How to Get Your Money’s Worth in a Piano

HOW TO GET YOUR MONEY’S WORTH IN A PIANO

You’ve decided to buy a piano.  Choosing the right one at the right price is a very difficult process that can be simplified.  Ask yourself some basic questions:

Do you really want a piano?

As silly as that may sound, many people forget that a piano is a musical instrument.  Many pianos are also fine furniture, and some are even investments.  But it is first a means to create beautiful music.

How much money are you willing to spend?

A good piano, new or used, is an expensive purchase.  Investing in a good-quality used piano does not cost the same as a poor-quality used piano.  Many buyers will search online sites by price.  In viewing a similar used model on one listing compared to another, the buyer often determines that the better choice is the cheaper of the two.  But with 7,500 moving parts in a piano, that is an assumption that is too often a costly mistake.  When buying from a private party, it is always good to take a piano technician with you.  He can disassemble the piano quickly and assess its condition.  When looking at a piano in a store, request that the dealer open the piano and discuss the condition of the instrument with you.

What size piano?

Pianos come in two basic shapes: vertical (or upright) and horizontal (grand).  Grand pianos (including “baby” grands) will, generally speaking, take up more space, cost more, and sound better.  Buy the largest possible piano for the space and money available.

Spinet/Consolette  Pianos
Spinet pianos are the smallest of the verticals and range in size from 36 to 38 inches in height.  Those with a longer string length and a taller size are called consolettes.  Both types have an indirect or drop-type action, a shorter string length than taller consoles, and a smaller soundboard.  Because of the shorter string length and soundboard, a spinet will not play as loudly as a larger piano.

Console Pianos
Console pianos range in size from about 40 to 44 inches in height.  They are very popular in this country due to furniture design, tone, larger volume, and direct-blow-type action.  Consoles come in a wide range of prices and qualities.

Studio Pianos
Studio pianos are the tallest of the verticals and range in height from 45 to 52 inches.  They are known as “professional” or “school” pianos, and some resemble the old upright that may have graced your childhood home (or your parents’ or grandparents’ home), although in a smaller version.  Studio pianos produce a large volume of tone and are built, in most cases, to “school” specifications for durability.  Many studio pianos have the tonal qualities of a small grand piano.

Baby Grand and Grand Pianos
Grand pianos range in size from about 4 feet 7 inches to 9 feet for the concert grand.  There are other common names for the grand piano.  The parlor grand measures between 5’7” to approximately 6½ feet in length, the baby grand about 5 feet to 5’6”, and the petite or miniature grand, under 5 feet.  Longer grands are the semi-concert grand at 7’, and the concert grand, at 9 feet.  Expect to pay anywhere from $9,000 to $40,000 for a good new grand piano.

What style of cabinet?

A buyer should consider what style of cabinet best suites their home.  Is your décor contemporary, traditional, country, or a mixture of styles?  What colors or wood finishes do you have?  Into which room will the piano go?  (Remember that it’s best to place a piano on an inside wall and away from heating sources, direct sunlight, or drafty windows.  Extremes in temperature and humidity affect the tuning stability of the instrument.)

Many piano buyers have in mind a shiny black piano with standard tapered square legs, but there are many other more stylized cabinets available.  Some pianos have French provincial or Queen Anne styling, others have Empire legs, for example.  Finishes come in satin (smooth) or polish (glossy or shiny).  There are many beautiful wood tones – mahogany, cherry, bubinga, walnut, to name a few – in addition to basic black.

Who will be using the piano?

The quality of the piano purchased will be more appreciated by a more proficient player.  An occasional user may be happy with something less than a good instrument.  A student, while not needing a fine piano, needs a completely functional instrument.  All keys and pedals must work properly.  The instrument must be capable of being tuned up to A-440 pitch, and must hold its tuning for a period of perhaps one year.  Tone, while less critical, should be good and pleasing to the ear.  An instrument falling short of those standards will not promote a good musical education or experience.  Interest, as well as good skills being developed, will less likely be achieved.  A professional or advanced player will require an even more appropriate instrument.

Now the search begins.  You have decided on an approximate budget (be realistic), a size and style of piano (remember: instrument first, furniture second), and a purpose for making this investment.

Brands

Perhaps this issue is the hardest one to overcome.  A buyer has gained a little (dangerous) knowledge along the way.  Many dealers will talk down a brand they do not carry.  While choosing a good brand is important, the buyer must keep in mind his answer to the question of finances previously raised.  If shopping for a used piano, you should be aware that there are piano sellers out there actually putting “good” brand names on inferior pianos.  Some even go to the trouble of gluing names on the metal plate inside a grand, then spraying over it, giving it a factory look.  These “entrepreneurs” most often advertise one piano, but have a dozen or more pianos for sale, scattered throughout their house and garage.

Finally, the condition of a used piano often outweighs the name on the piano.  Many people forget that while a particular piano might have once been an exquisite instrument, years of neglect and overuse have reduced it to something considerably less.  Reconditioning and rebuilding are often the solution to restoring a piano’s vibrancy and value, but that’s a topic for another post.

Sources

Piano dealers usually carry several new brands in different price ranges, as well as trade-ins and used instruments purchased through other sources.  If a new piano is desired, don’t limit yourself only to something you have remembered from isolated comments about a particular brand, but shop for value and quality.  Use your instincts when being led through the piano jungle.  Remember, a dealer’s job is to show you pianos that fit your needs and are within your budget, and that represent a good value for your money.  Choose a dealer whom you feel is knowledgeable and whose reputation and pricing policies score highly.

Many buyers will try and stay away from any help, not wanting to be “sold.”  However, help should be welcomed.  If you, the customer, know little about pianos, it is crucial to get good, sound advice.

Many “private party” ads lead you down the road to piano brokers, technicians or consignment operations.  Many of these sources are good places to shop.  Be prepared to pay a fair price for the piano you desire.  To the best of my knowledge, no one ever got something for nothing, and, amazingly, this also applies to the purchase of a piano.

True private-party advertisement searches are time-consuming and sometimes costly.  If you have the time, tear through the internet listings and see what’s out there.  Don’t expect to be happy with what you find having visited 2 or 3 homes.  Choose at least 6 possibilities and then make the effort to see most of them, then narrow the field down to one or two.  To avoid a costly mistake, hire a qualified technician to confirm your favorite choices.

What to look for in a used piano

Without writing a book on the subject, a handful of hints should serve you well: Play each key to be sure that all notes play and do not stick.

If you are able, listen to the intonation of the piano.  Play each white key from bottom to top.  Does it sound like a musical scale?  If not, there could be problems with the pinblock which holds the pins (holding its tune is of utmost concern when buying a piano).

Avoid pianos before 1900 unless you are purchasing for “look” or wanting an antique.  There are exceptions, but serious rebuilding should have been done in order to consider this a playing instrument.  Be sure the sustain (right pedal) functions properly.  This should raise all the dampers to create a sustained sound until released.  Check to see if the “soft” (left pedal) moves the keyboard (on a grand) sideways so that hammers strike only two strings, rather than three, in mid and upper ranges.  On a vertical, the “soft” effect is attained by moving the entire set of hammers closer to the strings to create less of a striking distance.  A crack in the metal plate of the piano is not something to be fooled with.  A minor crack in the (wood) soundboard, however, rarely affects the tone of an instrument.

Look over the general condition of the piano.  A piano can be 30 or 40 years old and be in relatively good shape.  You can usually tell if a piano has been cared for.  But, again, making the outside of a piano attractive by refinishing is not enough to insure a good instrument.  Ask what kind of work has been done inside.  It is not unusual for a recent purchaser to call in a technician, only to find that, in addition to tuning, several hundred dollars of repairs are needed.  When buying a rebuilt or reconditioned piano, ask about the technician who worked on it.  Technicians (as in any other profession) come in all degrees of proficiency.

Lastly, play the piano yourself, even if you have no real ability.  Sit down and go over the above procedures.  Remember, this piano will probably be part of your life for many years to come.  Also, be sure to maintain your piano with at least an annual tuning by a qualified technician.

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