by Austin Cliffe/ Creme DeMentia
Like many of you who are reading this, I spend a lot of time in thrift stores. I have come across some older toy pianos in my thrift store adventures. Toy pianos are actually pretty serious and widely used musical instruments. They have a very distinct sound and you’ll be surprised how often you will hear them used once you recognize their timbre. They are also somewhat valuable and sought after instruments, believe it or not.
When I bought these toy pianos, it was with the intent to install a piezo-electric pickup in them and resell them, since I had so many discs for making Bottle-Cap Contact Microphones. I was intrigued to see that Nick Heimer, who I had met at Bent Fest Minneapolis 2007, had a similar idea and brought the resulting devices with him to Circuitastrophe; his toy pianos were not only equipped with piezo pickups, but also had bent delay circuits bolted to them that would process the sounds coming from the pickup. They are very bizarre-sounding, beautiful instruments.
Adding the pickup and output to my toy piano was relatively easy. I found a good spot on the backboard to attach the pickup using a stethoscope, then glued the piezo disc in place with epoxy, finally covering it with a protective layer of Plasti-Dip. The piezo pickup runs directly to a 1/4″ mono jack, which I recessed into the back panel.
Initially the Toy Piano didn’t play quite right, I had to diagnose the problem after taking it apart. Toy pianos work similarly to regular pianos; instead of the hammers hitting strings, though, they hit corresponding tuned tines. The comb of tines is mounted directly to the back panel. The problem with my toy piano was that the back panel was installed crooked at the factory and not all the hammers were hitting their corresponding tines. I pulled out the factory-installed staples, fixed the alignment, and screwed the panel back on correctly. In fixing the alignment of the back panel, I had the idea to make it removable so that you could play the tines however you like when the panel was removed. I achieved this with hanger bolts and wing nut accompanied by a handle.
The idea of playing the insides of a piano is nothing new, and this project reminded me of two avant-garde composers of the 20th century, John Cage and Henry Cowell.
John Cage is probably a name you know; did you know he composed pieces for toy piano? He also composed a piece called “Cartridge Music,” where the performers would use phonograph cartridges to amplify objects. Piezo-electric discs are now often substituted for phonograph cartridges in performances of this piece; Cage’s score provides specific times for when the different objects are to be played, but the choice of objects is left open to the performers.
Henry Cowell you might not know. Henry Cowell developed a variety of experimental piano playing techniques in the early 1900s, one of which called for leaning inside the piano and manipulating the strings with bare hands to produce scrapes, howls and deep rumbles. He employs this technique in a piece called The Banshee. John Cage, like many other musicians, was inspired and influenced by Henry Cowell. Cage also experimented with the insides of the piano, by putting bolts, eraser bits and other things in between the piano’s strings. These inserted objects drastically changed the piano’s timbre and a normal piano could be prepared in this way by following his specific written instructions. Cage then wrote pieces for this new range of gamelan-like sounds coming from piano he had prepared. This process can be undone and causes no harm to the piano.
For your enjoyment, here are some videos of myself and some friends exploring the sound capabilities of this device paired with some effects pedals. The first video shows the piano being played normally, the second video shows the removable back being played. As was my initial intent, this instrument will be for sale on eBay shortly after this article has been posted, simply search “GetLoFi Toy Piano.”