Last week we talked about the different types of pianos - Digital versus Acoustic. Vertical versus Grand. In case you missed that article, CLICK HERE.
This week, let's talk about how to evaluate the piano in front of you. Whether you're buying from an individual or from a retailer, we'll help you know what to look for, and what to look out for, also.
In our experience, age is usually a far better predictor of a piano's quality than any other variable we will cover in this post. Antique pianos (those 80, 90, or more years older pianos you can find online and at yard sales/flea markets for $20) are not typically suitable for serious piano study or enjoyment. Aside from the many improvements that have been made in the last 100 years to piano design, these pianos are often simply too worn out to be fixed economically, if replacement parts can even be located or fabricated. Entry level new instruments can be substantially more affordable, and still, of better quality, than the potential for a rebuilt antique piano.
Our respectful suggestion if you see one for sale - RUN AWAY!
Your best bet to find the highest quality piano is to find one that was built in the United States, Europe, or Japan. Be careful though - if you're looking at a piano that is over 40 or 50 years old, it will probably need major re-building and restoration to bring it to current standards, if it has not already had that work done.
Location, Location, Location
Why the US, Europe, and Japan? These are areas with a long heritage of piano building as an artisan craft, rather than just a business venture. Pianos actually built in these countries are USUALLY hand-built and/or hand-finished, at least to some extent. It's important to ask where the piano was manufactured. Some manufacturers, like Yamaha and Kawai, build only their most expensive instruments in Japan, while their more economical models (bearing the same name), are built in places like China and Indonesia. Brands like Steinway are hand-built exclusively in the New York and Hamburg, Germany factories. Of course, like most things in life, you get what you pay for. Expect these instruments to be the most expensive, as they are designed and built with top-level players in mind.
Tip: Know your goals for piano performance!
This doesn't mean you can't get a decent piano if it isn't built in the US, Europe, or Japan. Depending on your goals, you can certainly find a more affordable instrument that will be a wonderful addition to your home or studio space.
Here's a quick cheat sheet of various piano manufacturers, ranked by quality. This list was compiled by Dr. Steve Katz, one of Memphis' premier piano teachers.
Top Tier: Steinway
High Quality: Boston, Yamaha (C series), Kawaii (RX series)
Mid Level: Essex, Young Chang, Yamaha (GC Series), Kawai (GE Series)
Entry Level: Henry F Miller, Kawai (GM series)
Brand, alone, isn't enough, to let you know whether a piano is a good buy. For example, a new Henry F Miller piano may be far superior than a 50-year old Yamaha of comparable size that has not been re-built.
Knowing the basic construction features of a piano can help you distinguish between well-built instruments and bargain-basement builds.
Did you know? There are slightly over 200 strings in a typical piano, each stretched to around 180 pounds of pressure. This means that the total string pressure trying to collapse the piano is about 36,000 pounds or 18 tons - about the same as stacking nine cars on the piano!
Here's what to look for and ask about:
Pinblock: the thick (hopefully), multi-layered piece of wood that holds the tuning pins. Look for designs where the various layers are oriented in opposing directions ("cross-lamination"). Steinway pianos use a "Hexagrip" pinblock, in which the various layers apply pressure from 6 different angles.
Posts: The heavy, thick beams that support the piano. On Steinway and Steinway-designed vertical pianos, note the unique design.
Soundboard: The soundboard is the "speaker" of the piano. It sits directly under the metal plate inside the instrument and must vibrate freely and faithfully with the vibrations of the strings. High quality instruments use solid spruce soundboards (the same as the tops of fine quality violins and guitars), while cheaper pianos may use particle board, sandwiched between spruce or mahogany veneers.
In this picture, you can see the jack, which is directly mounted on the piano key. It raises with the lever of the key, pushing the hammer against the string.
Piano Action: The complex mechanism that translates movement of the keys to the piano's action. There are 88 keys in modern pianos, and each has over 100 parts - that's over 10,000 moving parts inside the piano! If you're looking at a vertical or grand piano, the recommended action is a Direct Blow Action. The direct blow action means that the movement of the key is transferred directly to the hammer. In smaller, spinet pianos (which are usually 50 years or more older, causing other issues, also.), the action is a "drop" or "indirect" action. It is less responsive, and often used inferior plastic that is frequently worn out and brittle. All grand pianos use a direct blow action.
It can be helpful to have a qualified piano technician take a look at the piano you are considering purchasing. Any reputable piano dealer should be happy to let your technician go over the piano. If you are buying a piano from an individual, s/he should also be willing to let your technician take a look at the instrument. If not, it's probably best to move on.
We hope you find these tips helpful as your learn about pianos and navigate the selection process. If you have any questions, please feel free to give us a call at 901-325-6402!
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