MATRIXSYNTH: Joe McGinty's Klaviphon: Vintage Czech Electric Piano



Saturday, October 20, 2018

Joe McGinty's Klaviphon: Vintage Czech Electric Piano


Klaviphon: Vintage Czech Electric Piano Improvisation Published on Oct 20, 2018 Joseph McGinty

Great discovery and story by Joe McGinty. Joe McGinty, btw, was the keyboardist for The Psychedelic Furs. He has also worked with Ryan Adams, The Ramones, Nada Surf, Kevin Ayers, Martha Wainwright, Die Monster Die, Devendra Banhart, Ronnie Spector, Jesse Malin, Amy Rigby, Space Hog and others. And of course, he has also been featured here on MATRIXSYNTH numerous times. :)

Video description: "A short improvisation on the Klaviphon Electric Piano, a rare electric piano from Czechoslovakia. I traded a broken Czech wrist watch for this keyboard at a small shop in Prague. At the shop, there was no way to test it but I could hear the reeds 'acoustically' so I figured it was cool enough to gamble on it. It sounds sort of like a Pianet.

The electric piano is going through a Moogerfooger Analog Delay, an Electro Harmonix 16 Second Delay and a Roland Jazz Chorus. Audio is from the iPhone. Video effects are from Maelstrom from Signal Culture."

And the story of how Joe McGinty acquired the Klaviphon:

"The Broken Watch and The Klaviphon

This is a story that starts with a wristwatch purchase and ends with me owning a rare, vintage Czech electric piano. “When in Prague”, my friend Cathy wrote, “check out Prague Antiques. It’s full of bric-a-brac and the owner is a Serbian man who is married to a Croatian woman”. When traveling, Amy and I always look for vintage stores, thrift stores, record stores and any place that might have some obscure vintage instruments. I had found a record store, but no luck with vintage instruments. Cathy’s recommendation was perfect, so we added it to our Saturday plan. I have to say Prague Antiques did not disappoint. The store was chock-a-block with cool knick knacks from the communist era.



We wanted to bring back a souvenir from Prague, but it was kind of overwhelming. Finally, we saw a display counter with vintage Czech wristwatches. They were all beautiful. Amy and I each picked one out. “Remember”, the shopkeeper explained, “these are vintage watches. They need to be wound. Young people come in here, buy the watch and come back a few hours later, claiming it’s broken. They don’t know about winding the watch”. Of course, we know about winding wristwatches (we’re old).

Later, we’re wandering around Holesovice, a very cool neighborhood. We stop to eat at the cafe at Cross Club, a multidisciplinary art and performance space. There are incredible sculptures there, and vintage czech radios hanging from the ceiling. I notice my watch has stopped. I wind it up, making fun of the youngsters who thought their watch was broken. Well, needless to say, a few hours later the watch stopped. And then it stopped again. So I realize, yes, my watch doesn’t work. Harrumph.

We had a sightseeing plan for the next day, our last day in Prague. Do we go back to the shop to return it? Or do I accept that I possibly have been swindled? We decide to start the day off at the shop, return the watch, and continue with our sightseeing plan.

The next day, we arrive at the shop to a sign on the door: “Please come to our sister shop, around the corner”. “Oh, great”, I’m thinking. We’ve definitely been swindled. However, the shop around the corner is much bigger. And it’s a different man in charge. I show him the watch and explain that it’s broken. He takes it behind the counter, looks at it for a while, and confirms in a thick accent, “you’re right. It is broken. My friend, he doesn’t know”. Chatting with him for a while, he tells us of his Croation wife, and we realize that he is the owner.

He is super nice and helpful and explains that we can exchange it for anything in the store of similar value. Amy asks if he has any musical instruments. Keyboards, perhaps? And I’m thinking to myself, that it would be a stretch. I see a few toy pianos. He brings out a melodica. Some harmonicas. “One more thing”, he tells us. He leads us to a corner in the back. Underneath a random assortment of figurines and statuettes is some kind of keyboard. It looks “vintage”, but it’s unclear what it is. I assume it’s some sort of air organ. He removes the statuettes and places it on a table. It looks cool, but what is it?



There’s no way to test it. I don’t see a connection for a power cord, and there’s some sort of weird banana jack for audio. Playing it, I can faintly hear tines being struck, so maybe it’s some sort of electric piano? I’m reluctant: “How can we possibly bring it back?”. But Amy is persistent. The owner says that he has bubble wrap. “But what about our sightseeing plans?” Amy says not to worry about it, we’ll find a box to bring it on the plane. She has Platinum Status on Delta, which allows for a free checked item. But one of this size?

Back at the hotel, Amy calls Delta. The representative says that they have a 50 pound maximum for checked baggage. Rut roh. Not discouraged, she does further research. On the Delta website, they allow 165 pounds for musical instruments. “Phew”.


OK, off on our mission to find a way to transport the piano. We decide that a gig bag would be better than a box, to make it clear that it’s an “instrument” that we are checking. Next, we need to find a music store in Prague that has a gig bag that’s big enough. On a Sunday. Not an easy task, but we find one just on the outskirts of the city. And then to a mall where we can buy more packing materials. Well, that’s how we spent our “sightseeing” Sunday! The keyboard fits in the gig bag, and we fill it out with our clothes for extra padding. It’s now Sunday evening, and I’m determined to find any information at all about this mysterious instrument.

I’m trying all sorts of Google searches. “Eastern European Electric Pianos”, “Czech Electric Pianos”. Maybe it’s from Russia? East Germany? Nothing is coming up, not even on the definitive Simon’s Hall of Electric Pianos. Further Googling leads me to a website devoted to Czech keyboards. Finally! It’s a Klaviphon. And, wow, there are a lot of other cool Czech keyboards that I knew nothing about. I learn that Plastic People of The Universe used this instrument! Cool! In an interview with the keyboardist, Pepa Janicek, it says that his instrument was “bruised by a dog”. Huh? Google Translate in action. Another article with better translation says that a dog chewed the wires. Oh, OK. Makes more sense. There’s a nice Klaviphon close up from a pro-communist TV show, The Thirty Cases Of Major Zeman. The band is a faux hippie rock band intended to be a parody of the “Plastic People”. In the show, they are drug addicts that hijack a plane. Apparently based on a true story. Except that the plane was not hijacked by heroin-addicted psychedelic rock musicians.



I get further sidetracked reading about the Resonet, possibly one of the first electric pianos, invented in Czechoslovakia by Ladislav Korner. He was sentenced to 18 years for treason for trying to sell his patent to Canada and Australia. The story has a happy ending, as he ended up emigrating to the U.S. where, among other things, he designed groundbreaking technology for submarines (and custom work for Jacques Cousteau). It’s a fascinating story. If you’re interested, you can read more about it here and here. Side note: In the early days of the Beatles, George Harrison played a Resonet Futurama.

The next day, at the airport, the gig bag is checked without a problem. Thank you, Delta! And thanks to our super packing job, it arrives in perfect shape. A few days later, at my studio in Brooklyn, there’s still no way to test this piano. I run into my friend, Mike Buffington on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint. And because he restores vintage theremins, he has a cable that could work for the Klaviphon. Testing it out, we hear nothing but a loud hum. I call Steve Masucci. Steve has rescued and restored vintage Ondiolines. If there’s anyone that can revive this instrument, it’s Steve. He tells me that he’ll figure out a way to get it working. While working on the instrument, he finds all sorts of random parts, including sewing machine pins. I guess they didn’t have a lot to work with in the Eastern Bloc in the 60s. A few weeks later, Steve returns the Klaviphon to the studio. We plug it in, and it actually works! The sound? It’s a bit noisy, and it’s not going to replace a Rhodes or a Wurlitzer, but it sounds pretty cool. And it’s certainly a conversation piece. I’ll be so ready for the Plastic People Of The Universe tribute. Here’s a short improvisation using an Electro Harmonix 16 Second Delay.

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