Looking for a historical quirky piano with lots of character? Maybe you’ve found it.
by David Keenum, May 2020
I Love Pianos!
Yes, I do love pianos! Uprights, Grands, Baby Grands, Digital, Electric, just about any variety. And I like character in pianos. I love the sharp brightness of a Yamaha and Kawai, or the depth and beauty of Steinway. I just enjoy hearing and playing them. When it comes to piano libraries I can’t seem to get enough. I try to restrain myself. “You have enough!”, I tell myself. But then I see another one, and the struggle begins! Just ask my wife! The struggle is real! And if it just so happens to be unusual or “special’ or has “character,” and if it happens to be priced right, then that desire somehow morphs into a need!
The Tom Thumb Piano fits the criteria of special, unique, and character. Since I have a love of Blues and Roots music, this piano got my attention. The website contains a video of Alan Oscar playing the actual piano sampled for this instrument. That was enough for me! But before I get into the library, let’s take a short look at a couple of famous quirky pianos that we recorded.
Famous Quirky Pianos in Pop Music History
Just kidding! I can’t begin to mention the various pianos made famous by recordings! But I can mention a few pianos that would fit into the quirky category. First of all there is Tom Waits. He likes slightly out-of-tune pianos so much that people will often refer to a piano as a Tom Waits Piano. My guess is these are mostly upright pianos. Go listen to some Tom Waits and you’ll see what I mean.
But my first memory of unusual pianos begins with the pianos in Bob Dylan’s Rainy Day Women #12 & 35 and in The Beatles’ Rocky Raccoon. I think the Rainy Day Women piano would fall into the Tom Waits variety, but the Rocky Raccoon piano is a straight-up tack piano. It was the Challen piano at Abbey Road Studios, and it had a pedal to lower brass-tipped strips of felt. To me, the piano sounds perfectly in tune, but it has that distinctive tack sound.
The last piano I’d like to reference is the piano used in The Rolling Stones’ Wild Horses. Jim Dickinson, the piano player, has told the story a number of times, and I found a video interview with Jim Dickinson where he discusses recording the song. It was the tack piano in the back corner of the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. It’s a great story that includes Ian Stewart’s refusal to play minor chords and Jim Dickinson stepping in. The Stones were playing out-of-tune to the studio’s grand piano, so Jim Dickinson tried the Wurlitzer and then the Tack piano in the back corner. The rest is history.
As far as quirky pianos go, the Tom Thumb piano is new to me. I’d never seen one, and I didn’t recall hearing recordings of them. But after a tiny bit of research it seems I’ve missed a gem in piano history.
The Tom Thumb Piano
Basically, Tom Thumb pianos were smaller upright pianos that were designed to be easy to transport. They generally weighed in at about 200 pounds, and had between 58 to 68 keys. They were designed for apartments, clubs, speakeasies, or anywhere that needed a piano with a small footprint. They were popular in the speakeasies of the 1920s. A similar piano was used in the movie Casablanca.
If you want to hear a live Tom Thumb piano you’re in luck! Here is a video of Joe Bonamassa performing Tom Waits’ Jockey Full of Bourbon on his video, Live at the Vienna Opera House. And it just so happens that it is the very same piano used for this library, played by the at-the-time owner Arlan Oscar (AKA Arlan Oscar Schierbaum). Arlan has toured and recorded with artists as varied as the Pointer Sisters, Janiva Magness, Beth Hart, and Joe Bonamassa (including the Band Rock Candy Funk Party). When Arlan decided to sell his Tom Thumb Piano, Doug Morton, the owner of Q Up Arts, and Arlan decided to sample the instrument. And that’s how we got here!
Q Up Arts The Tom Thumb Piano
For Tom Thumb, you will need the full version of Kontakt 5 or above. Installed, Tom Thumb uses a little less than 650 MB. The GUI contains a number of editing options, from mechanical, to effects, to tone and shaping. There are three microphone positions: Back, Front, and XY. I found that I needed to play with the mix a little to get the sound I wanted.
I also enjoyed turning the Tack on and off. The tack obviously adds to the attack, but it isn’t as obvious as other tack pianos. It is a very nice and subtle addition.
Just like the source piano, the Tom Thumb piano doesn’t sound quite in-tune, although that term is misleading, because I believe it wouldn’t sound out of tune in a mix. On the original piano there is more than one string per note. And those strings are slightly out of tune, and that’s what gives it its sound. Another way of saying it would be to use the word “chorused,” but I don’t think that is accurate either. That is all part of Tom Thumb’s character. Part of what makes it different. And I don’t think of it as a negative. It’s a feature!
For lack of a better description, this instrument is a one trick pony. I hope it makes sense when I say it is a barroom or honky-tonk sounding instrument. You either want/need it, or you don’t … and that will be a question for you to answer. I listened to The Stones original version of Wild Horses (mentioned above), and I think there is a strong resemblance in the piano on the recording and the Tom Thumb piano. If I could be so bold, I think the Tom Thumb piano may have even been a better fit for that song. I know! Sacrilege! But playing along with the recording was a fun experience, and the instrument fit with the jangly, slightly-chorused guitars on the recording.
For a comparison, I brought up Sampletek’s Rain Piano, the only piano I own that is even close to being similar. Now I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison. The sample size and price of these two instruments are different, but the stated intentions have some similarity. And both pianos are slightly out of tune, in a good way. The Rain Piano is much more polite. Its sound is more detailed and subtle. Tom Thumb is in your face! Where the Rain Piano has more body, Tom Thumb has attack. Is one better than the other? No, but Tom Thumb is obviously, by its nature, going to be more specialized.
But Where Can I Use This?
I asked myself this question. You already know that I admire the history of using similar sounding pianos in recordings. My first recorded song included me dropping an SM-57 into the top of an upright piano. Hey! It worked! Well … at the time it sounded good, and hopefully I’ve grown. But I’ve always had an admiration for that old upright piano that sits over in the corner, so I’m inclined to look for reasons to use one. How about you?
Do you have a cue that needs an old western piano? Or maybe the song is acoustic blues and you want it to sound like it was recorded on the front porch. Or you want that loose, rough piano sound of the songs that I discussed above.
I decided to make a quick rough solo demo of Tom Thumb to hopefully make my comments clear. It can be found here. I must say that I enjoyed working with the Tom Thumb piano. If you have a need for this type piano, I’d recommend you take a look at Tom Thumb!
Q Up Arts Tom Thumb Piano
Price: $99.00 USD
The Tom Thumb Piano requires Kontakt 5.7 or later full version (not compatible with the Kontakt free Player).