🎹 World's First Electric Piano - Neo-Bechstein 1932 - The Story Of The Neo-Bechstein Piano 🎹

While we tend to focus our YouTube channel and blog posts on piano reviews and piano comparisons, we also like to include some general piano interest content, and occasionally, some content on a slightly more obscure topic.

Today’s piece definitely falls into the latter category as we’re going to be looking at the story of a piano many people will never have heard of despite the fact that it was the world’s first electric piano; long before a synthesizer, a Roland digital piano or a Wurli ever hit the market was the Neo-Bechstein.

This instrument is nothing short of a very odd artifact of piano history, but the story is quite interesting, even if the instrument was ultimately unsuccessful for C. Bechstein. Today people are of course used to digital pianos with high polyphony sound generators, stage pianos, Hammond organs etc., but all of these electronic keyboards are relatively recent innovations all things considered.

Without further ado, let’s get into the story of the world’s first electronic piano.

The World’s First Electric Piano –  A Look at the Piano Industry 100 Years Ago

Worlds First Electric Piano - Background
Worlds First Electric Piano – Background

There couldn’t have been many industries as dynamic as the acoustic piano industry throughout the late 1800s right up until about the Great Depression.

The industry was a major employer in North America and many countries throughout Europe and as a result, huge national interest in propping these manufacturers up formed, creating barrier-free ways for companies to get into business and build factories. There would ultimately be a gigantic explosion in piano production followed by a dramatic contraction all within the space of about 30 to 40 years.

For an industry to come out of nowhere from the boutique into the mainstream and back into the boutique again, all within a relatively short period of time is quite fascinating and hasn’t really happened too many other times in history with an industry this large.

The United States

Piano production peaked right around the year 1909 at which time huge factories throughout the United States in cities like Cincinnati, Boston, Baltimore and St. Louis Number were producing a record number of pianos. At the time, a piano was really the only way people could recreate virtually any music on earth with just some sheet music and a little bit of musical ability.

Once pianos started being massed produced and thus affordable, families went out in droves to acquire one for their own homes. But this need to enjoy music was soon met by many other immerging passive forms of musical entertainment such as higher quality radio sets and phonographs which led to people no longer seeing the need to buy and learn how to play the piano.

Such was the state of the piano business coming into the 1910s and by the 20s, there was a huge decline in the popularity of the piano. By 1929, demand was down 92% from where it was in the early years of the century, resulting in many piano manufacturers going out of business. Even big piano manufacturers were struggling to still make a go of it, and rapid consolidation occurred all over the industry.

Europe & C. Bechstein

It was the same general story throughout Europe at this time, however, the industry experienced less of a rise and fall compared to the historical average of how many musical instruments were being bought and sold.

After their start building bespoke upright piano, C. Bechstein became a major player by this time (as they are today), and like many other companies were trying to find a way through innovation to counter waning acoustic piano demand. Their approach was to conceive of an instrument so interesting and unique in the hopes that it would change the industry and lead to a resurgence in demand.

They ultimately decided that this interesting electrified piano concept was the hill that they would die on, and as a result, poured an obscene amount of money into the project to the point that it nearly bankrupted the company.

The research and development that went into this project produced the world’s very first electromagnetic pickup, long before the guitar industry would adopt the technology. They essentially started with the basic principles of a grand piano in terms of scale and string design, but instead of the sound being amplified via a soundboard, electromagnetic pickups would perform this function.

The Neo-Bechstein

NeoBechstein Electric Piano
NeoBechstein Electric Piano

Conception & Formulation

All of this led to the birth of an entirely new instrument called the Neo-Bechstein, a piano in principle but with an amplifier, loudspeaker and the ability to run numerous effects. Because there was no soundboard, the inside of the instrument looked very different with exposed circuitry and a sort of art deco ultramodern look to it for the time.

One of the things they realized is that the force of a hammer hitting the string on a normal piano creates a high level of amplitude in getting the vibrations to the soundboard, but this was creating a huge level of distortion in this case. The creation of the pickups effectively solved this problem.

The second issue they came across was how to fundamentally keep the feel of the piano intact while lessening the impact on the string. To address this they came up with a mini-hammer mechanism that attached to the regular piano action/hammer action (minus escapement) which would be the part actually striking the tine strings. The first hammer would be played, stopped by a rail, and then the smaller hammer would shoot up almost instantaneously without causing any type of delay whatsoever.


As a project, this was nothing short of an unmitigated failure. Not only would this keyboard instrument prove to be extremely unpopular, but the cost meant that they didn’t even recover their initial investment. In the end, there were only a few hundred of these things sold over the course of its 5 or so year production run.

To get themselves out of the hole as much as they could, Bechstein wound up selling all the patents, and much of the hardware to Petrof who in turn quickly realized that they were in trouble with trying to take over this concept too. Industry-wide, the entire concept fairly quickly faded into oblivion.

Musical Observations

Musically speaking, the Neo-Bechstein was an unquestionably interesting instrument despite its lack of success with a highly malleable piano sound somewhat similar to an electric guitar or synth.

The left pedal worked almost like an expression pedal; depending on where you played it, you could make it sound like a really small tinny acoustic piano or harpsichord, or you could get something like a Fender Rhodes piano or a Wurlitzer, and anything in between.

This would actually be a problem for Bechstein because at the time people were so accustomed to traditional piano tones that this radical departure was too sudden. Had the Neo-Bechstein been released in the ’60s or ’70s, there’s a good chance it would have found a home in the prog-rock scene and perhaps then an eventual entrance into the pop world.

Other Challenges

In addition to the fact that the sound was so far removed from what people were used to, the Neo-Bechstein also happened to look pretty odd as a piece of furniture in a home. The aesthetic was considered avant-garde and cool by some, but the fact that you needed a giant loudspeaker amp beside the instrument really damaged the home décor appeal that a traditional piano has in spades.

Another issue was that the Neo-Bechstein was very difficult to repair and maintain, with the action requiring highly specialized technicians. Who knows about voicing and whether those hammers would actually need any maintenance over the course of its lifetime or not. Through it all, it wound up being one of the oddest, but most interesting probably pianos that have been produced over the last 150 years.

Bechstein would go on to have some very difficult times over the next few decades long after this project was mostly forgotten and wouldn’t ultimately rise from the ashes until the 1980s when new ownership stepped in and focused on getting them back to being a traditional acoustic piano company.

Closing Thoughts

Today, C. Bechstein is the largest producer of top-end luxury pianos in Europe, with multiple sub-brands that also compete in the upper-mid market with the likes of Yamaha and Kawai. In fact, many pianists and industry observers regard the C. Bechstein Concert Series as among the finest pianos available anywhere in the world today.

They’ve ended dipped their toes into the digital piano world once again through a well-received collaboration with Casio,

But needless to say, the Neo-Bechstein is probably an instrument that they, as well as many others who played it, were quite happy to have relegated it to the history books.

Thanks, everybody for reading this blog post on the Neo-Bechstein. This is part of a series where we’re gonna be exploring interesting pianos throughout history, as well as interesting stories that I think should be told or retold. If you enjoyed today’s video, please hit that subscribe and notification bell. We’d really appreciate if you came back and checked more videos out in the future. We love this growing community, and certainly, we’d love to hear from you. My name’s Stu Harrison, have a great day.