Player pianos are not any different than conventional pianos. They are acoustic pianos with the addition of either a paper roll playing mechanism which were used from the early 1900's, or the electronic mechanisms which began use in the 1980's.
Electronic player mechanisms can be installed in any existing piano and also make the piano play with expression. In addition to actually playing the piano, like the roll players do, these pianos can also play background music and vocal. We have been installing the QRS pianomation for over 20 years with great success.
Roll players can not be added to an existing piano. They had to have been installed when the piano was originally built. We restore these pneumatically operated roll players in our own factory. There are several types of pneumatic systems and all the systems were installed in upright and grand pianos. The conventional "88 note" players are most common in vintage upright pianos.
There were more refined mechanisms installed in pianos built beginning about 1911 making the piano into what is called a reproducing or expression piano. These pianos played rolls that were recorded by famous composers and pianists of that time. These hand-played rolls make the piano play exactly as the pianist played it including changes in dynamic volume and all pedaling. There were three major competing brands of these mechanisms: The Ampico, the Duo-Art, and the seldom seen Welte-Mignon.
The photo at right shows Percy Grainger with another man at a player piano (Library of Congress).