For Musicians Only: Piano - Electric or Not?

January 20, 2019

This marks the start of a new series for us. We're borrowing the title of that Gillespie album for the name of articles in the series, since it's going to be a lot about musicians.


These days, we often see modern technology and its predecessors go to battle. It's true in music, like with most things: we went from the "long-playing" record to the tape, then to the CD, and now we see CD's, YouTube, and iTunes all at war with each other. The same is true, to a lesser extent, with musical instruments.


Musical instruments haven't modernized so much because, very often, the electric equivalent of an instrument does not have the same quality as the acoustic version. A great example of this is the piano: there is a continuing "battle" between acoustic and electric pianos. In many ways, acoustic and electric pianos are a great example of where technology can change things by making a new product that can more easily be mass-produced and, therefore, cheaper; the downside is that quality decreases, in some cases.


When you think about it, acoustic pianos and electric pianos do not have much in common technologically. Even the structure is usually different: electric pianos have a main (electric) body and then a stand, often in an "X" shape but sometimes in an "H" shape. Acoustic pianos are more solidly built, but are less portable.


Well, which piano is better? It's all about the musician and the situation, especially in jazz.


(Let's imagine that classical music is at one end of a spectrum, and pop music is at the other end. In the middle is jazz. So when classical music goes for the "real" piano and pop music goes for the electric piano, it leaves jazz with a choice of either.)


We'll first go by musician and then by situation. Situation is the more important one of the two if you're playing live, but if you're in a studio or at home that's not so true.



To figure this one out, first let's look at the differences between the two instruments. A real piano has keys that are, generally, harder to push down than keys on an electric piano. When you hit a key on a real piano, you're making machinery operate. You can see this if you look at a grand piano - there's a lot that happens every time you hit a key. And to make a lot happen, the musician must put in quite a lot of work into each key that he plays. On the other hand, keys on an electric piano are easy to play. Some electric pianos have weighted keys - in fact, many of them these days have weighted keys - but keys with simulated weights are not the same as the weights on a real piano. Since, on an electric piano, the production of musical notes is all electric, rather than physical, not much work is necessary for a musician to produce each note.


Looking at it from a jazz musician's point of view, though, the ease of playing notes isn't the most important thing: an example of a really important thing is the sound that comes out of the instrument. The sounds that come out of a (new) electric piano vary from terrible to good, but the sounds that come out of a (new) piano can be excellent. If you get a good grand piano, each note will sound excellent; if you get a good electric piano, the quality of each note is good, but each note doesn't have the impact or individual quality of a grand piano. So we can say that on the grounds of the quality of each note, a real piano is better than an electric piano.


But also important to a jazz musician is whether or not he can hear himself. To a classical musician, this isn't so important, especially if he is playing on his own - in that situation, he doesn't have to be particularly loud to hear himself. In jazz, though, if you've got a whole band up there, the pianist will need a lot of volume coming his way for him to hear his own piano. Electric pianos generally have speakers that face more towards the musician, so musicians should be able to hear themselves pretty well.  However, we must remember that by using speakers, you can make sure that you can be heard while you play in a band, no matter what instrument you are playing.


What are we missing, though, that is so important? Money, of course! There's a big difference in cost between a $200 electric piano and a $100,000+ grand piano. But this is taking the extremes from each kind of piano. You can get electric pianos that cost a lot more than $200, and you can get real pianos that don't cost $100,000. But still, the difference is clear, and if you don't have a lot of money, it's better to buy a electric piano of mediocre quality than not buy any piano at all.


So, which kind of piano is the winner? It depends on the musician: which of these is more important to you: sound quality or cost? If you're more interested in quality and you've got money for a good piano and then some, go with a real piano. But if cost is more important to you, get an electric piano.



As a musician, do you travel much? And is there a piano in the places where you play? If you travel and you want to take the instrument with you where you go, you should go with the real piano. But if there are already pianos everywhere you go (or at least in most places), you can buy a piano to keep at home and then use the pianos at the various places where you are playing. Recording studios may or may not have a piano, depending on whether they're a small room in someone's house or an actual business with whole office units for making professional recordings.



You could argue that this article puts real pianos in a bad light. If so, that's unfortunate, because real pianos have served us well for decades and they shall surely do the same for years to come. In many ways, they're better than electric pianos, and one of the reasons why they are so good is that so many clubs and restaurants often have pianos. How often do jazz clubs or restaurants have an electric piano in a corner of the building, or on the stage, permanently?


When it comes to details and opinions, in 2019, there is really no clear winner in "the war of the electric piano". But if technology keeps moving forward and the workers at Yamaha and similar companies keep making their electric pianos better, who knows? Real pianos may one day seem as old-fashioned as those "long-playing records". Or, in 2050, we could all be using long-playing records, real pianos, and not the internet and remembering how odd we all were back in 2019.

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