Keys: Lipped, Waterfalls and Diving Boards

      7 Comments on Keys: Lipped, Waterfalls and Diving Boards

Yamaha recently added two new models, the YC88 and YC73 to its YC Series of instruments. This range of stage keyboards is targeted at the gigging musician. The YC88, with a wooden graded hammer action keyboard (NW-GH3), is primarily for pianists, whilst the YC73, with balanced hammer action, is for general keyboardists.

These two models complement the inaugural Yamaha YC61 (primarily for organists). But what, you may ask, has this all to do with the title of this article?

Well, the YC61 has what is known as a waterfall keyboard, whilst the YC88 has a lipped keyboard. What is the difference and more importantly, why is there a difference?

Common key profiles

Lipped Keys

Virtually all pianos have lipped natural keys, as do most harpsichords (their forerunners). Keys were made of wood with the surface covered with thin strips of ivory, bone, porcelain, or exotic hardwoods. These extended slightly over the front of the keys (the distal end) forming a lip. 

The keyboard from Cristofori’s 1726 piano. Photo: Museo degli Strumenti Musicali, Rome, Italy

With early harpsichords and pianos, the front vertical face of each key was often engraved or decorated by carving out an “arch” (as illustrated by the Cristofori keyboard above). But by the 18th century, these faces were also clad. 

Today’s piano keys are made of wood with special acrylic coverings designed to provide the best possible playing surface. Yet the overhang/lip is still there. 

Lipped keys on a Steinway grand piano

What is the purpose of the lip? There is no definitive answer, however historic theories exist.

  1. The overhang gives a neat uniform appearance, especially when the front face of the key is also covered. In the days before modern machining, manufacturing each key to an exact size was difficult, however identical key top strips were easier to produce.
  2. Humidity would often cause keys to stick, trapped against the key slip (the part of the case in front of the keys). The lip made it easier to lift free the stuck key.
  3. The lip increases the “real estate” of the key giving the pianist a slightly larger surface area on which to play. It also helps with those wider spans – try it and you’ll see why.

Waterfall Keys

A waterfall key has no lip. Instead, the top front edge is very slightly rounded.  The concept originated in the 20th century and was primarily for contemporary electric organists.

A waterfall keyboard with rounded edges

Hammond was one of the first manufacturers to adopt this style of keyboard and used it for its A100, B3, C3, and M3 models (amongst others). Many manufacturers have since used a waterfall keyboard for their instruments (ref. the aforementioned Yamaha YC61, and the Nord Stage 3 Compact).

Why have a waterfall keyboard? Primarily to facilitate palm smears. A palm smear is a mass-glissando of a block of notes played by sliding one’s palm up or down the keyboard. This is a powerful effect for organists. Notes don’t sustain, so the glissando is clean and can be used percussively or expressively. The rounded edge of the key makes the sliding action easier, and much less painful!

Waterfall keys also tend to dip lower—to just above the key slip. And this can serve as a rest for the palm when performing a smear. 

By contrast, pianists tend to use a thumb or finger nail for glissando effects, but this is somewhat different to the palm smear as only one note at a time is normally played.

Diving Board Keys

The designation “diving board” is a new term to describe a long-existing key profile. Diving board keys have a wedge-like shape (see diagram), and come from the world of the pipe organ.

Pipe/church organs often comprise several manuals that have a fairly standard vertical spacing—often with one manual almost overhanging the one beneath. This enables the organist to span two keyboards with one hand. Some organ music actually notates this. The waterfall keyboard is the best solution for this physical arrangement.

Access Virus Ti2 Keyboard with diving board keys

Most 20th-century electric and electronic organ manufacturers continued with this type of keyboard. And when synthesizers came along there seemed little reason to change as a cheap supply line already existed. And modern electronic keyboard designs, including a few early electronic/digital pianos, tended to feature them.

Waterfall keys use less plastic in their construction. This results in a lower key inertia which generally gives a lighter touch.

Diving board keyboards also allow manufacturers to build instruments where the ends of the keys are either flush with, or overhang the key slip as shown above. This makes for a more attractive design, albeit with the keys somewhat exposed. 

A controversial conclusion?

So to sum up in absolutely the most simplistic terms… “lipped” is for pianists, “waterfall” for stage organists, and “diving board” for keyboardists and multi-manual organists. That should rattle a few cages!

If you have any thoughts on the above please do contribute below. All additional knowledge on this subject is more than welcome. 


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7 thoughts on “Keys: Lipped, Waterfalls and Diving Boards

  1. Christoph Schulz

    There is a simple explanation for the lipped keyboards: The different lengths of the key wood and the key covering due to humidity. If one were to try to achieve a perfect waterfall front with the traditional materials, the beauty would not last long.

  2. John Bishop

    I have worked on Broadwood upright pianos with waterfall keys. I can supply a photo if you request. I think it was part of “tropicalisation,” ie making the piano fit for hot, humid climates. The key covering, which I think is celluloid, has rivets in the front and at the back, concealed by the keyslip and nameboard tape respectively. I guess it was so that if the old animal glue melted, the rivets would hold. The lack of a lip might make the pianist less likely to flip one off. Or an inquisite child getting a nail under the edge. I remember it wall.

  3. Andy Thompson

    Does anyone know if the action in the YC73 is the same as the P125? Just curious as to why the smaller YC73 weighs more that the P125 that has speakers and an amplifier. Is it the metal chassis?
    Yamaha would have made many of us Piano/Organ/Synth players ecstatic had they put waterfall keys on their YC 73, or at least as an option.
    I have been layering Piano Organ and Synth my whole life and recently had to make a decision as to whether to trade in my YC 61(which I bought for it’s weight, or lack thereof, and I was playing mostly overdriven B) for a YC73. I had a gig recently that was mostly piano and I was missing my Nord Stage 2 (76) for the feel and the few extra notes in the upper end for soloing. I think I’d be fine without the lip to play piano but the waterfall key is heaven for organ. I’ve become used to playing organ on a hammer action keyboard so that’s a minor compromise, for me at least. if anyone in the R&D department is reading this…

  4. Lisa Looney

    What about curved edge keys? My family has a 1969 Story & Clark upright. Reaching for more than an octave tends to slightly easier.

  5. SP

    Some piano players (not myself though) playing certain lipped keys – mention that they get abrasion on their pinky and/or thumb when they do their maximum stretch to cover their maximum span of notes (chord). It depends on the particular beveling and/or sharpness of the lip corners or edges. I don’t have an issue with lipped form for my piano though.

  6. Andy Thompson

    Is it too much to ask for a 73(or76) note keyboard, with the same guts as the YC series that has hammer graded action with waterfall keys? Just sayin’


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