Piano Guitar Quality Revolution

Day 330 Week 48 Q4  Saturday, November 26, 2022

Did you know at least 100 million people play one or both of these? Estimates vary wildly, with one article saying there are 40 million piano students in China alone. Another said there are more than 2 million guitars sold annually and over 70 million intermediate to expert level players. Apart from how many, where they are, and why, I want to discuss a different aspect closer to my heart. The democratization of technology has brought about the same sorts of astounding leaps in these musical categories that they have in everything else. 

Why does this matter? Because professional performance quality instruments, which are incredibly more satisfying to play, are now ridiculously affordable. Professional guitarists can and frequently do perform on instruments that range between $500 and $5000, and I am not sure their audiences can tell the difference. In fact, I am not sure the Musicians themselves can tell the difference except for snob appeal. And speaking of snob appeal, more prevalent in the piano world, did you know there were digital instruments costing hundreds of dollars that sound as good as instruments costing tens of thousands of dollars? Now of course, there are people who can tell the difference, but most of the population has never heard live music performed by acoustical pianos or guitars. And listening through most earbuds is going to further blur the quality differences.

But why do I care about this? Because the people I tend to focus on in the world are creative outliers, and a disproportionate number of them play musical instruments but probably do not know they can have super high-quality playing experiences for comparatively very small amounts of money. These experiences can add incredible amounts of joy to people’s lives and do for those who are of this revolution.  I want to drill down more deeply on just two categories of instruments of surprising quality, and this to someone who has been playing both for over fifty years. 

Let’s begin with the piano. I have owned an unusually magnificent Mason Hamlin small grand piano for decades. Most piano players in the world have never had the incredibly enveloping, emotionally rewarding experience of playing such a piano because they are relatively rare and correspondingly expensive.  To calibrate the uninitiated, Yamaha produces more pianos per day than Steinway does per year, and the Mason Hamlins are, for my jazz purposes, even more, rare and better than the Steinways. Hey, I like a lot of bass in my pianos. Classical players typically prefer the Steinways but suffice it to say they are (or can be) in the league. But if you do not have the space or the cash, there is a way to experience something that, although not the same, is pretty darn close for tremendously less. And you can bring it out to perform with, record with it,  play without disturbing others and do a myriad of other things that you simply can not do with a conventional piano.

I learned many years ago as a professional speaker designer and musician who could tell the difference that only a tiny portion of the population could tell the indifference between a $200 amplifier and a $2000 amplifier in a double-blind test. I would wager the same is true here. In fact, the difference in recordings listened to through speakers or headphones is so small that it no longer matters. What does matter, however, is the expressibility of under $2000 physically modeled digital pianos as compared to any acoustical piano sold at that price point. Except for traditionalists locked into snob appeal, I doubt most people who play the piano could ever afford a traditional instrument that sounds remotely this good. In short, I am, in part sad to say digital pianos have bumped off low-cost acoustical pianos, and I used to think, unfortunately, I was part of that process. But now I realize the musical return on investment is astoundingly greater. 

As a musician and composer, these physically modeled instruments have so much more utility for all of the inherent digital reasons, but also simply sound better and are, therefore, more fun to play, and that is a revolution.

Switching gears to guitars, and especially electric guitars, not acoustic guitars, which are a different animal. I can say without reservation that for the same price as a single collectible guitar, whose value is in general, more determined by rarity than by sound or tactile playing quality, you can afford to own ten or more guitars. This is due to numerically controlled mining machines and other advanced manufacturing processes, which have pretty much caught up with the older mass-produced instruments in terms of quality. The major guitar manufacturers from yesteryear are now releasing instruments that are clones of the there best prior, mostly made-by-hand instruments. They look as good, play as well, and sound at least as good as the many multi-decade old instruments collectors buy for absurdly more than any musician would or could. I personally know this as I own a 1968 Les Paul and more recent imitators, which or just as good and in some ways better but are worth much less than a tenth the value. By the way, the original 1968 Les Paul cost me $325 in 1975, and the 2014 clone cost $600. The clone is still worth only $500 or $600, and the 1968 model may be upward of $10,000. The new one, which is in stereo, also has a USB port. 

What is crazy is I find myself playing the digital piano and modern guitar far more often than the far more valuable older instruments because, considering logistics, they are more rewarding and convenient to play, record and compose with. It is a revolution to me when two thousand dollars worth of instruments are more useful to me than 60 thousand dollars worth of instruments, and I thought it worth sharing that with anyone, either involved in or considering getting involved in either pianos or guitars which are the two most popular instruments in the world by far.  

The revolution produced great-sounding stuff that is affordable!