Simple Hack Completely Changes The Sound Of This Piano

We’re partial to musical instrument hacks around here, mainly because we find instruments to be fascinating machines. Few are more complex than the piano, and, as it turns out, few are quite so hackable. Still, we have to admit that this ragtime piano hack took us by surprise.

We always thought that the rich variety of tones that can be coaxed from a piano, from the tinny sound of an Old West saloon piano to the rich tones of a concert grand, were due mainly to the construction of the instrument and the way it’s played. Not so, apparently, as [Measured Workshop] demonstrated by installing a “mandolin rail” in a small upright piano. The instrument had seen better days, so step one was disassembly and cleaning. A wooden rail spanning the entire width of the string board was added, with a curtain of fabric draping down to the level of the hammers. The curtain was cut into a fringe in the same spacing as the hammers – marking the hammer locations with cornstarch was a nice trick – and metal clips were crimped to each fringe. The completed mandolin rail can be raised and lowered using a new foot pedal, completely changing the tone as the hammers hit the strings with the metal clips rather than their soft felt heads. It makes the piano sound a little like a harpsichord, or the aforementioned saloon instrument, and at the touch of a foot, it’s back to its original tone.

Most of the piano hacks we offer tend toward the electronic variety, so it’s nice to see a purely mechanical piano hack for a change. And if the hacked piano doesn’t work out as an instrument, you can always turn it into a workbench.

Thanks to [Pete Marchetto] for the unusual tip.

22 thoughts on “Simple Hack Completely Changes The Sound Of This Piano

  1. Yeah, As a kid, I was one of those getting told to put the cover/lid down and keep my hands (or pencil, comb etc..)out of the strings
    A how to video that was actually interesting to watch, for a change.
    Well lighted. Excellent editing.
    ..and no frigging (usually some bad “techno”) music during the build. Plus NO sideways eFing cellphone idocy. Just the sounds of the things being done in the video.
    This lets you hear the resistance of a screw in the wood. The load on a tool, etc.
    Kind of a modern, video, version of “Dotys workshop” if you will.

    But for the love of pete, please quit back-dragging your files! That just made me cringe to see it done on the corners of those keys, in particular.

    Oh and neat idea for the build too.
    I had no idea the ragtime clips were a thing.

    1. Are you talking about “The Wordless Workshop” from Popular Science? I used to love those things – so many good ideas for simple builds. Roy Doty was amazing!

      And I agree – the build videos with no narration are the best.

      1. Yeah. I was struggling to recall the proper name. Could just barely recall the signature in the artwork. sigh…getting a little case of “bit rot” in my storage organ, me thinks.

    1. Yeah, but being able to switch the piano back to the original tone with the flick of the foot instead of picking thumbtacks out of 88 hammers is pretty slick. And he certainly could have dipped each hammer in lacquer to get the same tone, but that’s pretty permanent. I think the latter trick was used by the Beatles for the piano in “Lady Madonna”.

  2. It started with thumbtacks or brads pressed into the felt heads for saloon playing cause it was louder. I did it myself to the basement piano that came with our house when I was a kid. The brand name of this hack is Rinky Tink, I have installed many. The kit comes with an old style ‘choke’ cable-knob for on off. In a full rebuild player we usually add one if not there already.

    Caution, using the metal strikers on the fine copper wound bass strings can wear through the windings and then the notes will buzz as they come loose. New or old I see mostly a felt strip at the bass section. The tinkle sound is really not as loud so they mute the bass to match sound level.

    I wish I could scan and post the defunct Player Piano Supply catalog page for their mandolin rail, It cartoons the many voices that it will make out of your piano. Many characters are seen hanging out with their sound/instruments. A Russian with a balalaika, a floozie leaning on the piano ready trot upstairs from the saloon, and a blackface banjo player popping out of the raised lid. A hippie wanging away on a synth, a fine French lady at the harpsichord… OK it will sound like all those things? Bartender, another.

    Stage pianos for acting theater often have hardened hammers for a brighter sound that cuts through the chorus. It is simply done with drops of lacquer on the head point of each hammer.

    1. It’s amazing how much of listening to changes in sounds of the instrument parts, has so many analogs in repairing mechanical items.
      This is a big part of why unrelated music is such an annoyance in videos.
      I tend to just quit most of them when the “electronica” starts.

  3. My Great-Grandfather’s player piano had this as a factory feature, selectable via a small lever in the roll compartment, however I never knew how it worked as I was never allowed to dig into too deeply, and I was more interested in the other great mechanical and pneumatic components as a kid.It looks very similar to this youtube video:

  4. My brother in law did essentually the same to his piano in 1967 by just pushing thumbtacks into each hammer. This way is definately more versitile, but the concept or sound isn’t new.

  5. I was told (many years ago) that the rinky–tink sound came from the Old Southwest where arid conditions destroyed the felt on the hammers. Thus, it was bare wood striking the strings.
    I would love to have verification of this, but so far the Internet has giving me nothing.

    P.S. I was also told you could substitute thumbtacks for aridity. ☺

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