I remember searching for a new mattress. I was looking for an upgrade from my old bed and I had even taken the time to write down the brand and model number of a hotel bed that I found particularly comfortable. In short, I assumed – thanks to my advanced preparation – that my mattress shopping experience would be pretty simple.
Looking back, it’s astounding how wrong I was and how similar my shopping experience was to what you might be going through right now as you search for your first piano.
Sleeping on It
One store was all about urgency. They punctuated every sentence with a reminder that their current specials would be ending very soon. One store was a ghost town. Nobody acknowledged me for a good 15 minutes – and when she did – I could tell that she was completely uninterested in helping me. She answered my questions with short, trite statements that clearly came from a sales manual. Then, she retreated to her office and resumed whatever she was doing while I looked around alone. Another store spent our entire conversation trying to convince me not to spend “too much.” They assured me that their mattresses were “just as good” as “the other guy’s” at a significantly lower price. Finally, another store treated me like a gem – gently explaining to me that the mattress I really enjoyed sleeping on was wrong for me and encouraging me to go with their brand instead. Everybody assured me they had the best brands, the best prices and the best customer support. Frankly, I went home feeling LESS informed than I did before I started shopping.
I asked friends and family members to advise me and ended up with a mass of conflicting opinions, outdated information and even a few fairy tales. I was no better off.
Finally, I took a break from my search long enough to realize that I knew what I liked, but I didn’t know how the mattress I wanted compared to the rest. I was afraid to choose the wrong one. …and that is when I realized what I needed to do. I went back to the store that treated me well and came clean about my apprehension. They took the time to explain why my hotel mattress wouldn’t last as long – or wear as well – as the one they recommended. They also explained their low-price guarantee and their reasonable return and exchange policy.
2019 will be my seventh year sleeping on the mattress I bought from them and I am just as sure now that I made the right choice as I was the day I bought it. In the end, it wasn’t about the mattress. It was about how I felt sleeping on it. It was always about me.
Through a Fog
Shopping for a piano can be a lot like shopping for a mattress. They all look similar and do pretty much the same thing. Few are going to fall apart completely during use. …and most cost more than we think they should. There is one critical difference here, however.
The person paying for the piano isn’t usually the person playing the piano.
Add to that the fact that 90% of piano players (and a shocking majority of piano teachers) can’t correctly name all three pedals – and you can see why piano shoppers often feel like they’re finding their way through a thick, mysterious fog.
The urge to seek advice from a perceived “authority” may be strong, but it’s important to note that no one – not even a trusted family member or teacher – can adequately assemble all the pieces of this decision and lay them out in the optimal order for your family. You’ll gather facts, opinions and, yes, possibly a few fairy tales. …but – in the end – the decision is yours to make and you’re probably just as afraid as I was to make the wrong one.
If so, congratulations. You’re normal! …but let’s see if we can clear up some of that fog anyway.
The Right Tool for the Right Job
Your second major decision in your piano search (right after deciding TO search for a piano) is deciding which of the three types of piano you’re interested in. That’s right. There are THREE types of pianos.
The first type are called “acoustic pianos” because they make sound through physical means (a hammer striking a string, etc.). Acoustic pianos are judged by their construction quality, performance and projected maintenance needs. The most famous piano brand names are Yamaha, Steinway & Sons, Baldwin, Bösendorfer and Kawai, but brand name – though not insignificant – is by no means the definitive method for selecting a piano. All acoustic pianos fit within one of two categories: upright (or “vertical”) pianos and grand (or “baby grand”) pianos.
Upright pianos are aptly named because their sounding board runs vertically. These pianos are usually placed against walls in smaller spaces and can vary greatly in size and quality. In order to accommodate 88 full-sized keys, upright pianos have to be about 58” wide and around 25” deep. Thus, the only real factor that changes between models (aside from quality or cabinet design) is height. Taller upright pianos have larger soundboards and longer strings. Thus, they deliver a far more satisfying tone than smaller pianos (especially in the bass register). Upright pianos built today start at 40” in height (which we call “console pianos”) and go up to 52” in height (which we call “professional studio pianos”). You may encounter old upright pianos called “spinets” which are less than 40 inches tall. These pianos are all past their “end of life” age (the last new ones were made over 40 years ago) and do not supply the performance most players find desirable. You might also encounter an “upright grand” piano (otherwise known as a “big, old upright” because they haven’t been made in over 50 years as well). These romantic old pianos are taller than 52”, but they are also past their “end of life” age and 99% of them are in horrible disrepair. In both cases (“spinet” and “big, old upright”), you can find these pianos for FREE or for a very low price on Craigslist, at dealerships or even in your neighbor’s garage. Don’t be fooled. Even if these pianos have been repainted and/or “revived,” they do not offer the appropriate tone and touch for your needs. Do not invest in these instruments. You will never be able to get your money back out of them and they will never perform to your satisfaction – no matter what assurances the person trying to sell (or even give) the piano to you might claim.
Grand pianos – like their vertical siblings – are about 58” wide and around 40” tall (with the lid down). These larger instruments are known for their curved (kidney) shape and their commanding presence in any room. Grand pianos are categorized by their length with “baby grand pianos” starting just under 5’ and going up to about 5’6”, parlor grands going from 5’8” up to just over 6’, conservatory grands going from 6’ to 7’6” and concert grands running around 9 feet in length. …but don’t worry. Nobody expects you to remember all of that. Just remember that baby grands are small (5’6” and shorter) and grand pianos are larger. Of course, it’s always a good idea to measure your space before you start shopping for a piano so you know what will fit in your room. Most piano dealerships can bring paper or cloth templates to your home and help you decide the optimal size and orientation for your grand piano. It’s worth noting that grand pianos project their sound in the direction their lids open. For the best performance, position your baby grand piano so its lid opens to the larger part of your room. This will ensure the piano’s best performance in your space. One final note on grand pianos: unlike their upright siblings (which come in a variety of styles and finish colors), the huge majority of grand pianos sold each year are black. Those that aren’t black are usually mahogany or walnut. Colors like oak, cherry, rosewood and white might be available as special orders from a dealership, but they are not common. High-polish finishes are preferred over satin finishes due to their durability (they are especially resistant to moisture). This doesn’t mean you have to purchase a black polish piano, but it might explain why you’ll see so many of them in stores!
How acoustic pianos are made matters. Most pianos today are mass-produced on an assembly line in China, Indonesia or Japan. This is primarily a product of demand. 80% of the acoustic pianos sold today are sold in or around China so it’s more efficient for manufacturers to build pianos in or around China. Just like anywhere else, there are some really good pianos coming from China and some really bad pianos coming from China. How can you tell which is which? I’m glad you asked. Let’s cover some piano construction basics. A typical well-maintained, mass-produced piano is designed to sound OK for about 20-25 years in a “home use” environment. It will perform best when new and then slowly deteriorate over the course of its lifetime. If placed in a “high stress” environment (church, school, poor climate-controlled room, etc.), its life expectancy can drop considerably. Some (not all) handcrafted pianos, however, can perform well for up to 100 years because every aspect of their construction has been overseen by human beings (and not machines). Also, since most handcrafted pianos are built to a standard instead of a price, they tend to use better materials and designs that would push mass-produced pianos far beyond their price goals. Again, this does not mean you have to purchase a handcrafted piano. It does, however, help you understand why one black and white instrument with 88 keys might cost $10,000 while another costs $110,000. The more expensive pianos will be made to last longer and perform better with higher quality designs and materials – and master craftsmen overseeing their construction. Take the time to understand the types of woods used, the design features and the craftsmanship of any piano you consider. This will determine your piano’s performance, maintenance needs, longevity and resale value. How acoustic pianos are made matters.
The second type of piano you’ll want to consider are called “digital pianos” because they produce sound electronically. These are NOT the $500 keyboards you find in “big box” retail stores nor the portable keyboards you can find for $100 nearly everywhere. Unlike those children’s toys, these are serious musical instruments. Bear with me and I’ll explain.
Digital pianos are judged by their authenticity (similarity to acoustic pianos), their technology (tools that aid in learning, enjoyment), and projected longevity (often indicated by long warranties and/or great global reputations). The two most famous brands are Yamaha Clavinovas and Roland. In fact, the digital piano industry is quite similar to the soda industry. Though there are a variety of brands (some good and some not), you only ever expect to see one of the two dominant brands in practice. Imagine how surprised you’d be to find a restaurant that serves “Sam’s Cola” or “RC.” Yamaha and Roland each have excellent global reputations for quality and each can be easily found in professional applications (on stage, on tv, in studios, etc.). As I mentioned before, however, one should never select an instrument based solely upon its brand name.
Digital pianos are typically grouped by authenticity and feature set. The most desirable digital pianos offer a rich, textured piano sound complete with overtones (sounds created within an acoustic piano’s cabinet that thicken and enhance the string – or strings – struck by the hammer), gravity hammer actions (measured and balanced key actions that can respond with the speed and control of a grand piano – unlike “weighted key” keyboards), full-size keys (as long as the distance from one end of a dollar bill to the end of the ink on the opposite end), properly-weighted keys (55g down weight on Middle C), escapement (the “click” one feels when slowly pressing an acoustic piano key past it’s fallback point), at least one piano-style (sustain) pedal and a 19” tall bench (with padding). Follow these guidelines and you’ll eliminate most low-end brands and even some low-end options at Yamaha and Roland. …but you’ll end up with an excellent long-term instrument that will only enrich your player. …and you’ll be surprised how affordable the above-mentioned features can be.
Generally speaking, digital pianos are less expensive to purchase than acoustic pianos. They offer unique tools that enhance the performance experience (like learning apps, headphones and recording features) and they require no tuning or maintenance over time. It’s no surprise that digital pianos now outsell acoustic pianos by a 6-to-1 ratio in the US, but that doesn’t mean you should purchase a digital piano. You know your player better than anyone. If (s)he will be delighted by the tone, touch and tools available from a digital piano, then you should purchase a digital piano. If not, buy an acoustic piano. It’s really that simple. As with guitars, drums, violins – anything… There is a place for both, but it’s important to get the right tool for the right job. Only you can determine what will most motivate and enrich your player.
The third and final type of pianos you’ll find on today’s market are a bit more varied. They are called “hybrid pianos” because they incorporate parts from both of the other two types in varying degrees. Despite what some manufacturers (and their eager dealers) may say, adding a wooden speaker or wooden keys to a digital piano does not make it a hybrid. These parts were specifically designed for digital pianos. They do not exist (in the same form) anywhere else. True hybrid pianos are a combination of components that exist in other instruments brought together for the purpose of enhancing performance and/or reducing maintenance costs. For example: Take an acoustic piano, add a stop rail (to block the hammers from hitting the strings), a digital sound chip and a headphones box and you have a Silent Piano – an acoustic piano that can be played anytime night or day. Take that same piano, add a soundboard transducer and you have a TransAcoustic piano – an instrument that can be played as an acoustic piano, played as a Silent Piano or transformed into a half-acoustic/half-digital loudspeaker! Both of these instruments can be called acoustic pianos as they can be played “in acoustic mode” even when the power goes out (though I doubt many people play in the dark). Their electronic implants enhance their function. In short, they allow you to use your piano far more than you would if you had to schedule practice time around telephone calls, TV programs and “work at home” tasks. In my mind, the ultimate “hybrid piano” is the Yamaha Disklavier. Disklavier pianos (pronounced “disk’-luh-veer”) are acoustic pianos with electronic implants that allow the pianos to record performances, sync with videos, play live over the internet and even teach you to play! Far more than a typical “player piano,” Disklaviers are the ultimate example of acoustic pianos enhanced by modern technology. That is why you find so many professionals (like Elton John, John Legend, Sarah McLachlan and many more) using them every day.
Other hybrid pianos are designed more to provide acoustic piano performance without the space or cost requirements of typical acoustic pianos. These instruments incorporate real wood piano actions (the keys and mechanisms that bring the piano’s hammers to its strings), high-definition optical sensors and powerful sound systems to provide unbelievable authenticity (What could feel more like a grand piano than an instrument with a grand piano key action?) without ever needing to be tuned. They also deliver “the grand piano experience” in a cabinet far closer to an upright piano size. This is ideal for folks who have always wanted to play a grand piano, but simply don’t have the space for one. Finally, since their sound is generated with acoustic actions and digital chips, these pianos can also be played with headphones or connected to tablets, etc. which further enhance their use. In short, they truly combine the best of two piano types to create a new instrument – one that meets needs previously unfulfilled by our industry. Are these pianos right for you? You’ll have to decide. …but at least you now know they exist!
Buying a used piano is nothing like buying a used car. Used cars are easy. They are built identically to new ones and (thanks to services like Carfax), they are pretty easy to evaluate. Used pianos, however, are made out of wood. …and, as such, they are far more vulnerable to improper care and/or environment. As a piano dealer, we get several calls each day from folks who want to sell – even give – their old pianos away. We turn 99% of those folks down. Why? …because – upon inspection – we discover hidden problems that make their once-nice pianos worthless due to abuse or neglect. Pianos that haven’t been tuned regularly (once a year minimum) or kept in climate-controlled environments quickly deteriorate and most piano owners don’t even realize it. You’d be stunned to know how many people tell me their piano is “in great shape” even though they haven’t tuned it in 15 years or they’ve kept it in the garage. Obviously, these “money pit” pianos are to be avoided at all costs. I’ve even seen piano dealers import used pianos from other countries, file down their hammers, polish up their cabinets and sell them for pennies on the dollar. These “grey market” instruments weren’t seasoned for American forced air climate control systems and they often develop significant problems within a few years here. Some dealers even take in old pianos so they can cheaply “revive” them with a fresh coat of paint and minimal interior work. These pianos aren’t used. They are used up. …and any dealer who would try to sell you one clearly has no concern for your long-term musical success. Avoid these pianos. In most cases, you’d be better off buying a good digital piano than wasting money on a “used up” instrument.
Don’t get me wrong. Buying a good quality used piano isn’t a bad idea if you can find one. …but don’t shop on Craigslist. Don’t buy your neighbor’s piano. Never accept a free piano (would you accept a free car without some skepticism?) Go to a dealership and get a used instrument that has been completely checked and warranted. The money you’d save elsewhere is money you’d gladly spend for the service, certification and support you’ll need to truly enjoy your instrument. Also, be wary of terms like “refurbished,” “reconditioned,” “revived,” and “repaired.” These terms have little or no meaning. The only “R word” in the piano industry that means anything is “rebuilt.” Rebuilt pianos are completely re-manufactured instruments that have been made new again by a skilled craftsman. Especially in the case of used Steinway pianos (and especially if the technician used genuine Steinway parts), these pianos can be excellent investments. …but it is always important to get a list of what was done to your piano before you purchase it. I have seen people advertise “reconditioned,” “revived” and even “rebuilt” pianos when all the technician did was some cosmetic work, some hammer shaping and minor string replacement. In fact, if you have questions regarding a “refurbished” or “revived” piano, it’s not a bad idea to have a third-party piano technician evaluate the instrument before you buy it. Members of the Piano Technicians Guild often do this for a small fee and they can save you a TON of heartache later.
Used digital pianos are another story, however. Seldom (if ever) do I recommend a used digital piano. Why? …because technological advancements happen at a staggering pace and a digital piano that was built even 5 years ago is virtually worthless today. A great example of this is a lady I recently spoke to about an insurance claim. She bought a digital piano eight years ago for around $5000. When asked to find a comparable new model, I found her one with all the same features (and a much improved sound chip and key action) for $2800. Unless the used digital piano you are considering is very young (a few years old or less) and VERY inexpensive ($2000 or less), you’re wasting your time and money. You can find an excellent new digital piano for that price with similar – or better – features. Remember – the better digital pianos (like Roland and Yamaha) are designed to last for 30 years or more in a home. Most people keep them, update them and play them until they wear out. Finding a good used one for a reasonable price is extremely difficult.
Buy Nice or Buy Twice
Of course it’s easy for me to spend your money. I understand that – as a piano retailer – much of what I say comes with the “he sells pianos” grain of salt. That’s understandable. However, I have seen plenty of “piano horror stories” in my career and I can assure you that – if you use your good common sense and the advice I’ve given you above – you’ll avoid a huge majority of them. Of course, some folks (especially those folks trying to peddle “revived” pianos or digital piano “hybrids” might disagree with some things I have said and that is to be expected as well. For your benefit, I will do my best to respond reasonably to their “loving” critique below. All I ask is that you remember one thing:
Most people think they will buy a starter piano and trade up. They almost never do. You know the old saying… “Buy nice or buy twice.” Buy the best piano you can afford now. It will deliver the best performance for your budget and – if things don’t work out – it will give you the best resale value later. Don’t be afraid. Get a piano. Get started. You can do this. …and I am here to help if you need me.