Acoustic Upright and Grand: Rhapsody in Purple

Prince's one-of-a-kind concert grand
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“You have to try new things. With the piano it’s more naked, more pure. You can see exactly what you get.” explained Prince Rogers Nelson when announcing plans for the Piano and a Microphone tour this past November. And for such an important, yet soul-baring endeavor, the artist would need a special instrument.

What the world has taken to simply calling “the purple piano” began life as a Yamaha C7X SH. Known as the Silent Piano, the C7X SH is one of the top models in the CX series, with built-in sensor technology that captures key movement and sends the data to a built-in sound module. This allows players to practice with headphones and with the feel of an acoustic-piano action while hearing high-quality, binaural playback with comparable Yamaha piano tone as well as other sounds.

The purple-piano project was the work of a small, top-secret team coordinated by Chris Gero, founder and vice president of Yamaha Entertainment Group, the same division of Yamaha that created Elton John’s “Million Dollar Piano.” Prince’s piano was selected from Yamaha’s U.S. headquarters in Buena Park, California, based on the artists specifications, and with the color to be coordinated with fabric samples from the purple furniture at his Minnesota compound. Prince rejected several paint swatches, eventually accepting a color Gero and his team had sourced from automotive paint.

Justin Elliott of J. Elliott & Co. Next, the piano traveled to Tampa Bay, Florida, for painting and customization by J. Elliott & Co., a husband-and-wife design team. “Justin Elliott is a remarkable piano customizer,” Gero explains. “Prince has exceedingly high standards, and if you’re meticulous about painting a piano, especially a piano that will be going on the road, you need the best.” And as a Disklavier tech, Elliott made sure all the sensors and electronics worked, in addition to voicing the acoustic part of the instrument based on Prince’s requirements.

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After a stop in Nashville for a “making of” documentary, the piano was sent to Paisley Park, where Elliott traveled to touch-up the paint and get the instrument concert-ready. “In addition to tuning and prepping the piano, I buffed and polished it, and made it perfect for [Prince].” When asked if the artist saw the instrument before it was done, Elliott says no. “We were trying to keep it a surprise for him. That was tricky.”

Gero’s crew also customized the piano-and-strings patch from the sound module, creating 20 variations (with adjustments in EQ and mix) for the artist to choose from.

“Only five people there knew what we were doing,” Gero explains. “It had to be done quickly. When it came to altering the sound, you can imagine the folks in Japan didn’t see the need, because they didn’t know who it was for. It had to go up the chain of command, and we needed engineers on it immediately. They pulled a couple off the Montage and within a week, they kicked back the patches.”

Prince was delighted with the instrument when it was unveiled for him, enthusing about it on Twitter. “He was madly in love with the piano,” says Gero. “The following Saturday night, he had a concert at Paisley Park, where he played it.” It was to be his only public performance on the instrument.