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 Piano Music Rolls

'From the classics to ragtime, player piano music rolls to this day, continue to be readily available new or second hand, from many sources, in every country of the world. Such was, and is, the popularity of the medium'

A piano roll is the data used to control the player piano.  A piano roll is a roll of paper with perforations (holes) punched in it. The position and length of the perforation determines which note is played and how long the note is sustained, on the piano. The roll moves over the 'tracker bar', which first had 58 holes, then 65 and later was standardised to 88 holes, one for each key. When a perforation passes over the hole, the note sounds.


Piano rolls were in production commercially from 1896 to present  and are still available, with QRS Music probably the largest still manufacturing, and many smaller concerns producing yearly limited output. The first paper rolls were used by Welte for use in their Orchestrions from 1883. Hundreds of companies produced piano rolls in differing size and perforation, in 1909 the American manufacturers of both rolls and player pianos agreed to a standard of 88 note rolls.

The player piano can be considered the first true computer, with data input via the roll, to perform a 'programed' function.


Arranged rolls are made using  sheet music as a guide.  The controls on the player for accenting, subduing and varying the roll speed must be used to avoid a lacklustre performance.

Hand played is a loose term for rolls supposedly made using a recording device that marks the paper as an artist plays, creating a 'master roll'. The master is then used as a guide for perforation of further rolls. As with other rolls, notes may be added and errors removed, by the arranger. This method was used as early as 1904 by the Welte company for their reproducing piano.  


The Duo-Art, Ampico and Welte brands play 'reproducing' piano rolls, as they are intended to reproduce the touch and dynamics as well as the notes , when played back on same brand reproducing pianos. 

There are literally thousands of titles, from Classical Beethoven to ABBA. Whatever your taste, there will be piano rolls to suit you.    (maybe not heavy metal or punk....)                                                                                              

There have been hundreds of makers of piano rolls, mostly during the early years of last century. In Australia, the Mastertouch Roll Co, survived in Crystal Street Leichardt Sydney, until 2005. 80 to 90% of rolls in Australian collections are Mastertouch.


There are many sources of rolls; newly perforated, deceased estate auctions, eBay and other online auction sites, flea markets, secondhand stores and antique dealers. Some older rolls are damaged at either margin, due to poorly aligned tracking devices over many years. These rolls will become more fragile as each year passes, and care must be taken with their handling and storage to lengthen their life. 


Fragile old rolls and New Stock

It is often said, that the days of the pneumatic player piano, or Pianola, if you please, are numbered due to the decomposition of 80-100 year old roll paper. Whilst this is true of some rolls, it is certainly not the rule. Many piano rolls from the teens and twenties are still very playable, and if needed may easily be repaired. Of course they will not last forever, so there is some merit in the fear that rolls will tire and disintegrate, and that does indeed happen over time and over some very dodgy tracker mechanisms. It is frustrating to have a fine old roll shred itself before your eyes, and usually before you can stop catastrophic damage. That said, thousands of rolls still exist from later decades of the 20th Century, and many are in perfect 'like new' order. These rolls are easily sourced from eBay, player interest groups and even by swapping with other collectors who may have double or more titles.

Even more interesting are the cottage and medium size business's who continue to arrange and perforate new rolls on brand new paper stock designed to last many decades of use. Hundreds of titles are still available, and this alone is good reason to be optimistic about the future of the pneumatic player piano.

Indeed it is a fact that many new rolls are of even higher quality than the early originals, that were mostly of high quality themselves. You can order titles from some companies and hobbyists, who will perforate a small run. You will likely be required to purchase the run of 5-10 rolls, but this investment is easily recouped by re-selling or swapping.

You may also readily purchase specially made roll boxes, labels, roll leaders (many closely resembling the originals with their artwork etc.) cardboard spools and roll flanges.

I have many ancient piano rolls in good to excellent condition, also some in a disastrous state ready for repair and many from closer decades that are as new, and some brand new rolls of excellent quality, and always priced reasonably. You will find a few superb present day arranger/ roll  makers (scroll down) and in the Links section of this site.

I believe that the future of the pneumatic player piano (Pianola) is very secure. 





This roll required repair as the left 'tracking' side was frayed. I did this by running archival tape along the edge (back) to strengthen it. Only run in 1" lengths and split the tape to avoid covering expression perforations. This method will add years of life to a damaged roll. Only use archival tape, it will not cause damage to the paper, long term. 


 It is my pleasure to welcome the generous contribution of information to thisite by L. Douglas Henderson, and present his ARTCRAFT Music Roll Company. Douglas needs no introduction, as he is one of the most eminent roll arrangers and producers in the world.

In addition to his prior many decades in the industry: ARTCRAFT is celebrating 30 years of quality music roll production in 2012

 "ARTCRAFT Rolls That Convey Realism And Fine Technique"

 Arranged by L. Douglas Henderson, (pictured above) Douglas lives and works in the picturesque village of Wiscasset Maine, his artistry in roll arranging, surpasses anything previously available, the Artcraft range of piano music rolls are unique. Nothing comes close to the life and exuberance that these rolls showcase. If you want the very best performances from your player piano: 

The following material is drawn from ARTCRAFT Music Roll's site, and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Mr. L. Douglas Henderson:


 Above is a view of the Industrial Model #8-B, which has a 16-roll duplicating capacity via a special rack for the pre-trimmed paper. The Studio use of this 'Leabarjan' is not to copy rolls, but to RE-MASTER old arrangements by "reading" a perforated roll while "cutting" entirely different material with the punch directly behind the 'tracing' stylus. The #8-B has taken some drab rolls of the past and made sparkling NEW Masters, complete with augmented thematic material and varied striking effects. [See NEW 'CASTLE HOUSE' MEDLEY in the roll description department for details about this special kind of arranging activity:http://w

 The key to the artistic success of ARTCRAFT Rolls lies in the combination of modern audio with vintage 'Leabarjan'™ perforators. Three 'Leabarjan' machines (2 Model #5 and 1 Model #8-B) are in the Studio, along with a variety of Tandberg and Marantz audio equipment, for the analysis of recorded music. Rolls in-progress can be heard immediately through "instant replay" on an electric "AR" or a pedal "O" Steinway-Aeolian player grand piano, only a few steps away. The use of multiple perforators also allows 'test strips' to be cut and these can be auditioned while the Master Roll remains in another 'Leabarjan'. The time scales are variable, just as with the note perforations, so this is a departure from the 1911-1927 design of the original equipment. An INTERPRETIVE ARRANGEMENT might have 7 punches per beat (instead of the traditional 6 or 8 used by the industry), or 11 or anything else which "fits" the musical effect desired. An important thing to remember is that EVERY roll produced by this ARTCRAFT process is a separate musical project — the rolls attempt to "fit the musical performance desired" instead of being "forced into a stock formula" established by a factory. The staccato is graduated, for example, and there are no limiting 'rules' for arranging techniques.

 These pictures don't illustrate the superior sustaining pedal effects of ARTCRAFT rolls, but suffice to say they can be played in the company of an accomplished keyboard pianist. (Excessive sustaining pedal effects are perhaps the worst element of the original Ampico and Duo-Art releases). The modern INTERPRETIVE ARRANGEMENT approaches the pneumatic sustaining pedal as something "slower" and completely different from the pianist's use of the device, and — in doing so — achieves artistic heights in pedal shadings, heretofore unknown in the music roll field.

ARTCRAFT Rolls have shared the concert stage, here and abroad, with some of the finest pianists of our time. As one celebrated Gottschalk interpreter exclaimed during a program, after hearing an INTERPRETIVE ARRANGEMENT based on an analysis of his audio recordings, "That's me! Even the parts I can't play sound like me!"

 COMPARE THESE PERFORMANCES of "THE NAKED DANCE", 'Jelly Roll' Morton's brothel number!

HEAR JELLY ROLL MORTON play "The Naked Dance" on a rare 78 rpm record ... then listen to the ARTCRAFT Music Roll simulating his performance. (Note: Player rolls have variable tempo, so the ARTCRAFT Roll version is a bit slower, which I prefer, but it could be set for the same tempo as the phonograph record.)

a) Morton, live, playing -
b) An ARTCRAFT Interpretive Arrangement, arranged/perforated by L. Douglas Henderson -

The "played by Jelly Roll Morton" rolls were fakes made by Mary Allison, working from copies of Melrose sheet music.

c) - "Brand X" (This is "MR. JELLY LORD", since "THE NAKED DANCE" was never issued on '20s rolls, to our knowledge. It gives you an idea of factory formula arranging.)

 Let's all bury the MYTH of  "Hand  Played" music rolls!   Follow the link below:    

 ARTISTYLE Rolls for the Angelus players

The overlooked and highly creative roll annotation system by Wilcox & White of Meriden, CT
- and in the U.K., usually connected with Marshall & Rose pianos

Wilcox & White Co. - a family businessoperating differently from Aeolian and other corporations in the field.

    The Wilcox & White Co. built player-pianos and piano-players before the Aeolian Co. introduced their Pianola, an international sales success. If you feel the need to research the people who built what became The Aeolian Co., Wilcox & White, the Simplex companies, and the rest, the place to start is Pianos and their Makers by Alfred Dolge, Vols. I and II. These informative books were published in Covina, CA by the author in the 'Teens, reprinted by Vestal Press as Men Who Have Made Piano History (for Vol. II) and are on-line as downloads for the Internet generation. Dolge outlines the various short-lived partnerships, patents, and developments for the group of people who eventually became Wilcox & White along with the Aeolian Co., both of Meriden, CT. The Whites, however, along with their inventor Bill Parker, did most of the 20th Century W&W work and guided the company through its continuing player reed organ business and Angelus piano enterprise –– until it went into bankruptcy in 1921, continuing here and abroad under other managements.

While Aeolian –– across the street in Meriden –– was supposedly a competitor, this was not entirely true. Aeolian's Universal Music Rolls Co. supplied the W&W rolls and duplicated their 'hand played' and 'reproducing roll' Masters, from 1916-1921 and then with Theo. Brown (Simplex) taking over the piano manufacturing, Aeolian continued to make rolls until 1926. At that point, QRS took over the program. I was a friend of Russell White and several members of the family; he said that he and Percival van Yorx, the arrangers for the company, continued to make Master rolls until the switch from Aeolian to QRS. The companies were not the rivals as others often proclaim them to be, and they both shared the "solo" patents in the States, called the Themodist by Aeolian and the Melodant by Angelus.

    The ad above gives an indication of the earlier market for the Angelus piano-players. They began with the Pneumatic Symphony 44-Note reed organ which in the opinion of this writer had a superior tone to the Aeolian 1500 organ, of slightly later vintage, using 46-Note rolls. (So popular were the latter instruments that the company's name was changed from the Mechanical Orguinette Co. to Aeolian.) Rolls for both player reed organ lines were made by the Aeolian-connected interests, including the time before its name change in the mid 1890s.

    The Orchestral Angelus 58-Note piano-player, shown above, was an outgrowth of the Wilcox & White organ business. It was constructed like an organ and featured 2 ranks of reeds (violin and flute) plus swells and a stop marked Piano. I have played a number of them as an organ only since the reeds were tuned to A-435 (or thereabouts) and not A-440, the piano tuning standard of our time. It would have meant "detuning" a piano in our museum during its run of 23 years, so the Piano + Organ feature was never used. I did have on rare occasional several opportunities to play the Angelus Orchestral Piano which had one bank of reeds in the piano, so can imagine the effects that this early piano-player produced. [The quantity of reeds was not standardized in this family business, so on special order many more reeds were incorporated into their player organs and Angelus piano-players.]

    Wilcox & White organ rolls along with their Angelus player piano rolls in the 58 and 65-Note formats were all designed to run in the opposite direction from Aeolian and the other makes. The dynamic imprinting is UNDER the curvature of the paper for what was calledPOSITIVE TRACKING in the old days, an idea which went back to hand crank orguinettes –– usually with a scale of 20 notes or less. While there is less paper to view in the spoolbox, above and below the tracker bar, the paper is always "TIGHT," as it opens the holes for the playing notes ... so there was a valid reason for this approach. I have never found it difficult, but then if one knows the arrangement, through a little advance practice, it's not necessary to  view a larger display. POSITIVE TRACKING also produced few discords when playing.

Wilcox & White "divided up the United States" which eliminated the alleged competition.

    If you examine where the major dealers for the Angelus players were, you will find –– taking California as an example –– that Sherman & Clay with Aeolian were in the larger cities and coastal areas, while the inland communities, such as Stockton, had the Wiley B. Allen Co., a major retailer of Angelus instruments. The advertising reflects this emphasis also. While Aeolian had the urban, "arty" and rich person aura in their ads, plus endorsements from musicians who annotated their rolls, Angelus emphasized the "home parlour atmosphere" and had supportive visuals in their ads accordingly. The focus on the Angelus was on YOU, the owner. Aeolian pushed 'experts', especially composers, who were going to guide the customer through the interpretations, all laid out from sheet music in those days. Angelus empowered the customer. Aeolian dominated from a lofty sphere and specialized in name dropping at every opportunity. Thus, competitors that the two companies might have been, they didn't rub elbows that much in the music roll field in spite of what some revisionists often say.

    Now, although I have said that Wilcox & White avoided name dropping, it was used occasionally in their advertising. Here are two examples of endorsements from the years of 58 and 65-Note rolls; many instruments were playing both formats with different paper widths at that time:

Caruso and the Angelus

–– and this early Angelus display advertisement . . . (plus note the reference to other artists being PAID TO ENDORSE players, a definite slam against Aeolian as well as the Simplex, which had Adelina Patti posing with their spring-operated 65-Note piano-players.)

                and the King

    Alas, these rather infrequent advertising campaigns were not to be long lasting when the (standardized) 88-Note players arrived after 1910. Edward VII shifted over the Steinway Grand Pianola Piano (as the sounding board decals on my 1912 pedal O Steinway proclaim) while Enrico Caruso moved over to the Hardman Autotone, and there are pictures of him with a white 'Art Case' upright model, pedaling it as he sang along with the rolls.

The Artistyle Rolls: 65-Note then 88-Note releases
–– but the company never fully recovered from the switch away from 65-Note rolls

    One of two limiting factors of Wilcox & White was that it was a) a family business more than a 'holding company' corporation and b) they began with player reed organs and never stopped using "organ technology" in their player piano action designs. Beyond that they owned no piano company so had to purchase instruments and fit them with the Angelus players. The Knabe Angelus was one of the first players using a deluxe instrument (going back to the 65-Note days). However, as the piano companies began to combine into corporate entities, they found themselves without a steady supply of known pianos with which to associate the Angelus actions. The American Piano Co. took away Wm. Knabe and Chickering. Aeolian monopolized Steinway, plus owned Weber and Geo. Steck. Kohler and Campbell 
– the Autopiano and later Welte-Mignon Licensee/Deluxe people – absorbed one company after another and "raided" many of the finer Boston area brands, using them for Standard Pneumatic Actions, later installed in over 110 makes of pianos. Finally, Wilcox & White bought their rolls from Aeolian right there in Meriden, CT, so availability often led to requesting a "2nd or 3rd choice" when ordering titles. Shortly before their bankruptcy in 1921, Wilcox & White bought a couple of lesser known piano companies, but they never had the stature and aura of say, "a Knabe Angelus player".

    While the pseudo-scientific Metrostyle line by Aeolian had been launched earlier, the Artistyle 'competition' began in the 65-Note era as well, featuring Aeolian rolls respooled and with the printing on the reverse side for 65s and conventional tracker bar layout for the 88-Note releases.

    What makes the Artistyle so appealing is that it EMPOWERS THE ROLL INTERPRETER rather than assaulting the senses with a wavy red line that is partly for accenting and partly for phrasing purposes. Instead of some grandiose name of a musician to justify the line, the Artistyle merely combined dynamics with tempo phrasing, using their combination levers: one for the basic tempo and the other a 'tablet' called THE PHRASING LEVER for Accelerate/Ritard/Pause. This device connected to the wind (air) motor governor directly, giving one the "feel" of the instrument, hence their expression, which was "The Phrasing Lever is The Heart of the Angelus." Note, other players often featured an Accel./Rit. lever or buttons which did roughly the same thing, but the Artistyle was primarily aimed at use with the tablet control of the Angelus instrument.

    Let's begin by analyzing a typical Artistyle annotated music roll:

We wish to thank advanced collector Michael Potash for supplying these Artistyle pictures, shown in his Franklin Marque Ampico (pedal Ampico) spoolbox.

Here on the leader of an Artistyle roll is the stamp for tempo instructions – where R, A and T (standard tempo) were the key indicators for the use of the Phrasing Lever (tablet). One merely followed the usual dynamic line but influenced the roll speed with these markings.

Here we see the dynamic spectrum for pedaling, a layout which follows most 65-Note and 88-Note music rolls. The difference here is that A, T, R and a few other details replace the series of "spots" or lines on conventional rolls for the volume to be achieved. NOTE: The roll begins with "T," the regular speed set by the tempo indicator at this point.

Standard tempo continues here but LOUD at first and SOFTER as indicated.

The roll is running at the middle volume (MF) and you can see where the standard tempo ("T") changes to Accelerate ("A"). At this point the musician presses down on the Phrasing Lever to speed up the roll at his/her own discretion.