For each piano company, there seems to be a fascinating story that accompanies the instruments with which we become familiar. The Gulbransen company is no exception. Axel Gulbransen was the gentleman credited with the founding of The Gulbransen Piano Company in 1904.
Gulbransen Piano Review
At first, the Gulbransen company laid down its roots in Chicago, Illinois in the US, and by 1917 they had expanded to be the world’s largest manufacturer of ‘player pianos’. Their range of instruments was not restricted to the player pianos but included upright and grand pianos too, however, it was with the player piano that Gulbransen became more closely associated.
What drew the eye and ear to the Gulbransen upright pianos was the realization that the mechanism for the ‘player’ part of the piano was in the same case. These wonderful instruments were highly sort after and sold well across the United States. This unique invention pioneered by Axel Gulbransen allowed existing pianos to have the mechanism installed without having to buy a whole new piano. They were primarily sold under the name of Gulbransen & Dickenson, and this is the plaque you will find attached to most of the instruments from that era. Unlike some US brands, the manufacturing quality was reportedly excellent and the tone of the pianos sweet and pleasing.
Interestingly, Gulbransen sold their player pianos on the strength that they were the easiest instruments to pedal and pump. They illustrated this in some of their early brochures which included pictures of a young child being able to push the paddles and make the instrument work: it was that easy. In a catalog dating from 1924, there are quite specific details about the ‘Gulbransen Registering Piano’. Why a ‘registering’ piano? According to the literature, the pianos respond or ‘register’ the touch of the pianist so that ‘you can feel the keys go down’. This was unusual for the mechanisms or actions found in other player pianos.
These fine instruments were available in four models. At the lower end of the options came the ‘Community’ model for a meagre $450. It came in three different finishes; mahogany, walnut, and Gulbransen Oak. The components, they openly state, are not as higher quality as the pricier options, but this honest piano offers a full-player function as well as a good action and tone.
At the other end of the price, ladder is the ‘White House Model’ that would set you back a modest $700 at the time of the first production. This top-of-the-range model is described as being for ‘the most discriminating’ of musicians. It boasts a ‘tonal beauty’ and a complete range of high-quality internal and external components. Each of these pianos was intended for the mass market but with the guarantee that each was rubber-stamped by the many himself; Axel Gulbransen.
Along with Steinway & Sons, Gulbransen pianos were the only pianos approved for government use during World War Two. This is not a minor mark of quality and reputation. It is in a promotional catalog from just after the second world war that I discovered evidence of a new range of instruments that can broadly be classed as spinets or console pianos due to shape and range.
The ‘spinets’ were immensely popular at the time and many have endured and been restored today. As you would expect the spinet was a more diminutive instrument than uprights of today but still had a warmth of tone and build quality that was almost unparalleled in the 1940s. The range of these charming pianos was quite wide and offered in several different models, each with slightly different characteristics and finishes.
There is also a superb picture of a Gulbransen baby grand piano called the ‘Vanity Fair’, with a modest length of 4’6”. I recently discovered one of these pianos for sale at ‘Living pianos.com’ and it shed some light on the rarity and beauty of this instrument. The instrument on sale was a 5’1″ Baby Grand from 1938, making this instrument one that would have been manufactured in the US. (Interestingly, there is a video link here in which you can hear this stunning instrument being played).
This company has the list price at $44,100 but that is offering it at a more modest $11,795. What comes across clearly is the fact that the manufacturing quality and craftsmanship are exceptional. None of the cheaper components is present in models from this time, with almost no expense being spared to produce a piano of quality.
Gulbransen not only made great pianos but they had a reputation for making first-class electronic organs. Such was the eminence of these instruments that they set the industry standard for home organs and introduced many notable technical innovations. These, over the time of production, included a built-in ‘Leslie’ speaker, drum-machine, and ‘walking bass’ accompaniment function. The 1957 Model 1100 was one of the most ground-breaking instruments they produced.
From this time forward, Gulbransen underwent several changes of ownership. Following the decision to stop manufacturing pianos and organs by The Seeburg Corporation in the late 1960s it was not until the mid-80s that the Gulbransen name resurfaced. This time the Mission Bay Investment Company manufactured ‘Elka’ organs under the Gulbransen name.
By the early 2000s things were still in a state of flux and a firm called QRS Technologies took over the brand. ‘Samick’ produced the Gulbransen pianos until around 2010 when production ceased. The Gulbransen name is presently only associated with organs and electronic keyboards and there is no reference to Gulbransen pianos on the Samick webpages.
The message seems to be that if you are interested in a Gulbransen piano, be it a grand, console, or player piano, there are still some wonderful examples out there. What it probably means though is either being prepared to restore them or paying quite a substantial price to purchase one that has been fully restored to its former glory. The feelings from pianists are very mixed regarding the newer models and questions raised about the manufacturing quality. There seems little doubt that Gulbransen made unique and characteristic instruments that many would still love to own.