Scroll down for a slide show of seminal Yamaha musical instruments, and links to current and previous videos and reviews of Yamaha gear.
What was the story of the founder of Yamaha and his first instrument, a reed organ?
Certainly. Torakusu Yamaha was born in 1851 and he was the
third son of Takanosuke Yamaha, a Samurai from the Tokugawa area in the
Kishu region. Now today, actually it's in the Wakayama prefecture. His
father was in charge of astronomical and surveying types of things. So
when Torakusu was a young guy, he had a lot of books and equipment and
things around the house and as he got older he became more and more
interested in the mechanics of things. There was a sort of modernization
that was going across Japan around 1868, a sort of restoration, so he
went to Nagasaki prefecture, which was kind of the area where all the
Western culture was coming in. He was really fascinated by watches and
he wanted to be a watch repairman. He went there to study and was
working with a British engineer, and after several years of strong
training there he wanted to put together a watchmaking company of his
own. Unfortunately, he didn't have enough funds so he moved to Osaka
where he learned how to repair medical equipment.
In 1884, he moved to Hamamatsu, which is where the Yamaha
company is based now, and repaired equipment at Hamamatsu Hospital. In
1887, a little American reed organ was at one of the Hamamatsu
elementary schools and it refused to function properly. It had been
imported that same year so nobody in the school really knew how to fix
it. This was a big deal—it was a prized possession for them—so learning
that this mechanically-inclined guy was there, they sent for him. He
undid the screws and found out there where only two springs inside that
had broken, but while he was doing that he kind of sketched out the way
the organ was made because he thought, “You know, I might be able to
make that myself.” Also, people that came from Samurai tended to be very
nationalistic and to want their entrepreneurial efforts to help the
There’s a story of Mr. Yamaha carrying his prototype reed organ over a mountain on foot. . . .
This was around 1886 or so, and there was a public decree
that elementary schools were going to be established in each region with
singing as an optional subject, and they needed affordable instruments
to accompany all the singers. At this time, Yamaha was living in
Hamamatsu, so he made his first organ there, and then he had to have it
approved and go past Mount Fuji, traveling along the coast there. There
were some mountain passes he had to go through to get it to Tokyo
because officials there were the ones who would approve any instruments
for use in education. I'm sure it took several days for him to haul this
thing to be looked at.
After that long hike, did the officials approve his design?
Not the first version of the organ, no. The main problem
was that it couldn’t be tuned in the way that they needed. So, he
trudged it all the way back to Hamamatsu and went back to the drawing
board. Then he had to bring the next one all the way back there, so he
made a couple of trips back and forth. That's a pretty strong
constitution to be able to do something like that, but back in those
days that was the way you did it. He took it back to what was called the
Tokyo Music School, now the Tokyo University of the Arts, and they
Once they did, he set up his first little organ works in
1889 as a partnership. He then took a five-year study in the United
States and went around to all the piano manufacturers and tried to learn
as much as he possibly could. He was also buying some wood and
machinery, and once he got back to Japan, things really got going. In
1890 he established the headquarters in Hamamatsu and then he was off.
He had a lot of great, energetic young people working there. That's the
basic nutshell of how it got started.
When did Yamaha first get into making acoustic pianos?
The first acoustic piano was made right around 1900. I
think we started making upright pianos first, and in 1902 there was the
first Yamaha grand piano. In 1904, both a Yamaha piano and organ
received honorary grand prizes at the Saint Louis World's Fair, and that
was when they really knew they were on the right track.
What was the initial marketing or competitive story
when Yamaha first showed up with a piano and had to sell against
That's one of the reasons why those awards at the World's
Fair in the early 1900s were such a big deal. That gave some credibility
to Yamaha, but market-wise, it was a Japan-focused company for the most
part. We didn't start overseas subsidiaries until 1959. The first one
was in Mexico. The United States was the second in 1960. There’s one
side note about Koichi Kawai. When Yamaha came back in 1899, returning
from his study tour in the United States, he was working very hard as
the president of the company. The following year, he picked out a highly
competent bunch of young people with whom he entrusted the
craftsmanship and the production line. Among these guys was a guy by the
name of Koichi Kawai who had joined Yamaha Organ Works as an apprentice
at age 11. When labor disputes broke out in 1926, Kawai left the
company and established Kawai Musical Instrument Research Laboratories,
which became the Kawai company of today. He left with seven colleagues in 1927.
How about the entry into the drum market? Many great drummers use Yamaha kits.
That was quite awhile later, actually. Drums were in the
early 1960s. We worked with the people in Osaka, where our big drum
company was. In fact, we’re just now winding that facility down after
all these years. We built our first acoustic guitar in 1942. We started
in home hi-fi gear in 1954. Motorcycles started in 1954 as well. In
1959, we developed the Electone organ.
Given that Yamaha was a musical instrument company
first, how did Yamaha's philosophy in designing musical instruments
affect the company's entry into things like motorcycles and boat motors?
Because we were doing some work in metallurgy—that’s what
really started the technologies that lead to the first motorcycle
production. We obviously were working with metals and woods and things.
Especially then, but even nowadays you can’t go down to the local
fabricator and say you want to buy a flute panning machine or any of the
kinds of machinery that we used. In fact, that’s what got us into the
business that we have in Japan, and that is that we make robots and
machinery for manufacturing, because we had to become so adept at it
because we had to make nearly all of our manufacturing machines ourselves. That was how motorcycles came about. We had good metallurgy skills and somebody said, let’s try a motorcycle.
Of course, what really got us started in metallurgy was
casting pianos frames. The basic philosophy of the company and how we
decide what we’re going to build is that we have the music company as
the core and then we stretch out in areas where we think we have some
expertise. We had a factory in Silicon Valley when that all got started
and we did well, and when things got super-competitive we’d pull out.
Same thing for ring tones on phones—we had all that synthesis
capability, so we jumped into ring tones early on and stayed as long as
it was good for us to do so. Same thing with sporting goods; we’re still
in that business in domestic Japan. The boat motor thing came out of
the motorcycle side. We even wound up in golf carts as well.
Has Yamaha ever made a car?
Yes, I believe that we did. I think it was around a
million dollars or something! It was one of these super high-end concept car types
of things, but we’ve never made cars for any type of regular production.
But our work is in other cars. The motor in my 2010 Volvo is by Yamaha.
We do all the wood trim inside a Lexus. The reason is that we have a
pretty good knowledge of how to work with wood and put a really strong
finish over it so that it's going to last for a long time, which of
course comes from building grand pianos.
Among high-end grand pianos, what would be the Yamaha story that distinguishes it from the other brands today?
I think our story would have to be: constant innovation as
a result of constant feedback from the market and constant R&D. The
new CFX—which I know you’ve played—we’ve been working on designing a
piano of that caliber for 19 years. Our guys in the factories think like
musicians, and many are musicians. They’re always looking for
the “holy Grail.” The horn players are always looking for that perfect
horn or brass mouthpiece or ligature setup, and so on. As a keyboard
player, you're looking for the best of everything in the sampling, in
the action of the keyboard, and so on.
What wass one of the biggest challenges in achieving that?
Technology will only take you so far at a certain
time—sometimes technology needs to catch up with your vision. That’s
true even with instruments that are a blend of technology and craft,
like a grand piano. Technology has now taken us to a level where we can
craft a fine acoustic piano like the CFX. People often say our pianos
stay in tune and in regulation much longer than other ones. And because
you’re not working with beginners but instead with people who really
know what they’re talking about and who actually want that piano to be
an extension of them, of their arms and their hands and their
hearts—that’s the thing that we continually strive for.
I think an important part of the Yamaha story is the
consistency between one unit and another. Any C7 I’ve played in any
studio anywhere, I know what I’m going to get.
Consistency, we feel, is incredibly important. We want to
build with the highest level of quality possible, but only if we can
duplicate that, instrument after instrument. We don’t subscribe to “bad
days” or any of those kinds of things. The caliber of concert players
that would perform on a CFX professionally, they can see subtle nuances
in one unit that they’ll therefore like a little more than the next.
When it drops down just a little below that, the consistency is so good
that people don’t see that. In fact, we think consistency gets more
important as you go down in level of ability. You want a
beginning student to play an acoustic guitar that’s going to fret well
and be easy to work with. You want them to be able to play a trombone or
a trumpet that stays in tune, intonation-wise, with itself. That makes
it easier to learn and gives you a better ear. All those things go
together. Consistency is important all the way through the different
instruments that we make.
Tell us about Yamaha's entry into the home organ
market. Some of my first exposure to electronic keyboards involved the
auto-accompaniment and quasi-synthesizer features on Yamaha Electone
We finished our first pipe organ in 1932. Making a pipe
organ in days was a major deal—at least for us. It was called the Magnum
Organ. Organ-making was where the company started, of course, and then
it began to move more and more after that.
As for home organs, we got into semiconductors back in 1959. The original
Electone organ was the model D1, which used all discrete transistors.
But we had some user complaints caused by the susceptibility of
transistors to moisture, so the technical team focused on integrated
circuits that had arisen from rapid progress going on in semiconductors
the time, and adopted these for the Electone. That dramatically reduced
the failure rate, and in 1969 we made the decision to bring the
manufacture of semiconductors in-house. Once that happened, then it
started to move further and further with us, and then FM synthesis was
used for the first time in an Electone—it was the F70, and that was in
1981. Semiconductor technology is really what gave rise to the
groundbreaking sound generator developments like FM and AWM (Advanced
Wave Memory, i.e. sampling) in synthesizers. So, when you think
about it, really, what happened was us using semiconductors as a result
of a problem with transistors in the Electone, and then bringing that
in-house, is eventually what lead us on the track to that type of
Can you speak to FM synthesis? When did Yamaha look at John Chowning’s application of FM to music and say, “This is the future”?
I know that our now-president in Japan was working for the
company when that was happening at Stanford. At one point he said there
was a lot of discussion on whether or not we were going to come out
with it, whether it would be a success or a failure. Finally, the
decision was made to come out with it and of course the rest of that is
Really, what the DX series of synthesizers allowed you to
do in the mid-1980s was to create percussive, acoustic, articulated and
bell-like tones in a way that the analog synths of the day could not. In
fact, nothing else that was portable at the time really could.
Exactly—that’s why I saved up for two summers to buy a
DX7! Okay, software synthesizers and compact computing platforms like
the iPad are more powerful than ever, particularly when it comes to
recording, yet the Yamaha Motif series has perhaps been the most
successful integrated keyboard workstation of all time. What are your
views on the future of the hardware keyboard workstation?
Good question. I think you have to take a view similar to
what you might have about acoustic pianos. Digital pianos are better
than ever and utterly convincing for most musical purposes. We should
know—we make them! But there's always going to be a place for acoustic
pianos. Similarly, and at least for a long time, there is going to be a
place for good quality synth workstations that do a lot for the customer
“under one roof.” We’ve seen the market shift down a little bit on
those higher-end workstations—we’re not selling as many overall as we
used to—but we’re coming out with new models that offer more features
and sound for the money, which makes a difference. We’re coming out with
our next one now [the MOFX series] and I think people will want to buy
that; there's that group that wants to buy it right at the beginning
because they’ve come along with us all the way—they know our operating
systems and they know how to make the machine do what they need it to
do. Will hardware synth workstations be around in 20 years? That I don't
know. But for the foreseeable future, musicians are going to want them.
We're working on our next generation without a doubt.
Coming soon: A conversation with Yamaha marketing chief and keyboard expert Athan Billias.