the player. With the player, the general public not only has access to authoritative standards of rendition, but can also perform all great compositions of the world at their own convenience. The player is truly the “Royal Road to Music”.
When the Arctic Explorer Robert Peary embarked on an expedition to the North Pole, the stateroom of his ship, “The Roosevelt,” was outfitted with an Aeolian Pianola. Peary noted, “The Pianola is an essential part of our equipment. Men become lonely in the Frozen North, and they are elevated and their depression dispelled by the wonderful music.”
Between 1910 and 1919, the conventional player piano and automatic player annual output rose to over 200,000 units. This was the height of the industry. In the early twenties over half of the pianos manufactured were created as players. However, with the advent of electrical amplification in the gramophone and wireless in the mid-1920′s, the popularity of the player piano fell. This was due to the novelty and affordability of the radio, bringing news and entertainment from far away places.
Today a new generation is discovering the unique interactive musical experience these instruments are capable of creating. Enthusiasts all over the world are devoting much time and effort to old player piano restoration. Once these vintage player pianos, a.k.a. antique player pianos, are rebuilt correctly and solidly regulated, they will stay that way with only a few adjustments for several decades without attention. Tuning and occasional minor regulation (such as any piano requires in the modern climate-controlled home), is all that is necessary on average to keep them playing for half a century.
There are three general categories of player pianos:
The most common is the standard player upright which is operated by pumping two large foot pedals which fold down from inside the lower panel of the piano. Pumping the pedals creates a vacuum, which operates a perforated parchment roll located behind sliding doors in the front panel of the instrument. The perforations in the roll pass over a series of holes through which vacuum is pulled to operate the keys. Pumping a good player piano should be like taking a gentle walk. It should not be an aerobic workout. The standard player upright is designed to be an interactive musical experience rather than merely an automatic instrument. There are control levers intended for the “player pianist” to create their own expression into the piece if they so desire.
The next category is the expression piano which is derived from the foot-pumped piano with the addition of an electric motor-powered pump and a few relatively simple devices to vary hammer velocity. These used player pianos a very rare and hard to find.
The third category is the reproducing piano. These pianos have sophisticated playing capabilities that permit full adjustment of expression and volume of musical notes, utilizing all the pedals and reproducing an entire dynamic range from pianissimo to forte. Most reproducers are fine player grand pianos. At the turn of the century, all of the great pianists recorded on machines that enabled rolls to be made of their personal musical renditions. Not until you have stood right next to a reproducing player grand piano can you say you’ve heard an exact duplication of the works of masters long gone from this earth. When you hear recordings by these same masters played on expensive stereo equipment, they pale by comparison.
Player piano music rolls are still available in abundance for these dazzling machines. Both new and antique player rolls can be found, catering to almost all musical tastes. QRS, the largest roll manufacturer in the world in the 1920s, closed their doors in Dec of 2008.However, they do have some new rolls available. Snatch them up! The bottom row of pictures are from my pilgrimage to their factory in Buffalo, New York. Besides QRS piano rolls, there are many independent companies still making re-cuts and manufacturing new rolls. A good group of enthusiasts can be found at www. pianorollstuff.com. Also of interest, is the Mechanical Music Digest available at www.mmd.foxtail.com