quest for a portable piano has been around since the invention of the Fender Rhodes and the Wurlitzer. Of course, neither
of these actually sound like pianos... they have a pleasant sound that is 'piano-like' but in no way are they a substitute
for the real thing.
companies tried all sorts of things (including some fairly horrible electronic things) but it wasn't until Yamaha released
their CP70 'Electric Grand Piano' in the mid-'70s that I had something approaching a 'real' piano that could be toured around
and amplified easily without any difficult mic techniques.
were three models in the product's lifetime... the original CP70 (73-note keyboard) which was super-ceded by the CP70B (with
balanced outputs) and the CP80 (a full 88-note keyboard version).
of them featured true grand piano action keyboards which, if you were a real piano player, were a delight to play.
brochures, Yamaha claimed their electric grand pianos were "compact" and "portable". I am not convinced! They measured at
least 57 inches wide by 45 inches deep (front to back) and weighed as much as 313lbs! I guess that at a time when bands were
going out with Hammond organs, Leslies, CS80s, multiple Mini-Moogs, Mellotrons and so on, the CP piano was comparatively 'portable'.
make it easier to transport, the CP piano dismantled into separate units with the strings and frame in one case and the keyboard,
legs and sustain pedal in another (right) which made it slightly more manageable. It was re-assembled with some clever lock
catches. Even so, it was a two man job to cart it around.
a long tour, however, it wasn't just roadies you needed to employ to look after the thing. Because it was a 'real' piano,
it had 'real' strings and so needed regular tuning by a qualified piano tuner especially when the instrument was being thrown
in and out of trucks! Because this was a luxury that not everyone could stretch to, the CP70 gained a reputation for being
a bit of a 'honky tonk' piano because many were heard slightly the worse for wear and out of tune.
reputation was not helped by the fact that one of the CP piano's more famous users, Peter Gabriel, always ran his CP through
a vintage Roland Chorus pedal! It's a shame really because the CP is actually a nice sounding piano when looked after.
CP piano's sound was achieved using a traditional grand piano hammer action hitting real strings. However, Yamaha developed
special strings that could be made shorter and require less of them but still be able to retain an authentic acoustic piano
sound. So, unlike ordinary acoustic pianos that typically have three strings for each of the middle and upper register's notes
and two strings for each of the bass notes, the CP piano used two specially designed strings for each of the mid and upper
notes and just one string for each of the bass notes.
course, this also greatly reduced the internal stress and tension on the string frame which did not have to be as big or as
strong (or as heavy) as an acoustic grand's. And because the sound was amplified electronically, the casework did not have
to be designed for acoustic projection as is the case with acoustic pianos.
all, the CP electric grand was a triumph of mechanical engineering. It was a triumph of electrical engineering too.
each string was an independent piezo-electric pickup that was used to amplify the sound. This custom design eliminated any
possibility of 'howl around' even at high volume and for most, this was more than adequate.
However, one 'golden ear'
user preferred to have a set of pickups made by Charles Helpinstill fitted instead. Helpinstall had been designing and manufacturing
high quality and specialised pickups for acoustic pianos for many years and his designs were used by nearly all the leading
piano players of the '70s and '80s in their live acts. Charles says of this CP70 conversion "I only remember doing this once
in the late '70s, and with no real improvement to the piano. The fact that the CP-70 has no soundboard pretty much confines
it to a unique sound (for better or worse)". Helpinstill are back in business at helpinstill.com
models had a 3-band equaliser for LF/MF/HF tonal modification. They also had a TREMOLO effect built in. The CP80 also had
a 3-way BRIGHTNESS switch.
There was also a master volume control and to the left
of this were insert points where you could patch in your own effects.
In its heyday, the Electric Grand was regarded as an
instrument in its own right and not just a portable alternative to a real piano for live use and many artists used them in
the studio in place of (or as well as) acoustic pianos. Often this was for convenience (plugging in a cable is a lot easier
than mic'ing up an acoustic piano) but often, it was used for its unique sound.
Of course, with the advent of high quality digital pianos
(many from Yamaha themselves!), the CP series became increasingly redundant both live and in the studio and it was eventually
discontinued in the mid-'80s. However, the Yamaha Electric Grands remain today as classic and innovative instruments with
a classic 'sound'.
It has been used in the past by the aforementioned Peter
Gabriel and also Abba, U2, Simple Minds, George Duke, Bruce Hornsby, Genesis/Tony Banks and countless others. More recently,
the UK band Keane have adopted the Yamaha CP as their primary piano sound and it is a trademark component in their music -
it's even the featured instrument image on their website!
featured in Nostalgia is from my own re-conditioned CP70 and uses a full length sample every minor third and several program
variations are available to re-create some of the more popular sounds of its era.