People use the terms “electric pianos” and “digital pianos” mixed up and it seems that they mean “digital pianos” when they say “electric pianos.” Yes, it is true that both use electricity to power the instruments, but in reality, they are different musical instruments. The mechanisms of how sounds are produced are quite different between the two.
The electric piano is a musical instrument powered by electricity; it produces sounds when its keys are pressed. It has mechanical hammers that strike the metal strings of the keys which cause vibrations which are transformed into electrical signals. This mechanism makes the electric piano an electromechanical instrument.
How does an electric piano work?
It has four categories or mechanisms for producing sounds: struck reed, struck wire, plucked reed, and struck string. Regardless of the category, each electric piano uses a pickup to amplify the sound.
A plucked reed piano and a struck reed piano work almost the same. However, in a plucked reed piano, a plastic knob strikes a metal reed. In a struck reed piano, the hook is located over a metal panel and is struck by a hammer that looks the same as an acoustic piano’s. This action creates vibration of the panel and the reed.
The struck reed piano also utilizes a traditional hammer, but it plucks a wire attached to a long metal-sounding bar rather than a usual acoustic piano wire. This mechanism creates a sound that can be sustained longer.
Once the string or reed was strung or plucked, the sound is transferred to a pickup. On the plucked reed piano, the sound waves are transferred to a pickup near the reed. This goes the same with the struck reed piano; the pickup is on the end of the reed and intensifies the sound.
On the struck wire piano, the pickup is adjacent to the metal bar attached to wires. Last but not the least, the pickup of struck string piano is situated through the underside of the bridge or frame of the piano.
The pickups found in each electric piano are responsible for transmitting the sound signals to an internal or external speaker. These sound signals are intensified so that they can be heard by the audience. The piano can sound almost the same as an acoustic piano, depending on how it is played or sustained with a pedal.
History of Electric Pianos
History shows that the early effort to develop electric pianos was made in the 1920s with the Neo-Bechstein. Throughout the next decades, the mechanism described above was established and in the 1970s, some manufacturers produced and sold electric pianos, however, with the advance in technology, digital pianos took over electric pianos in the 1980s.
Today, electric pianos are rarely available for purchase and are valued as vintage pianos.
Some people like the sound of electric pianos and you can see that a lot of times, digital pianos have tones of the electric piano built in so that you can replicate the sound of an electric piano from old days.
Compare the mechanism of how sounds are produced in electric pianos with digital pianos in the article, “How Does a Digital Piano Work?”