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Piano Buying Guide

Pianos 101

It’s Not Like Buying a Guitar

I’ve often seen customers come into a piano store in a bad mood and remain that way for most of the time they’re there. They’ll look around, ask one or two questions, plunk on a few notes, write down some prices and leave with a pained look on their faces. Some of them never buy anything. For years I’d watch this and wonder, “What’s the deal here?” Why do these folks perceive something that should be fun as such a pain?

Finally, I just started asking them, “You’ve been in three times in the last year and still haven’t bought anything. Do you mind if I ask why?” The response was practically universal: they didn’t feel like they knew enough to make an informed decision. They were bombarded with complicated (often conflicting) claims from salespeople, friends, websites and teachers. Everybody had an opinion and it was almost impossible for them to separate piano facts from piano myth or hype. Suddenly, it all became clear to me: For most people, the piano is a complete mystery.

Unlike other instrumentalists, few piano players ever explore their instrument’s “mysterious” inner workings. If someone were to open a piano’s lid and ask people to name just five of the parts inside, 95% of piano players would be unable to do it. It’s just the way things are. Pianos are complicated instruments and learning to tune and service them takes more time than most musicians are willing or able to allocate.

When they find themselves standing in a piano store, most people are a ball of confusion. All the pianos have black and white keys; the cabinets look similar. To the untrained ear, they seem to sound about the same. Yet, two pianos of similar size can be separated by thousands of dollars. What the heck’s the difference? It can be intimidating and that’s why some people think shopping for a piano is so unpleasant.

To make matters worse, the person actually paying for the piano usually isn’t the person who’s going to play it! Parents shop for their children, spouses shop for their spouses, donors shop for churches and administrators shop for music schools. How could they be excited if they weren’t even going to use the instrument they were purchasing?

In a similar set of circumstances, I guess I’d be in a bad mood too.

The Piano De-Mystified

There are two main types of pianos, Upright Pianos and Grand Pianos. Uprights are the pianos placed upright (vertically) against a wall. Grand pianos are the wing or kidney–shaped instruments.

Both upright pianos and grand pianos come in various sizes. Uprights are measured by their height; grands by their length. These measurements dictate the size of the two most crucial elements of the piano–the length of the strings and the vibrating area of the soundboard. An important point to remember: between two pianos of equal quality, longer strings and a larger soundboard will mean a bigger sound and better tone quality.

Upright Pianos

There are three modern types of upright pianos:

  • Spinets–ranging from 36–39″ in height
  • Consoles–ranging from 40–44″ in height
  • Studios–ranging from 45–52″ in height

The depth (about 25″) and width (about 58″) is roughly the same between the three.

Spinet pianos were made right up until the end of the 20th century and a lot of them are still on the used market. Most pianists feel the spinet’s tiny size–which dictates very short strings and a small soundboard–limits it as an effective musical instrument. The small case also forces a compromise in a spinet’s action which makes it less responsive, harder to play and, often, problematic. Of the three upright piano types, the spinet is certainly the least desirable.

Note: One of the main reasons spinet pianos are no longer made is the recent availability of inexpensive digital pianos. A digital can certainly be a good choice for a beginner, especially compared to a spinet. I’m not talking about one of these little keyboards you see at the electronic mega–stores, or at the buying clubs. I’m talking about a digital with pedals and an action that mimics that of an acoustic piano. No, I don’t think a digital sounds and plays like a concert grand, but that’s not the point. A good one will sound and play better than about 95% of the spinets left on the market.

Console pianos are excellent selling upright pianos because they fit in most homes and feature designer cabinets in every style from cherry French Provincials to sleek, ebony Continentals. Console cases are large enough for a reasonably sized action and soundboard as well as longer strings. Although they usually lack a really “big” sound, they still meet most of the criteria that define an acceptable piano. console pianos

Studios are, on average, the best upright pianos in terms of sound quality and touch. Because the taller case allows longer string lengths and large soundboard areas, they’re the closest thing to a grand piano you’ll find among uprights. For the advanced musician that hasn’t the space (or money) for a grand, or for anyone that simply wants to buy the best upright piano possible, this is the piano of choice.

An important point to remember: the only real size difference between upright pianos is height. Depth and width are virtually the same. A studio takes up no more floor space than a spinet, so your choice of which vertical to buy will most likely come down to price or styling – not how much room you have.

Grand Pianos

The image that most often comes to mind when people think of pianos is the big, black, grand piano. Although the word “grand” is usually synonymous with “large,” in the context of “grand piano,” the word refers to the shape of the instrument, not the size.

An important point to remember: you’ll hear many different names used in reference to the sizes of grand pianos: Petite Grand, Baby Grand, Parlor Grand, Music Room Grand, Music Hall Grand, Semi–Concert Grand and Concert Grand. These names are often misused and can be terribly confusing. Baby Grand, for example, means different things to different people. Like “compact car,” it really isn’t a clearly defined size. It’s simpler and clearer to refer to the size of a grand by its length, measured from the front of the keyboard to the end of the tail–5’1\”, 6’7\”, 7’0\”, etc. (Fig.1)A grand piano diagram.

Available space in your home will be a consideration when buying a grand because, unlike uprights, the bigger they are, the more room they consume. Smaller grands, 5’1\” to 5’8\” are the big sellers these days, and there are some very good ones on the market.

The most important factor when choosing a piano, however, is still quality of construction. A high-quality small grand will always sound better than a poorly made larger grand. As a matter of fact, a fine upright piano often eclipses an inferior grand.

The Good, the Bad and the Average

The difference in pianos is not in technology, but in quality–the quality of materials and the quality of workmanship used when making the piano. …but, how does one tell if a piano is a well–built instrument?

It’s typical for manufacturers to offer warranties of 5, 10, even 12 years! Why not? No matter which one you buy, the keyboard won’t break in half. The legs won’t buckle. When we talk about how long a piano will last, we’re not referring to how long it will be before it breaks down or falls apart, but rather how long it will maintain good tone and touch. Just like a particleboard and plastic shelf will sag and wear prematurely, pianos that are made out of composite materials won\’t offer the tone, touch or performance longevity of a comparable wood instrument.

The service issues that are more likely to come up are adjustments – making the piano play correctly and sound good. These adjustments are not typically covered by the factory warranty and making sure they’re taken care of usually has more to do with where you buy your piano than anything else. 

Remember: The only real criteria of a piano’s quality is this: Does it sound good, does it play well, and will I go broke servicing it? Consider those things carefully when the salesperson demonstrates a piano for you. You will be able to tell a difference.

Most people think they can’t tell the difference because they’re not offered a difference. If you go into a shop that sells only one brand or one quality level of piano, you certainly won’t be able to tell the difference, because there won’t be any!

Making Today’s Pianos

Today’s average piano is mass–produced on an assembly line in China, Korea, Indonesia or Japan. …but remember that where the piano is built is nowhere near as important as how the piano is built. A Chinese-made piano with premium wood and old-world designs can sound just as good or better than a Japanese-made piano made from particleboard and plastic.

The largest mass-manufacturers make 100,000–250,000 pianos a year and roll a new piano off their assembly lines every few minutes. A mass–produced piano will usually sound OK for 20 to 25 years with average use and proper care. The downside is, it will sound its best when new, then its tone will deteriorate consistently over the course of its lifetime. If it’s in a rigorous or high–use setting (a church or music school, for example) the life expectancy can drop considerably.

By contrast, the best handmade pianos can sound great for the better part of 100 years. Every detail of their construction, from the selection and seasoning of the wood to the final tuning, is overseen and controlled by people, rather than machines. It can take a year or more to make a piano by hand. With proper care, a hand–made piano will maintain high–quality tone and touch for many decades.

Don’t get me wrong, assembly–line production is not necessarily a bad thing. Assembly lines have allowed manufacturers to offer affordable pianos to the general public and there’s nothing wrong with purchasing one. But, mass–produced pianos are not designed to be performance or long–term instruments, no matter how they’re hyped! Don’t expect to pass them down to your grandchildren.

It’s still true that you get what you pay for and mass–produced pianos simply can’t be compared to those made by hand. A mass–produced automobile may be a nice car for several years; but it would be ludicrous to compare one to a Rolls Royce.

A Piano by Any Other Name

Over the years there have been over 7000 different piano brand names on the market. Some have become well known and well regarded while others have faded into oblivion.

Well known or not, brand name alone is not always an indicator of quality. Most major manufacturers build several different models of pianos, each with varying degrees of quality. They’ll market their best pianos to people concerned primarily with superior quality and they’ll make lower–quality pianos for people that shop with price as their primary concern. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this, but if you get caught up in the hype, you’re likely to pay too much for your piano. 

Here’s what I mean: Imagine for a moment that, last night, you saw a famous pianist playing a “Brand Y” piano on TV. This morning, a local piano store advertises a Brand Y piano–perhaps on sale. Your first reaction might be, “Wow, I just saw Mr. Famous Musician playing a Brand Y piano last night, so it must be good, and here’s one on sale! What a deal!”

The problem is, there’s not much chance the two pianos are really the same. Brand Y is likely to have special facilities where they make special pianos for the famous people (usually by hand) and a separate factory for their mass–produced consumer models. Other than the name on the front, Brand Y’s professional model pianos will have virtually nothing in common with their consumer models. It’s a little like watching stock cars zoom around the banked oval at Daytona and thinking, “Gee, I think I’ll go over to my local dealer and get one of those.” NASCAR racers may be called Fords, Chevys or Dodges, but they bear little resemblance to the cars you see in the showrooms.

That’s why it’s hard to compare pianos by brand name alone. The Brand Y company may or may not pay famous professionals a ton of money to play their special, handmade pianos, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they make a better $4000 console than Brand X.

Used But Not Used Up

Buying a quality used piano might be a good option for many people. The only problem is finding one. On average, very few of the pianos advertised in the newspaper or on the internet are of even marginal quality. Many used pianos, that were well made instruments when originally purchased, are now practically worthless because they’ve been neglected or abused.

That’s a shame, because a good piano, well cared for, will hold its value extremely well. In fact, it’s not unusual for a better quality, well–cared–for used piano to cost more than a lesser quality new one. And that’s the way it should be.

I highly recommend buying a used piano that has been reconditioned. However, you have to make sure that reconditioning work has actually been done. As I said, many used pianos have been poorly cared for. It will take more than furniture polish and a vacuum cleaner to put them back in good working order. They’ll require some tender loving care and expertise by someone that knows what they’re doing. A store that claims its used pianos are reconditioned, but has no shop in which this work could have been performed, should be suspect. Make the store back up its claims by supplying a substantial, written, parts and labor warranty that also covers minor adjustments. 

A used or reconditioned piano shouldn’t be confused with a rebuilt one. Rebuilding is, practically, the complete remanufacturing of an instrument. A quality rebuilding job is a work of art that, when done correctly by a skilled craftsman, essentially makes an old piano new again. The talent and experience of the rebuilder is critical. This is not an inexpensive process; and it should be compared to the cost of a new instrument rather than a used one.

An important point to remember: I saw a classified ad recently for a “completely rebuilt” grand piano. I expected this piano was not truly rebuilt because the $2500 asking price was ridiculously low, but I took a look at it anyway (hey, you never know, right?). I was correct. Yes, there’d been some cosmetic work done to the piano; it had been restrung and the hammers had been filed, but that’s a far cry from “completely rebuilt.” I don’t think the seller was trying to cheat anyone, she just didn’t know what she was talking about. Make sure, before you even think about buying a “rebuilt” piano, you have a qualified technician look it over to make sure the seller’s claims are not embellished or mistaken.

Which One Should I buy?

Getting good, informed advice on your piano purchase is, admittedly, difficult. Many people have a friend or acquaintance that plays. They naturally assume that, if their friend plays the piano, he or she must know something about pianos. You know what they say about assuming. Remember, few piano players truly know much about their instrument.

Still, if you ask many players what kind of piano you should buy, they are very likely to launch into a lengthy and passionate soliloquy on the merits of various piano brands. It’s important to know that many of their comments may be based on limited experience, mistaken information, hearsay and folk tales. You’ve probably heard that “A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing.” Make sure the advice you receive on pianos is good advice, based on fact.

Here’s a test you can use: If someone comments, for or against, a certain brand, question them a little further (remember that most companies make several, different–quality models.) Ask them to be specific as to which particular models of that brand are good. If they seem to know little about current models, they probably don’t know as much as they think they do. This is especially true online.

So, to whom do you listen? When you talk to people, assume little and listen to the person or persons who seem to have the best technical knowledge–not just sales talk, but real information about pianos in general, how they work and what the meaningful differences between them are. If someone can’t explain it to you so that it makes a little sense, it’s probably not clear to him or her either.

Service: The Ghost in the Machine

This might surprise you, but no new piano is really finished when it leaves the factory. All pianos have very complicated mechanisms that require delicate technical work to assure that they achieve whatever potential they have. It’s up to the dealer that sells the piano to make sure that all of these critical adjustments are made. After the piano is in your home, it will need a few adjustments and it’s important that they can be made in a timely manner by a competent technician.

No one would consider buying a new car from a dealer that didn’t have a service department, but people do it with pianos all the time. It doesn’t take much expertise to take a piano out of a box and send it to your home. If a store claims to offer service, ask to see the shop. If there isn’t one, the store probably “farms out” its repairs, usually to the lowest bidder. If you buy online or from a dealer without a shop, you’re taking a risk. Often, the money you “saved” would be money you’d gladly spend for the service your piano will need to reach its maximum potential and lifespan.

“Mom, It’s Time To Make Me Practice!”

Remember that quality always pays off in the long run. Pianists, especially students, must have an instrument that functions properly if even the most basic results are expected of them.

There’s no shortage of old, cheap pianos, languishing in basements, garages and online. Most could be purchased for practically nothing. If beginners could really learn to play on pianos like these, dealers could buy them by the truck load, re–sell them to parents, then wait a few months until everyone came back to buy good quality instruments. It would be a no–brainer. (Remember, we’re online too. Most of the pianos you see online are pianos the local dealers rejected.)busted piano keys

Parents sometimes buy an old, beat–up piano for their beginners in the theory that, when their child “learns to play,” they’ll buy a better one. That’s like telling a child\’s teacher, “When he learns to read, I’ll buy him a book.” The problem is, it just doesn’t work that way. When their piano doesn’t work properly or sound good, beginners become frustrated – even if they can’t properly or accurately articulate their frustration. Most in this situation give up in the first year.

After the child has given up, the parent is often relieved that a minimum of money was spent. This entirely misses the point that something of greater value was lost: the joy of making music. It can’t be stressed enough that a beginner is practically doomed to failure if given a sub–standard piano on which to learn. 

Have you ever heard anyone say that they were sorry they learned to play the piano? Never! The overwhelming number of people who took lessons, then quit, regret it later on. They would give anything if their parents had encouraged them to stick with their music lessons when they were young.

If you’re a parent, think ahead a bit for your child. If they can just be encouraged and made aware of what they’re accomplishing, in the long run they’ll be glad they stuck with it, and they’ll thank you for your support.