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The piano is a versatile keyboard instrument and its ability to play both melodies and harmonies simultaneously, in a variety of textures ranging from the homophonic to the polyphonic, make it a popular ensemble instrument. You often find either keyboards or pianos in diverse groups ranging from pop band to piano quartets to jazz bands, where they contribute to the harmonies of the ensemble and support the lead instrument, or have brief moments in the spotlight. Another similar instrument is the electric guitar. A mainstay of music bands, it originated from blues and rock music but its evolutionary path has taken it into mainstream pop. Nowadays it is not uncommon to find electric guitars as part of a backing ensemble for most kinds of music - you may be listening to a "pop" group or singer but hear electric guitars in the background.
The switch from acoustic to electric was a difficult journey to navigate for some. Bob Dylan had made his name as a folk singer, but his transition to using electric guitars like the Fender Stratocaster on music tracks such as "Like A Rolling Stone", and then also re-visiting some of his older music such as "Maggie's Farm" and using electric guitars on these, lost him a portion of his fanbase that he had worked hard to develop. At the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, the organisers were surprised to see Dylan's crew setting up heavy sound equipment during the sound check. Dylan marked his transition to electric guitars to a chorus of boos and shouts of disapproval from an audience that was dismayed that he was abandoning his folk roots.
Improvements in technology have always shaped music. In the classical music world, the invention of metal-framed pianos instead of wooden ones allowed more notes to be played at the same time without breaking the piano and led music to be more chordal and thicker in texture. Johann Gutenberg's mechanical press, an idea gleaned from watching mechanical wine presses, allowed music to be printed easily and fuelled its spread in the 1600s. Dylan's fans were divided and his switch to electric guitars was not a smooth transition. But when one of Dylan's idols, Muddy Waters went down the electric route two decades earlier, his fans had no objection. The amplification was the only way he could be heard in loud Chicago nightclubs, playing the style of music that would eventually come to be known as Chicago Blues - hard-driving, amplified yet urban sound. It possibly helped that he had no significant fan base then.
And what about when piano itself when electric? The early electric pianos were invented in the 1920s, and they only reached the height of their popularity in the 1950s, when artists such as Duke Ellington used them in recordings. The 1959 Ray Charles's hit "What'd I Say" was also responsible for promoting the popularity of the electric piano, but by and large the portability of lightweight pianos and the need for an instrument that could be amplified to match the progressive electrification of popular music helped justify the use of electric pianos. You won't probably find a classical concert that features an electric piano, but perhaps in the popular music field, where the piano's function is more as an accompaniment instrument, the use of the electric version is more easily forgiven than Bob Dylan's switch. But don't be mistaken in thinking electric was the way forward. For Joaquin Rodrigo, integrating the folk guitar into a classical orchestra was equally successful.
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