Electric and electronic keyboard instruments were first invented at the turn of the 20th century – Thaddeus Cahill’s mighty Telharmonium was probably the first, and by the early 1930s dozens of inventors in America and Europe were putting together organs, pianos and keyboard instruments which could not as easily be categorised. The Ondes Martenot and Trautonium captured the imagination of avant-garde composers, while the Hammond organ and the same company’s Novachord synthesiser soon became mainstays of the entertainment, recording and broadcasting industries.
Around 1950, various strands of American popular music began to blend, mutate and evolve. A mixture of electric blues, country, jazz and boogie-woogie became rock ‘n’ roll, and rapidly became the music of choice for young people across the nation. The instrumentation of this new sound comprised electric guitars, drums, upright bass (soon supplanted by Leo Fender’s electric bass guitar), saxophone and piano. And the strange thing is that the piano wasn’t replaced in rock music for another ten years.
It’s not as if the instruments didn’t exist – Wurlitzer’s electric piano first appeared on the market in 1954, just in time for rock ‘n’ rollers to adopt it. It was portable, easy to amplify and had a funky, futuristic sound. And yet nobody used it until Ray Charles in 1959. Listen to classic rock ‘n’ roll, doo-wop or rockabilly records and you will hear nothing but acoustic piano and the occasional celesta. Similarly, Hammond organs (which had been around since 1935) didn’t really crop up in rock music until the late 1950s with Lord Rockingham’s XI, Johnny and the Hurricanes and Dave Cortez.
So why did the early rock ‘n’ rollers stick to the acoustic piano? It could be argued that once they had found a winning formula, there was no need to change it – the bass guitar made a practical difference, but not one that the record-buying public were likely to notice. The image of electric keyboard instruments may have been another factor – Hammond organs and Novachords were used in mainstream pop music and even on Nashville country recordings, but they were seen as being a bit staid and “square”, whereas an old upright piano had a certain “street” image harking back to saloons and honky-tonks.
It took the 1960s to give rock music the keyboards it deserved – brightly-coloured transistor organs with reverse-coloured keys and chrome stands; electric pianos that looked like sleek Scandinavian furniture or like heavy-duty guitar amplifiers, and later on, massive synthesisers that resembled the flight-deck of a spaceship. But that’s another story.