Acoustic Grand and Upright: Warren Shadd and the Shadd Piano

Keyboard instroduces new column on acoustic pianos with a focus on Warren Shadd's Shadd Pianos
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“All I can say is wow,” Washington, DC native Warren M. Shadd tells me of his recent visit to the Vatican in Rome, Italy. But this country’s first African American piano maker wasn’t there on a simple sightseeing trip. His 9'3" Shadd grand piano was recently chosen as the official piano of the Vatican, with the Pope’s seal artfully emblazoned on the instrument’s inside lid. “I was told that the Pope is in awe of the instrument, which is used by the Sistine Chapel Choir,” Shadd says. “I’m going back to have a personal, sit-down meeting with the Pope this month. That’s going to be awesome!”

Shadd grew up in a musical family: His aunt was the legendary Grammy-winning pianist and singer Shirley Horn. “Her unique combination of singing, swinging and accompanying herself with a rich vocabulary of chord voicings was just a tad inspiring,” Shadd jokes. But Horn wasn’t the only musician in Shadd’s family. “I actually grew-up as a drummer in an extremely vibrant musical household,” Shadd says. “My father, my grandmother, my mother and my sister were all pianists. And my grandfather was a drummer and the inventor of the collapsible drum set. So I was totally immersed in music.”

Shadd was introduced to the art of piano technology through his father as well. “My father, James, became a piano technician because he got tired of playing beat-up pianos on his gigs,” Shadd explains. “He got himself a tuning hammer and soon after, he started bringing pianos into our house. There were pianos everywhere –from the garage to the kitchen. He really began to love working on pianos and I started experimenting with them as well. As a hobby, I would disassemble pianos completely, just like someone might do with a toy car. I experimented with taking parts from one piano and putting them into a different one, understanding the characteristics each part brought to the mix. I had no idea at that time it would one day lead to me building my own instruments!”

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Shadd’s foray into serious piano work came after his father’s death in 1993. “After my father passed away, I took over his piano tuning and rebuilding business in Washington, DC. I did a lot of tuning and repair work for everyone from public schools to celebrity artists. At that time I started writing down my ideas of how to enhance the sound of the piano. But I didn’t do anything with them for a decade, when a tuning client of mine encouraged me to build my own piano. He said to me, ‘You’re the only guy that can do it!’ I became so inspired by his words, I went back to my old notes and I started experimenting again. That resulted in my first prototype in 2003, based on an idea I had for an interactive piano that had various onboard sound enhancements. It had built-in electronics and speakers that gave the player a surround-sound experience, even in the bench.” When a proposed partnership between Shadd and a famed piano maker fell apart, Shadd struck out on his own. He sold his first instrument in 2012 and hasn’t looked back since. “I’m able to cherry-pick my favorite piano parts and build instruments from the ones I think are the best,” Shadd explains. “I get to customize each piano exactly as I want.”

The Pope isn’t the only famous user of the Shadd Piano these days. Shadd’s instruments are also featured on the hit Fox TV show Empire, and championed by artists such as Chip Crawford (Gregory Porter) and pianist Antonio Ciacca. “We’ve sold pianos from New York to Australia and all over the world,” Shadd says. “And we’re close to producing a piano for the President. So let’s see how that works out!”