Yamaha at 125 - A Conversation with Senior VP Rick Young
By Stephen Fortner
Fri, 27 Sep 2013
As you may be aware from seeing advertisements on this site, in music stores, and pretty much everywhere musical instruments are found, Yamaha celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. We caught up with Rick Young, Senior Vice President at Yamaha U.S., who shared some informative and enjoyable anecdotes about the origins of the largest musical instrument manufacturer in the world. He also reflected on current accomplishments such as the world-beating CFX concert grand piano and on where the company may be headed in the next 20 years.
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 country. 

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 approved it.

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 established builders?

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 organs. 

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 synthesizer. 

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 definitely history. 

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. 

More ...
Coming soon: A conversation with Yamaha marketing chief and keyboard expert Athan Billias.
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