Player Pianos

Charles Burbee was a collector of player piano rolls in the Los Angeles area in the late 1940s and 1950s. He chased down rumors of old rolls stuck in a box off in someone’s garage. On one occasion he met a man who told him it was all very well to collect player piano rolls, but he knew of a man who collected player pianos.

“How many player pianos does he have?” Burbee asked.

“Twenty eight,” the man said. “He’s got twenty eight of them!”

“Twenty eight player pianos?” mused Burbee. “That’s not too many.”

People who have grown up in the latter half of this century take for granted a wide variety of home entertainment media, from television to the CD player to video games.   We can experience virtually any form of popular (or not so popular) entertainment we wish within our own homes.   With a home theater sound system, a large-screen TV and a VCR, a DVD player, cable or a satellite dish, we can bring almost any performer into our living room or family room. And now computers, via the internet, can perform similar functions to bring video or audio into our homes with modems.

How did people live before all these things were so easily available?

They entertained themselves.   In many homes an upright piano or a harmonium (a “pump-organ”) sat in the parlor, and at least one member of the family could play it. Other musical instruments were occasionally in evidence, and most members of the family would sing.   New popular songs were distributed and sold as sheet music.

But not everyone who wanted to sing could find an accompanist to play the piano. And not everyone who enjoyed piano music felt sufficiently confident of themselves to play it. Enter the player piano.

Simply described, a player piano is a self-playing piano. Although some early varieties were devices designed to be pushed up to a regular piano, locking over its keyboard and playing it through its keyboard, soon player pianos were self-contained, looking a lot like an ordinary piano (and playable as one too), with all the mechanisms contained inside the piano.

First developed in the late 1890s, all player pianos operated pneumatically – via suction. This suction could be provided by foot pedals (similar to those used to suck air through the reeds of a harmonium), or, later, by an electric motor. The music to be played was on a roll of paper which had a series of holes, or perforations, through which air was sucked to activate specific keys of the piano, as well as – in more expensive “reproducing” pianos – providing control over the attack (volume) and use of soft and sustain pedals.   A motor, driven by air, pulled this roll of paper over a “tracker bar” which acted to allow air through specific tubes as holes in the paper aligned with them, thus causing notes to be played.

The Pianola was invented in 1896 by Edwin Votey, in Detroit, and was an external player. It looked like a large wooden cabinet which could be placed in front of any ordinary piano. A row of wooden fingers protruded from the cabinet’s rear and were aligned with the piano’s keyboard so that, when activated, the Pianola would play the piano. One sat in front of this hulking cabinet and pumped its two pedals with one’s feet, while working the hand-operated levers to provide accentuation, tempo control, activation of the sustain and soft pedals, and the selection of play or rewind for the paper roll.

The Pianola was referred to as a “push-up” device, because it had to be pushed up to a piano, but it was heavy and difficult to move whenever someone wished to play the piano itself by hand. Shortly after 1900 rolled around Melville Clarke introduced the Apollo, which contained its own player mechanism within the piano itself, and this gave us the player piano as we now know it.   Other manufacturers quickly adopted the idea, abandoning external, “push-up” players.

While originally player pianos played a range of only 58 or 65 notes from a paper roll, almost most pianos had 85 or 88 keys. This meant a number of classical pieces could not be accurately played, and caused compromises in the music, which had to be adapted to the reduced musical scale. On top of this each individual player piano manufacturer developed different, non-compatible music roll designs.

For this reason in 1908 a convention ratified a new industry standard, the 88-note roll, which was then adopted by all manufacturers, making piano rolls universally playable in all new player pianos.   This put a few companies which had just tooled up for a 65-note system out of business.

Basic player pianos sound expressionless and mechanical when a roll is simply played through them. To make one sound more “lifelike” the operator had to employ some skill in the manipulation of the control levers and the vigor with which the pedals were pumped – something one rarely sees in demonstrations of basic player pianos, or in the movies when one is used.

To overcome this, “reproducing” pianos were developed, designed to replicate the touch and shadings of a human pianist more faithfully. The reproducing pianos replaced the foot pedals and manual pumping with an electric suction pump, and the piano rolls are coded with additional control information with marginal perforations. The first such instrument was introduced in the early 1900s by the Welte company of Germany. The “Keyless Red Welte” dispensed with the foot pedals and hand controls and had no keyboard. Welte also developed the reproducing system for a “push-up” player, and later installed their mechanisms in fine quality pianos, like the Steinway.

In America other companies developed their own versions of this kind of player piano, the most successful among them the Ampico, Duo-Art and Welte-Mignon (who licensed Welte’s system). These all used fine quality pianos and were a lot more expensive than the pedal-powered player pianos.

The development of the reproducing player piano attracted the interest of important pianists of the day, who regarded the reproduction of their music by a good player piano like the Duo-Art to be superior to the very low-fidelity phonograph records of the time. George Gershwin recorded a number of Duo-Art piano rolls, and his “Rhapsody in Blue” – now available as a modern recording taken from the Duo-Art roll, as played on a reproducing player piano – reveals improvisations and ornamentation not to be found in the sheet music. Gershwin was far from the only famous musician to make piano rolls. Others included Thomas “Fats” Waller, James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton, Eubie Blake, and Scott Joplin (the only way to hear his rags as he played them now, since he made no records).

Most piano rolls for pedal-operated player pianos were not made by performers but were transcriptions from sheet music, and are referred to as “metronomic” or “straight cut” rolls. Tempo variations and musical phrasing, which can make any player piano performance sound more “real,” are usually not to be found on such rolls – but can be added by the operator who is skilled with the hand controls and pedals.

The player piano’s heyday was from 1900 to 1930, after which the emerging phonograph and radio – both much cheaper – replaced it as the main source of home entertainment.   For many years player pianos languished, forgotten, often stored in barns or basements, beset with humidity and rodents (who gnawed at their wooden mechanisms, rubber tubing and leather bellows).   But then people, perhaps nostalgic for earlier times or just fond of their sound and performance, began collecting them, repairing and restoring them. There are still some modern player pianos being built today, but they are dismissed as of lesser quality, built with plastic parts. One major virtue of the original player pianos is that they can be repaired or remade with only just wood, leather, cloth, felt, glue and shellac.

Now antique player pianos have a burgeoning following. Many buy and restore them themselves. Others are more interested in acquiring a working player piano to use.   There is a thriving business in new and old piano rolls, and a web ring exists of websites devoted to player pianos. Prices on rebuilt instruments start just under $10,000 and go up significantly for restored rare antiques. (29638 bytes)