Piano Finders

Piano Buying 101

Guide to the Piano World: Part One by Kendall Ross Bean

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Last updated on January 5, 2006


Many people, as they start to look for a piano, soon find themselves overwhelmed by all the different instruments and brands available. In addition, they often end up in a high-pressure sales situation where they are encouraged to make a quick decision without having all the necessary facts. And even when a decision is finally reached, the purchase made, and the piano moved into the home, many people wonder afterward if they really made the best choice.

In the many years I have been in the piano business, I have noticed that piano buyers often ask the same questions. Questions like:

What kind of piano should I buy for myself, or for my son/daughter who is just starting lessons?

How much should I expect to spend?

Should I get a lower quality, less expensive piano for now, and then trade up if we need to later, or should I start out with the best quality, even if it stretches my budget?

What are the significant differences I will be paying extra for?

Should I buy a vertical, or a grand? Should I get a new, used, rebuilt, or reconditioned piano?

Should I consider restoring a family heirloom, or is it best to just start with a brand new instrument?

Should I consider buying used from a private party? What are the risks?

Is it true what they say about new pianos not being as good as the older ones?

How do I know if a used piano is in good shape, or worth rebuilding or refinishing?

What about the different brands? Is one really better than another, or am I paying extra just for a recognized name?

Should I buy an American-made piano? European? Japanese? Korean? Chinese? What are the differences I need to be concerned with?

What about the new electronic, or digital pianos?

Although there are books written on the subject of buying a piano, many of our customers have expressed a desire for shorter, simpler, and less confusing explanations of the issues involved. After working with hundreds of different piano buyers over the years, I, too, felt a need to set down in writing some answers to those most-oft asked questions, as well as to provide a summary of what people looking for a piano can expect to find today. Hopefully what follows will at least help you get some bearings.

One thing to bear in mind is that the piano world is always changing. The moment someone publishes a book or an article that reveals how the industry operates, it changes, often as a result of that disclosure, and then new material has to be written to keep consumers up-to-date. Realizing that things do change very quickly, one of my major efforts in this article was to describe general issues and trends that consumers can recognize and identify; patterns which tend to repeat over and over again, just as history repeats itself.

In order to simplify things, I have made some generalizations about the piano industry that should be considered as a starting point, or point of departure. The piano world, like the real one, is necessarily very complex, dynamic, and ever-changing, and only experience and exposure to it will reveal all the exceptions and fine nuances to what I have presented here.

There are many different ways to classify pianos. One way is by country of origin: i.e. Korean, Japanese, U.S., European, Chinese, etc. Each country tends to build pianos differently, and as a result they respond and sound differently. Another way to classify pianos is by price, which often (but not always) relates directly to quality. Still another way is by features: type of materials, design, and quality of construction. Yet another is by intended use: furniture, casual, beginner, intermediate, advanced, professional or concert. You will find all of those methods used in this article.

In many cases U.S. piano companies are now putting their names on instruments made in other countries, including Japan, Korea, Poland, China, or Indonesia. Included in this article are discussions of who's making what for whom, along with what it means for piano buyers.

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The Piano Marketplace in a Nutshell

Price level=Quality level (Usually)

Pianos being made today, similar to other mass-produced consumer products, are generally designed with a price point in mind. Although instruments made by competing piano manufacturers often appear very similar, the quality of design, materials and workmanship, and the price, varies immensely. Some pianos of lower price and quality are literally "thrown together" on an assembly line where speed, and cutting costs, are the ultimate objectives. Higher-quality (and higher-priced) pianos are usually constructed with much more care, and with better quality materials, and the results, in touch and tone quality, are quite apparent. In general, in the piano world, you get what you pay for. This pertains to both the new piano market and the used piano market as well.

As always, there are exceptions to this rule. Private parties selling a used instrument are frequently clueless about how to price it, and may ask either too much or too little. They often base the price on what new ones are selling for, without regard to the condition of the used instrument. Or they may be comparing it with another used piano of a similar size, brand or model they saw for sale in the classified ads or on the web, again without knowing whether the piano in the paper was over- or underpriced, or in better or worse condition than their own. Dealers of new instruments often set ridiculously high retail price tags on pianos, assuming that customers will always insist on negotiating prices down; and if they don't, well, so much more money in the dealer's pocket. On the other hand, these same dealers will also often have clearances and other sales events where deals can often be had, because they need to move the pianos and get out from under the flooring charges and interest. Careful with these sales and events though; be sure to read about Events, Sales and Artificial Urgency.

The piano marketplace can be divided up into two major areas: new and used. Throughout this document we will be talking about both new and used instruments and making comparisons between the two. In your travels, you may encounter both types, side-by-side at certain dealerships, or in other places where pianos are being featured or sold. This is true also of the new e-marketplace, the internet. Today many pianos are changing hands over the internet, as piano buyers become more comfortable with that medium. In both the "virtual" and "real" piano marketplace, however, caution is always necessary. At several places on the PianoFinders website we try to help you be aware of what to watch out for.

There are many similarities, but also significant differences between the new and used piano markets, and how business is done in each. Sometimes it is better, in your particular situation, to start shopping in the "new piano" market; other times, in the "used"; many people actually enjoy doing both at the same time. Both new and used pianos have their pros and cons. (Yes, just like with cars, new pianos can and do have problems, too.) There are of course, some people who will only buy "new"; others have a special love for the "old." But used pianos don't necessarily have to be "old," "antique," or even "vintage." As with cars, some can be almost "like new", "used but still young," or have had very little wear or use. In reality there is new, old, and a whole spectrum in-between. In yet another category are "re-newed" pianos: those that have been restored, refinished, reconditioned, or rebuilt. So there really are a lot of different options available to you.

Today, as always, there is the perennial question, "are new pianos as good as those they used to make?" Manufacturers of new pianos often go to great lengths to maintain hard earned reputations of quality, but they still have to turn a profit, which is getting harder nowadays, because they have to pay their workers at least minimum wage, and also keep from running afoul of government watchdogs like O.S.H.A and the E.P.A. That gets expensive. Often, these days, it seems the preservation of quality (or at least the reputation) is left up more to the marketing department than to production or engineering. New piano models frequently come out that are not constructed the same way as the old ones. They may sometimes have additional features or better materials; though it seems more often today, additional "features" but skimpier construction is more the rule. Piano makers are always trying new things, which they believe will solve the multiple objectives of making the pianos easier or less costly to build, more attractive for the buyer, and easier for dealers and salespeople to sell, while still somehow not diminishing the quality. All-too-often neither management nor production completely grasp how in subtle yet significant ways the quality of the instrument is being undermined, because they are not the end user, and have unfortunately become too far removed from those who perform on their products. Because these instruments are often inserted into the line among recognized pianos whose quality and features are time-tested and well-known, consumers often make erroneous assumptions about the new models' construction and quality. In recent years many buyers have become aware that the application of a well-recognized and respected name to the fallboard of a piano is no longer a guarantee that the instrument is the same quality it once was. Many manufacturers now have many of their parts, or the entire piano, made by someone else. More on this later.

The reason, of course, that there are so many different sizes, styles, and qualities of pianos today is because everybody has different needs, whether they be budget, or musical, or style, or space. Most people simply don't need a 9 foot concert grand, (and most simply can't afford it, although many would love to have one if they could!) Although electronic and digital pianos and keyboards have taken over much of the low end of the piano market (the segment that used to be filled by the small vertical pianos called spinets and consoles), most of the pianos sold today still lie in that broad median between studio and serious grand. Far more vertical pianos are still sold than grands. Many people, particularly those who don't play or are just learning to play, now buy pianos with electronic player units installed, or else they have the electronic player units installed as retrofit kits.

Many pianos that are sold today are not considered top quality artist instruments, but are nevertheless fine quality, rewarding products on which a student or aspiring artist can make good progress and have a good experience, whether vertical or grand. These are often spoken of by piano salespeople as being a "good value" or "an affordable piano". This can mean anything from "you get more for your money", to "this piano is not an "actual" Steinway (or Baldwin or Bosendorfer)," but it has many of the same features and basic quality and you don't have to mortgage your home to buy it." (It also often means nowadays it's made overseas rather than in the U.S.) (--And don't get me wrong, even so it may still be quite expensive.)

If you are really attracted to a (new) big name piano but don't quite have the budget to take it home, there are alternatives: Second or third line pianos (meaning "second place" or "third place" in quality) made by (or, at least, designed by) the big name piano companies, are usually also available at the dealership, so that you can at least own a "piece" of the dream instrument (or a piece of the name). An example of this would be buying one of Steinway's Boston line pianos (built for Steinway by Kawai ), if you can't afford a "real" Steinway. Or, you could also buy Steinway's Essex piano (built for Steinway by Young Chang), if you can't afford the "Boston." This same system of "second" or "third" line pianos is also utilized by other big name piano makers, such as Baldwin.

The challenge here for the piano buyer is in being able to discern whether the substitute "value" or "affordable" piano will really fulfill their needs. In some cases it will. Other times it just doesn't inspire them like having the "real thing". (Or impress their guests, one of the other main reasons why pianos are purchased.)

Still, other folks often end up taking out a second mortgage or getting into financing because they just have to have that "new" "big name" $50,000.+ grand, or $20,000.+ upright. That's o.k. too.

Another alternative, for those who would like to keep the cost down, is to see if you can't find the "dream instrument" on the used market for the same price as you would pay for, say, a second line "new instrument". Actually, that's what many people end up doing. (You may well be able to get a used Steinway grand in good original condition, or even rebuilt, (refinished is nice too, if you just have to have that new piano look) for what you would pay for the new Boston or Essex grand. Also remember that private party sales don't require you to pay sales tax, which can be substantial on a $20,000. to $50,000. purchase. Dealers of used pianos may or may not charge sales tax, depending on the particular situation.)

Yet another option, taken increasingly today by buyers in search of a quality instrument on a budget, is to buy a vintage instrument similar in quality to the "big name" pianos, but without the big name. Because they don't have the "big name" on the fallboard, these pianos are often sold at a substantial discount by parties who are not aware of their intrinsic quality or worth.

In the early 1900's (up through around 1940) there were many manufacturers of quality pianos who made what were essentially Steinway or Mason & Hamlin "clones", or "copies" (although not exact copies of course, because of patent protection on the genuine articles, but nevertheless very, very similar construction, materials, and design). Piano technicians, and also many pianists, are usually familiar with these instruments, having run across them in their travels. Conover, A.B. Chase, Steinert, Hume, Jewett, and Wissner are some of the names of reputable manufacturers, well-respected in their day, who made quality instruments that are often the equal of (and sometimes even superior to) the equivalent "big name" pianos. These pianos, which are often flippantly referred to as "a poor man's Mason & Hamlin" or "a budget copy of a Steinway" are most often far from that, being superb instruments in their own right. They do, however, too often lie in the shadow of "big name" pianos, mostly because the advertising dollars to enhance their reputations are no longer there.

Caution: do not confuse these quality vintage instruments with newer instruments that may have the same name on the fallboard, which were made after the original U.S. company went out of business or the name was sold. Many of these piano names, which still have a good deal of reputation and advertising clout 50+ years later, have been recently placed on Asian or other overseas-built pianos that are nothing like the original instrument, either in design or quality.

See Vintage Pianos later in this article for some more names of viable, and valuable instruments. Here there are often great deals to be had, simply because it doesn't say Steinway, Baldwin, or Mason & Hamlin on the fallboard. In other words, you can get the quality without having to pay for the name.

There are often also quality instruments hiding behind names where you wouldn't expect to find them. For example, in recent years the names Wurlitzer and Kimball have not represented what was considered a top-flight piano, to say the least. However there were many Wurlitzers and Kimballs made before 1940 that were really superb instruments, and help explain why the names lived on so long after the quality of the piano had faded.

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It's important to keep in mind that dealers of new pianos often also have used pianos for sale, but will use them mainly to try and leverage you into the purchase of a new instrument. Frequently the technique employed is to keep a used piano on the floor at a high price and in poor condition, so as to make the new models look like a better deal by comparison. Dealers would do well to recognize that this strategy has its drawbacks, one of the main ones being that when the customer who continues to look around happens to find the same model used piano for sale from a private party, one that is in better condition and being offered at a lower price than the dealer's inflated figure, they will grab that piano rather than buying from the dealer. Often heard from dealers of new pianos, in answer to the question "do you have a used one?", is, "Oh, let's see, we had one of those come through here last January..." (this is now August) " ...we just don't get them in very often. We could put your name on a waiting list if you'd like...maybe sometime in the next year one will show up..." There are, fortunately, dealers of new pianos who don't play those games, and who realize that selling used pianos or trade-ins is an important part of their business. But many dealers of new pianos really do not want to sell, or even deal with, used pianos. It's easier for them to try and "keep things simple," even though it may not be what's best for the customer.

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The Key Factors to Consider when Buying a Piano

There are several points to consider when looking for a quality instrument.

  • Most musicians are concerned, naturally, about the tone, or sound quality of the piano.
  • Also high on the list for most pianists is touch, or how the piano feels and responds.
  • Of significant importance is how the piano will hold up under use, and how long it will last. We have chosen the word durability to describe those qualities.
  • In addition to the musical qualities of the piano, most people are more or less interested in its appearance, i.e. looks, finish, style, color, sheen, shape, etc.
  • How well the manufacturer built the piano and what quality it was designed to have.
  • Finally, one of the most important considerations is cost: this includes such considerations as the piano's price, your available budget, financing options, investment value of the piano, resale value, etc.
For many people, including a lot of accomplished pianists, it can be difficult to separate the touch of an instrument from its tone. If the touch of a piano is such that it is difficult to produce a good tone (or if the action "gets in the way" of producing a good tone), many folks will assume the piano has a poor tone inherently, because they won't be able to achieve it easily or at all, based on their level of piano skills. So unfortunately, many pianos that have a good tone but just need some touch adjustments or repairs are routinely passed by. In the same way a piano can have a good touch, but the tone-producing parts (such as strings or soundboard, etc.), may need adjustments or attention. Since the touch still results in a poor tone, people will assume automatically that the touch is faulty too.

When you consult certain piano manufacturers' ads, web sites, or promotional materials, they will often offer a list of the things they think should be of importance when you buy a piano. They may list some of the above points, but also add several of their own that usually tend to direct you towards their particular brand of piano. In our opinion, the five points we have mentioned should pretty much cover all the bases. Piano Finders has created a Standard (called the PFS) that can help you understand the some universal things about touch, tone, quality, durability and appearance. When applied to two pianos you are comparing, it can help you understand the similarities and differences between them, without being partial to any particular brand.

Much of the time the difficulty for the novice piano buyer is in knowing whether a particular piano's sound, touch, durability, looks, or even price, is good. As making these kinds of judgements can require years of training, many people enlist the help of someone who they feel has more experience than themselves: a pianist, piano teacher, or piano technician (or tuner). And then there are those who just trust the salesperson.

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About Piano Construction and Materials

Much in a piano is hidden, and visible only to experienced eyes. For example, black (ebony) finish pianos and also wood grain (clear finish) instruments both present an external appearance or facade. The materials underneath that coat of black paint, or 1/24th-inch-thick mahogany, cherry, or other veneer are not apparent to the observer, and could be anything from particle board to the most expensive quarter-sawn rock maple or beech. These core materials are critical to both the ultimate durability and sound quality of the piano, but frequently only technicians and piano rebuilders who actually take the pianos apart are privy to what is really there. The vast majority of people buying pianos make their decisions, unfortunately, primarily on the basis of external appearance, or style.

A further complication: Different piano makers approach piano design from completely different standpoints. Some manufacturers have opted to go the "high-tech" route, utilizing modern construction materials such as MDF (an industrial quality type of particle board designed for making furniture) and multilaminate plywood (very dense, heavy plywood made of very thin layers of wood sandwiched together with waterproof glue under high pressure); ABS styran plastic action parts (which Kawai, for example, is now using to replace many of the wood action parts in their pianos-- ABS is not affected by humidity like wood is); and thick acrylic (polyester) finishes (used by the majority of Japanese and European piano makers, resulting in those hi-gloss finishes you see so often today). Other manufacturers proclaim that they only use the most traditional piano building materials, (i.e. quarter sawn, traditional "solid" lumber such as maple, poplar, oak, ash, or spruce), traditional satin lacquer finishes, etc., to the point of refusing to use anything other than what has been used for over 100 years, (even when modern materials might be better in many ways) and eschewing any kind of plastic whatsoever. (Except they usually never mention the white keytops, which are universally plastic nowadays; ivory is hardly ever used anymore, except in rare instances.) Although both high-tech and traditional materials have their pros and cons, each manufacturer trumpets the benefits of using his particular type of construction. This can make things very confusing for shoppers, who are often looking for some sort of common standard of comparison among the different brands.

It is important to try and find out all you can about a piano before buying, including how it compares to similar models of other brands. It's also important to have some sense of how high quality pianos are constructed, if you have the time to research that. (Later in this article, and throughout, we will try to give you some idea about that. See also the section on Features of High Quality Pianos.) There are so many different models and methods of building pianos, though, that often even experienced salespeople get confused. There is a lot to keep up with, and few salespeople have the time to stay on top of all the developments, even within the brands they sell. Literature and specifications provided by piano manufacturers are usually less than helpful, and are most often extremely vague with respect to true design, features, construction and materials. Even more vague is what true significance (real/actual benefits and consequences) those features or materials will ultimately have for the buyer. On top of that, manufacturers will often change their materials and specifications at the drop of a hat, so what was printed yesterday may no longer be the case today. (Often it's a matter of "Well, folks, they caught us cutting corners again, so I guess we'll have to start using some better materials for now.") (Other times, though, it's "Gosh, I thought we were using the best materials, but apparently that's not what the public wants." -Generally because another, competing, piano maker who uses inferior materials but who has a bigger advertising budget, has convinced the public otherwise.)

A common device today, for instance, is to state that a piano is made of "select hardwoods". Too often however, the really pertinent information is missing: what species of hardwood (hard rock maple, soft maple, poplar, ash, oak, lauan or Philippine mahogany), how it has been cut (plainsawn, quartersawn, grain orientation, etc.) and how long it has been seasoned. Not all hardwoods are equal, and not all manufacturers treat them the same way. The same is true of construction skill. A grand made in a country just learning piano building may have the bright gold frame, pretty red felt, smooth white keytops, and shiny black finish that better quality pianos do. Careful scrutiny by an experienced person will usually reveal, however, careless workmanship and lack of attentiveness that ultimately compromise the life expectancy and tone quality of the instrument. Piano manufacturers pay a great deal of attention to an instrument's appearance; it would be nice if they paid as much attention to what's inside. Many pianos made today are like dime-store novels: Far more effort is spent on the cover artwork than the content.

Most piano dealers and others experienced in the piano business usually have a fairly good idea of which pianos are quality and which aren't, and will generally price them accordingly, both new and used. Private parties, on the other hand, are often less knowledgeable about the worth of what they are selling (unless they have had it professionally appraised) and will frequently ask either too much or too little for the instrument. Whether you are considering buying from either a dealer, or a private party, it's always wise to get a second opinion from a qualified piano technician, or an appraisal. It is true that many pianists and piano teachers can tell you whether a piano sounds good or feels good, or what it's reputation is as far as holding up over time. But very few can tell you the things about a piano that an experienced piano technician can: how well it was built, how long it will last, whether it was a good design, and whether quality workmanship and materials were used.

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A bigger selection today, or...

Forty years ago piano stores in the U.S. carried mainly domestically-produced instruments; today, upon entering a piano store, one is confronted with a plethora of products from all over the world. Next to the traditional-style satin finishes of U.S.- produced pianos in standard ebony (black), mahogany, walnut, oak, or cherry, can be found the shiny, high gloss finishes and often exotic woods of pianos from Western and Eastern Europe, Asia, and even Mexico and South America.

Today there is a much larger selection of instruments available to piano buyers than there has been in quite a long time. The U.S. piano market, and indeed, the piano markets of many other nations across Europe and Asia, have been thrust into a completely new era of international commerce. The boundaries that used to keep foreign competition out have been either lowered, or eliminated altogether. As a direct result, the competition for your piano dollar has become much more intense, but not necessarily any more ethical.

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...does it just seem that way?

A considerable portion of the increase in piano choices consists of mediocre or lower-quality instruments built by manufacturers in formerly closed-market or state-controlled countries and economies (for example China or former Soviet Union countries) where, up until just recently, there was far more demand for pianos than supply, and little competition to keep piano makers on their toes. In many cases, shoddily-built, low-end U.S.-made pianos have merely been displaced by shoddily-built imported ones. Some countries building pianos today are indeed resource-rich in terms of select hardwoods and skilled personnel necessary to produce fine instruments; others, however, are wanting in both quality lumber and labor. Still other countries may occupy a middle ground: They may have the skilled labor but not the materials, or vice versa. Many makers of piano brands that have just recently appeared on the Western market have just started to compete in the world marketplace, and have yet to build, or are still struggling to build, a truly competitive or quality product by world standards. But because of coexisting low standards of buyer awareness and education, large numbers of these pianos still get sold, often by salespeople with minimal training who don't know any better themselves, or whose values hinge on quantity of their personal income, rather than quality of instrument for their customers.

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Why you can't find reviews of pianos like you do washing machines or lawnmowers

For a number of reasons, not least of which is the highly subjective nature of judging piano sound, t ouch or cosmetics, pianos are seldom (if ever) reviewed in buying guides or magazines like Consumer Reports®. More specialized periodicals for musicians, pianists, or music teachers sometimes make a halfhearted attempt to publish something that outwardly appears to be a comparative review. Unfortunately, since most of these specialty magazines also accept advertising dollars from the very piano manufacturers whose instruments they are comparing, their reviews tend to be watered down and lacking in objectivity. As a result, accurate and truthful comparisons of brands, models, quality, features, or pricing are often difficult to find. Even for those publications less influenced by financial censorship, there's always the impending threat of legal action if you happen to say something a manufacturer doesn't agree with, or doesn't feel represents them or their product accurately or fairly.

Nevertheless, in order to give readers some sense of direction in this often confusing world of pianos, we have written the overview you are now reading. We also offer a comparative pricing guide at this site. See Piano Finders Price Comparison Guide. As you may have noticed, Piano Finders accepts no advertising, as we feel it is very difficult to maintain objectivity when you are accepting money or revenues from a sponsor, or manufacturer, of those products you are reviewing.)

PianoFinders is committed to the principle of full disclosure. We began our business, nearly 20 years ago, by appraising and rebuilding pianos, and finding out exactly what manufacturers were putting inside. Our appraisals are designed to tell both buyers and sellers precisely what they need to know about the piano in question, both the positive and the negative, the good and the bad, what's right as well as what's wrong. Some piano dealers are not pleased with our approach, and some refuse to allow us to inspect their pianos. Other dealers, however, and many private parties, use our appraisals regularly, for both buying and selling pianos. Many piano dealers have found that their customers truly appreciate "full disclosure" about what they are buying; and that rather than creating mistrust, having disclosure actually engenders more trust, because people are more willing to buy when they can know exactly what they are getting, and how it compares with everything else out there. We have been doing business this way for almost 20 years now, and we feel strongly that "no surprises" is the best policy all around.)

It can be a truly frustrating experience trying to get accurate information about pianos. Often today a consumer's main recourse, in order to learn about piano quality or pricing, amounts to calling or visiting a number of piano dealers, and attempting to get pertinent information, or find similar models of instruments to compare (often with confusing or discouraging results). "Piano Info" sites on the internet, while initially appearing to be informative, more often than not present vague or contradictory information that is no more helpful than the dealers; in many cases, the sites are actually run by dealers, and include only what they want you to hear. Checking the classifieds in the paper can give you some very general idea of prices: both private parties and dealers list their pianos there; but only the asking price is listed, not what the piano actually ends up selling for. All-too-frequently neither dealer nor private seller takes into consideration the condition of the piano nor the amount of use it's had; nor, if a new piano, how well it was prepped, regulated, or voiced, nor how it compares, tonally, with similar models out there for sale.

Piano manufacturers, in an effort to accommodate competing dealers, will often provide them virtually the same piano, but with different names on the fallboard and with differing styles, options, features, and stringing scales, in order to make it more difficult for the public to be able to tell which pianos are which, or to be able to make effective comparisons. Trying to compare piano features or quality from the various manufacturers' literature can be an exercise in futility, like comparing apples and oranges. In addition, disparate and widely divergent exchange rates between European, Asian, and U.S. currencies have further contributed to the confusion about piano pricing, and have given rise to opportunists and price-gougers. Dealers often now refuse to quote prices over the phone, and require customers to come in, in person, and submit to a sales pitch, before giving out any sort of price info. It certainly seems that all too often, piano dealers seek to make money by keeping consumers in the dark.

In many cases dealers and importers can now buy overseas, dirt-cheap, instruments designed to have the outward appearance of a quality piano, but with little of the construction, design, or materials that make for a quality instrument, inside. These instruments are then shipped to the States by the containerload, and sold here for many times what they initially cost. Good or high quality pianos, on the other hand, are typically products with high materials and labor costs, and relatively narrow profit margins (after all is said and done). Government intervention, protections and/or and assistance in various forms, and the absence or presence of import tariffs and duties can often make or break a piano manufacturer. Over recent years, the importation of several fairly well-made, and popular, imported piano brands dried up almost overnight due to a sudden corresponding evaporation of government protections, incentives, or exemptions, or due to a coinciding change in the foreign currency exchange rate. Makers of high quality pianos here in the States are struggling to survive.

It is common today to see piano parts being made in one country, then shipped to another for final assembly, and then shipped to still another country to be sold, simply because doing so will circumvent import or export tariffs and duties, or because local government in a country has chosen to subsidize new industry or manufacturing in an effort to help create new jobs. And the name placed on that multi-national piano product could be one from any of those countries, or from none of them.

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How pianos are often made today

Today, in an oft-repeated scenario, highly-sophisticated marketing research surveys consumer piano tastes and preferences, to find out what features or finish appeal to John or Jane Q. Customer, and what they expect to pay for it. Then production searches for a way to build it the most inexpensively (i.e. cheaply), often subcontracting it out to a piano manufacturer in an overseas, or "south-of-the-border," emerging-economy nation where labor rates are extremely low, and workmanship often just barely acceptable. (In many financial circles this is just considered "good business." In the piano industry it is often euphemized as "building an affordable piano.") It is true that many piano buyers don't need to have a high-, or even relatively good-quality piano; and for their purposes, a piece of furniture that simply "looks the part" will suffice. There's nothing wrong with buying a cheap piano if that's all that's desired or needed. The real disservice occurs when, in a scene that happens far too frequently today, low-quality pianos are represented to unknowing or trusting buyers as being something they just simply aren't, or as being worth much more than they truly are. And the discouragement and disappointment comes when children, students or adults attempt to make musical progress on an instrument that was only designed for show or for casual use.

Today, also, there is considerable and heated public debate as to whether by such manufacturing tactics we are indeed helping build the economies of underdeveloped countries. Many feel we are merely contributing to worker exploitation abroad, where labor laws are much less stringent or even nonexistent, while lining the pockets and purses of some very shrewd and clever importers, dealers, and in some instances, manufacturers. Others are of the opinion that by supporting such practices we may be undermining our own economy and further contributing to domestic unemployment. One thing's for sure: the ballpark is now the world, and the playing field has become, once again, anything but level.

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Why people buy one piano instead of another

The reasons that pianos are bought are as numerous and diverse as the people who buy them. But heading the list of criteria that usually qualify one instrument over another are tone (i.e. sound quality) and touch (i.e. feel of the keys & action when playing), which to the lay person can seem like nebulous and vague quantities, if indeed quantifiable at all. Pianists and musicians who have been around the piano world, and who are "experienced" in what is considered a good sound and a good feel in a piano, are also those generally considered qualified to judge; all other mortals usually must take their word for it (unless they have strong opinions of their own, and there they are on their own!)

Just as you would pick a stereo system for it's particular sound (and how it rattles your windows), pianists choose a piano because they like what they hear, and they like what they feel when they play or listen to it. (They may even like the way it looks.) And there are certain pianos that have come to be accepted as having a likeable (or attractive) sound or feel.

Now what pianists and other musicians like in a piano sound can vary tremendously, just like everyone else's taste in art or music. Some pianists like a very powerful, loud, projecting tone with a deep bass, a sound that shouts "listen to me, pay attention to me." Others like a "pure" tone, one that is "refined" and "elegant". Still others like a tone that sings, and they usually have certain very strong ideas, (or opinions), about what sings and what doesn't. Yet others like a mellow sound (ooh, there's that word again). And yet others want a sound that reminds them of something, something, long ago, somewhere in the past... "if I could only remember"... well... it's hard to describe. And there are so many different adjectives, and everybody, I mean, everybody seems to have a different definition of what those adjectives mean.

As an little example, for those who want to be on the safe side of what pianists and other musical and non-musical people generally like (is there such a thing as safe where politics, religion, or music is concerned?) the generally accepted "standard" for many years has been, of course, Steinway. This is because much, if not most, of the classical and symphonic music, and also popular music, available on recordings, tapes, and CDs, and over the air on radio and television, over the past century has generally featured artists performing on the Steinway piano. As a result, our ears have become somewhat accustomed to, and accepting of, the "Steinway" sound. (You will of course realize that this is sort of a "consensus" criteria, but it's important to recognize it for what it is. Much of the music we like, generally, is what we are accustomed to listening to (but not to excess!) There. That's all the lecture on aesthetics for now.)

Since artists are often expected to perform on Steinway pianos, it's not a bad idea for them to be acquainted with that particular touch. Many piano teachers encourage their students to practice on Steinways ("after all," they tell their students, "if you get really good then you will be playing mostly on Steinways"... ...Whether this is really true or an outright fabrication put into circulation by the local Steinway dealer is beside the point. The expectation has been planted. (Not every artist is enamored of the Steinway "feel" however. The great pianist Paderewski, for example, perhaps one of the most effective advertisements of all time for the Steinway piano, found the Steinway touch intolerably heavy and fatiguing, and asked them to change it on the instruments supplied for his concerts, which they did. Other pianists, as well, have observed that while the Steinway action may render excellent service as a weight-lifting machine to strengthen the fingers, it is not always the most rewarding to perform on. While some of the problem has been addressed since Paderewski's time, many pianists still feel that the touch of a good Yamaha, or Kawai, is superior. More on this later. See also the article on Touchweight.)

For the above reasons, at any rate, among others, Steinway is often advertised as the "standard" piano. People who write books about buying pianos often use Steinway as a "measuring stick", either to gauge whether other pianos measure up, or, if not, to beat them with. ;-)

Is Steinway the only piano with a great sound? Absolutely not! There are many great piano sounds. Piano history is replete with great instruments: Mason & Hamlin, Chickering, Baldwin, Knabe, Weber, Bechstein, Bosendorfer, Yamaha, Kawai; these are but a few of the names - the list goes on and on. (For more names, see Vintage Pianos, in section II of this article) Many of these other manufacturers make, or have made pianos that are quite similar in many ways to Steinways (and that in some ways are sometimes even better!) There are many artists who prefer these other brands to Steinway. Often you will find that pianists have preferences of individual pianos among a number of different brands.

It's important to understand that pianos really need to be judged individually, each one on its own merits. In other words, not all Steinways are great; nor are all the pianos of any other brand, for that matter. Because of the somewhat unpredictable nature of the materials that go into the making of a piano (wood, wool felt, cast iron, etc.) no two pianos ever sound identical. It's always wise, if possible, to try out a number of instruments (even among those that are the same size, model and brand) because they will all inevitably sound and feel a little bit different, and you may find some (or one) you like better than others. In addition, some pianos are new, some are old, some are rebuilt, some are worn out, some need new strings or hammers. Some have been well cared for, some have been abused. Some were "an experiment," some were just "a bad design." Some were built by masters, some by apprentices. Some were built on a Monday, others on a Friday. Some haven't been tuned or touched for years. There are the good, the bad, and the ugly among all makes. -Even among the Japanese pianos, which are supposed to be "all the same". (-Or so it is said.)

But the Steinway sound (in general) is an accepted sound, and so choosing a Steinway is reasonably safe. So if you buy a good Steinway (and maintain it in good condition), you have a reasonably good chance of impressing the finicky artist who comes to play your piano. But not in every case.

Incidentally, one of the reasons why some people buy a particular piano is because of a desire or a need to impress others. (In other words, the piano is not just for themselves, but others who may happen along to see, or play it.) Okay, now that we finally have that out on the table, we can be honest and up-front about it. Let's admit it, most folks are concerned that the first thing a guest (pianist) sitting down at their piano would do was notice the name above the keys.Well really now, how could he help but do otherwise? Why do you suppose piano manufacturers always put the name there?

Rest assured, however, that unless you are sure what kind of piano the people you are trying to impress will be impressed with, you may well be wrong!) Because of this desire to impress others with first glance, many people have assumed that they are safe if the name on the fallboard begins with S and ends with a Y. (Unfortunately, because of an inability on the part of many piano buyers over the years to be able to read, spell or even remember names, many pianos with similar-sounding names like Stanley, Smiley, Shirley, Symphony, Steinbay and even Steinvey have been sold.)

For some people, the sound or feel, or even the name, of the piano is not that important. Of more significance to them is that the piano look imposing in their home or surroundings, and be impressive in a cosmetic way. There are many piano companies who cater to this need as well: turning out gorgeous cabinetry while tending to skimp heavily on the musical portion of the instrument; relying chiefly on the furniture aspect to make the sale. Not every piano is a trade-off between sound quality and good looks, however. There are also art case pianos produced by the makers of better instruments. Pianos are both form and function; furniture and phonic. Many folks feel if it doesn't look good, how can it sound good? (Others, especially pianists, wonder just the reverse.)

Finally, in our list of main reasons why some pianos are chosen over others, is Mr. (or Ms.) Checkbook. For most folks, this person has a great deal to say about which piano is ultimately purchased. If the piano doesn't fit the budget, it doesn't really make much difference how many other things it has going for it., now does it?

There are, of course, many other reasons why people will buy certain pianos. They may be looking for an instrument reputed to hold up well under demanding conditions, say, of being used in a school or recording studio. They may buy a piano because their relative, friend or neighbor just bought a certain brand, and they were impressed by it. Others simply rely on their music teacher, a family friend who plays, or even the store salesperson to tell them which brand they want.

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Different piano "sounds"

Even though any one piano maker may offer many different models of pianos ranging from spinets to concert grands, there often seems to be a certain quality, or "family resemblance", among all the products of one brand, especially with regards to tone quality. Each piano maker seems to cultivate a certain unique sound or tonal character that differentiates the instruments bearing his name from those of all the other brands. At one time or another, you have probably heard pianists talk about that ""/Steinway," "Baldwin," "Yamaha", or "Young Chang" sound. This is not just sales hype. Whether the original maker consciously intended to cultivate a particular sound, or whether it was just a natural outcome of each individual maker's unique way of approaching piano design, each piano brand does tend to exhibit certain characteristics, or traits, peculiar to its family of origin. For this reason, a competent technician may be able to adjust (voice or regulate) let's say, a Baldwin so that it sounds or feels "close to" or "more like" a Steinway (or vice-versa), but the two brands can usually never be made to sound "identical", because each has certain deep-down qualities that cannot be changed due to fundamental differences in the basic design.

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...And different piano qualities

In general, each respective manufacturer also has a certain basic level of quality they design into their products, and certain distinct patents or features that are supposed to contribute in one way or another to the piano's unique sound or feel. This minimum or base level of quality, and how it is perceived by the public, usually determines the price point of the piano, and whether it is considered more a serious musical instrument, or simply furniture. (Or perhaps something in-between.) Piano manufacturers, especially ones who have been in business for many years and have a certain quality level associated with their name or logo, are reluctant to tamper with that association that the buying public has. Hence, when manufacturers like Steinway or Baldwin offer second or third line (i.e. second or third quality) pianos today, they usually put different names on them, such as Essex or Boston, Wurlitzer or Chickering. With pianos produced in the Orient, at least until recently, the situation was different, as both Yamaha and Kawai offered many different qualities of pianos all under the Yamaha or Kawai name. Even this is changing, however, as the Japanese makers seem to be moving more towards the American way of marketing.

Steinways and many other brands of pianos made earlier in the 20th century (we are now in the 21st) often had the names of their exclusive patents and innovations plastered all over the plate (harp) or interior of the piano, in addition to lists or replicas of medals and honors they had won at World's fairs, Expositions, and Centennials. The manufacturers have now discontinued this practice, although you will still hear about all the patents, and awards, from the salespeople.

Patents, buzzwords, and piano jargon (or, if you can't convince 'em, confuse 'em)

The touting of unique piano patents or features is a sales device that is as old as the industry itself, and is generally the method salespeople still rely on today to distinguish the particular piano brand they sell from other, competing brands. When you enter a piano store, you may find yourself confronted, at some point in the sales presentation, with a barrage of piano jargon, consisting of buzzwords, patents, and features the salesperson acquired directly from the specific piano manufacturer's marketing department. You can listen, but don't bother paying too much attention to the terminology. Most pianos today have pretty much the same basic equipment (basic piano design has not changed much in the last 100 years), and the really significant patents that originally made the biggest differences are no longer new or novel, or have long since expired, and been assimilated into the manufacturing practices of pretty much all major brands, and thus are usually no longer brought up or mentioned. There are an infinite number of possible ways, for example, to make a piano soundboard. But only a few of those ways work well, and those have pretty much all been discovered already. All the rest of the "new innovations" and "buzzwords" are pretty much just marketing fluff. The bottom line, as always, is how the piano sounds, how it feels, and how it holds up over the years.

Sometimes the way piano features and patents are presented makes them sound like a really great idea. Often today though, the features advertised don't have a lot to do with the ultimate sound quality, touch or durability of the instrument, but are simply the marketing department's "spin" on something that saves the manufacturer money, or otherwise makes it easier for them to build pianos, with fewer employees and/or lower skill levels.

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Bring on the celebrities...

Another device frequently used by piano salespeople is name-dropping, usually that of some famous person or entertainment personality who owns or endorses that particular brand of piano. This can backfire, however, as obviously not all piano buyers agree on which people are truly famous or great, and a star's name can serve both to deter as well as attract customers; in addition, pianos tend to stick around for significantly longer than the transitory prestige or popular appeal of celebrities. The major drawback, of course, to relying on celebrity endorsement of a piano brand is that celebrities are usually anything but authorities on piano quality or tone; and often the famous personality has simply been given a complimentary instrument by the manufacturer in return for the favor of a testimonial.

Many years ago, a certain very famous U.S. manufacturer of high quality pianos made it a practice to list inside their grand pianos, on a rather large and ostentatious soundboard decal, the names of numerous European royalty who owned that particular brand. World War I subsequently broke out however, and the soundboard decals quickly disappeared, as they unfortunately included the endorsements of such folk as the Czar of Russia (Czar Nicholas II) the Emperor of Germany (Kaiser Wilhelm II) and the Sultan of Turkey (Abdul Hamid), and others whose subsequent falls from power and/or popularity tended to be rather more of an embarrassment than an asset to a manufacturer who continued to list them as references or testimonials.

I have noticed that today most of the really serious piano brands will have pictures of well-known and highly regarded pianists and musicians (who use their pianos) plastered all over the showroom walls. This could be because they have found that featuring artists for testimonials is much less volatile than using political leaders (also a picture on the wall is easier to remove, should an artist fall from grace, than a decal on the soundboard underneath a 400 lb. cast iron frame and some 235 or so strings.) Also today it seems like more of the buying public has figured out that an endorsement from a musician, or especially, a pianist or someone who actually spends a lot of time using the instrument, is an infinitely more valid and compelling testimony than that of someone who just uses the piano to dress up their home.

The less serious piano brands tend to feature testimonials from celebrities such as movie and tv stars, talk show hosts, or whomever they can get, -generally famous folk who are less discerning or critical about piano tone or quality.

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One way to tell an honest piano dealer

Most honest piano dealers believe in the principle of disclosure, at least as far as they are capable or knowledgeable. They will usually frankly tell you which of their pianos are considered the high-quality ones, which ones are simply "a good value", and which are mainly "furniture" (or P.S.O.'s: Piano-Shaped-Objects). Very seldom will you find all or even a large portion of the available brands under one roof: most well-established dealers try to keep their inventory down to from 3 to perhaps 5 (if they are a large dealership) "proven" piano lines, or brands. ("Proven" is usually determined by such criteria by how well a brand sells, or competes with other instruments for sale at competing dealers'; how well it fits its price tier or niche; how much profit margin there is in it, after all the bills have come in; and how trouble-free it is, service- or warranty- wise, for the dealer.) Usually these brands or lines fit specific marketing tiers or price points: generally there is an "economy" or price leader line, a "good quality" line, and then a "high quality" line for artists or serious musicians. (Some very large companies like Yamaha, Young Chang, Kawai, and Baldwin have extensive enough product lines that they can try and cover all the bases for the dealer. Recently, however, Baldwin, recognizing that the public tends to get confused if a brand name is associated with a wide range of different qualities, assigned different brand names to its lesser quality pianos, and saved the Baldwin name for the better ones. Steinway, also, is doing virtually the same thing now with its "economy" pianos. More about this later.)

Few dealers carry brands that are generally perceived to compete on the same quality level, or more brands than absolutely necessary to cover their different price points: It's hard enough to keep informed and up-to-date on all the new models and features in the brands they do carry.

Dealers usually have to pay interest on pianos that stay on the floor longer than a few weeks or months, so it pays to keep only the fastest moving items around. Also, having more selection in a showroom than absolutely necessary often tends to confuse buyers and delay sales, as folks take more time to deliberate over a greater number of choices. Grand pianos consume a large amount of floor space, and verticals, on the other hand, while not taking up as much showroom real estate, often have very low profit margins, so dealers try and make sure that they only carry models of each that will move quickly.

Every piano you see on a dealer's floor has had to be uncrated and unpacked, tuned, regulated, voiced and have the case cleaned and polished, all at dealer expense (they don't just come that way from the factory). Not all dealers do this necessary prep work to bring the piano up to "showroom" condition, and a common customer complaint today is that it's hard to find new pianos on dealers' floors that are in tune, regulated, or voiced properly. New pianos require more frequent maintenance than ones that are a few years old: New strings are stretching and new felts are settling in. The significance of this for the dealer is that he wants to get the piano in and out in a minimum of time, before he has to pay additional interest or pay his staff to do additional tunings and tweaking. What this usually translates into is a situation where the dealer is constantly having to unpack and move inventory and where it's not in his interest to do a lot of prep on the piano before it goes out. This however, is in direct conflict with the needs of the customer for a piano to be at it's best at the point of sale so he/she can make an informed decision about the instrument's quality.

There are a few ways that dealers commonly get around this conflict. Some brands of instruments (notably those made in Japan or Germany) come a lot better prepped from the factory than those made in other countries (including the U.S.A.). Many dealers have switched to Japanese or German piano lines simply because they have to do far less work on the piano when it comes in. Piano makers in these (high touch) countries seem to have a completely different ethic about how their products should arrive and about first impressions. Pianos made in these two nations are often shipped in a hermetically sealed foil bag and frequently arrive fresh out of the packing crate in tune (!) and needing very little dealer attention. When certain dealers decided to give Japanese or German brand pianos a try, they were often amazed at how little work they had to do to the pianos compared with what they were getting from the U.S. manufacturers. Many of them discontinued the U.S. brands and never went back, simply because they didn't want to be bothered with all the dealer prep that the U.S. manufacturers were expecting them to do.

Other dealers tried "nailing a piano to the floor". They would have one "demo" instrument that they had done all the tuning, voicing, and fine regulating on, which would not be for sale, but which would be used to sell other pianos off of. The problem with this approach is that many piano customers have learned that there are subtle yet significant differences between pianos of even the same year, make, and model; and thus they expect to be able to hear and experience the exact instrument they are getting, so this strategy doesn't always work. It only takes one customer insisting "No, I want this (the demo) piano," (and all the work the dealer has put into it) and then the dealer has to start all over again.

Because of this expectation, the tradition with most better dealers is: unless you specifically ask for one "still in the crate," or with a special finish, or one having to be "special-ordered," you are usually sold a piano off the floor: one that you can see, hear, and feel. Even if they do special-order you a piano, or sell you one "from the warehouse" or "still in the crate", the better dealers will usually set it up and prep it, and will want to have you come and inspect it before it goes out, to make sure they have prepared it to your satisfaction.

Still other dealers skirted the prep problem by saying "We always do the final tuning and adjustments (voicing etc.) in the home." While there are legitimate reasons for this (pianos usually do have to be tuned again shortly after the move, and final voicing and some touch-up regulation and adjustments really should be done, in, and with reference to, the piano's final destination) nevertheless, many dealers were misusing it, and doing little prep, or in many cases, nothing at all, to the piano until it arrived in the customer's home. The glaring problem with this is that often neither the dealer nor his staff had even bothered to check out, or even look at, a piano before it was shipped to the customer; and the piano would sometimes arrive, in the home, with factory defects or concealed shipping damage. Then there would be a very embarrassing situation where the dealer had to take the piano back, and customer confidence would be severely undermined.

The reason that many dealers can get away with behavior like this is because too many piano customers today simply don't know what kind of service is possible, or what to expect.

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A word about the people involved in piano sales...

There are many different types of people in the piano industry, with widely divergent values, qualifications, and levels of competence. It is important to know beforehand with whom, and what, you may be dealing in your piano search. I have known many different types of piano dealers. To their credit, many piano dealerships have been around for generations, or are still run by members or descendants of the original family; are highly knowledgeable about not only their own product lines but also those of their competitors; are truly committed to stocking quality instruments and doing/being a service to the public; and many have served the same community for many years and have many satisfied customers who, in turn, refer their friends.

There exists however, at the same time, a considerable number of dealers who change their place of business often, have highly questionable business practices and ethics, and whose primary focus is making money. In addition, there are also dealers who, while well-meaning, are essentially ignorant about many of the products they sell, relying mainly on the manufacturer's marketing department to tell them what's what.

The odds are that you will probably have a good piano buying experience, but there is also a distinct possibility that you may have an unpleasant one. Notwithstanding the fact that I have a very high opinion of most of the people in the industry, I have also run into my share of either unethical or ignorant dealers, who are always having to look over their shoulder to avoid having either the law or some extremely angry former customers catch up with them; and they are definitely out there waiting for you, so it's wise to be warned in advance. It's always a good idea to try and get recommendations from friends or piano teachers who play and are satisfied with their instruments. They will usually be able to point you in the right direction. They will also often be able to tell you which dealers to stay away from.

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...and also about piano customers.

There are also many different types of piano customers, anywhere from the one who walks into a piano store and says to the sales manager "My time is short, and valuable. I don't know much about pianos and I don't have time to learn. Tell me what I need to know and what I should buy," to the one who trusts no one, is willing to do weeks and months, even years, of research on pianos and piano buying, visits all the dealers and drives them crazy with innumerable questions and price requests, and finally buys, but not before they've seen absolutely everything that's available and asked the opinions of all their acquaintances, relatives, and even total strangers, on the subject. Most customers actually fall somewhere on the spectrum between these two extremes.

It's okay -Buying a piano can be as small or as big a deal as you want to make it. But do try and give some thought to what kind of customer you might want to be, and how you might like to go about your piano search; how you will decide whether a dealer or salesperson merits your trust, and how much of your trust to give them. You may find this to be a very revealing, and rewarding, exercise.

Historically, the piano industry has been one of the more respectable and up-front trades, and still is, in large measure, today. You will probably find more altruistic and unselfish individuals among the piano industries than in many other sectors of the economy. In addition, the piano tends to represent all those things that most people aspire to: culture, creativity, refinement, the Arts with a capital A. Small wonder, then that for many people, the piano has become one of the most visible symbols of upward mobility.

Pianos, also, due to the overwhelming amounts of materials, labor, and skill required for their construction, are usually a good deal in and of themselves, especially when compared with other manufactured goods today: Pound for pound, you just get more for your buying dollar when you buy a piano. If you haven't been keeping up with piano prices for a while, your jaw probably dropped recently when you walked into a piano store and saw what new instruments were selling for, especially those with recognizable names such as Steinway, Baldwin, Yamaha or Kawai. (We won't even here get into those European exotics with names like Bosendorfer, Bechstein, or Fazioli.) As a matter of fact you may have also been astounded to see that the used instruments were not selling for much less! On pianos of this quality, believe me, there is far more work that goes into the making of the instrument than anyone not involved in the industry realizes. One of the simple reasons why it is getting harder and harder to build a quality piano in the U.S., (or any kind of piano for that matter), is because no one in their right mind wants to work that hard for what they would get. The margins are often incredibly thin. (As my piano teacher once told me, "you know, Kendall, you really don't have to do piano for a living. There are far easier ways of making money.") Today, as a result, much of the piano building has gone overseas, to nations where people are hungrier for work, hungrier for jobs, and anxious to learn a useful skill of any kind.

Selling pianos is difficult enough, even in a good economy; and the floods of foreign competition unleashed recently on on the U.S. piano market have put considerable additional pressure on stateside dealers. Being able to make a sale, or make money, or even stay in business, has become even more of a issue lately for U.S. piano companies and dealers. In a closed economy, with the benefit of government intervention in the form of protective tariffs and import restrictions and duties that formerly discouraged foreign competition, dealers and manufacturers could afford to be more generous and complacent. In the open market environment of today, with the fences down, things tend to get much more "lean and mean." In such a climate, taking advantage of someone (usually a consumer), who has a lower skill or knowledge quotient than an "industry insider" can be more easily rationalized. Prices may be more competitive generally, but lower overall margins often pressure dealers to try and "make up the difference" on certain instruments, and during certain sales "events." The current economic and/or moral climate seems to have made it more acceptable, for some, to put personal or corporate welfare before public trust, or to adopt the maxim "what's good for business is good for everyone."

In an effort to cope with, or adapt to, the inrushing tide of competing imports, many dealerships today have adopted an "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em," attitude: In stores where previously you would find mainly U.S.-manufactured instruments, you now see Young Changs and Yamahas, Petrofs and Pearl Rivers next to Steinways and Baldwins. In addition, you may see a host of unrecognizable names from Asian or Eastern European counties: Hastings, Handok, Steiner, Weinbach, Wieler, Sangler & Sohne, Becker, Betting, Belarus, Rieger-Kloss, Horugel, Stegler, Estonia, and the like. Frequently today, also, well-known, familiar American piano brand names will be placed on Japanese-, Korean- or Chinese-built pianos. This has created a great deal of confusion, not only for buyers, but for salespeople as well: they may both be unfamiliar with what's underneath that either familiar-looking, or unrecognizable label. Far too frequently, there isn't sufficient dealer discrimination as to the quality of the less well-known or newer imported brands: they just need something to fill out their line at a certain price point, and they need it fast.

Dealers often have not had sufficient experience with these new brands to be able to know how they will hold up over time. Most of the time the foreign-made instrument with the borrowed, recognizable name is a complete and total departure from the instrument or design the name originally stood for, and on which its reputation was built; or from the original reason the piano teacher sent the parent in to buy that particular brand of piano in the first place. But manufacturers and dealers are bargaining on the fact that people, familiar with names but less familiar with the pianos underneath them, will latch onto the more easily identifiable name regardless of what it's placed on.

There are, as ever, piano dealers with intent to deceive, but most misunderstandings and complaints seem to arise from either ignorance or impatience: piano dealers and/or salespeople too often simply don't know enough about their product, or often feel too pressed for time, to give the consumer adequate or pertinent information. Customers, too, often may not yet have a clear idea of what they want, but also may be afraid of staying and talking about it for more than a few moments for fear they will be persuaded to do something against their will. (And often with good reason!)

Good piano salespeople are often very sincere, and most of them truly believe in the product they are selling, (or else have been selling it for long enough that they have begun to believe their own sales pitch.) -Most piano sales personnel find it's very difficult to make a sale if they don't. So, for many salespeople, having, or achieving, that sincerity, having that belief in the product, and in the manufacturer, has sort of become a religion, a matter of faith, if you will. Many are fiercely loyal to the company that makes the instruments they sell, sometimes to the point of actually refusing to acknowledge any problems or flaws with the product.

Successful salespeople who have been doing the same thing every day for many years are very skilled at what they do, and have encountered, and mastered, just about every kind of customer and/or objection you can imagine, and many you can't. Many salespeople also spend a certain amount of time every morning studying their sales techniques, practicing their pitch, "dressing for success," psyching themselves up for the day, or getting "into character." It is with good reason that many customers approach them with respect and some trepidation, much the same way as a novice piano student might approach an experienced piano teacher. The sales profession actually has many things in common with the acting profession, and the dedication often displayed by both is admirable. Sales approaches are rehearsed to perfection, skills are honed to a fine edge, performances become powerful and convincing, and the only real problem is when salesperson or actor gets so much into the role that they forget who they really are, or whom they should be trying to serve (the customer).

But today, truly experienced and successful salespeople like the above are no longer so common in the piano world. Too often today, a piano salesperson's expertise about their product line will be based almost entirely on promotional or sales literature supplied by the piano manufacturer (which usually always says their piano is the best and the greatest; or else speaks in either vague or highly technical terms about things that sound impressive but have little to do with underlying quality) and not on any comparative experience with all the available brands. Many times, piano salespeople, not knowing the correct answer to a customer's question, will actually improvise or make something up, on the spot, (I kid you not) or else relate erroneous information that they have picked up second or third hand.

There is a lot of ignorance among piano sales personnel, especially those who are new to the business. To really know the piano industry and the significant issues involves a steep learning curve. Unfortunately, this does not stop many novice salespeople from acting as if they were authorities on the subject. Many have been erroneously taught that you must act as if you know what you're talking about, whether you really do or not. Many have merely been indoctrinated with the manufacturers sales strategies and literature and assume that's all they have to know. But those who practice this type of bravado or bluff are inevitably always found out sooner or later. I respect far more the sales person who is capable of sincerely saying "You know, I really don't know the answer to that question, but I believe I know where I can get it. Can I get back to you on that after I've done some more research?" or "Will you excuse me while I get someone who can answer your question?"

In many shopping mall showrooms and glass-fronted "piano outlets" or "piano warehouses" of the type that situate themselves at the side of freeways and major thoroughfares (to take advantage of the free advertising), sales-employee turnover is often high, and a salesperson may actually have very little piano sales experience, having taken the job only for a season or in-between other jobs. Sadly enough, many of these salespeople are put on the sales floor after only a brief, intensive crash course on "sales skills", i.e. "overcoming objections", "talking benefits", and/or "closing", rather than any real music background or knowledge of piano quality and construction. They may give the impression of having considerable piano knowledge or experience by reciting long, arcane lists of piano patents, features or terminology (buzzwords) you may never have heard before (and which they themselves usually just picked up the week before from the manufacturer's promotional literature.) Too often today, I have found, neither buyer nor salesperson knows much about the pianos they are looking at. In such instances it is truly a case of the blind leading the blind.

Sales skills are important, don't get me wrong, but unfortunately today much of the piano industry is made up of people who actually believe, and teach, that sales skills are far more important than musical or piano knowledge. (Time and again I have heard sales trainers and factory reps say, "Musical skill is a liability to making sales. Give me someone who knows little or nothing about music or playing the piano, or about building or servicing pianos, and I can turn them into a top-notch salesperson," -which is really a rather sad comment on current industry values.) Unfortunately, in the absence of any real piano-specific knowledge, such salespeople usually consummate sales by focusing on issues that are anything but instrument-related: i.e. making the customer feel good about themselves, talking about experiences they both have in common, showing them how easy it is to sit down at the keyboard and play a simple piece, or helping them envision how nice a piano will look in their home. Without training or knowledge germane to the real issues that the customer should be concerned about, these types of salespeople must make do with what is considered by many today to be manipulation and/or psychological persuasion or coercion. To make people feel good about themselves is indeed commendable, and to show someone they really can do something they didn't think they could is truly wonderful. But these things should not be allowed to cloud the real issues when attempting to help someone find an appropriate instrument.

More often than not today, the dealer-customer interaction has become an adversarial one. It needn't be; supposedly these are two parties who are trying to work together for results beneficial to both. Unfortunately the way the industry is presently set up, and run, makes it more difficult for salespeople to be objective or impartial. Different profit margins, factory "incentives" to dealers on certain instruments or brands, and rewards for meeting certain sales quotas inevitably tend to bias salespeople toward a choice that may be best for them but not for the customer. Worse yet, the uninformed salesperson may not even be aware there is anything better for that particular customer than what he is presently pushing, even when it may be available to him to sell.

There are many factors that tend to promote the adversarial relationship. On the customer side, because of the fiercely competitive nature of the piano marketplace, the opportunity for a customer to play one dealer off against another is a temptation that is nearly impossible to resist. In large metropolitan areas with many dealers selling the same brands in a small radius, buyers usually price-shop, but often, again, without regard to the real issues that should merit their attention in choosing which dealer to ultimately go with, or which piano to ultimately buy.

The prevailing public perception today often tends to equate pianos with other mass-produced consumer items, like washing machines or microwave ovens, where, once you have decided on the particular brand and model you want, it doesn't really matter which one you get, or where you buy it, as long as it's the lowest price. This attitude is erroneous, because while pianos are mass-produced, there is actually far less assembly-line and/or machine-work, and far more hand-work, than most people realize. Pianos made today are still at least 70 to 90 percent hand labor by industry estimates, and the higher the quality of the piano, the more labor intensive the manufacturing is. Because of this, and because of the somewhat unpredictable nature of the materials that go into pianos (wood, wire, wool felt, leather, cast iron, etc.) no two pianos are ever exactly alike, and instruments of even identical make and model may differ widely in tone quality and other important characteristics. (This is true even of the Japanese pianos, which have an extremely high reputation for consistency in manufacturing.) Every piano has some certain quality that makes it different and unique from all the others, in tone, in touch, in appearance. (This is really what is often meant when pianists or performing artists say they are "selecting" or "picking out" a piano. Much of the time they already know which brand and model they want.)

Because of the many, and varied ways a piano can enrich our lives, it really is helpful to view it this way, as something individual, unique and inherently special, deserving of more thought and care than say, a TV or a toaster. (I'm not saying that pianos should be regarded in the same light as people, who are infinitely more individual, diverse and complex. But there are important issues of uniqueness and individuality that enhance both personal and piano relationships. To lose sight of those important qualities, to suggest that either people or pianos are "all the same", or should be, even in a "perfect" way, is to lose what I feel is an essential quality of perfection itself.)

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The "other" half of the piano you buy

The piano itself is really only one half of the equation. Just like with personal computers or cars, the other important, and often overlooked half, is the service and support a dealer provides both before and after the sale. No two piano dealers (or their technical staff) will prep or voice a piano the same way, and dealer post-sale service runs the gamut from doing little or nothing after the piano is delivered, to going far above and beyond the call of duty to ensure customer satisfaction. The current public mentality towards pianos as just another cookie cutter- or cloned- consumer-item, that only requires maintenance or service when it breaks down, does not tend to engender a great deal of customer discernment or differentiation between pianos or dealers.

Pianos are higher maintenance items than most other household appliances, requiring not just tuning, but often a host of other adjustments, especially during the first year following delivery, as new parts and felts are settling and being broken in. In this regard they can actually be compared more with a car, and we all know how much service and maintenance cars require in order to keep running properly. Pianos need frequent "tune-ups," too. Whether a new piano's owner continues to experience satisfaction with the instrument for any length of time after the sale often depends on the amount of post-delivery service a dealer provides. Too often with the dealer it's "out of sight, out of mind."

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Roadblocks to rapport

Because a single piano sale can often involve a considerable amount of a salesperson's or dealer's time, and stand for a significant percentage of a their annual income, one of the most difficult and trying situations for a salesperson is to have what he believes was a firm commitment from a customer, or even a contract (verbal or otherwise) to buy, and then have it fall through. -Especially if it does so for a reason (an excuse) that the salesperson or dealer considers frivolous or irresponsible on the part of the customer. It may "just come with the territory," but believe it or not, underneath that tough exterior, dealers and salespeople have feelings too: it's not always easy for them to separate piano- from personal rejection, especially when they are often taught in sales training seminars that, "more than the piano, you're selling yourself." While some salespeople are resilient enough that there are truly "no hard feelings", with others the disappointment and/or actual resentment with the unfortunate customer (or the public in general, if it happens often enough) can be particularly strong. Again, this sort of common occurrence tends further to alienate dealers and public.

Customers, hurrying or rushing through their weekend shopping agenda, or distracted by the antics of small children they may have brought along with them, may not be able to give the salesperson their full attention. They might inadvertently nod when they really meant to shake their head, had they had more time and space to think. They may also omit or skip over important facts that would help the salesperson to direct them to what they really want, or away from what they really don't want, or they simply may be so pressured by other concerns that it's hard for them to focus. For many customers, shopping for a piano may be a lark, or just another family outing, something not truly high on the priority list. In many instances spouses, or children, may be being dragged along against their will; buying a piano may not have been what they wanted at all. For most piano sales personnel, however, it's serious business: after all, their income and livelihood usually depend on it. (On the other hand, it can become very serious for the customer if they have devoted the family savings or nest egg to the purchase of a quality instrument, and the salesperson's attention level, competence, or care is not equal to the trust.)

It is best if both customer and salesperson come to the table informed, and having done their homework, so they can effectively communicate with each other about what is really wanted or needed. Buying a piano can become quite an involved transaction, with consequences for a person's finances, living space, emotional space, family space, and a host of other issues depending on who's doing the buying and for what reason(s). There really is a certain minimum amount of preliminary study that a party needs to do before they can make a good piano buying decision. The salesperson, as well, needs to know their product, and the pertinent issues. Trust is an indispensable factor: the customer has to be able to feel they can trust the dealer enough to share their true desires with them, and the dealer has to be able to have the confidence that the customer is indeed telling them the truth about their situation. Otherwise, each is just trying to second-guess the other. In an era of increasingly shallow and fleeting relationships, true communication is not always easy, but it is always worthwhile.

More than anything else, time is what is most often needed in order for a salesperson or dealer to truly address a customers needs. And unfortunately, in much of today's sales climate, time is so often what is sorely lacking on either the part of the customer, the salesperson, or both. Many salespeople feel they can "only spend so much time" with a customer before they have to either "close the sale" or "move on" to the next prospect. Regrettably, many piano dealerships actually teach their salespeople to do just that. Too often today, people who really only need some additional patience, empathy and answers to their questions are dismissed as "time-wasters," in a myopic and poorly thought-out attempt by business to maximize unit sales. Customers often get the impression that salespeople have stopwatches that start ticking the moment they enter the store. In addition, sales "formulas" and "methods" taught to piano salespeople often focus on "qualifying" customers: i.e. using different probes to find out if the customer or their budget are really "serious." (Customers who go into a store to "examine some pianos," often get the impression, and correctly, that they are the one being tested or scrutinized.)

One objective of these techniques is to give salespeople some sense of control in a situation where they often have little. When misunderstood or misapplied by overzealous or immature salespeople these methods can and do result in the literal "hiring and firing" of customers for arbitrary or superficial reasons, and do much to alienate customers. Small wonder, then, that many consumers often do not feel much loyalty towards dealers and salespeople, and vice-versa. Not all buyers who go shopping for a piano are piano-conversant: Buyer ignorance is often high; and when faced with the choice of taking the time to actually educate a customer, or making a quick sale based upon the customer's lack of knowledge, many salespeople, pressed for time, take the easy way out. And all-too-often today, dealers, perceiving the public ignorance or apathy about post-delivery service or follow-up, decide that it's not really worth their time to bother with it, either.

Happily, there are still many honest, knowledgeable, competent, experienced, and patient piano dealers and salespeople out there, who have built solid reputations of well-earned respect for themselves and their businesses. I have met many who are more concerned with getting a customer what they truly want and need than making a sale, if it comes to that. And I have generally found that for every such sale they may sacrifice, they usually get at least two or three new referral customers down the road from the customer they didn't have a piano for, because instead of just making a sale, they took the time to truly take care of the customer.

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New vs. Used (Or Previously Owned, for the Politically Correct)

As with any item that is large, heavy, and well-built (at least in comparison with other consumer products made today) pianos tend to stick around for a long time. The used piano market is many times the size of the new, and many hidden treasures are waiting to be found among used or vintage pianos, where often the perception is "it's old, so it's not worth much." Often, nothing could be farther from the truth. Many times, for what you would pay for a new instrument, you can get twice the piano in the used market.

Probably nine to ten times as many used pianos as new ones change hands each year. While there are no exact figures available because of difficulties in tracking used and private party sales, this figure is based on some fairly conservative assumptions that are generally accepted by the piano industry. One of these assumptions is that the average life expectancy of a piano is thirty years. We know that many pianos last far longer than this, especially high quality ones that have been restored or rebuilt, often multiple times. Granted, there are also pianos that have succumbed to fire, flood, termites, moving damage, abuse, neglect or other types of destruction before their time. Some pianos, just like fine furniture or other heirlooms, stay in the family for several generations, being passed along from parent to child or grandchild. Others remain only long enough to find out if someone in the family is interested in piano, sometimes not more than a few months. Suffice to say that there are simply a lot more used pianos out there than new ones, and a lot more people who feel they will get the most for their money in the used market. Besides being kept in the family, a huge number of used pianos are also sold each day through classified ads, auctions, estate sales, garage sales, on-line auction sites such as eBay®, other on-line piano listing sites such as Piano Finders, PianoMart, piano dealers, rebuilders, refinishers or wholesalers; are traded in for new ones; or are donated to churches, schools or other organizations.

One U.S. manufacturer of high quality pianos once stated that their biggest competition were the pianos they had already made and sold in previous years. Because they were so well-built and lasted so long, their used pianos were often considered as good a value as (or sometimes even a better value than) their new ones. Many musicians today look specifically for vintage instruments, ones that they feel often sound better than the new ones and don't cost as much.

Aside from all the propaganda you may hear about the latest designs, technological advances and space age materials, the piano remains, overwhelmingly, a creature of yesteryear's fine woodworking techniques and skilled craftsmanship. Today, unfortunately, in many of the remaining piano factories in the U.S. and abroad, we have far more machine operators and semiskilled labor than apprentices or master craftsmen.

Today, it is all-too-evident, to many pianists and technicians, that production line mentalities, deadlines, quotas, and semiskilled labor pools currently in vogue, do not easily fit hand in hand with the making of a great, or even good, instrument. In addition, in eras past, lumber would be seasoned for up to seven years before it was considered acceptable for use in a piano. Nowadays you will be extremely lucky to get wood that has been cured for a year or two. I think this is why an educated public today is often found buying vintage pianos that are either still in good condition, or have been rebuilt by a reputable firm, because they realize that they are getting a good foundation (i.e. the piano was built well to begin with.)

One other point I cannot overemphasize, when considering new instruments vs. used, is that names can both inform, and mislead. Many of today's new pianos may have the same brand names as yesteryear's quality instruments, but they may not be anything like them. Piano names and companies, unfortunately, can be, and often are, bought and sold like chattel, by persons with little understanding or appreciation for the instrument's legacy or worth, beyond the profit margin (or the bottom line, as it is often, ironically, called). Designs and specifications are often changed, for the worse, or inferior materials or parts are substituted, in order to meet short term financial objectives, achieve an expected profit margin, or locate a piano at a certain pricing point. In addition, when a manufacturer perceives an ignorant buying public doesn't appreciate or care about certain quality features in the original design of the piano, those features and/or quality are often quietly dropped or abandoned. Also, management with financial background, training, and objectives, but little piano building expertise, will often make poor decisions which adversely affect the quality of the finished product. And artisans with generations of piano making experience will frequently resign, or be dismissed, when they refuse to sacrifice quality for profits.

I don't mean to paint a bleak picture of the piano industry as a whole. In my experience, most of the people laboring in the piano business are altruistic individuals, dedicated to the promotion of good music, good instruments, and to helping others before they help themselves. However, as in other industries, there are still those who put their own priorities first; whose object often is to "reap where they have not sown,"  in other words, to live off the reputation of a once great piano name, without delivering the goods. Too many new pianos being sold today bear little resemblance, either in design or quality, to the original instrument that established the name. It is quickly becoming apparent to many, both inside and outside the industry, that through either consumer apathy, or corporate greed, the standard of what used to be considered a quality piano is being eroded. I realize it's important to be able to make a buck in this competitive world we live in. But more and more frequently people, relying on a name, and not knowing much about pianos, buy what they think is a real piano but end up with a P.S.O. ("piano-shaped object," in the industry lingo.)

Having said this, it is important to state also that not all older pianos are wonderful. As is true today, there were pianos designed to make music, and pianos designed to make money. There are "vintage" pianos and ones that are simply "used." And while many older pianos may have had little wear, having sat mostly unplayed in someone's living room, others will be worn out or in need of complete rebuilding or refinishing. It is true that pretty much any piano can be rebuilt, but it can get quite expensive, and the cost may not be justified by the final result. A competent appraisal can tell you which pianos are which.

In addition, many pianos made before 1900 are not what are considered "modern" pianos. In short, this means these earlier instruments were made when they were still figuring out the best way to build pianos. Many of them have shortcomings in either design or construction that make them less satisfactory as musical instruments than their modern counterparts. Specifically, many of them may have archaic action designs that are compromised in terms of touch and responsiveness or reliability; or they may have structural deficiencies that affect their ability to stay in tune or render an acceptable tone quality by today's standards. While instruments such as the "square grand", the "birdcage upright," and the "cottage piano" (to name just a few of these artifacts), may have historical, antique or sentimental value, their ability to provide a satisfying or meaningful musical experience for you or your child are limited. This is not to say that there weren't excellent pianos made before 1900. Many grands of better make, made between 1875 and 1900, may have, for example, only 85 keys instead of the modern 88, or only two pedals instead of 3. In most all other respects, however, they may be modern instruments, providing an experience and a investment value similar to that of modern high quality grands. (The missing 3 notes at the top of the keyboard are seldom used in most classical and other types of music, and that goes for the middle pedal as well.) It is a far different matter, though, if you are looking at an antique "English upright" or "cottage" piano that has a much shorter keyboard than a modern piano, or is missing the modern cast iron frame that allows it to stay in tune.

The period from about 1875 until about 1910 was a transitional time in the evolution of the piano, where both "archaic" and "modern" features were being utilized, and pianos from that period really must be judged individually, on the basis of their respective designs.

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Investment value

Today people are often concerned about the investment value of items they purchase. Whether the piano you buy will be for keeps, or whether at some point in the future you may be turning it around, it is wise to make sure you have made a good investment, from both a musical and monetary standpoint. Good pianos are not inexpensive, even the used ones, so it is wise to take your total financial picture into consideration when buying an instrument.

In some ways, new pianos are like new cars in that even if you can get a really good deal on a new instrument, there is still instant depreciation the moment it leaves the showroom floor, for it then becomes a "used" piano. Once the initial depreciation has taken place, however, the piano will generally tend to "appreciate" (or perhaps "keep up with inflation" is a better term) with the rest of the used pianos in the marketplace. Unlike used cars, whose dollar values tend to decrease significantly with the passing years, good quality used pianos seem to maintain, or even appreciate in, value (that is, of course, as long as they have been properly cared for). For example, a better quality, big name grand piano (Steinway, Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin, & the like) which was purchased, used, in 1974 for $3500. might easily be worth (depending on condition) 5 to 7 times as much today (2004). Thus, from an investment perspective, for many folks it makes more sense to buy used, since the depreciation has already taken place. It may be different, of course, if you are a piano teacher, professional musician, interior decorator or restaurant owner, and can use the depreciation of a new instrument as a tax write-off.

In addition to these factors there is the perception that the older pianos were frequently built better than the newer ones, a viewpoint that often has quite a bit of truth to it. In many cases today labor problems, materials costs, the pressures of the market, and government regulations, to name a few factors, have made it much more difficult for piano manufacturers to continue to make the quality of product they once did. Advocates of new pianos may cite technological advances, better glues and space age materials as the reason to buy newer pianos rather than older ones. There is still much debate, among pianists and technicians, over whether these innovations truly represent significant improvements, or are simply marketing gimmicks.

Many of the musicians that come to us for help in finding a piano ask specifically for a vintage instrument made at a time when the quality of construction was known to have been good. This is not to say that there aren't excellent new pianos out there. But quality is becoming more and more difficult to find.

One additional thought: Whether you ultimately choose to buy new or used, you should try and buy the best piano you can afford. When you think about the investment in time, expense and personal effort that you will make taking lessons, or taking children to lessons, it really doesn't make a lot of sense to try and cut corners by buying a cheap or inferior instrument.

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New pianos

New instruments have significant advantages in that, like new cars, they come with warranties, and all the parts are brand-new, and you have, ideally, dealer and manufacturer support, with problems that may arise. There are still some brands on the market that have retained a good portion of their original quality despite almost overwhelming financial pressures.

If the dealer is reputable and enlists the help of competent technicians, and if the manufacturer stays in business (an item of more concern today than you might think) you run a pretty good chance of making a safe purchase. The dealer will generally pay for the move of a new piano to your home and for the first tunings. (With used pianos, on the other hand, this is only true when you are buying from certain brokers and dealers. Private parties seldom include moving or tuning). Furthermore, as with new cars, there is just something really attractive to some people about buying something with no scratches on it, that no one else has ever "driven," and that you know exactly where it's been. Also, however, as with new cars, be prepared to have to work out some "bugs" and perhaps "break in" a new piano before it feels perfect. Be aware that there may be a substantial interval between the time you phone for warranty work and the time the store technician ultimately appears at your door. Also be warned that you and the dealer, technician, or even the manufacturer may have very different ideas about what constitutes "warranty work," or how far they should be willing to go to make you happy. New pianos' strings generally stretch the most during the first year or two of their lives, so if your ear is at all musical, expect to have to tune a new instrument more often during that "breaking in" period.

One of the most critical areas with a new piano is its wood, which tends to still be "stabilizing" during the piano's first few (to several) years. Since manufacturers today have often been pressured to speed up the curing process on the lumber they use, to meet financial or production deadlines, there are more structural problems with new pianos than you might think. Hence the importance of the warranty, which for most new pianos is usually between five and twelve years. (Some manufacturers have offered "lifetime" warranties on certain components of the piano, like the soundboard or action parts, but only so long as the piano is owned by the original purchaser.) It is important to have your new piano tuned regularly during the warranty period, in case a problem should arise that only an experienced tuner can spot. Incidentally, length of warranty is not a reliable indication of a piano's quality. Some of the most expensive pianos on the market have the shortest warranties; some of the least expensive, the longest.

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Used pianos

It may seem difficult, initially, to find used pianos that are for sale. We have found, however, that if you know where to look, the number of used pianos available is enormous, and that there really is as great a selection as, or greater than, there is in the new piano market. Indeed, because many models formerly made have been discontinued, you will find many fine instruments in the used piano market that are no longer available among what is being offered new. Used pianos, of course, won't all be in one place, but then neither are the new ones. Actually, many piano dealers offer both new pianos and also used ones that were "trade-ins". Other good sources are classified ads (both private parties and dealers), auctions, estate sales, garage sales, on-line auction sites such as eBay®, other on-line piano listing sites such as PianoMart, (and, of course, our own Piano Finders Pianos For Sale pages), used piano dealers, piano rebuilders and refinishers, and even piano movers and tuners. Or ,Contact Us, and we can help point you in the right direction.

One of the most important points to consider, when looking at used pianos, is condition. This includes the amount of wear and tear on the parts, and the effects of age, environment and use. As a grand piano can have some 10,000 moving parts, and an upright close to 6,000, there are a lot of things that can break or wear out over the years. Pianos, however, do tend to age more slowly than cars, or other mechanical devices, and often a piano may be many years old but have had relatively little use. For comparison, a 10-year-old piano may be in almost new condition, whereas a 10-year-old car may be nearing the end of its useful life. I have seen 50, 60, and even 70-year-old pianos that needed little more than some cleaning and adjustments. On the other hand, if a piano has had heavy use by a piano teacher, or in a school or institution, it may need complete rebuilding and refinishing after as little as 10 years.

In buying a used piano either from a private party or a dealer, most often without the protection of the comprehensive warranties that come with new instruments, you will want to know such things as whether the piano will hold a tuning, and how long it will continue to do so. You will also want to know about the condition of all the moving parts, including felts and strings, and the other structural and tone-producing components of the instrument. Is there wear on the parts? If so, how much, and how will it affect the sound or the touch of the piano? Have moths and rodents eaten into the felts? Has the piano been exposed to excessive heat or moisture, causing rusting of strings, tuning pins, and other metal parts, or cracking of wooden ones? Will parts need to be replaced soon? Or can those parts continue to be used for several years with just some adjustments? Will repairs be needed right away in order to make the piano playable? If so, will they be expensive? If it is a piano that needs rebuilding, can it be rebuilt, and will the ultimate value justify the cost of the rebuild? How long can it be expected to last after rebuilding? Is the piano one that is easy to service, or does it have archaic or poorly designed parts that will be difficult or costly to maintain?

In addition you will probably want to know whether the piano was a good one to begin with. Some pianos are designed and built for artists and performers, others are made simply to fill a furniture need.

Whenever considering buying a used piano, and even with many new pianos, you should have it checked out (appraised) first by a competent piano tuner or technician.

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Rebuilt or Reconditioned pianos

Many used or vintage pianos for sale may have been previously rebuilt, refinished, or reconditioned. Other used pianos you may find may need rebuilding or restoration to some degree. There are many piano rebuilders and restoration shops that do excellent work, and artists, musicians, teachers and others rely on them to restore their vintage instruments to like-new condition.

There are also, however, many pianos that have been "rebuilt", or "restored" by professed rebuilders or parties who:

  • Didn't know what they were doing,
  • Cut corners, or otherwise tried to get by with the bare minimum in order to save a few bucks,
  • used substandard parts or materials, or
  • "customized" or altered the piano in experimental and untested ways.

It is important to understand, when looking at used or vintage instruments, that needed and necessary repairs are often neglected by owners who ask their piano technicians to "just get it working", and then, ironically, tell potential buyers that the piano has been "comprehensively" reconditioned or rebuilt. (In some cases it's simply a poor choice of words to describe what has been done to the piano, in other cases there is a definite propensity to try to deceive) Other piano owners may be ignorant, or forgetful, of what actually has been done to the piano. Years ago, a technician may done some minor repairs on a piano, or replaced a few felts but the owner remembers having "all the felts replaced", or the piano "completely rebuilt". One can see why misunderstandings often arise.

Piano buyers should know that there are many different levels of piano repair. A piano that has truly been "rebuilt" has had major or comprehensive replacement of parts, along the lines necessary to restore the instrument to it's musical potential, or, as some say, to "like-new," or "close to new," condition. In many cases this hasn't been done, and yet the person selling the piano claims it has been rebuilt. It isn't always easy to tell whether a piano has been comprehensively restored or rebuilt. Often you need an expert opinion or a qualified appraised.

There are a number of words used in the industry to describe different levels or degrees of piano repair or restoration. Here are some of the most frequently used terms, listed in comparative degree of magnitude, from greatest to least:

usually involves replacement of pinblock, soundboard, all strings, all hammers, action parts, and felts, and refinishing. The highest level of rebuilding.
usually involves at the minimum complete replacement of all strings, hammers, and numerous action parts and felts, as complete sets. Often the pinblock is replaced, and the soundboard and bridges are often repaired or replaced, but pinblock and soundboard replacement are not absolutely mandatory. Refinishing the piano's case is not mandatory, and often is not included, as it is considered a separate operation. However, the soundboard and the plate (harp) on a grand are usually (often) refinished, as this is not usually considered within the province of the refinisher, who usually just does the external case.
Less comprehensive parts replacement. The old strings or hammers may either be retained or replaced, and parts either replaced or reconditioned, depending on the amount of useful life left. Such niceties as refinishing the plate or soundboard are usually not done.
General term that could mean any of the above.
General term that could mean any of the above.
Stripping off the piano's old finish and replacing it. Usually also involves repair of damaged cabinet parts or wood, and replating, polishing, repair and or replacement of cabinet hinges, locks, casters and other hardware to restore piano to it's "like-new" look. Again, this usually doesn't include the plate or soundboard on a grand, unless you make special arrangements. (Refinishing a pianos' plate or soundboard requires the removal of all the strings.) Generally done every 25 to 50 years or whenever the piano needs it.
At the minimum, replacement of all the piano's strings, and usually many associated parts such as tuning pins and understring felts. Bridges, soundboards and pinblocks may need repair or replacement in order for the piano to be restrung well, so the job will last. Restringing is generally done every 25 to 50 years, more often on high use pianos. Some technicians say that strings lose their tone after around 25 years, but this is not an ironclad rule. Some pianos have good sounding strings after 50 to 75 years, and others need restringing after only 10. A lot depends on climate, care, and amount of use.
Rehammering - At the minimum, replacement of all the piano's hammers, and usually many associated action parts such as shanks, flanges, knuckles and butts. Generally done every 25 to 50 years, more often on high use pianos.
usually replacement or fixing of isolated parts, such as a single or a few hammers or strings, as opposed to replacement of complete sets of parts as above. A tuner may repair a broken hammer or string, or other part, when he comes to tune. Replacement of complete sets of parts such as strings or hammers usually is outside the province of the tuner and requires moving the piano into the shop. Generally done whenever the piano needs it, or whenever the tuner brings it to the owner's attention.

The following terms are what is usually referred to by technicians as "routine maintenance." The time intervals given are for "average" or "normal" use. However, pianos in higher usage or critical applications such as concert halls, recording studios, or teaching studios, or commercial use such as nightclubs or restaurants may require much more frequent tuning, voicing or regulation.

Usually means adjustment of the existing action parts to make the piano feel and respond it's best. Should be done every 5 -10 years, frequently neglected.
Usually means adjustment of the existing strings and hammers to make the piano sound it's best. Should be done every few years, but also frequently neglected.
Tightening or adjusting the strings of the piano to make them sound harmonious and return them to the proper pitch. Generally done every six months to a year, frequently neglected. Many people cannot tell if their piano is out of tune.

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Piano Refinishing

Piano refinishing is a specialty profession that requires years of experience and professional equipment. The standards are extremely high: in the furniture industry, the best finish you can get (and also the most expensive) is usually called a "piano grade" finish. It is a tremendous amount of work, requiring complete stripping and removal of all the old coats of finish, then painstakingly building back up all the layers of stain, filler, sealer, and final coats, and sanding in-between. There is frequently woodworking and repair that needs to be done as well, to repair damaged or worn case parts. Many rebuilders and technicians do not do refinishing for this very reason. For one thing, in a typical grand or large upright, there are an awful lot of square feet to strip and refinish. If you think a piano takes up a lot of room assembled, you should see how much additional space it requires when taken apart!

Often piano owners, though, without adequate knowledge or experience, will attempt to refinish their piano themselves, and end up with either a mess, or else a very unprofessional-looking job. Those unfortunate enough to have bought a piano refinished by such a person are usually in for a host of unpleasant surprises when they get the piano home, anything from the finish turning gummy or sticky, or discoloring, or cracking, or bubbling, to even falling off in large flakes and chunks.

Pianos that originally had a wood-grain, (or clear) finish are often painted black, and pianos that should have been left black (or ebony) are refinished wood-grain, often with disastrous results. Other pianos are "antiqued," (painted to make them look like "heirlooms," usually in a range of pastel colors ranging from beige to light blue or green, and usually with gold trim) -which lowers their value. Beautiful old uprights often had their cabinets altered, modified, or "chopped down" in a futile attempt to make them look like smaller pianos, with the addition of mirrors and other alterations that make it difficult or impossible for the tuner to subsequently service them. And unless you have a trained eye, and a good deal of experience, poor quality or incompetent refinishing can not always be easily spotted. (Go ahead. Ask me how I know.)

Can parts be obtained for antique or vintage pianos?

With the exception of the cast iron plate or harp, just about any part of a piano can be replaced, repaired, or fabricated by a competent wood or metal shop. There are numerous piano supply houses across the nation that can supply virtually any parts a piano technician or rebuilder might need. In addition, most piano manufacturers do a brisk business in replacement parts for the models of pianos they produce. Hammers, dampers, strings, tuning pins, pinblocks, soundboards, action parts, keys, case parts, and bridges are often replaced on better-quality, and even medium-quality, pianos. Even a cracked plate can sometimes be repaired. (However, if the plate or harp is fractured beyond repair, it is usually extremely difficult or next to impossible to find a suitable replacement, unless the the piano is a very recent model, because manufacturers change plate designs and dimensions frequently. Even if you can find a matching plate from a manufacturer or other source, it's usually prohibitively expensive to replace.) Inevitably, plate, pinblock or soundboard repair is fairly costly, as well, and the ultimate value of the instrument may not justify such major repairs. For many lower quality pianos, when the pinblock or soundboard goes, it's time to junk the piano.

Quality grands are usually better candidates for comprehensive rebuilding than are uprights or verticals. Many 40- to 120-year-old Steinways, Baldwins, Mason & Hamlins, Chickerings, Knabes, and Webers, among others; and also many European pianos such as Bechstein, Bosendorfer, Grotrian, or Hamburg Steinway, have now been rebuilt 1, 2, 3 or more times. In recent years, Yamahas and Kawais have also started to be restrung, rehammered and rebuilt.

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Which parts and materials should be used in a rebuild?

There is a great disagreement between rebuilders, pianists, technicians, and piano manufacturers over which replacement parts, materials and procedures are appropriate for rebuilding a vintage piano. There are many different companies that make replacement and repair parts for a given brand of piano, and the controversy among technicians over choice of repair parts is quite lively.

One might assume that the manufacturer of a given piano would be the best and most logical place to obtain parts. Not always. Some manufacturers of pianos being rebuilt today are no longer in business. Others no longer make parts for certain models not currently in production.

One factor that tends to complicate the issue is that manufacturers, creators that they are, are constantly changing the design of their pianos, trying to make improvements, either to the piano itself, or to the manufacturing process. Sometimes the "improvements" are simply to make it easier for the manufacturer to build the piano, and to make money. But as older designs are replaced by newer ones, complications often arise in the area of replacement parts. Replacement parts supplied to you by the manufacturer when it's time for repairs or a rebuild, 20, 30, 50, 70 or more years after your piano was originally manufactured, may be quite different than what originally came with your piano: specifically, they may fit the newer pianos far better than they do the older ones. To be sure, the replacement parts can usually be made to fit, (and manufacturers often supply instructions on how to adapt the new replacements parts to your older piano) but the new replacements may not match or fit into the overall system as well as what was originally there.

To make a long story short, the piano manufacturers, just like the auto makers, will usually encourage you to buy "genuine factory replacement parts" with their brand label on them, because among other things, they make a good deal of money selling replacement parts. But many manufacturers have also changed the design and specifications of their replacement parts over the years in order to accommodate their latest models, factory procedures, or even budgets. It's not cost-effective for manufacturers to keep replacement parts on hand for every execution of piano model they ever did, and so they don't. Usually they just stock replacement parts for the most recent pianos. So in many cases, if you install "genuine factory parts", they may not be anything like what was originally installed in the piano, and the piano may not sound or feel the same (or as good) as a result. Pianists and piano owners, after having had their instruments repaired with new "factory replacement" hammers, for example, often complain that the touch has suddenly become much heavier than before, or very uneven and hard to control, or that the sound has suddenly become very "muted" and/or "mushy." New "factory replacement" bass strings may not sound as good as the old ones, or may have a completely different tonal character than what the piano's owner has become accustomed to. Technicians often complain that they have to do major alterations of the "genuine replacement parts" in order to make them fit or work like the originals did.

Piano manufacturers constantly make changes in their pianos' designs in an effort to "improve" them. It must be understood, however, that this initially can mean any sort of improvement including cutting manufacturing costs or the amount of labor required to build the piano, or changes necessitated from having to accomodate new sources of materials or parts. Frequently the manufacturer's marketing department is given the task of translating these so-called "improvements" into apparent benefits for the piano buyer. For example, at one time one piano maker started producing grand lids from very dense form of multilaminate plywood that was also very heavy. Making the lids this way cut down on the amount of labor required to make the lid, for it became a matter of simply cutting the lid out of one premade plywood panel, instead of having to glue up several smaller pieces of wood, as was done in the past. The manufacturer did not at the time mention the fact that, because of the weight and density of the new material the lid had become almost impossible for anyone to lift. Instead, they focused on the fact that they had made a new type of lid prop, anchored to the cast-iron plate of the grand instead of the usual place on the piano's rim. This new heavy duty lid prop and pivot was needed in order to support the heavier lid, and attaching it to the plate was necessary because it probably would have deformed the rim, or torn out of the wood if attached in the usual manner as on other grands. However the marketing department touted it as an improvement over other manufacturers' lid props, because it was "stronger."

To counter the objections that their new replacement parts are not similar to the original ones used when the piano was originally built, piano manufacturers often assert their parts, although different, are now "improved" or "better than original." But many technicians and pianists think otherwise, especially those who have had to go to a great deal of extra work trying to get "genuine brand X replacement parts" to sound or feel good, or even work properly, in the older pianos; or who have had to make major modifications to the instrument to get the "factory replacements" to fit. In consequence of this fact, and the demand for more "authentic" or "dimensionally correct" replacement parts, a number of "authentic replacement parts" suppliers have sprung up in recent years, whose expressed intent is to provide replacement parts "just like the originals."

Piano companies will go to all sorts of extremes, however, to promote the sale of their "genuine factory replacement parts". One piano maker recently made the assertion in its parts ads that "if it doesn't have 100% genuine Brand X replacement parts it's not a Brand X piano." This is tantamount to saying if you put Michelin tires on a Ford it's no longer a Ford, or if you put an aftermarket part or accessory on your Chevy it's no longer a Chevy. Experienced piano technicians and rebuilders often roll on the floor laughing when they see marketing dept. efforts like these. For one thing, they know that for the last several decades this piano company, just like the car makers, has not made, itself, many of the parts it uses in its pianos, but has purchased them from third party manufacturers. For another thing, most all piano rebuilders and technicians have direct connections to these third party parts manufacturers, who freely sell to any piano technician the exact same parts they provide to the piano manufacturer. I once asked one of these third party manufacturers if there was any difference between the parts I got directly from him and the ones that he supplied to the piano company which they subsequently sold to me and others as "genuine brand x replacement parts". He said, "no difference, except you pay twice as much for the genuine factory parts, and they come in a box with a "genuine brand x part" label on them."

For the last word on why a technician or rebuilder chooses one part over another, it's probably wisest to ask them, as they generally have had experience with a large number of different brands. Some technicians will offer you a choice of different brands or makes of replacement parts; others may insist on using certain particular brands if you want the work to be done by them. If their pianos sound and feel good, though, and they have satisfied customers and references they can point you to, that's the bottom line.

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PianoFinders offers one of the most comprehensive appraisal services in the industry. For more on our appraisals click here.

If you are unsure of a used piano's condition, you need to have it appraised, (or at the least, checked out,) by a competent piano tuner/technician or other objective party. Frequently, however, the party selling the piano may already have had it appraised in order to find out what to ask for it. It never hurts to inquire how they arrived at the selling price. If they have had it appraised most people, I have found, are quite happy to show you the documents, unless there's something they don't want you to know.

A word of warning about appraisals: Unless you are buying the piano only as a piece of antique furniture, it is important that the inspection portion of the appraisal be done by a qualified piano tuner or technician. Some piano appraisals done by people who specialize in antique furniture have little or no information about the piano's internal condition, or about its worth as a musical instrument. If in doubt, have it appraised again. For example, if the piano does need repairs, you will want to know how much they will cost and whether the ultimate value of the piano will justify the expense. A good appraisal will include that information. Many used and vintage pianos are definitely worth having even major repairs done. Others aren't. An appraisal should tell you which are which. Compared to the cost of the piano, having an appraisal done is a relatively insignificant expense. At the very least, it will serve to assure you about what you are getting, and ultimately can possibly save you from a lot of heartache.

If you want to see what a comprehensive appraisal looks like, click on the following links, which will show you what we do. (Then use your back button to return to this page to continue.) There are three parts to our appraisals:

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Who can you trust?

Certainly everyone you ask for advice will have his or her own personal biases. Someone who deals exclusively in new instruments will often encourage you to buy new, whereas those who deal in used or vintage instruments will probably have lots of tales to tell about problems with new pianos. Having sold both new and used myself, I can tell you from experience that there are advantages and disadvantages to each that have to be carefully weighed. Some piano teachers, for example, will not even consider pianos that are used, unaware that new pianos can and frequently do have as many problems as used ones. Also, teachers or pianists who have had a good experience with a piano they purchased many years ago may continue to recommend that same brand, unaware that the quality may have gone downhill in recent years.

To further compound your problems, piano dealers, tuners, technicians, teachers, and pianists frequently disagree with each other about which instruments are worthwhile and which are not. "Lemons" exist among pianos as well as automobiles, whether new or used; your best security is to know what you're getting, either by having it appraised by a competent professional, or by asking the help of someone knowledgeable about pianos whom you feel you can trust. But don't ask a whole bunch of people to help you make your piano buying decision, unless you want to spend time sorting it all out: you will ultimately find that everyone has their own idea about what is best.

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Orient vs. Occident, and other controversies (U.S.- vs. Asian-made pianos)

See also "Why people buy Asian pianos," below.

Many people are unaware, as they go looking for a piano, that instruments made in different nations often have completely different sounds. They may, for example, buy a Japanese- or Korean-made instrument expecting to get the same sort of sound and performance they have become accustomed to from American-made pianos such as Steinway, Mason and Hamlin, or Baldwin. (On the other hand, they may purchase an American piano, expecting the same tone and touch they experienced from a Yamaha or Kawai.) Ignoring the oft-overlooked, but significant differences between Asian- and American-built pianos can be a prime ingredient for disappointment, and one does not have to be a great pianist or have a highly cultivated ear to hear the difference. Materials, design, and construction techniques used in the making of pianos from Asian countries vary significantly from the traditional norm here in the U.S.A. It is for this very reason that, without really knowing why, pianists accustomed to playing on American-made instruments often discover there is something missing from the sound or feel of the Asian instrument. A piano may have 88 keys, a lid, and a shiny black finish, but it's what lies underneath, specifically, those critical things that usually aren't mentioned in the promotional literature, that make all the difference. (This is not to say that Asian pianos can't be high quality. Many are. The point to understand is that playing an Asian piano is a very different experience from playing a U.S. -built one. )

A further source of confusion, however, is that, just like with cars, several stateside piano companies are now having many of their instruments made overseas. Recently Steinway, for example, came out with a new piano line called the Boston, made in cooperation with Kawai of Japan. Baldwin has also had pianos labeled Howard, D.H. Baldwin, or Wurlitzer made for them variously by Japanese or Korean manufacturers such as Kawai, Young Chang, or Samick. One of Baldwin's brands, Kranich and Bach, formerly a revered old American-made piano, is now built in China.

The official position is that these pianos are designed to Baldwin's or Steinways's specs, and then built for them by the Asian manufacturer. But then really, what are you getting? Is it an American, or an Asian sound and construction? Or perhaps, a hybrid? In an additional complication, Japanese manufacturers such as Yamaha and Kawai have also set up factories in the U.S. for the purpose of assembling pianos, frequently from Japanese parts.

Much of the "tradition" of piano playing is based on what people and pianists are accustomed to hearing, and performing on, over the years. Insofar as Asian pianos differ from the American standard and American pianos differ from the Asian standard, it is important to be aware of what those differences mean.

It is true that in recent years we have become much more of a "world economy," with competing countries learning piano building from each other and adopting each other's ways. Today, in fact, a piano may consist of assembly and parts from several different contributing nations. But in spite of that, it seems that each nation still engraves its own unique signature on its work.

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U.S. Pianos

Back in the early 1900's, before the Great Depression of the 1930's, there were over 300 different piano manufacturers in the United States. Today there are but a handful still in existence, and they have survived by a combination of business and marketing ingenuity, and most importantly, (in most cases) by persisting in building quality products, despite almost overwhelming opposition. Because of severe competition from inexpensive labor overseas, "favored nation" status that does away with former protective tariffs, and a host of other obstacles, it has become more and more difficult to build pianos in the U.S. and turn any sort of a profit; indeed, in some circles it is starting to be regarded almost as an act of charity.

The major piano brands still being built in this country today are Steinway, Baldwin (and its subsidiaries, Chickering and Wurlitzer), Mason & Hamlin, Charles R. Walter, and Story & Clark. Most of the other brands that were well known in the earlier decades of this century, Weber, WM. Knabe, George Steck, Hallet Davis, Kohler & Campbell, Krakauer, (and even some of Story & Clark's models) are today being built overseas, mostly in either South Korea, China or Indonesia.

The pianos that are still authentically U.S.-made are still, in general, more expensive than most of the imports. The U.S.-made instruments also, however, have a reputation of being better-designed and better-built, and, for the most part, of using better-quality materials than what's being imported from Asia, and in many cases, from Europe. It is true that in the past few decades, the quality of U.S.-made pianos has slid significantly due to a number of factors too complicated to discuss here. Corner-cutting seems to be more and more frequently tolerated, and rationalized, by U.S. manufacturers, in order to meet budget goals, speed up production, or accommodate the demands of an arguably less-skilled yet higher-paid labor force. But overall, the general consensus remains, at least for the present, that the design and construction of U.S.- made pianos is still superior, in most cases, to what is arriving from overseas, and that any flaws in factory workmanship can usually be resolved with some follow-up maintenance and adjustments. Every now and then, it is true, a real dud will show up, but alert piano technicians usually see that such instruments get sent back to the factory.

In terms of resale or investment value, or appeal to musicians and pianists as quality instruments, the brands Steinway, Baldwin, and Mason & Hamlin still carry about as much name recognition weight as they ever did. Because of this, the prices for both new and used pianos bearing these names remains high.

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(Steinway's Official Website )

Steinway is the priciest of the U.S.-made pianos, and the best-known, and considered by many to be the highest quality, despite miscellaneous and sundry quality control problems in recent years. Steinway is still considered by most pianists, musicians, and the general public to be the "standard" piano, and is often advertised as such, ("standard" in this sense meaning "best," "the example," or "model," that all other pianos aspire to, or the criterion by which all other pianos are judged; and not the common definition of standard as "normal" or "garden variety," i.e. the piano that everyone buys.) The majority of the world's professional concert pianists perform on Steinway pianos, either older or newer ones, and this has helped establish Steinway's reputation. Additionally, and most importantly, a great deal of research and effort has gone into the design of the Steinway piano, over the years; as long as that design is executed faithfully, it is an excellent piano. If there are problems, the concert artists (a fussy and meticulous bunch) will kick or complain, and whatever isn't right usually gets fixed, sooner or later.

Steinway is much more than just a piano. There is a great history and legacy behind the firm, which has been around for nearly 150 years (Established 1853), and when people buy a Steinway they are usually also buying all the things it stands for, too numerous to go into in depth in the space of this short article. Steinway's small production (roughly 5,000 pianos per year between the New York and Hamburg factories) helps insure that the pianos stay in high demand. Numerous volumes have been penned about Steinway over the years: the piano, the people behind the name, the artists who played the instrument, and the artists who built it.

Steinway's main claim to fame is its grands. While they do currently make 3 sizes of verticals (or uprights), and while the verticals are very nice, with a quality of construction similar to that of the grands, they are quite expensive compared with the offerings of some other manufacturers, and for what you pay, may not represent as good a value. (For a explanation of what I mean by value, see the discussion of value under the Baldwin heading below.) The best vertical in the line-up is the tallest, and the one that has been around the longest: the model K-52 (52") which is based on a design that has been around since the early 1900's. The main problem tuners (and owners) have with Steinway verticals is that they are difficult to tune. You have to find an extremely competent tuner to tune them properly and get them to stay tuned for any length of time; and they frequently take the tuner longer to tune, which may be one of the reasons why we often get calls from Steinway owners asking for someone "qualified to tune Steinways," as opposed to other pianos. The grands, however, don't seem to have this problem, and on the contrary, often seem to be easier to tune than many other brands of pianos. Once the tuning problem is solved, the verticals can be quite rewarding to play.

Steinway currently makes five sizes of grands: the models S (5'1"), M (5'7"), L (5' 10 1/2"), B (6' 10 1/2") and D (8' 11 3/4"). (These are the sizes produced at the New York plant. The Hamburg, Germany factory also produces the models A (6'2"), "C" (7'5") and "O" (5' 10 1/2"), models formerly produced in New York but now discontinued.) The Models O and L are, as you can see, the same length, and are actually very similar in many ways; perhaps the most obvious distinguishing characteristic is that the "O" has a round tail whereas the L has a more squared-off one. This squarish tail is supposed to give the "L" more soundboard area and a better tone, but some people (generally those who like the tone of the "O" better) question whether this is really true. Word is that the "O" is actually preferred in Germany, hence the reason for its continued production at the Hamburg plant.

Hamburg Steinways are very difficult to obtain in the U.S. Steinway imports new Hamburgs from time to time, and sells them occasionally through its dealerships, but the availability is far from predictable, or dependable. Far more model C's, A's and O's, from the New York factory, and also Hamburg Steinways, of various models and sizes, are available on the used market. Many pianists feel the Model A was Steinway's best piano, and vintage model A's are especially prized, and often rebuilt. There were actually 4 different Model A designs: The first two had round tails and 3 bridges and measured around 6'1". The last two, measuring either 6'2" or 6'4 1/2", with squared off tails and two bridges instead of three, are generally considered the most advanced design, although they all are great pianos. Other pianists feel that the Model B is superior. The "B" is found in many concert, symphony and recital halls, churches, schools, conservatory and University teacher's studios, theatres, auditoriums and music centers, and also, homes. Many people still find it a bit too big, though, and opt for a Model L, O, or A, any of which represents a good compromise point between tone quality and size. For most people, any one of these Steinway grands around 6' is all they could ever want in a piano.

The model S is for people who want a grand and the feel of a grand action but who have very little space. The sound quality, while amazingly good considering it's size, is not as good as that of some taller verticals, and not a lot of model S's are sold. The models "M" and "L" are probably Steinway's most popular pianos for the home. The "M"'s can actually be very nice, all except for some of the lowest bass notes, for which the piano is really still a little too short to achieve a good tone. The models "L", "B" and "D" are really Steinway's most serious (U.S., currently-produced) pianos, and the ones most often used by concert artists, professors of music and other serious musicians.

The model D is, of course, the flagship of the Steinway grands and the one most often used by professional concert artists in solo recitals and appearances with orchestras. Although it is considered by many to be too big for anything but concert halls and auditoriums, there are actually quite a few people who have them in their living or music rooms; and rooms that are not that big, either. Some Model B's seem to have as much or more sound volume than some Model D's, and it is sometimes said that it is easier to find a good "B" than it is a good "D", but this could be simply because there are more "B's" out there, and the "D's" are often found to be in all kinds of different conditions, running the gamut between proper maintenance and neglect (even when new at the dealer's.) A Model "D" that has been properly maintained will always have a superior low bass to a Model "B", and generally excel in other areas as well. My perception, from having practiced and performed on myriad different Steinway grands over the years, is that a Model D is really a completely different creature than the other grands, requiring not only special treatment, and a special playing technique, but also giving a sound and a feel that none of the other grands can give. (Some pianists feel D's are harder to control, especially in attempting to play softly or evenly; this could, however, be attributed to the fact that, being concert instruments, they are usually voiced rather brilliant or bright, which requires some getting used to. Playing to fill a concert hall also requires a very different technique than simply playing in one's home.) Once you have become accustomed to playing on a "D", it's very hard to go back to a lesser instrument.

Not all serious musicians or pianists can afford a Steinway, however, and many Steinways are purchased by people who do not really play much, or well, (or sometimes at all!) but who just appreciate good instruments, and have the means to do so. (... it seems in this life you either spend your time playing the piano, or making money, but not both...sigh...) Grands start at around $39,000. list for the model S, and go up to around $89,000. for the Model D. (List prices for year 2004, basic ebony satin (black) finish) Special exotic wood finishes are available for additional $$$. Resale value on anything with the magic name Steinway on it remains high, and there is always a very heated controversy going on amongst pianists and piano technicians as to whether vintage Steinways are superior to the new ones, or the Hamburgs superior to the New Yorks. (Don't hold your breath waiting for any definitive verdict.)

Steinway's 2nd line piano is the Boston, currently built in Japan by Kawai. Reportedly plans are in the works to have a 3rd line built for Steinway by Young Chang. (Update: This piano has now arrived, and is called the Essex.) Both piano lines are reportedly designed to Steinway's specifications and then built for them by the Asian manufacturers.

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(Baldwin's Official Website)

Baldwin makes, and sells, many times as many pianos as Steinway each year; like Steinway, it is considered a high quality piano, but generally regarded as #2 next to Steinway. (If one is comparing the sound quality of a better Baldwin with a not-so-good Steinway, or a bigger Baldwin with a smaller Steinway, however, then the distinctions often start to blur.)

The Baldwin Hamilton 45" vertical is a standard institutional piano, found in schools and churches all over the country. Baldwin makes a 5'2" grand, the model "M", which in my opinion holds the distinction of having the best sounding bass possible in a grand this size. (Good bass tone is a problem in most grands under 5' 8").The most popular Baldwin grands, however, for the home are probably the Models R (5'8") and L (6'3"); they give a really full and good tone in a manageable size. The Baldwin 7' and 9' grands are used frequently in concert by both classical and pop artists, and with this size of piano it is not always easy to tell whether you are hearing a Baldwin or a Steinway without seeing the name on the instrument. Among pianists Baldwin is often considered to be an economy alternative to Steinway. Baldwin's models are less expensive than Steinway's, although for most people they are still on the high end. (Also, historically, Baldwin has been the alternative piano for many artists disenchanted for whatever reason with Steinway, as Baldwin is the only other U.S. piano maker to have a Concert and Artists Division set up to supply concert pianists with Baldwin concert grands worldwide). Like Steinway, the Baldwin Piano Co. has been around for over 100 yrs. (since 1862, to be exact.) A generalization that is often made is that Baldwins tend to have a little bit more percussive sound than Steinways, and a shorter sustain time. For this reason they are often favored by pop and jazz musicians, and for ensemble work in the recording studio, where a crisp, clean, and short sound is desirable.

In many ways, the Baldwin piano may be a better value than the Steinway. (By value I mean you get more more for your money. The most expensive pianos on the market may be the highest quality, but beyond a certain point any increase in quality comes in increasingly smaller increments compared with the amount of extra money you have to pay, and those small additional increments in quality may not be meaningful to any but the most critical artists.) For example, a Baldwin Model L Grand is 6'3" and currently around $38,000, list; a Steinway Model L grand is 5'10 1/2" and around $47,000. list (satin ebony finishes, as of 2004). The Baldwin "L" gives you 4 1/2 more inches of piano for roughly $9,000 less, and the "L" happens to be a very nice piano. (But make sure, if you're considering getting one, to try several, as some may be nicer than others.) Resale value on Baldwins, like that of any high quality recognizable name brand piano, is generally good, but, as you would expect, not as high as that of used Steinways. As always, much depends on condition. A used Baldwin in excellent condition may command as high or a higher price than a comparable-sized used Steinway in not-so-good condition.

Baldwin's 2nd and 3rd line pianos are Chickering, consisting of smaller grands still made in the U.S., and Wurlitzer, with verticals made in the U.S. and China, and grands from South Korea.

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Mason & Hamlin

(Mason & Hamlin's Official Website)

The Mason & Hamlin piano, like the Steinway, or like certain expensive European brands, is an extremely limited production instrument. On the average, fewer than 900 Mason & Hamlins were produced each year during the years 1885-1985, and after that even fewer.). The quality of the Mason and Hamlin is considered equivalent to, or (some feel), better than that of the Steinway. In the early part of this century, the name Mason & Hamlin was well-known. It was at that time considered to be one of the finest, if not THE finest instrument made. During the first 45 years or so of its existence, no expense was spared in its construction. At one time it was actually advertised by a prominent East Coast piano dealer as the most expensive piano made. Because of its quality and construction it actually became a serious challenger to Steinway. Myriads of prominent artists performed on the Mason & Hamlin, adored the piano, and were fiercely loyal to the brand.

Over a span of many years, Mason and Hamlin made many different models of pianos. Like other manufacturers, they built many very successful upright models, but the most enduring and successful designs were in their grands. There were originally 3 different concert grands: The first two, known simply as the model CC and the CC1, were 9' 4" long and were enormously large and heavily built pianos, with an extremely powerful tone. The CC differed from the CC1 in that the latter model included a tension resonator, which is a web of steel bracing underneath the piano, designed to keep the rim from flexing and to help maintain the crown of the soundboard, especially critical in a piano of this size. This patented device was ultimately incorporated in all of their instruments, and became a hallmark of the M&H design. Later (most likely as a result of complaints from piano movers, who often had to show up in teams of 4 to move these beasts) Mason and Hamlin came out with the model CC2, which was somewhat shorter (9 feet) but still didn't weigh a whole lot less. (Mason and Hamlin has enjoyed (or endured) a reputation over the years as being one of the heaviest pianos made. Before agreeing to move a piano, most piano movers will first ask "is it a Mason & Hamlin?" If it is, they will usually send an extra man, or two, and charge additional.) This last model concert grand (the CC2) was considered by some to be (at least superficially) similar in design to the Steinway Model D, but close inspection reveals many significant differences, including, among other things, a far more massive iron casting, and, of course, the tension resonator.

In addition to these concert grands, M&H made a 7' grand (the model BB), a 6'2" grand (the model AA) and a very popular 5'8" grand (the model A). Later there was also a smaller grand, the model "B" (5' 4"). The author of this article has at one time or another either owned, or had in his possession, all of these different models, including the 9'4" CC and CC1, and can attest that they are indeed phenomenal instruments. All of the Mason & Hamlin pianos are massively built, and are sometimes referred to, by both pianists and piano technicians, as "heavy-duty Steinways".

The most prized instruments are those which were made before, or shortly after 1930. After 1930 there was a gradual decline in the quality of the instruments, apparently brought about by an effort to cut the cost of production (in order to stay in business!) during the Great Depression and in the years following, when very few people could afford to buy such an expensive instrument. In addition, in the years following, Mason & Hamlin was sold to a succession of different piano conglomerates, (as were many other piano firms who could no longer keep their doors open). During this time the quality of the piano was further diluted as a result of the mergers and changes of ownership. Many ill-considered design changes were made during those years, owing mainly to the absence of any one party responsible for maintaining and preserving the original plan and vision, (or who knew what they were doing). In other words, too often there was no chief engineer who came along with the piano, and no master plan: Each successive factory foreman did the best he knew how, with his limited knowledge.

In spite of these problems, a Mason & Hamlin grand of any vintage is still, generally speaking, a superior instrument. Many of the design flaws introduced in the later models can usually be rectified by competent technicians during a restringing or restoration.

Around 1989 or 90 Mason & Hamlin finally came into the possession of some investors who were truly concerned with restoring the instrument to its former glory. As a result, vintage Mason & Hamlins from the 1920's and before, (ideally those that had never been rebuilt or altered), were brought in, disassembled, and studied; notes and measurements were taken, and drawings were made. From this study of the original instruments, redesigned models, more faithful to the original execution, were constructed. These newer Mason & Hamlins follow more closely the original plan, and are superior in many ways to their immediate predecessors.

It is a tremendous challenge to restore an original piano design, simply because much piano making experience and knowledge has vanished with the passing of the original engineers and factory personnel; or else plans and drawings have become lost or misplaced through multiple moves. Besides having to reconstruct the original plan, dimensions, and drawings, those attempting to restore the original design must also try to reproduce the original factory procedures and processes, which is no mean feat. Because all this takes time, and because the factory as yet produces no more than a few hundred pianos annually, many folks still opt for a vintage Mason & Hamlin, even if it means restoring or rebuilding it.

Mason and Hamlin was a well-known brand in the early decades of the twentieth century, but the frequent sale or merger of the company inevitably caused gaps, not only in quality, but in production as well, so that the pianos were not always available to the dealers who sold them. This caused many dealers to lose faith in, or ultimately abandon, the brand over time, which in turn weakened its public image and presence. As a result, fewer people today are familiar with the Mason & Hamlin name, at least among the general public. But whenever the latest edition or incarnation of the Mason & Hamlin Co. folds or is sold, there seems to be no dearth of piano firms anxious to acquire and carry on the name.

The Mason & Hamlin piano, like the Steinway, is an excellent, time-tested and proven design as originally conceived, and so far, all those who have taken over the company have exhibited, or at least, expressed, a determination to preserve the original design so far as possible, or financially practical, or insofar as they were capable. The problem across the years seems to have been that, even priced as high as it was, the piano was even more costly to build, hence the company was perpetually going through receivership or mergers. This, incidentally, has been the problem with most high-quality, limited production concert instruments, e.g. they cost more to build than they sell for; and piano companies typically rely on second and even third-line pianos, less-expensive and sold in large volume, which bounce off the reputation of the higher-quality instruments, to help subsidize the building of the more expensive, more publicly visible, but less profitable, pianos. The 2nd and 3rd line pianos associated with Mason & Hamlin are Knabe and George Steck, with pianos produced most recently in South Korea and China.) Update: WM. Knabe and George Steck have recently been sold again, to piano companies in Korea, and China, respectively. Knabe is now owned by Samick.

Presently Mason & Hamlins are about the same price as Steinway's equivalent models, but only a few sizes of M & H's are currently in production: a 50" upright (model 50), a 5'8" grand (model A), and a 7' grand (model BB), in various finishes. A 9' concert grand is reportedly in the works, as is a remake of the 6'2" AA model, which, according to a factory spokesman, will be longer (6'4"), completely different, better, and more similar in design to the A and BB models. (The original Mason & Hamlin AA was similar in design to Steinway's early model A's in that it had, like the Steinway, a round tail and an extra bridge for copper-wound strings above the bass-tenor break. The new model AA will be reportedly more like the later model Steinway A's, with only two bridges and a more squared-off tail). Mason & Hamlin production is too limited at present to provide concert pianists and performing artists with a worldwide supply network (Concert and Artists Division) like those of Baldwin or Steinway. Such a network will probably not be feasible until a viable and successful 9' concert grand has been in production, and available to artists, for a time. Like Steinway and Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin has a legacy of famous artists and pianists who have performed on their pianos over the years.

The Mason & Hamlin sound has often been described as having an enormous bass and a "sweeter treble," whereas Steinways and Baldwins tend to be a little more even, albeit neutral, across their range. It is of note that Mason & Hamlin originally started out building organs in 1854, and became a piano maker in 1884. Some feel that, possibly as a result of these roots, the Mason & Hamlin sound tends to be more orchestral, with more variation in timbres as one progresses from bass to treble, than that of Steinway or Baldwin.

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Charles R. Walter

(Charles R. Walter's Official Website)

Charles R. Walter is a family-run company in Elkhart, Indiana, with a very strong ethic of quality and workmanship. In recent years they focused mainly on building vertical pianos, and over the years their verticals have come to be considered excellent values, rivaling the quality of Steinway's equivalent models. Most recently, Charles R. Walters has also introduced a 6'4" grand into production, a size niche not covered currently by either Steinway or Mason & Hamlin, and slightly larger than the Baldwin model "L" (6' 3"). Walter pianos generally have good resale value and are in demand.

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Comparison of U.S. makes with pianos of other nations

U.S.-built pianos are often compared to Japanese-built pianos such as Yamaha or Kawai, or to European Pianos such as Bechstein or Schimmel. The general trade-off, in a nutshell, is that the better-quality Japanese and European pianos seem to have the edge as far as touch is concerned, i.e. the refinement and responsiveness of the action (keys and other moving parts); to many pianists, the feel of the instrument is as important, or in some cases, more important, than the sound. Most pianists, however, appear to prefer the sound of the better-quality U.S.- built pianos; it seems to give them more to work with (some adjectives: warmer, richer, fuller, a wider pallet of colors) as opposed to that of the imported instruments, whose tone qualities tend to be a little on the "sterile" side. Deciding between a U.S.-made instrument and a Japanese or European one is often a choice between tone and touch. This is a generalization and somewhat of an over-simplification, of course, but it is amazing how often this turns out to be the actual case. Workmanship typically is more precise and meticulous on Japanese and European pianos than the U.S. ones, but the U.S. pianos usually have the edge as far as materials and design. (Again, this generally pertains to mid- to high-quality instruments. Less expensive or lower quality instruments from all three sources often share the gamut of common piano deficiencies in tone, touch, construction and cosmetics).

(Notice we said Japanese and not Asian. Korean and Chinese pianos still haven't quite arrived as far as craftmanship, although they often try to make up for this by having recognized "name brand" parts, or other "prestige" associations such as "scale design" by some famous piano engineer. Ditto for many of the Eastern European brands. On the other hand, some people feel that if the Japanese were to start using Roslau® wire and Royal George® felts, or the high quality Renner® hammers and/or action parts, like the Korean piano makers are doing, their pianos would sound even better. Actually, many technicians feel the sound of Japanese pianos can be noticeably improved by installing better quality hammers and strings than what originally came with the piano. (-Yes, pianos can be customized or hot-rodded too.))

Another thing that many people have discovered is that there is quite a difference between U.S. and Asian, or U.S. and European piano cabinet styles. The traditional finish for pianos here in the U.S. is "satin" or "hand rubbed", generally with fairly conservative styling. Pianos from Asia or Europe tend to have that glossy "Euro" look, and their lines tend to be either more "squat", or more "severe," -which many U.S. buyers find unappealing. Although Asian and European piano manufacturers have tried to imitate the U.S. piano styles and/or "look", they just haven't quite gotten it yet. Of course, it is fully possible that our piano styles don't appeal to their tastes, either.

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Last updated on January 5, 2006

Japanese Pianos

From relatively humble beginnings as makers of the first pianos in a country unfamiliar with the instrument, the Japanese piano manufacturers have come a long way. Today they produce an incredibly wide and diverse spectrum of instruments, anywhere from basic budget pianos for beginners and growing families, to some of the world's most expensive and superb concert instruments. The growth of the Japanese piano industry is not unlike that of their car industry: Through persistence, diligence, and painstaking attention to detail, they have achieved a reputation as master piano builders, as well as master-builders of automobiles. Yesteryear's Japanese pianos were the Toyotas and Datsuns of the piano world; today they also have Infinitis, Lexuses and Acuras.

For the record, the big name Japanese piano is, of course, Yamaha. They also happen to make more pianos than anyone else in the world, currently over 200,000 a year. Kawai is the other big Japanese piano company. Although Kawai doesn't make quite as many pianos as Yamaha, you will still find their products, like those of Yamaha, nearly everywhere: in universities, schools, homes, churches, on stage, in the recording studio, and the like. As far as quality is concerned I feel that the two brands are about on a par, depending on which sound you prefer, as each brand seems to have its own distinctive tonal characteristics. It is generally because of those tonal differences, or because of a perceived price break, that people choose a Kawai over a Yamaha, or vice-versa. It would be very difficult to say that one brand was "better" than the other, and, in most cases, would probably not be true.

The prices for comparable new (and also used) Kawai/Yamaha models are usually very close. It often seems that Yamaha has a bit more name recognition and can thus command slightly higher prices; on the other hand, because of this, the Kawai is frequently a better value - it gives you a little more for the money. Is Yamaha comparable to Steinway and Kawai to Baldwin? Although this analogy is sometimes presented, I don't think it is an accurate one, because the two Japanese brands actually seem to have far more in common than Baldwin and Steinway pianos do; and, as far as numbers go, unlike Kawai with respect to Yamaha, Baldwin sells many more pianos than Steinway. (Really, if you're looking for an analogy, Hertz and Avis might be more apt, because Kawai often seems to "try harder".) Actually, many people who like the Steinway sound also like the Kawai, often finding it a shade mellower and richer than the Yamaha. Indeed, (perhaps for this very reason, among others) Kawai now makes Steinway's Boston line of pianos for them. Yamaha, also, on the basis of certain components of its sound, has been compared with Steinway, but also, for various reasons, with Baldwin, because, like Baldwin, it makes for a good (recording) studio piano, with a sharp, crisp, percussive attack and a shorter decay time, and a sort of splashy, instantly attractive, or attention-getting, sound. But Kawai also has some of those qualities. Really, the two brands can probably be considered to be more alike than different, especially when you are comparing them to U.S.-made pianos like Steinway, Baldwin or Mason & Hamlin. It is true that Yamaha is usually perceived the "leader," if simply by weight of numbers, name recognition, and available advertising budget. But if Kawai is behind at all, it's not by much.

On a couple of Kawai's more popular grands, for instance, for a satin ebony finish, you get a couple more inches of piano for a slightly lower price than the comparable Yamaha model, at least so far as the manufacturers' suggested retail is concerned (for instance the Kawai model RX-2 5'10" grand vs. Yamaha's 5' 8" C2). But it may all even out, depending on whether and how much a dealer is willing to discount a piano, whether the Kawai dealer is engaged in a price war with the Yamaha dealer up the street, whether you are related to, or a good friend of, the dealer, whether you are paying cash or financing, whether you are buying a satin ebony or a high gloss finish, or a number of other little incidentals. Since these two piano giants seem to be watching each other closely, after a while it gets sort of like the two competing grocery stores on opposite sides of the street.

Both of these Japanese manufacturers use many "high tech" procedures in the making of their pianos, such as "vacuum" or "dry sand" casting for the plates (which many musicians and piano technicians believe produces a very different tone quality than the more traditional "wet sand" cast plates used in vintage U.S.-built pianos). Kawai, however, in recent years has pioneered the use of plastic (ABS styran) parts in their piano actions, which is most likely a step in the right direction, since wooden action parts are susceptible to humidity variation, where the plastic parts are not. Although there has been a great deal of controversy over the years about the use of plastic parts in pianos, the truth is that most piano manufacturers now use plastic in several places in their pianos (most notably the keytops, which is one of the most significant places, where the performer actually "interfaces" with the piano.) While certain dealers and salespeople often use the "you don't want plastic in your piano" argument to dissuade people from buying competing brands such as Kawai, in truth there is little validity anymore to this position, and salespeople and others who advance such arguments are generally revealing their ignorance more than anything else. While there was some truth to the contention that plastic was inferior to wood many years ago (around the time of World War II), today plastic can be, and usually is, far superior to wood in many applications, both in longevity and dimensional stability. Its reliability for use in piano actions has now been proven over many years. Whether due to the precision with which they build their instruments, or the new ABS parts pioneered by Kawai, both Kawai and Yamaha have become renowned for the responsiveness and evenness of their piano actions. As a matter of fact, this is really one of the main attractions of Japanese pianos.

In the past, as before stated, Kawai pianos were said to have a little more mellow sound and the Yamahas a little brighter, but recently Kawai started giving buyers a choice of either a mellow or bright sound. (Kawai's that are mellower have an S suffix: e.g. KG2S or RX2S; the brighter ones have an E on the end: KG2E) Making a piano's sound brighter or mellower, incidentally, is something that generally can be done on any piano by your piano technician, by making the hammers (the felt assemblies that strike the strings) harder or softer. The sound of most Japanese pianos has a tendency to get very bright and metallic after a few years of playing, and it can be a real challenge for the technician to voice it back down and get to stay there.

Japanese pianos may seem like a fairly recent development to us living in the United States, (as well as to those living in some other countries) but Yamaha has actually been around since 1887 (they started out building reed organs, with the first pianos appearing around 1900) and Kawai since 1927. Torakusu Yamaha, the founder of Yamaha, and Koichi Kawai, founder of Kawai, actually worked together to build Japan's first pianos. The story goes that Yamaha, a watchmaker and mechanical engineer, was impressed when he saw a 12-year-old boy riding a wooden bicycle he had built himself, and hired him to help build Japan's first upright pianos. That 12-year-old happened to be Koichi Kawai. Kawai remained with Yamaha until 1927 and then left to start his own company. The histories of these two individuals and their companies, and the hardships and trials they suffered in order to bring pianos to Japan, including fires, earthquakes, the requisitioning of their factories during WWII for arms and aircraft parts, and the subsequent destruction of their facilities by Allied bombings, make fascinating, if heart-rending, reading, and also make all the more miraculous the quality of product they have achieved today.

Before about 1960 we saw very few Japanese pianos here in the States, but they made inroads into our markets when people discovered they could get a grand piano, or a good tall upright, for a fraction of the price of the U.S.-made models. Japanese pianos of yesteryear (circa early 1960's and before) were often criticized for having kind of a nasal tone, being short on sustain, and lacking in depth and richness. They were often purchased by people who wanted a bigger piano but didn't have a bigger piano budget. As Kawai and Yamaha increased their U.S. market share over the past 30 years or so, their prices, as well as their quality, and the number of models they offer, went up also. With newer, improved, and especially, more expensive models, the tone quality and also the touch of the instruments has improved gradually but significantly over time.

It's important to recognize that the Japanese are capable of building pianos of the highest quality, and have been doing so for many years. Because they are also very savvy when it comes to marketing, however, they build pianos in a wide range of different qualities. Over the years they have created an extremely broad spectrum of different piano models at different price points for buyers of all needs and budgets. When they find a piano that is very successful at a certain market strata, they tend to stick with it for a long time and often make only minor, if any, modifications or improvements (although the dealers usually make a big deal of them to try and distinguish the new from the used). The Japanese piano makers tend to be very conservative, and have realized that "new" does not always mean better, and if they have something good that works they are not always anxious to change it, because they recognize that it is possible to change it in a way that causes problems or reduces its popularity or appeal. Because of this, they still produce, in one form or another, many of the models that have been available for the past 20 or 30 years (although possibly relabeled, see below) and there is thus an increased likelihood of finding what you want on the used market. A case in point is Kawai's very successful KG2 model grand (5' 10"), one of their best-selling models, which came out many years ago as the model 500 and is now still being marketed, with some changes, as the RX-2 (See link to chart at their site, below.) As we've stated before in this article, because there are significant differences among individual pianos of even identical make and model, due to store prep, tuning or lack thereof, care, climate, variations in construction materials and/or personnel, and a number of other factors, you may often find an older or used model Japanese piano that sounds or feels better to you than a new one, or vice-versa. For this reason. it's wise to try out a number of different pianos if possible.

In recent years, Japanese pianos have been offered in a rather confusing assortment of different grades (or qualities) and price points: Both Yamaha and Kawai have had approximately four different classes of pianos, most noticeably in the grands (but also true of their verticals). Although recently the names of the lines have been changed/ and or consolidated, these basic guidelines still apply, especially in the used market, where you will still find the older models. In the grands, there are the "price leader" or "economy" models (Yamaha GH series and Kawai GE), built to compete with the recent (last 15 years or so) Korean competition, the "good" models or standard line for home or general use (Yamaha G series and Kawai KG series- these are the lines they have been selling forever, just recently relabeled and consolidated), their "better" models for conservatory or serious musician (Yamaha C series and Kawai GS series, and then their "best" line (Yamaha S and CF series, and Kawai R, RX-3 and up, and EX series) for concert artists or people who can afford really expensive instruments. Both Yamaha and Kawai have special divisions, set apart from the rest of the factory, where their best and most expensive models are made (the Yamaha S-series instruments, and the CFIII 9 foot; and the Kawai RX-A and EX models), with additional hand craftsmanship and special attention to detail.

In Japan, where space is often at a premium, there is great emphasis on the building of quality vertical pianos. The Yamaha U-1 (48") and U-3 and U-5 (52") "professional" verticals have become favorites of pianists and piano technicians everywhere, and have come to be considered some of the best verticals on the market today. Kawai, also, with their NS-20 (49")and US-6 and -8 (52") verticals, has been turning out some of the best in this class as well. Both Yamaha and Kawai's "school" type studio pianos are built in the United States, in Yamaha's Thomaston, Georgia, and Kawai's Lincolnton, North Carolina plants. Unofficially, these "school" pianos are sort of considered the Japanese "Baldwin Hamiltons" (another extremely popular U.S. school piano). This includes the Yamaha P22 and P2E (or P2F, currently) and the Kawai UST-7 and UST-8. These 45-46" verticals, like their competition built by U.S. piano companies, are usually a good deal because they are priced competitively to meet school and institutional bidding, and are built more or less like Sherman tanks, so they should hold up like the Rock of Gibralter. Prices on all these verticals are "up there": around $5,000.-6,000. list for the shorter school-type, and $8,000. to 12,000. list for the taller (48-52") uprights; although as always, you should be able to find substantial discounts simply by shopping around. As is the case elsewhere, Kawai's popular school models have an extra competitive inch over the Yamahas.

As we said before, both Kawai and Yamaha have produced many different models of both verticals and grands over the years, and while many of their models have had a long production life, others models have been tried for a while and then either discontinued, or evolved with new features and renamed, so customers often get disoriented. One case in point: There was some confusing overlap among the different models of pianos produced by these manufacturers, at least as far as size: until just recently; for example, the Yamaha "economy" and "good" grands were approximately the same size (5' 3"); as was true of the "economy"(5' 7") and "good"(5' 7"); and "good"(6'), and "conservatory-grade"(6' 1") models. This was not so much a problem if you had on hand all the different models of pianos to compare with each other, as at a well-stocked dealer's. It could complicate matters, however, if you were out in someone's home looking at a single used piano and couldn't remember which model was which.

In a recent move which may either help alleviate this situation, or perhaps (at least for the short term), cause even more confusion, both Yamaha and Kawai have changed the names of several of their models. So if you knew which models were economy, good, better and best before, you can lose your bearings in the current market, when confronted with the new names.

(This recent pruning of their model lines may be an attempt to consolidate their multitudinous offerings into a trimmer, more manageable, less bewildering (for the consumer) and more efficient product line. In the past customers generally would make a choice between several different Yamaha GH (economy) "G" (good) or "C" (better) series grands, or Kawai GE (economy) "KG" (good) or "GS" (better) series grands. Now however, the Yamaha G and C series has been consolidated into a single "C" series, and the Kawai KG and GS lines have been replaced by the "RX" series, (derived from the model name of one of Kawai's most elite pianos.) The Yamaha G series and Kawai KG series have both been phased out; or, some feel, simply renamed: with both Kawai and Yamaha the smaller grands (Yamaha C1and C2, Kawai RX-1and RX-2) of the new series seem very similar to the corresponding older G and KG series models. It's still only in the larger (6 foot and over, RX-3 or C3 and up) grands that you start getting into the higher quality pianos. (Kawai's RX-3,4, and 5 models are actually the same stringing scales and basic dimensions as their former (now discontinued) "R" or artisan series.) What is really the difference between a Yamaha "G" series and a "C" series piano, or a "C" series and an "S" series? Basically, better materials and construction in the more expensive lines, better string scales, and additional hand craftsmanship, which usually (but not always) results in a better tone and touch.

As you go through the "step-up" features of either the Yamaha or Kawai lines (this is marketing jargon for the strategy of adding perks or desirable features to the more expensive pianos in an effort to sway you towards a more expensive instrument) it can get even more confusing. Do you want the middle pedal to be a bass sustain, or a full sostenuto, like on the more expensive grands? Do you want the bridges to be solid maple (like on the older models) or vertically laminated maple (like on the newer models). Do you want the piano to have a duplex scale, like on the more expensive models? Do you want a spring-assisted fallboard that closes gently, rather than one that simply "drops" on whatever hands or fingers happen to be there if it gets accidentally bumped? Do you want plastic keytops, or "real" imitation ivory? And the list goes on and on, until the customer gets completely disoriented. You thought you knew what you wanted, but now...

I noticed Yamaha now (2004) has 2 new grands for their "price leader" line, formerly represented by the GH series (which appears to be gradually being phased out). The new "economy grands" are the GA1 and GC1. The GA1 is Yamaha's least expensive grand, a basic no-frills model designed to get people into grand ownership at a list price of under $10,000. The GC1 is advertised as having a duplex scale, just like the more expensive C1, it's big brother. The GC1 is listed at just under $15,000. for the basic satin or high gloss ebony models, right about where the GH1 used to be positioned. (The C1 is now priced at just under $20,000. list for the basic ebony finishes.) Note that the GA1 is 4'11", but the GC1 and the C1 are both 5'3". So what, exactly, is the new GC1 model? I can see they are trying to associate it with the more upscale C1. But why the "G" in both "GC" and "GA"? Are they trying to make an association with the old Yamaha "G" series grands that sold so well in years past? Are they finding they really still need something priced/positioned where the (now discontinued) "G" series used to be? Now perhaps you can see why trying to track these pianos by model numbers can be so confusing.

The Yamaha S4 (old S400), the S6, and the Kawai RX-A are pianos in a class by themselves. There is a big quality (and also price) leap up to these instruments, which are currently in the $50,000. price category. This is also the point where artists usually cease to find anything to complain about "Asian" pianos. These pianos are often compared with other pricey pianos such as the Hamburg Steinway, or some of the other exotic German grands. (The new Kawai RX-5 (old R-1) is sometimes considered an economy version of the RX-A, although according to Kawai it has a different scale.)

Incidentally, Kawai provides a very helpful chart that can help you see the relationships between their grand models over the years and which ones have similar stringing scales. It can be found at :


Piano customers who previously had some idea of what they were getting now have to learn a whole new system and set of comparisons. From what I can see, Kawai has actually made some changes for the better (upgrades) for its new consolidated "RX" line, with structural revisions like vertically laminated bridges and denser rims that make their grand construction more similar to that of certain higher quality U.S.  made instruments. Over the years, both Kawai and Yamaha have seemed to be going in that general direction, with the addition of features like duplex scales, sostenuto (middle or 3rd) pedals, and other refinements that were usually only found on the more expensive American instruments. With these enhancements, the Japanese appear to be consistently trying to bridge the gap between themselves and the manufacturers of high quality U.S. or German instruments. Still, it's important to remember that the Japanese makers produce many sizes and qualities of pianos, and the more you pay the better the quality; unlike Steinway or certain smaller European manufacturers they have not yet opted to have a "single quality" line of grands in all the different sizes, although their recent renaming/upgrading of models seems to be a step in that direction.

One objective of this "upgrading" move may have been to counter the recent influx, into the U.S., of containerloads of used Yamaha and Kawai pianos from Japan, which have been selling here at very competitive prices, enough so that it was eating into the profits of dealers who sold new Asian pianos.

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"Gray-Market" Japanese Pianos

Click here to go to Grey Market Pianos in General - Definition

The term "gray market" has been applied (or rather, misapplied*) to a group of Japanese pianos as follows:

*Webster's New World Dictionary defines gray market as "a place or system for selling scarce goods at above prevailing prices, a practice considered unethical although legal." Since these so-called "gray market" Japanese pianos are generally neither scarce, nor sold above prevailing prices, it is hard to see how the definition applies, so we are using the term here based solely on its usage by a certain segment of the piano industry and the public at this time. It is important to realize that piano terminology, epithets, and existing ideas and perceptions about pianos, (or propaganda), are commonly put into the public mind, or into public circulation, by those with the interest, or the advertising budget to do so; and so the manufacturers and dealers of pianos do have to take responsibility for their use, or misuse, of the language, and the facts.)

One of the greatest headaches for both manufacturers and dealers of new pianos is the used piano market. Sales of private party (and other) used instruments frequently take a large chunk out of the the markets and profits of dealers and makers of new instruments. In Japan, however, through means at which we can only guess, this problem has been conveniently taken care of, as there is little or no market for used pianos there, reportedly due to certain cultural (and very likely also economic) ways of thinking. Japanese piano buyers, we are told, are just not interested in used pianos. (This requires some qualification, however. It seems that this aversion to used instruments pertains mainly to Japanese pianos: Used Steinways are in great demand in Japan, and there are businesses that buy up used Steinways in the U.S., and then ship them to Japan, where they are then sold for 2 to 3 times the price (or more!). So the cultural bias against used pianos seems to be a bit selective, to say the least. It also makes me wonder whether the Japanese piano industry might possibly also be contributing to or encouraging this cultural paradigm about not buying used pianos. I perceive that it's probably advantageous for the Japanese to get the used pianos out of the country, in order to make room for the sale of new pianos, and not clog up the economy, which is pretty much reliant upon both the production, and sale, of new products.) Owners of pianos in Japan, including private parties and institutions, are frequently encouraged to trade in their older pianos for new ones, even though the older ones may still be in excellent condition. In Japan, a piano is a prized possession, and most Japanese are fastidious about how they take care of their instruments, having them regularly serviced, and keeping them covered when not in use. American consumers are frequently amazed to see the immaculate condition and finishes of these used Japanese (from Japan) pianos, which may be anywhere from 10 to 30 years old or more.

To make a long story short, due to the currently high prices of new Japanese pianos here in the U.S, and the demand for a lower-cost alternative for those still wanting a Japanese piano; and given the low market value of these used pianos in Japan despite their generally excellent condition, there is presently a very active business in Japan of rounding up these used pianos (mainly Kawais and Yamahas, with a smattering of other Japanese brands) and packing them off to the U.S. via "containerized freight," for resale, and many U.S. piano dealers now carry them. Whatever the cultural (or otherwise) aversion of Japanese consumers to used merchandise, many U.S. piano buyers seem to have no such compunctions, having found a great deal, as well as great satisfaction, in the purchase of a piano that, as far as they are concerned, looks and performs just like the new Yamahas and Kawais, and at a fraction of the price. Both Yamaha and Kawai make different models for other parts of the world (different world markets), and consequently some of these pianos have slightly different designs, stringing scales, or cabinet styling than their U.S. market-targeted counterparts, often giving them a unique, exotic, or mellow sound that many U.S. buyers find refreshing or appealing, when compared to the the characteristic sound of the U.S.-targeted models. Because of their (often) near-immaculate condition, and a significantly lower price than comparable new Japanese pianos, these pianos frequently compete directly and well with sales of new Kawais and Yamahas. As with Steinway and other U.S. makers of high-quality pianos, the Japanese makers' most serious competition seems to be their own used pianos. There's nothing like stumbling over your own success.

Not all of the pianos, of course, are in perfect condition, and wholesalers who import them usually have a classification system to let dealers or buyers know what to expect. A or A- condition pianos are are generally newer models and usually fairly flawless, except perhaps for some really minor surface scratches on the case in isolated places. B+ and B grade pianos generally have a few minor defects, usually more scratches on the case or cabinet blemishes, or are older, or have somewhat more wear. B- , C+, and C pianos usually need some minor to moderate work, are still rougher, and/or have cases that some people would want to have touched up or polished out, but which others would not mind. (More a "musician's" piano than a "decorators"). Of course all this varies, depending on the wholesaler and who is doing the grading. (Most dealers usually opt for the A and B grade pianos.) Pianos below C grade usually don't get shipped here. Usually all the pianos, whatever grade, can benefit from some voicing, regulation, and polishing up, but for many people, they could also just be taken home, given a tuning, and played. Many of the pianos have the actual Kawai or Yamaha name on them. Others have names by which they are sold in Japan, such as Miki, Eterna, or Kaiser (Yamaha) or Diapason (Kawai). There are other brands as well, not made by Kawai or Yamaha, but by other Japanese piano manufacturers such as Tokai, Toyo, and Atlas.

Dealers of new Japanese pianos here in the U.S. would much rather the Japanese had dropped these used pianos in the Pacific rather than sending them here to us ("why can't the Japanese do their dumping in their own back yard instead of ours?"), but obviously not everyone feels this way, as there is quite a brisk business selling them here in the States. Undoubtedly it helps solve the problem (glut?) of surplus used pianos for them in Japan, and as a recycling alternative, (they recycle the steel from our '56 Chevys, we recycle their '86 Yamahas and Kawais) certainly seems ecologically sound to me. I would rather see pianos that still have significant useful life remaining being utilized and played, rather than having manufacturers try and convince everyone they need a new instrument every five to ten years, and cutting down more and more trees and using up more scarce natural resources in a compulsive effort to sell yet more new instruments. I am all for recycling pianos where appropriate, especially if it gives someone a choice of getting a higher-quality instrument in a situation where they otherwise might not have been able to afford one. While exporting these used pianos to us (U.S.) may solve a problem locally for them in Japan, however, it apparently causes additional problems for Kawai and Yamaha stateside, especially among their U.S. dealers, who have enough problems competing with private-party sales of used Japanese pianos here, let alone wholesalers who now bring in containerloads of used Japanese pianos and then sell them to the competitor down the street. It's an interesting situation to reflect on, whoever or whatever the driving forces may be.

Frequently manufacturers and dealers of new Japanese pianos, and their supporters, will use emotionally-charged, sometimes almost hysterical, language and terminology in referring to the used Japanese pianos from Japan, calling them "bootleg" and/or "transshipped," (in addition to "gray-market") and hinting at myriad problems the pianos may have down the line as a result of not being intended for the U.S. climate (or market). The amount of invective employed seems to be directly proportional to the perceived threat of competition. Impressive-sounding facts and figures will be quoted, including differences in wood moisture content levels for pianos prepared for tropical vs. dry climates, and predictions made about the dire consequences of bringing Japanese-market pianos onto U.S. "desert" soil. If that doesn't prove enough to dissuade a person from buying one, a picture is often painted of pianos that come from practice rooms in Japanese conservatories and universities, where dedicated students have been doing heavy practicing on them 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, and which are completely worn out within a few years. This propaganda, unfortunately, has also taken seed in some of the technical community, and is being repeated, through word of mouth, in print, and on technical discussion boards, by technicians, piano teachers, and others who may also have a vested interest in selling new Japanese instruments, without ever having seen, themselves, any evidence of the problems they are claiming the used Japanese pianos have. To me this is irresponsible, because it may cause some piano owners to become dissatisfied with a perfectly good instrument, or discourage others from buying one.

The real truth is that most of these pianos I have seen have been in very good condition and well-maintained, and are far from being worn out. The wholesalers seem to do a pretty good job of sorting out the good pianos from the bad before they are sent here, and the grading system seems to be fairly competent and reliable. Wholesalers and importers usually offer to exchange pianos if a dealer is not happy with what he gets, and the dealer usually passes that option along to the customer; most dealers are willing, after inspecting the pianos, to put anywhere from a 2 to 5 year warranty on the instruments.

The device most often used to discourage people from buying these so-called "gray-market" Japanese pianos is the claim, most often made by dealers of new Japanese pianos, that the used pianos which were originally sold new in Japan were not intended, or seasoned for our climate. While there may be some degree of validity to this argument, the truth is it's not that simple. (Click here for a discussion of the controversy on attempting to pre-season pianos for specific environments and climates).

For one thing, which climate are they talking about? The United States has all sorts of different climates, from the arid deserts of the Southwest to the humid swamps and bayous of the Southeast. Besides this rather obvious little complication, there are also all sorts of "indoor environments" caused by heavily insulated walls and ceilings, large windows that face the sun, swimming pools, radiators, showers, and aquariums, and above all, central heating and air conditioning. These factors all conspire to defy any attempt to pre-season a piano for any specific climate. In short, experience with both "legitimate" and "gray market" Japanese pianos has shown that all these variables, which are beyond the control of the manufacturer, tend to pretty much cancel out any benefits from targeting or pre-seasoning a piano for any particular sphere. It is significant that after trying different seasoning lines over the years, Kawai has recently opted to return to a single "drying" line or process, regardless of where the pianos are to be sent (the same as most other piano manufacturers have done over the years.)

Reportedly, the main problem the Japanese piano manufacturers were apparently trying to address was the problem of indoor dryness in many U.S. homes as a consequence of central heating or air conditioning. This, evidently, is generally not a problem, (or not so much of a problem), in the Orient where "open air" is more the norm, but also not a problem in (many other) U.S. homes where they don't go nuts with the heating and air conditioning. (Incidentally, any extremely low humidity that happens seasonally/cyclically, as with heating and air conditioning, is bad for any piano, not just "tropical" ones. If you are aware of this possibility and take measures to monitor the humidity in your home or in the vicinity of the piano, you can avoid problems with either type of piano.)

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Humidity Control for Pianos

Because pianos are made of both wood, glue, wire, wool and several other materials, some more hygroscopic (capable of absorbing water) than others, there is really no one optimum humidity that can be said to be beneficial to every part. It's important that the wood and glue joints not get too dry: for them a little more humidity is desirable. On the other hand, for the metal parts, a little less humidity is what is needed, otherwise they will tend to oxidize or rust, and action parts will often stick when the moisture in the air rises above a certain level. But the worst thing for wood or wire is to have sudden or severe humidity changes, which can cause soundboards to crack or split, or condensation to form inside the piano, usually on the strings. Humidity changes are often responsible for a host of other undesirables: White spots on piano finishes; the need for more frequent tunings, as strings go out of tune in response to the soundboard swelling and contracting; glue joints cracking and opening up, and cracks or splits in the finish, in the soundboard, pinblock, lids, legs and/or other structural members.

Outdoor vs. Indoor climate

Most people worry about moving their piano to a different climate, but it's important to remember there are actually two types: outdoor and indoor. The place where people seem to run into the most problems with any kind of piano (whether targeted for a so-called U.S. climate or not), is when they fail to have any concept of extreme, or rapidly changing, humidity conditions inside their home. By this I mean that I have gone into homes where the humidity was so high you could feel it: it felt damp and muggy, and the piano owner wondered why keys and action parts on the piano were sticking, and why the strings were covered with rust. On the other hand, if you run your furnace in the winter to the point where the humidity in your home drops to 10 or 20 %, then don't be surprised if you do get cracks in your soundboard, and/or your pinblock starts doing funny things. No piano will survive conditions like these for long. Depending on how well your home is insulated, the indoor climate may be quite different from that outside. Try not to park your piano close to sources of direct sunlight, radiators, aquariums, bathtubs or showers, heating registers, etc.

How to keep an (electronic) eye on the piano

I encourage piano owners to keep one of these new little electronic humidity gauges on their instrument. (These gauges are pocket-size and run any where from around 24.99 for one from Radio Shack® to around 60.00 for a more exotic one made by Dampp-Chaser"!, which you can order from us or from your piano technician. Both are accurate enough to let you know what's happening to your piano.) This kind of gauge has a built-in memory that is very convenient: it will remember the highest and lowest humidity for you so you don't always have to be there watching it. A good humidity compromise, or ideal, is around 42%, according to those who make humidity control devices for pianos. For more on humidity control for your piano, read the sections on proper climate for your piano and humidity control devices in Piano Owners FAQ's.)

Should you worry about buying a used piano originally sold in Japan?

In a nutshell, there is no reason, really, to treat these so-called "gray market" or "tropical" pianos any differently than you would any other used piano purchase: Have the instrument checked out by a competent technician, who will look for the same kinds of problems he would with any used instrument; and make sure the dealer/seller provides a warranty (generally 2 to 5 years is standard for used grands of this type, which is certainly long enough for your tuner or technician to ascertain whether there will be any problems.) In the author's experience, having worked with both so-called "gray market" pianos, and ones originally intended for U.S. consumption, over several years, in both arid and more humid regions of California (of which there are both), I have yet to see any significant problems with either type of piano any more than the other, or any of the major complications darkly hinted at or alluded to by those whose emphasis is on selling the new pianos. Since there were reportedly problems with some Japanese pianos when they were first shipped here in the early sixties (for more on this, see discussion on seasoning pianos for different climates), you might want to be extra careful about inspecting any piano made previous to 1965, whether initially intended for the U.S. or Japan. After having serviced and maintained many pre-1965 Yamahas and Kawais however, I have not personally seen any that were simply "falling apart," or that had any type of significant seasoning, warping, pinblock, rim, or soundboard problems, for that matter, beyond what you would normally expect in any used piano that had received normal care and maintenance. (I suspect that any of these pianos that might have had problems of a more serious nature were probably ones that were subjected to some really severe humidity extremes, or otherwise abused; as stated above, no piano will hold up long under those conditions, regardless of how its wood is seasoned by the manufacturer.)

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Examples of some different types of climates (outdoor)

If you live in a moderate climate like we generally have here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where the humidity is usually somewhere between 40 to 60 % and fairly constant, I don't think there is any reason you should worry about buying a piano that was originally intended for a tropical environment, (as long as the piano is in good condition to begin with) and you probably won't need climate control. If you live in New England or on the East Coast or some other place where there are frequent swings of humidity from very humid to very dry, depending on the seasons; or if the way you run your heater and air conditioner in your home makes your indoor environment subject to sudden or frequent changes in humidity, then you'd better get humidity control for the piano, regardless of whether you buy a so-called "gray market" (tropical) piano or one that was supposedly seasoned for the U.S. If you live in a region where the humidity is relatively high, such as in the Southern parts of the United States, or along the coast, or in a swamp or a bayou, or anyplace that has a high water table, you'd better get humidity control as well, especially if you buy one of those so-called "seasoned for U.S." pianos that was intended for a dry climate (the tropical piano may actually fare better in a climate of this type). If you live in a very dry or arid environment (all year round) such as Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, etc. where the humidity gets very low (10 to 15%) but is fairly constant, I would probably recommend you get climate control for an originally "tropical" piano, just to be on the safe side.

It doesn't matter so much where the needle on the hygrometer falls between 30% and 70% as long as it stays in one place, or else changes very slowly. What is hard on any instrument is to have frequent and sudden or severe changes from dry to humid and back again.

The increased use of humidity control devices for pianos in recent years has also served to make the "tropical" vs. U.S. piano controversy more or less moot. As discussed above, any piano, regardless of the climate originally targeted for, is susceptible to humidity fluctuations. Over the years, piano owners have recognized this fact, and more and more are now buying humidity control systems for valuable instruments that they want to preserve.

Humidity control specific to used "tropical" instruments

Dampp-Chaser"! has, in the past, made humidity control systems that are effective for pretty much any type of piano, but recently they came out with some new products with the imported used Japanese pianos specifically in mind. These systems come with a special "wet" humidistat that maintains the humidity in the instrument at around 50% rather than the usual 42% of the standard system. (50% relative humidity is what the Dampp-Chaser people told me the "Originally-targeted-for-Japan" pianos, and hence the new humidity control systems, were designed for). This is actually not a huge difference (between the for-Japan and for-U.S. targeted pianos), and it came as a surprise that the differential between the "normal" and "wet" systems was only about 8 points: the "wet" humidistat is still around the center of the scale (the humidity scale goes from 0 to 100%). Still, for those who dwell in a particularly dry climate, it might provide an extra measure or sense of security. (Incidentally, we have been hearing more reports recently of technicians actually fixing problems with loose tuning pins or sticky action parts, or marginal soundboard crown, by simply installing a humidity control device in the piano. Whatever your situation, humidity control for your piano is well worth looking into: aside from the other benefits I've mentioned, it has been proven pretty conclusively to help your piano stay in tune longer, and reduce problems with sticky action parts.)

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Two vs. Three pedals

Many of the older, pre-owned Yamaha grands coming in to the U.S. from Japan in containerloads have only two pedals, although models are available with either two or three. Those with three are often sold at a premium. I am told that in Japan they actually prefer only two pedals on their pianos, as the third or middle pedal is considered an unnecessary complication. Most American pianos have three pedals, whether they all work or not, for appearance' sake. The middle pedal on finer grands, called the sostenuto pedal, is similar to the right or damper pedal, except that it only raises specific dampers designated by the performer. Most vertical pianos don't have this feature, and only a certain percentage of grands do (on those pianos the middle pedal is usually just another soft, or muting pedal (often called a practice pedal, and lockable in the down position); or else raises just the bass dampers). A true sostenuto pedal is nice to have (it helps the tuner for certain voicing operations) and it is occasionally useful for some advanced piano literature. But, like cruise control on a car, it is by no means a necessity, and even advanced pianists seldom use it.

Some of the reasoning behind the new model names and features

Perhaps, because of the impending threat from the afore-mentioned sources of used Japanese instruments, and subsequent complaints from U.S. dealers of new Japanese pianos about the situation, the Japanese makers felt the need for the recent "renaming" of the new models: i.e. a new model designation, or new "upgrade" features for the new model pianos might help distinguish them from the older ones, and give them a little more of a competitive "edge" in the eyes of buyers. Although dealers of new Yamahas and Kawais may do their best to convince customers that "the newer models are better," that is not always evident to prospective buyers, or to their piano technicians; and the purported tonal improvements may not be discernible or worth the difference in price to many people, especially those with a limited budget.

This constant reclassification and shuffling of piano models and names, incidentally, is pretty much par for the piano industry, whether in the U.S. or Japan. Of course, the other thing to be aware of, when looking at a certain manufacturer's offerings, is where there is a change in the quality or design of a product, but the model name or number stays the same. Often, both model names and design are changed. Sometimes it's for the better; other times it would have been better left alone.

With grands like the Kawai GS (or the RX-3 thru 6, RX-A and EX) series, and also the Yamaha C, S and CF series instruments, one gets more into the realm of high-quality pianos. (Kawai's GS line has now been discontinued, but buyers may still find them in dealers' showrooms for a time, and also on the used market.) Pianos of this quality level are very satisfying to play for all but perhaps the most finicky artists, or those who just must have the depth and resonance of the "quality American piano" sound. Indeed, many artists prefer the touch on the Japanese instruments to that of the U.S.-made, and the precision of the Japanese actions has been the reason for quite a few concert artists "defecting" to the Japanese brands. Just like with their American and European counterparts, expect to spend around $20,000. and upward for these pianos new.

Pianos like the Kawai EX (9') and RX-A (6'5") and the Yamaha S4 (6'3"), S6 (6'11") and CFIII (9') have elicited raves from pianists worldwide. They are very superb pianos, and are often compared favorably with Steinways and Bosendorfers. Be prepared, however, to spend from 40 to 100 grand for the new ones.

Over past years, both Yamaha and Kawai have built pianos for U.S. companies such as Baldwin and Steinway. (Kawai used to make Baldwin's Howard grands, and Yamaha made a grand model for Baldwin's D.H. Baldwin line. Steinway's Boston models are currently made by Kawai.) The fluctuating exchange rate of the Japanese yen vs. the U.S. dollar, however, makes having pianos built in Japan an iffy proposition for U.S. companies, because sometimes it's economically advantageous to do so, and other times not. So these relationships tend to come and go, depending on world economic conditions.

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Korean Pianos

The 3 major Korean piano producers are Young Chang, Samick and until recently, Sojin/Daewoo. These three conglomerates produce or have produced, besides pianos with their own names on them, instruments with recognizable American brand names such as Weber, WM. Knabe, Wurlitzer, Kohler & Campbell, Schafer & Sons, Sherman Clay, or PianoDisc, and also with a wide assortment of "stencil" or "trade" names such as Hyundai, Schumann, Stegler, Cline, Daytron, Royale, Wagner, Bernhard Steiner, Otto Altenburg, Horugel, Maeri, and a host of others. Since all 3 of these Korean piano makers have made themselves available to build pianos to order, and will put virtually any name desired on the piano, a number of respected U.S. piano companies are currently using them to build their 2nd or 3rd line pianos.

It is not always easy to say which Korean entity produces a given U.S. brand name of piano: U.S. dealers and piano companies have typically used one Korean producer for several years and then switched to another. Baldwin has used both Young Chang and Samick in recent years to make their Wurlitzer and D.H. Baldwin grands. With the entry of China and some of the new Eastern European nations into the world piano market, Korean manufacturers have apparently climbed up a rung on the perceived quality ladder, and their pianos are now a little too high a quality or a little too expensive for some U.S. companies, who have recently started to import their "price-leader" instruments from mainland Chinese manufacturers. Steinway, who currently has Kawai build their 2nd line "Boston" piano, is reportedly now having a 3rd line (Essex) built for them by Young Chang. Some take this as an indicator of how Korean pianos (or at least Young Chang) have moved up in the world. (...Or has Steinway taken a step down? Hard to say.)

Korean-built pianos constitute the larger percentage of the less expensive grands and uprights in high gloss cabinets that can be seen in piano showrooms across the country. Young Chang, Samick and Sojin together produce a huge quantity of pianos for international consumption, today rivaling even the Japanese in numbers. For the most part, the quality of these instruments is basically "acceptable". Korean-built instruments are usually purchased by people who have minor to moderate expectations of a piano, or who may be more concerned with furniture than musical issues, and who want to keep the price down. The quality usually gets somewhat better, however, as you get into the bigger and more expensive Korean grands (6 through 9 feet) which often come equipped with Renner (German-made) actions. Some of the larger Korean grands I have played have been quite nice, actually, after they have been worked over for a few days by a competent piano technician. (The pianos are generally a bit rough out of the crate, and it takes some work to make them playable. Many dealers apparently don't know anything about doing this work, because from what I have seen it most often is not done, which has given the pianos somewhat of a bad rap they really don't deserve.) Longevity of these pianos is often a question mark, when compared with Japanese- or U.S.-built instruments.

More on both Korean and Japanese pianos follows after this brief interlude about stencil pianos and "dumping." Read on...

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Stencil Pianos

The practice of putting different names on pianos made by the same manufacturer is one that has been around for over a hundred years. In past decades this practice was known as stenciling, and a piano that bore a different name on its fallboard than that of its manufacturer was known as a stencil. This tactic usually had a number of different objectives: 1) To increase market share for the manufacturer in a city or region ( the same piano being sold by competing dealers under different names) 2) To associate the piano with some highly respected, traded or prestigious brand name, nationality, or "house" (dealer, maker, or piano agency, often long since defunct or bought out, but which still had clout in terms of reputation or name recognition in the minds of the buying public.) 3) To allow a dealer or another manufacturer to offer a line or price point of pianos that they may not want to produce themselves, or which would not be cost-effective to produce themselves, etc. In reality, these are just a few of the myriad reasons why stenciling was done; the actual reasons are as numerous and diverse as the manufacturers who did it, or who are doing it today.

A stenciled piano may have subtle differences from its counterpart with the actual manufacturer's name on it. For example, Young Chang of Korea makes both pianos with their own name on them and ones for Wurlitzer (a Baldwin subsidiary) to which the Wurlitzer name is then attached. Usually the differences between these pianos are mainly cosmetic, but sometimes there are changes in the actual design of the piano. Depending on whether the manufacturer's identity is considered to be an asset or a liability, a dealer will usually either "boast" (he will offer) or "confess" (usually has to be dragged out of him) that the piano is really made by _________(name of real manufacturer). Stenciling is not necessarily always a negative; a lot depends on the quality of the piano. Sometimes some real deals can be had by purchasing an instrument that's everything you want except the prestigious name. Other times, however, stenciling can be used to mislead or take advantage of unsuspecting buyers, who often make erroneous assumptions about a piano's origin and place of manufacture, based on the name on the fallboard.

The name over the keys

A bit of recent history might be in order here. When Asian pianos (and other products) first started being imported to the United States, there was often a disadvantage to having an Asian-sounding name on the fallboard. Many folks had preconceptions about, or associations with, Asian products, from a time when they represented lower-end or low-quality offerings, and, even if they were aware that the Asian company currently made good instruments, they still preferred to buy a piano that said, say, Kohler and Campbell over the keys, instead of Samick, or Everett instead of Yamaha. (They might be able to see that behind the Asian name was a good piano, but their neighbors or guests might not.) This was true even of the Japanese pianos, with Kawai-built pianos being sold under the Howard (Baldwin) name, or Yamaha-built ones under D.H. Baldwin. (The situation still exists today, as well, with Boston (Kawai) and Essex (Young Chang). In recent years, no doubt due to the rise in manufactured quality of (and changing consumer perception about) Asian pianos, it has actually (in many instances) become more advantageous to have the Asian name on the piano than the American. But it all depends on your neighborhood If you live in an area where a lot of local jobs have been lost to Asian/overseas competition, it's probably less hazardous to have the American-sounding name on the piano.

Another reason why Asian manufacturers would frequently issue pianos under a number of different trade names was because in the past couple of decades there have been repeated attempts on the part of interested parties in the United States to pass laws limiting the number of imported pianos (as well as other products) coming into the country. Unfair competition and lost jobs and revenues are usually the main reasons cited for these measures. Putting different names on the pianos, making them appear to be made either by different companies, or by a former U.S. piano company instead of the Asian company, was a preemptive measure employed by many Asian piano manufacturers to continue to maintain market share in the event that laws restricting imports were passed.

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"Dumping" is a close cousin to stenciling. The objectives are often very similar: a manufacturer, intent on selling as many units as possible, will flood or glut the market with truckloads of the same pianos under either the same or stenciled names, or by opening up or supplying an excessive number of competing dealerships in the same area, or any number of other devices that achieve the same result. For the short term, this may bring prices down and get the numbers up (for the manufacturer, at least; the dealers usually get the short end of the stick), but ultimately it undermines both the manufacturer and the dealer, and both may end up going out of business. This, in turn, is bad for the customer, who can no longer get warranty service or parts.

In recent years, U.S. piano makers and dealers have accused Asian piano makers of dumping their piano products on our shores, while restricting sales and importation of U.S.-made pianos to their own countries. In a recent development, this refers to used Japanese pianos as well, which are currently making their way into the U.S. by the thousands (see "gray market" pianos, above) and on which there are apparently no import restrictions or quotas, unlike with recent U.S.-Japan trade agreements regarding certain new Japanese products (like cars). It is not entirely clear just who, exactly, or what forces, are behind the sending of these used pianos to us. The word is that this is just the isolated work of some enterprising wholesalers who are in the business of importing a number of different items from Japan, and that used Japanese pianos simply have proven, lately, to be a very profitable venture, seeing as they can supposedly be bought cheaply in Japan, where there's reportedly little or no market, and then sold at a good mark-up in the U.S. where the demand is high. While some people feel it has nothing to do with the Japanese piano industry and is simply an effective and profitable way to get rid of unwanted instruments (taken care of by used merchandise exporters and/or other "bottom feeders" in Japan), others wonder why so many of these pianos are so new, relatively speaking, and in such good condition. And why are the Japanese disposing of so many instruments that still have a substantial amount of useful life left, or trading them in after such a short time?

It is of note that today many piano manufacturers, including the Japanese, have arrangements with schools, conservatories and universities where the schools or other music/arts organizations are given the use of new pianos for a certain short interval of time (usually a year or so). Then at the end of that interval, those pianos are traded in for new ones, and the used ones (which are usually still in excellent or close-to -new condition) are sold to the public at the annual "university" or "conservatory" or "opera" or "symphony" sale; because used pianos, especially ones that are "almost new" and being sold at a discount, are very attractive to the buying public, sometimes even more appealing than new pianos. (You know the old sales device: "Don't have quite enough to buy a new piano? well, we have this demo (or floor model) on sale here, it's really had very little use, just a couple of tiny scratches...")

Maybe there really is no conspiracy on the part of the Japanese piano manufacturers, and the situation is really simply analogous to that of new cars, where people are encouraged to buy a new vehicle every few years whether they need one or not. It may be that the exportation from Japan of so many used Japanese Kawais and Yamahas is simply a market-driven phenomenon and needs no aiding /abetting by the Japanese piano manufacturers; in fact, it may actually be something they wish wasn't happening. But it is amazing how many Japanese pianos, both new and used, are available here in the States right now, for whatever reason. Contrary to what you might hear from dealers of new Japanese pianos, there is certainly no dearth, or scarcity, of Yamahas and Kawais (or other Asian pianos for that matter.) I certainly don't envy those trying to sell new Japanese (or Asian) pianos right now.

(Back to Korean Pianos)

Korean piano companies have actually only been making pianos since after the Korean War, in comparison to the Japanese, who have been making them since the turn of the century. Like the first Japanese pianos to be sent to the U.S., the first Korean-made pianos that arrived here had some problems with the stability of the wood, reportedly because of a lack of experience in knowing how to season it properly for our diverse climates, (e.g. the disclaimer that this was a new and untested market or environment for the pianos, which supposedly held up well in other, previous locales.) More likely, though, was that they had not yet learned how to build a piano that was up to U.S. or International standards or requirements of construction; this can take quite a few years to achieve. (Since that time, the Koreans have made much progress in developing a more "competitive" and/or "robust" product, and now new Korean pianos have far fewer problems than they did.) Some older or used Korean made instruments for sale on the market, from the period when they were first imported to the U.S., may have problems with loose tuning pins or other structural defects. (This was also reportedly true of some of the very first Japanese instruments that were shipped to this country.) Incidentally, the "climate" problem often had more to do with indoor climate than outdoor: Many U.S. citizens, unlike citizens of Asian countries, tended to make extensive use of heating and air conditioning, and often did not keep track of the humidity or lack thereof in the home. (Today, people tend to be more informed about/aware of the effects of humidity on their musical instruments, particularly pianos). The consequent indoor humidity changes and resultant stresses placed on the pianos' inadequately designed/seasoned wooden parts caused a lot of problems with warping, delaminating and loose tuning pins, among other things.) So the problem was exacerbated from both sides: by environments that were far from ideal for any piano, as well as inadequate piano design, construction, or seasoning of the pianos lumber.

The fact that Japan has now been building pianos for a longer time than Korea gives the Japanese instruments somewhat of an edge, but the Japanese instruments are also more expensive. Since the Korean-U.S. exchange rate has recently been much more favorable than that of Japan, the Korean pianos have really been giving the Japanese some competition for those buyers who want a grand piano, or a large upright, on a budget. Kawai's price-leader GE series and the Yamaha's economy GH series of pianos came on the market about the same time the Korean pianos started biting into a larger segment of the world piano market pie chart.

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Piano makers moving up in the world

A couple of general principals are worth noting here in relation to the Korean pianos, and pianos in general. A manufacturer such as Young Chang, Samick, (or even Yamaha or Kawai, for that matter) may have begun their business careers making lower quality/lower price instruments for the masses, or built up their reputation providing "stencil" pianos for more well-known makers. Over time, however, as they gain large portions of market share with the less expensive instruments, they often attain the means and market to begin to expand upward into the manufacture of higher quality pianos. This is actually what happened with the Japanese manufacturers, who each now have, for example, lines of concerts grands selling at a retail price in excess of $100,000. In time the Korean manufacturers may also arrive at this quality level, as they seem to be making genuine efforts in that direction.

Although the making of high quality or concert instruments is normally a very small portion of a manufacturer's total output, it has many benefits (artist endorsement, prestige, visibility in the concert arena). Automakers often participate in racing (referred to by some as "destructive" or "military" testing) to improve the durability and performance of their cars, and also to advertise or showcase their products in a high-visibility arena. Producing concert grands and making them available to concert artists and orchestras all over the world serves the same purposes. Through concert appearances, an association is created in the public mind linking that particular brand of piano with a famous concert artist or artists. In addition, hopefully, the manufacturer gains valuable insight into how the pianos hold up under extreme conditions, and artists who use the pianos often give valuable feedback on how the instruments can be improved, which the piano maker then implements in subsequent models (although in the experience of many artists, these revisions or improvements often seem to take forever). Lessons learned in the building of instruments for concert artists often are used to improve the quality of the lesser pianos in a manufacturer's line-up as well. A favorite marketing device employed by piano companies is to claim that their smaller, less expensive models now have some, or several of, the same design features as their concert grands.

Along these lines, another pattern worth noting is the incorporation of concert grand or high quality piano features into the smaller or lesser quality instruments in a manufacturer's offerings. We have mentioned that the Japanese, for example, have recently been introducing certain refinements into their grand lines that are more representative of the features and construction found on higher quality American and German grands, and the Koreans have been going in this direction as well, although perhaps not to the extent yet that the Japanese have. The idea is that the public, or at least the artists, piano technicians and piano teachers that influence the public, have certain ideas about what key features constitute a higher quality piano; and offering those features, or, at the least, a portion of those features, on a lesser or medium quality piano may sway the potential buyer or their advisor towards purchase. Whether or not the quality of the piano is improved by these additions depends on a number of factors, including overall design, workmanship, and quality of related or connected parts. Sometimes the quality of the instrument actually is improved, but other times the "upgrades" are little more than marketing devices.

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Higher quality pianos - features, design and construction

Generally, high quality pianos such as Steinway or Bechstein, for example, are perceived to have the edge over other brands of instruments due to certain unique elements of materials, design or construction. These elements frequently become "selling points" in a sales presentation for those pianos, and have come to be known, over the years, as the "American system" of piano building, (or in some cases the "German system") These particular systems usually have several distinct hallmarks, including (for better quality grands):

  • a continuous rim made of the densest hardwoods such as rock maple or beech;
  • a duplex scale;
  • a pinblock made of quarter-sawn rock maple laminations, which is glued and mortised to the stretcher and rim (instead of merely attached to the plate as is often the case in lower quality instruments);
  • a solid spruce soundboard;
  • bridges that are vertically laminated and capped (instead of solid);
  • specially formulated keytops that more closely simulate the feel of real ivory or ebony;
  • a full sostenuto (a middle pedal which holds up selected dampers);
  • scale design by some well-respected and world renowned engineer such as Klaus Fenner, or Joseph Pramberger (formerly of Steinway);
  • action parts or keys by Renner or Kluge, who have pretty much become the de facto standards for high quality action parts.

Often today, whether it's Kawai, Kohler and Campbell (Samick) or Young Chang (Pramberger) you will see these manufacturers offering various combinations of these elements as enhancements or upgrades on their newest models.

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Comparison of Korean with Japanese instruments

Currently, though, the perception remains that, in all the important areas - tone, touch and durability - the Korean pianos are still not considered as high quality as the Japanese products, even though they are constantly improving, with new scales, designs, etc. Disassembly of Korean pianos for servicing, or rebuilding, frequently reveals less emphasis on quality of construction and workmanship than that of the Japanese instruments: they just don't seem to be as carefully assembled. And finishes on Korean pianos often appear somewhat rougher and more uneven than those of Japanese pianos. While the Japanese instruments have a reputation of coming out of the shipping crate "ready to play," needing very little, if any, regulation, voicing, or even tuning, the Korean instruments often arrive needing a lot of work, or dealer prep, which doesn't always get done simply because there is so much of it to do. However, Korean pianos usually cost less than the Japanese pianos, so it's all somewhat relative. Some technicians feel, though, that the price discount isn't enough to justify the decrease in quality. It is usually possible for a competent technician to spend a few days going over a Korean piano and make it sound and feel much better than it did when it arrived. It is doubtful, from what I have seen, that it can be ever made to sound as good as the higher quality Japanese or U.S. instruments.

As far as design, materials and methods of construction, the Korean pianos seem more similar to the Japanese products. (Young Chang, in it's earlier years, was actually an assembler of Yamaha pianos for the Korean market, and in many respects their pianos appear strikingly similar to those of Yamaha.)

When Korean Pianos were first exported to the U.S., they faced an uphill battle to establish brand credibility. This they set about to do, ingeniously, with assistance (association?) from the internationally recognized piano parts community. Frequently you would see a Korean- made instrument advertised as having Renner action parts (a prestigious German action manufacturer) Roslau wire (prestigious German wire manufacturer) or Royal George felts (prestigious English felt maker), among other things. In other words, "you may not know us, but you know these people." By comparison, the Japanese piano makers never resorted to this tactic; apparently Japanese-made parts were good enough for them. Curiously, however, the Korean manufacturer's emphasis on the pedigree of their parts started a number of people wondering just who, then, made the parts for all the other piano makers. (By the way, in the earlier years of the piano industry, some of the more prestigious manufacturers such as Steinway actually made most all of their parts in-house. Today, however, just like in the automobile industry, most piano manufacturers farm out the making of specialized parts (such as plates, action parts, keys, hardware, tuning pins, pedals, etc.) to specialty manufacturers, who may furnish parts for several different brands of pianos. A piano may actually be assembled from parts from several different countries.) Some huge companies however, like Yamaha, still pretty much make all their own parts.

(It's important to keep in mind, when buying a piano, that no matter how high the purported quality of the parts, they are still a relatively minor portion of the cost of making the piano. It is the workmanship that goes into the installation of those parts and materials that is the major expense involved in making a piano, and the real difference between a quality instrument and a mediocre one. I've seen a lot of new pianos lately with great parts and materials, but poor workmanship. (What a waste, I thought to myself.) Sometimes the carelessness or shoddy work can be fixed, but more often it's deeply embedded throughout.the piano.)

Korean piano concerns like to capitalize on yet another relationship in what has come to be known as "the German Connection." In the minds of many, apparently anything made by elves in the Black Forest must equate with quality, or at least, be worth a lot (judging by the high prices of such commodities as Mercedes-Benzes, BMW's, and certain pianos made in that general vicinity, to name a few). Thus, it behooved the Korean piano manufacturers to point out another prestigious association they had with German quality: the Scale Designer. Scale designers are the engineers who decide how a piano is to be built, much the same way an architect designs a house. They are the people largely responsible for the initial plan and specifications.

To make a long story short, the Korean piano makers contracted the services of some well-respected German scale designers (or at least some with German-sounding names, if they weren't actually born in Germany) to specify the size and type of strings that would be used on their pianos, among other things. Now this is all very well and good, and it was probably a step in the right direction. But as everyone knows, or should know, there is quite a difference between, say, designing a house, and actually building it to a quality specification. There's the architect, and then there's the builder. Architects are limited by the tastes, budgets, available materials and construction skills of their clients and/or building contractors. The same is true of scale designers and piano manufacturers. They may work closely together, but ultimately the scale designer is at the mercy of the manufacturer, in much the same way that a composer is at the mercy of those who either perform, or execute, his music.

Quality German scale design and parts may help enhance a piano's tone. But they are only part of the picture. As we said before, it's the workmanship that is one of the most significant factors in whether a piano turns out to be a quality instrument, or just another assembly-line product. So far, the Korean pianos still have a ways to go. But they are also in a lower price niche, as is to be expected, for a piano of this quality level. The general rule is, the more suspect the quality of the piano, or the lower the price point, the more they have to rely on name- or prestige- association devices of this type.

In tone quality, the consensus seems to be that the Korean pianos really sound neither distinctly Japanese, American nor European; but in some ways they seem to have qualities of all three. If you are contemplating buying a Korean piano, I personally think it would be worth your while to look at the Young Chang, which sometimes also goes by the names Weber, PianoDisc, or Knabe. Other technicians I have spoken with prefer the Samick, for various reasons. Incidentally, Young Chang also makes the Kurzweil line of electronic pianos and synthesizers/samplers. Kurzweil is considered by many to be the industry leader in digital keyboards.

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Chinese Pianos

On of the most recent developments in the international piano scene is the emergence of China as a contender for the world piano market. Factories in this nation now produce, or have in the past few years, produced instruments of such diverse names as Saganhaft, Brentwood, Pearl River, Strauss, Steigerman, Maddison, Taishan and Niemeyer. Even established manufacturers such as Baldwin (Kranich and Bach), Young Chang, Story & Clark, George Steck, and Fandrich are starting to have some of their "economy" or "price leader" pianos made in China. Young Chang recently built a huge new plant in Tianjin. China is presently at the place where Korea used to be in the world piano market (sort of low man on the totem pole), but also seems to be climbing fast. Usually people buy a Chinese piano as a less expensive alternative to a Korean instrument. That, however, may change, depending on how well the Chinese learn to build pianos.

The first pianos that came out of China several years ago were pretty rough, and were consequently priced pretty low. For a while they sort of ran neck and neck in quality (or lack thereof) with the pianos from the new Eastern European nations, many of which were also pretty rough and which required extensive servicing and dealer prep before they could be termed "playable." Most of the Chinese-made instruments exported to the U.S. at that time consisted of shorter, inexpensive verticals between about 41 and 44". In the last few years however, Chinese pianos have improved somewhat in quality, due to substantial interest and investments from overseas piano manufacturers, and from the Chinese government, and also due to a motivated, eager labor force, willing to work hard for very modest wages. There are several piano producing plants now in China, their names generally corresponding with their geographic locations. There is Shanghai, the oldest, in Shanghai, China; Guangzhou, in Guangzhou, (makers of the famous "Pearl River" piano, one of the first we saw here in the U.S.); Yantai Longfeng in Yantai; Beijing; and Dongbei. In addition there is the new Young Chang factory in Tianjin. (Even Young Chang, it seems, is finding it more advantageous to have some of their pianos made in China) Chinese pianos are available now in the U.S. under many different labels and in sizes ranging from 42" to 52" in the verticals, and even offering now a 5' 3" grand. (Update/2001: Pearl River is now offering 4'7", 5'3", 6', 7' and even 9' grands, and has entered into a joint venture with Yamaha.) There is still considerable debate as to the durability of these instruments, and whether they can be expected to hold up as well as ones of more established make and reputation.

Why people buy Asian Pianos - Pros and Cons

There are advantages to buying Asian pianos, whether Japanese or Korean, or now Chinese. They are still, in general, less expensive than new high quality U.S.-made instruments, but the gap seems to be closing, just as it did with automobiles. Because of the lower cost of labor in the Orient, and often, also, a more motivated labor force, the fit and finish often appears to be better on Asian pianos. (U.S. manufacturers, beset with management, labor, and also some "vision" problems, had been letting quality slide so that often their dealers had to struggle with a wide assortment of factory defects, sloppiness and outright blunders. As dealer and pianist disillusionment set in, U.S. manufacturers lost substantial ground to the Asian pianos.)

Please note: There is as much difference in tone quality and touch between Japanese, Korean and Chinese pianos as there is between Japanese and U.S.- made pianos. However, when compared to U.S.-built instruments, Asian pianos as a group do tend to have more elements in common, tonally and otherwise. As a group, for example, they are usually less expensive than U.S.-made models, and construction materials (specifically woods) on Asian pianos tend to be more similar, and generally endemic to the Asian locale. An exception might be the top-of-the-line Japanese grands, which tend to emulate U.S. construction and materials more closely these days, but the run-of-the-mill grands and verticals still tend reflect a more Asian practice of construction.

It is true that several Asian manufacturers came to the United States to learn piano building techniques first-hand from the American manufacturers (Yamaha, for example has mentioned this in some of their ads). They also have learned piano-building from European countries such as Germany. Korean companies learned piano building from the Japanese, among others. In this respect, it can probably be said that Asian pianos are really a hybrid of a number of different construction practices, including German, American and Japanese. Korean and Chinese makers introduce elements of their own culture and construction practice into their pianos, as well.

In the past, the choice was usually between getting a smaller American-made piano, or a larger Asian one, for the same price, but even that is changing now as U.S. manufacturers get their acts together and struggle to compete in a more difficult and fiercely competitive world economy. For the first time in years certain U.S.-made pianos are being offered at prices competitive with Asian pianos. Retail prices on both Asian and U.S. pianos still remain high. But Asian pianos are often offered at substantially greater discounts, as the Asian manufacturers seemed to have made the (intentional) mistake of opening up far too many dealers in any given metropolitan area, and the competition between them is quite lively (See "dumping," above).

Today pianists frequently will compliment Japanese pianos on their feel, and on their finish, even though the materials on which the finishing is done may not be as high quality or as durable as what they have come to expect from the best U.S.-made instruments. Because of a dearth of materials in their own countries, and the fact that much of the wood they use must be imported, at significant expense, Japanese and other Asian piano makers have also been using substantial amounts of softer, less expensive, or tropical woods in order to build the large quantities of instruments that they must mass produce. Many pianists and technicians feel these softer or cheaper woods are not optimum for best piano tone or life-span. But many pianists also seem to be willing to accept a compromise in the tone quality and durability of the instrument in exchange for an action that is more or less trouble-free and feels good to the fingers. (Remember, though, that, at least among the Japanese pianos, there are several different quality levels; the more you are willing to pay, the better the instrument you can get. Also, in general, among the offerings of each maker, as the piano size increases, so does the quality.)

Recently, however, certain Asian manufacturers have been buying forests and lumber mills in the United States and other countries, in order to acquire the more desirable or "traditional" hardwoods and softwoods for their instruments that are in scarce supply in their own locales. On their more expensive models, harder and more traditional piano-building woods are being used, which has improved the tone quality.

As stated above, the feel of the action (keys and moving parts) is one of the major reasons many pianists have switched to Japanese pianos over U.S. models. The Japanese, with their "high touch" ethic, have apparently chosen to be be much more meticulous about the way they build and regulate their actions than what most U.S. piano manufacturers are willing to do today, and pianists have definitely noticed the difference. The general consensus is that the Japanese actions just "feel better" and are more "sensitive" to the touch, even though the sound quality of the piano may not be as good as that of some of the better U.S.-built models. The finish on Japanese pianos, as well, just looks like a lot more care has gone into it. It is a tremendous amount of work to put a high gloss finish on a piano, but the Japanese do this extremely well, however, even better than U.S. manufacturers do with the easier, satin or sprayed finishes. Larger Korean grands that come with Renner German actions installed can also be very nice, but usually still need considerable prep and adjustments by the dealer (which doesn't always get done.) More run-of-the-mill Korean pianos, and the Chinese pianos usually have so-so actions and so-so finishes, and the main attraction there is the low price.

Many pianists, however, are still very unhappy when asked to perform on Asian products. They feel that while certain Asian pianos (generally the Japanese-built ones) may have precise actions, they are not as durable and simply do not sound as good as a quality American piano. Another oft-expressed opinion that has some validity is that the better quality U.S. -made instruments seem to get better with age, while the Asian pianos are the best when new on the showroom floor, and then go downhill after that. On the other hand, critics of new U.S.- made pianos often level the accusation that it's not so much that they get better with age, but that they haven't been properly completed at the factory and it's up to the purchaser to work the bugs out over the next couple of years, similar to the recent situation with new American cars.

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European Pianos

American and Asian pianos are not the only ones around. For many years German and Austrian-made pianos have been considered some of the world's finest, with names like C. Bechstein, Bosendorfer, Grotrian, Sauter, Seiler, Feurich, Forster, Bluthner, Ibach, and Schimmel among those you may see in finer piano showrooms. These pianos can be very pricey when new, however, often costing more than an equivalent Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, or Baldwin. And, as with the Asian pianos, different materials and methods of construction used in European pianos often result in a sound that is quite different from that of American-made pianos. While expensive when first sold, these European instruments may not hold their resale value stateside as well as pianos with more instantly identifiable names, simply because people over here in the U.S. of A. may be unfamiliar with them. However, as more and more people become educated as to which names are equated with quality, this perception is changing. So as a used piano, they may, for now, present an outstanding value.

(Also in Germany is Steinway's branch factory in Hamburg, from whence cometh the famous German or Hamburg Steinway, which some artists prefer over the New York Steinway, made domestically in New York; Long Island, to be exact. Hamburg Steinways differ somewhat in construction, tone and touch from their counterparts made in New York, and often sell at a premium here in the U.S., whether new or used; that is, if you can find one. Some pianists feel the Hamburgs are better-built, and have more responsive actions than the New Yorks. Other pianists prefer the sound of the New York Steinway over that of the Hamburg. Hamburg Steinways usually have glossy cabinets, á la Euro; the New Yorks, satin. That's all we have space for here.)

In England a very high quality piano called the Knight has a small but devoted group of fans here in the U.S. It is considered to be comparable in quality to the better German or Austrian pianos.

In more recent years the new political status of the former Soviet bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia and East Germany has initiated an influx of pianos from those regions, with names like Petrof, Weinbach, Sangler and Sohne, Weiler, Nordheimer, Becher and Estonia. Petrof, from Czechoslovakia, has been available for some time now in the U.S. The general perception among technicians and artists is that the quality of these brands ranges from relatively good to poor. Some people feel that these brands may represent a attractive value because lower labor costs in these new, emerging nations often translate into a lower sticker price on the finished instrument. Experience with pianos from these nations has taught, though, that most of them will need a fairly substantial amount of tweaking and other post-manufacturing prep by a competent technician to put them in shape. Whether the dealer is willing to do that necessary prepping is always a question mark. Sometimes dealers do not do the prep work because they can get away with it with inexperienced piano buyers. And there is still some question about the ultimate life-expectancy of these pianos, compared to some of the higher quality U.S. or West-German instruments.

The main problem with many of the pianos produced in these countries is that, from what I understand, for many years they operated in a closed economy or state-controlled (communist) environment where there was little financial incentive for excellence, little competition, and an overwhelming demand for ANY consumer item. When we were dealers at one time for one of the Byelorussian-manufactured brands of pianos, I had occasion to ask the factory rep how they could possibly produce the pianos so cheaply. (These pianos were being offered at the time to U.S. dealers at ridiculously low wholesale prices) From what I could see the pianos were made of good quality lumber and materials, and they had the potential to be fairly good instruments, (some of them were actually composites of parts from all over the world: Renner action parts, Japanese tuning pins, German pinblocks and wire, finishes and cabinets from Holland, etc.) but the workmanship was often very haphazard and careless. (I actually had several conversations with the factory reps during this time: the subject matter was usually "Gee, can't you get those workers to do a little more accurate job of winding the bass strings (or notching the bridges, or regulating the action, or whatever the current problem was)) We often had to spend several days working over the pianos to bring them up to what we considered "acceptable" standards.

One of the things the the rep confided to me was that, due to extreme scarcities of any sort of consumer goods in their countries, the factory workers were seldom paid in cash. The importer would instead bring in containerloads of Levis, panty hose and canned goods, and the like, to pay the workers. These "barter" types of wages, due to the shortages at the time, (and also due to the brisk black market barter trade) were always appreciated far more than cash (with which the employees could seldom buy anything). Apparently it has been an effort for many of these factories to begin to bring their products up to competitive Western standards, and to adjust to the Western marketplace. (You've no doubt heard the stories about tourists going to former Soviet-bloc countries and being offered the equivalent of hundreds of dollars for their jeans, sweaters or even T-shirts. This is another one of those areas where the playing field is anything but level.)

It has been a several years now, however, since Glasnost, and since the tumbling of the Berlin Wall, and supposedly the quality on these instruments is coming up, (however slowly) as producers in former "iron curtain" countries learn about the requirements of open, world marketplaces.

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Vintage Pianos

Many piano buyers today have found excellent values in the purchase of a vintage instrument. Vintage pianos are usually considered to be those made during the so-called "golden era" of piano building here in the United States, when the piano was at the peak of it's popularity. Supposedly this era began around 1900 or slightly before, and continued until around 1940 or slightly after, depending on who you talk to.

For nearly a hundred years, from the middle of the 19th century until the middle of the twentieth, American-made instruments literally set the standard for pianos the world over. This was due to a number of factors, including materials and workmanship, but mainly due to the American makers' use of bold, revolutionary new methods of piano construction, such as the one-piece cast iron frame, the grand continuous rim, and the overstrung bass. Pioneers like Steinway and Chickering began winning awards and raves in World's Fairs and Expositions, as early as 1867, for pianos which were judged "superior" by virtue of their progressive design and imposing, powerful tone. Steinway was actually responsible for a large number of patents and innovations that have since been adopted by the majority of the world's piano builders. As a result, the name Steinway has today become a household word. There were, however, over 300 different piano companies in existence in the U.S. before the Depression of the 1930's, most of them family-owned and -operated concerns who took a great deal of pride in their work. During this period there were many very very high quality instruments being produced. Many of the companies who made them, unfortunately, did not weather the financial storms of that era and are no longer in business. In other cases, the brand name has survived, being passed on through various mergers and acquisitions, but now is being placed on a piano that bears no resemblance to the original design.

While American pianos made before about 1890 or 1900 were considered excellent, the instrument really didn't achieve it's modern form until around the turn of the century. Many pianos made before 1900 are a bit behind-the-times in one way or another: they may have an archaic action (one that's not as techologically refined as the modern equivalent), or they may have 85 rather than 88 keys (the former at the time was the standard keyboard range), may only have 2 instead of the more typical 3 pedals (that also was standard at one time), or they may lack other developments that occurred later in the piano's evolution that define the tone and the touch of the present-day instrument. However, the transitional years between 1870 and 1900 still yield many viable and high quality instruments. Then, as now, each instrument must be evaluated on its individual strengths.

A rough rule of thumb is that vintage pianos are those 50 to 100 years old. Over 100 years old is often called "antique," and those under 50 years are often called "classic" (and sometimes just "used"), although variations in the usage of all these terms makes them somewhat undependable.

Quite frequently I have found that quality vintage pianos, if in good original condition, or if properly restored, will actually be better instruments than the new pianos of equivalent size and construction. Many of the names on these vintage instruments are simply not ones that are immediately recognizable to us today. Many, though, are superior instruments equivalent in quality to Steinways or Mason & Hamlins. In addition, they may be only a fraction of the cost of the more familiar names, and an excellent value. As well as Steinway, Baldwin, and Mason & Hamlin, names like

Bush & Lane
Bush and Gerts
A.B. Chase
Jacob Doll
J&C Fischer
Jesse French
Hallet & Davis
Haines Bros.
Ivers & Pond
Kohler & Chase
Henry F. Miller
Marshall & Wendall
Smith & Barnes
Vose & Sons
Wing & Sons

are but some of the names you will find on high quality vintage instruments. These pianos are often characterized by ornate carvings, period styles and designs, and unique woods the like of which you will rarely find today. They will frequently be in need of reconditioning, refinishing or rebuilding, but are often well worth the effort and investment.

Vertical Pianos vs. Grands

It is important to know, if you are an aspiring artist, or even if you just appreciate good instruments, that a vertical piano is not a grand. There are several compromises made in the design and construction of vertical pianos that make them less rewarding to play than a grand piano of equal quality. A vertical, though, generally costs less than a grand and takes up less space, hence people with space or budget limitations often choose to buy the vertical. In the vertical pianos, which can be as tall as 58 to 60 inches for some of the older, vintage ones, it is possible to get a tone quality comparable to all but the largest (7' to 9') grands. The main drawback to the vertical, or upright (as the older ones are called) piano, is its action, which is pretty basic, consisting of only about 5,000 to 6,000 moving parts as compared to, say, an average of 10,000 for the grand. In the vertical action, also, because the strings run vertically, it is necessary to place the tone-producing parts (such as keys, hammers and dampers) in a less than ideal location that does not always allow for the best sound or feel. However, because it is possible to get a better sound from a taller vertical than from a smaller grand, the choice between grand and upright can be difficult in certain price ranges.

Presently, about one-quarter of all pianos sold are grands. This was not always the case; around the turn of the century only about 2 or 3 per cent of all the pianos sold were grands. Most people just didn't have the space for them. As homes have gotten larger people now have more space for a piano. Also, grands are typically perceived as being for the more serious player. Young families on a budget, and amateur (and even some serious) musicians with small apartments and little space generally buy the spinets, consoles, studios and other vertical pianos. Psychologically, however, it has been found that having a grand rather than a vertical often motivates students to be more serious about their practicing, since the purchase of a grand often requires a greater commitment, financially if not otherwise, and this fact is not lost on the student. Increasingly, many beginning pianists and parents of beginning pianists are buying grands because they prefer the shape and furniture aspect and want a piano to grow into.

At least one U.S. piano maker, Fandrich, has developed a vertical action that acts and feels more like that of a grand. For those interested in a vertical that has more of a grand "feel", this piano would be worth looking at.

Piano Size

All other things being equal, the taller the vertical piano is, or the longer the grand, the better the sound will be, but also the higher the price. However, often all other things are not equal. A smaller, higher quality piano may actually have a better sound than a larger piano that is of lower quality or in poor condition, so it pays to compare.

The main tone producing components of the piano, namely, the strings and the soundboard, are restricted in length and area by either the height of the instrument (in verticals) or the length of the instrument (in grands). The longer the strings and the greater the soundboard area, as a general rule, the better the tone quality.

While most people will have neither the space nor budget for a 9 foot concert grand, most accomplished pianists feel that it is very difficult to get a good sound out of a grand smaller than about 5' 7", or a vertical shorter than 44".

(Some taller verticals may have better tone quality than shorter grands at around the same price. But even the smallest grands usually have a more refined action than the verticals. In this price bracket, choosing between a grand and a vertical can sometimes be difficult. When people choose a smaller grand over a taller vertical that may have a better sound, it's often because they prefer the feel of the grand action, or the look of the grand cabinet.)

For many people, however, a larger instrument will simply not fit the space, or appeal to their decorator instincts. In such cases, it's best to try and get the best quality possible in a smaller size.

Vertical pianos still outsell grands three to one. One reason for this, besides price, is that the vertical piano has a much smaller "footprint". You can fit vertical pianos into some pretty small floor spaces, because they take up space vertically rather than horizontally.

A general rule-of-thumb is that among the different sizes of any given brand, the larger or more expensive the piano, the better the quality. Piano makers have found that it's usually the bigger, pricier instruments in their line that are purchased by the more serious or critical musicians, so a manufacturer will generally put more care or quality into the construction of their larger verticals and grands than into their smaller, less expensive models. Another general rule is that more time and care goes into the making of the grands than the verticals. The best pianos in a manufacturer's line are usually the larger (6' to 9') grands. (There are some exceptions to this generalization. In Japan and in Europe, where living space is often at a premium, and fewer grands are sold, they make some really excellent verticals.)

An illustration of this point: When visiting the factory of a well-known U.S. maker of high-quality pianos, I was told by the person conducting the tour that it was their policy at that time to give the small to medium-sized grands 20 hours of voicing and regulation, the larger-sized grands 40 hours, and the concert grands 80 hours. (These were the pianos that went out to the general public. Pianos set aside for concert artists' use would receive even more hours of tweaking.) Aside from the basic design and quality of materials used in the construction of a piano, the thing that really makes the most difference in the tone and touch of the instrument is this final voicing and regulation.

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"Single quality" vs. different qualities

Manufacturers who produce smaller numbers of instruments (generally those making "high quality" pianos) usually make one "quality" of piano that uses the same basic design, type of action parts, and materials in all their different model sizes. (One reason for this is to conserve factory efficiency.) In other words, their 5' 1" grand would have the same quality of hammers, action parts, soundboard, pinblock, strings, etc. as their 9' concert grand. Sometimes you will hear this referred to by salespeople as a "single quality line." Often when this is the case you will hear salespeople say things such as "Our 5'1" piano uses the same quality parts and design as our 9' concert grand." (Granted, there must be some differences, particularly the greater volume and better tone quality brought about by the longer strings and larger soundboard and size of the concert grand, or else why would anyone buy the more expensive 9'? But you get the point.)

Several producers of high-quality European pianos, each of whom only makes a few thousand pianos a year, also adhere to this "single quality" principle. Other than relative size, it's really the additional voicing, regulation, and finishing (tweaking) performed on the larger grands and more expensive verticals that helps differentiate the models from each other in a "single quality" line.

Other manufacturers, usually those with larger productions, will often vary the quality and type of materials used in different, and also in similar, sizes of pianos. Up until just recently, the Japanese manufacturers (Kawai and Yamaha) had a number of different qualities of grands in overlapping sizes, and prices. For Yamaha, there was a GH-series, a G series, a C series, an S and Concert Grand (CF) series. For Kawai, there was a GE-series, a KG series, a GS series, an R series, and then an RX and an EX series. Pianists sometimes had a difficult time deciding between say, Kawai's KG-6 (6'9") and their GS-40 (6'1") model for roughly the same price (around $16,000 in 1992, when both were available new.) The GS-40 was supposed to be a better quality piano, but the KG-6 was definitely a lot bigger piano. Although recently these two piano makers have discontinued many of the overlapping models and moved towards consolidating their respective lines, opting more towards a "single quality", there still remain some tough choices. For a list price of around $49,000 today (usually substantially discounted) do you get the top-of-the-lineYamaha model S4 (6'3"), or the lesser (series-wise) but larger DC7IIXG (7'6"), with Disklavier included? In such a dilemma pianists usually spend a good deal of time going back and forth between the two instruments to see which one sounds better to them.)

Korean piano makers, and others who have not yet developed a broad line of models and products, usually tend more to the "single quality" model (this is actually more true of their grands than their verticals), but offer upgrades such as Renner (German-made) actions in their larger grands. A general rule is that a "single quality" manufacturer will have similar prefixes or letters in their model numbers, and the absence of any distinct "series." For example, for many years, (and until just recently) Young Chang's grand models were all "G" and Samick's, "SG" (followed by the length of the grand, in centimeters.) It seems now, however, that they also are beginning to expand their offerings into different qualities, following, no doubt, the example of the Japanese. The Japanese, on the other hand, having already "been there, done that", now seem to be contracting or tightening up their lines.

(Don't forget the used market, where the discontinued models still proliferate, and the overlap becomes more of a factor in the buying decision, and where you can often get a larger, better-quality piano for less, or for the same amount as a smaller new one. For those on a tighter budget, you can often buy a used Yamaha G3 (6') for the same price as a new GH1 (5'3")(Both around $10,000.-12,000.) A pre-owned Kawai GS-30 or GS-40 (6'1")can often be had for about the same as you would pay for a new RX-1 (5'5")(Both around $14,000-16,000). And which would you rather have: a used Yamaha S-400 (or S4) (6'3"), or a new C-2 (5'8") (or possibly a C-3)(6'1")? (All in the $20,000. to 25,000. price range.) This same principle is true for verticals, and for used American and European brands of pianos, so if you don't absolutely have to have something brand- new, you can often get more piano for your dollar in the used market.

If you are concerned about the musical aspects (tone quality, touch, durability, etc.) of your piano purchase, you should definitely try to get the largest, or best quality instrument your space and budget will permit.

Vertical classification

Among vertical pianos the piano "type" usually corresponds with the height. Among the terms most often heard are "spinet" (usually around 36" tall) "console" (around 40"), "studio" (around 45"), and "professional" (48" and above). Older vintage designations include the "upright" (up to 60"), and the "player" (ditto), piano types that are really no longer being built. There is some crossover in these categories, as each designation depends not only on height, but other factors such as the design of the action.

Generally, however, in both verticals and grands the better quality actions will be found on the larger grands or taller verticals. (The "action" is all the moving parts inside the piano that enable the pianist to control the strings and sound.)

For more detailed information on these different piano types, see Buyers FAQ's.

Grand types

Grand types usually correspond with the length of the instrument, (as opposed to height on verticals). Grands run in size anywhere from 4'6" to over 9 feet long. The term "baby grand," about which we are frequently asked, has been so misused as to have become virtually meaningless. Originally coined as a marketing device, the name basically has come to mean any one of the smaller grands, generally under 6 feet. However, I have heard people apply it to the larger grands as well. It seems, based on present usage, to be as much a term of endearment as a designation of size.

Grands can come in many different shapes. Whereas the majority of grands sold today have the conventional "Wing" shape, with a curved side on the right and a flat side on the left, there have also been grands made over the years that had:

  1. Double curves, or a curve on both right or left sides (often called a "butterfly" grand)
  2. a "cocked hat" shape, where the flat side of the grand goes off to the left at an angle instead of perpendicular to the keyboard (actually, to be completely accurate, on most grands the angle of the flat side to the keyboard side is slightly over 90 degrees, which is often a source of confusion to interior decorators and homemakers trying to position the piano in the room ("now I'm sure that side of the grand is parallel with the wall, so why doesn't the keyboard look straight?") But on a cocked hat grand, it's way over 90 degrees.)
  3. A rectangular shape, with the long dimension going from right to left with respect to the player. (This is what is commonly termed a square grand)
  4. A harpsichord shape, where the tail and/or sides are flat rather than curved.

The term "concert grand" usually refers to the largest grands, usually around 9' long. As these larger instruments generally have a much more powerful and projecting tone than the smaller grands, they are most often found in large auditoriums or halls where concerts take place. Here, as well, however, I have seen ads referring to pianos as short as 7' as concert grands, although often the term "semi-concert grand" is used.

The largest concert grands made today are the Fazioli F308, 10 feet 2 inches long; and the Bosendorfer 290, 9 feet 6 inches, with 97 keys instead of the normal 88. Historically, the largest grand ever made was built in 1935 by an English manufacturer, Challen. This Concert grand was 11 feet 8 inches long and weighed 2000 lbs.

In between these extremes, there are various names for pianos around 5'8" to 7 feet, including "living room grand," "studio grand," and even "drawing room," "parlor" and "boudoir" grand!

The main differences between shorter and longer grands are the quality of the bass tones (bass strings in pianos need to be long in order to sound their best. Longer or larger grands can have longer bass strings, which sound better than those in shorter pianos); the quantity of sound (larger pianos can have larger soundboards, which usually means more volume of sound); and quality of sound (Larger pianos usually just sound better.)

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Piano Styles and Finishes

There are myriad different options available to the customer in piano finishes and styling, and we can only hope to touch on a few of the basics here. Generally, however, pianos are available in either "wood" or "wood grain" finishes (also called "clear" finishes, where you can see the type of wood and wood grain through the finish), and opaque finishes, (where you can't see the wood through the finish coats). The opaque finish you see the most often, of course, is ebony or black, but pianos are also available, or have been in recent years, in white, ivory, red, blue, yellow, pink, and just about any other color you can name.

Wood grain (or clear) finishes, (where the name of the "finish" refers not to the actual finish coats but to the wood underneath) most commonly available are walnut and mahogany, oak, cherry, and something generic called "fruitwood" (which can be a number of things). As recently as ten years ago, a number of U.S. manufacturers were also still using pecan, a very beautiful, but brittle and difficult wood to work with. Its use has now apparently been discontinued, by all but Kawai. Other woods, such as rosewood or other exotics, are sometimes available by special order. With more and more nations contributing now to what has become a world piano market, some additional "old world" and "tropical woods" are now available: yew, ash, imbuia, beechwood, hazlenut, and birchwood, among others. The actual surface wood you see in a wood finish piano is usually only a thin veneer no more than about 1/20" thick. (This has been the general method of piano construction for over a hundred years. This type of construction, known as "laminated," is actually stronger and more resistant to warping than using solid wood.) Some manufacturers, including Kawai and Schimmel, have even come out with plexiglass pianos, so you can see what's going on inside.

With new, and used pianos, the terms "mahogany finish" or "walnut finish" sometimes refer only to the stain color, and not to the wood underneath, so don't automatically assume that's the type of wood you're getting. On cheaper pianos and also, in places on more expensive ones, sometimes the wood underneath the finish is not walnut or mahogany or cherry, but is finished over with a stain or colored lacquer that makes it look the color of that wood. In addition, on older pianos, artificial graining was sometimes used to make less expensive woods look like something more expensive or exotic. Even the best makers of pianos, like Steinway or Mason & Hamlin did not always make all the case parts of their grands or uprights out of the same wood. Mahogany or Rosewood Steinways from the vintage period are often found to have maple, poplar, or birch legs and /or pedal lyres that were artificially grained to look like rosewood or mahogany. One of the reasons for this, of course, is that grand legs need to be strong. Maple is one of the strongest woods, but mahogany is not very strong structurally. The other reason is that if every piece on the piano were made out of solid rosewood or mahogany, the instrument would be prohibitively expensive for most people. On most all pianos, of course, very few parts of the instrument are solid walnut, rosewood, or mahogany. These woods are only used as the face or decorative veneers, except in instances where it is more economical to simply make the piece out of solid wood (such as with lid props, trim pieces or music desk ledges.) For the last 150 years or so, most pianos have been made of laminated construction with face veneers. This is by far the strongest type of piano construction, because laminated wood is usually structurally superior, and does not warp or crack anywhere near to the extent solid wood does.

In the past, ebony finishes were usually considered the "practical" or "functional" finishes, for schools, churches and institutions, and the wood finishes were for the home. Over the years, however, people have bought the ebony finishes for home as well, and wood finishes for institutions. Popular taste changes, and fashions go in cycles, so during the last few decades we have seen, variously, walnut, oak, ebony and now mahogany finishes come and go in popularity. In the new piano market, at least, ebony pianos generally cost less than those with wood finishes, and are less expensive for the manufacturer to make, and it seems when you walk into most piano stores these days, the pianos on the floor are predominantly black. When looking at vintage pianos as a group, however, or used pianos from the not-so-recent past, there appear to be many more wood grain pianos available.

On the less expensive verticals and also on some grands, different styles (i.e. "mediterranean," "hepplewhite,""french provincial," "renaissance" or "colonial") are achieved by using interchangeable sets of legs and music desks on the same piano body. On such pianos there usually isn't much price difference between the different style choices, unless you're going up to the next size piano. More expensive pianos usually undergo much more substantial alterations between styles, in the lids and case as well, and a lot more additional work. So if you want, say, a Steinway or Baldwin grand in a "Louis XV" style, or a Schimmel "Empire" style grand, or a Seiler "Woodminster" style grand, be prepared to pay several thousand dollars more for it over the plain version. But believe me, for the amount of extra work they have to do, it's still a bargain.

Colors: There is a rather loose correspondence between color and wood in piano finishes. Any wood can actually be stained a number of different colors, and even bleached or "toned" to make it lighter or darker. But as a (very) general rule for pianos: Walnut finishes are usually medium to dark brown with a hint of blue or green. When faded they can actually look almost orange-brown. Oak is usually light to medium golden- or yellow-brown. Mahogany is usually a medium to dark reddish or purplish-brown. If the wood underneath a finish isn't well-matched or high quality, a very dark finish will often be applied, to obscure the wood grain.

Sheen: Sheen is the type of lustre or polish on the piano's finish. Most pianos imported from Europe or Asia have a high gloss or high polish finish. The traditional American piano finish is satin or hand rubbed, sort of a softer, matte effect, where the finish is actually rubbed, by hand, with fine abrasives to dull or soften the sheen. Hand rubbing usually adds substantially to the cost of the piano's production. Frequently, today, piano manufacturers and refinishers will attempt to cut costs by doing what is called a sprayed finish, in which a flatting or dulling agent is mixed in with the finish coats before they are applied, giving the piano a dull, rubbed effect look without having to do the hand rubbing. However, it doesn't look the same as a genuine handrubbed finish.

In addition to these variations is open pore, where the pores in the wood are not filled and show through the finish, and closed pore, where the wood pores are filled, leaving a finish surface that is completely smooth and flat. The better quality piano finishes are generally expected to be closed pore; in the refinishing industry, a "piano grade" finish is often synonymous with closed pore. Open pore finishes, at least in the past, were regarded as being those found on less expensive instruments, or ones that had "budget" refinishing jobs. However, everything changes. Now some rather upscale European piano makers are offering open pore finishes on their verticals and more expensive grands. Some people feel that letting the pores show through gives a wood finish a more natural look, although this really depends on how thick the finish is, and whether the minute depressions that are left end up truly looking like pores, or just a poor finishing job.

Some European and Asian manufacturers, in attempting satin or open pore finishes for the American market, have had some rather strange-looking results, because (being accustomed to doing high gloss finishes) they were unfamiliar with the conventional finishing or rubbing techniques used in our country, or because they tried to make a piano look satinized with a sprayed finish (see above). Some woods with fewer or tighter pores, such as walnut and oak, lend themselves better to open grain finishes than do others that have many large or deep pores, such as mahogany. If you want a piano you can polish, open pore is usually not the way to go. Unless you know exactly what you're doing the polish can get stuck in the pores and cause problems like white spots.

Sometimes, a piano's finish will not have been given adequate time to dry, or settle, before the final sanding or rubbing, and pores or depressions will appear in the surface some time afterward. This is what I call a non-deliberate open pore finish.

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The importance of Parents

Whether your child really progresses in piano or not is dependent on several factors. Having a good instrument helps. Less-expensive or lower-quality instruments usually have inconsistencies of touch or tone that can often be discouraging to beginning students. Experience has taught us, however, that one of the most significant factors in a child's musical progress, is parents, and how interested they are in music and what their child is doing with it. Whether or not a student has an expensive or not-so-expensive piano, the amount of time the parent spends with the child, listening, encouraging or even playing the piano themselves, is what really seems to make the difference in whether a child continues to enjoy music throughout his or her life. If the child perceives that piano or music is not that important to the parent, it is very likely that it will not be very important to the child, either.

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What to expect to pay

Prices on similar instruments may vary widely. Dealers of new pianos will have anywhere from 30% to 100% markup on their instruments, counting on the fact that most customers expect to wheel and deal somewhat. Often you can get a discount just for walking through the dealer's door with ready cash, although it is also true that many dealers make money on financing.

A general rule is that usually new pianos go up in price, as you would anticipate, with size. Taller verticals, and longer or larger grands, will, naturally, sell for more than shorter ones. Recognized brand names like Baldwin, Steinway, Mason and Hamlin, Bosendorfer, Bechstein, Yamaha, or Kawai will command premium prices, although with all these brands there is still going to be competition between dealers for your dollars. (There seem to be, at present, more price wars going on between dealers of Asian pianos than other types.)

A common buyer's tactic today is to go back and forth between two or more dealers of the same brand, "bidding" for the lowest price. ("So and so said he would sell me a new Yamaha C2 for "x" dollars. Can you make me a better deal?") Bear in mind, however, that customers who persist in playing dealers off against each other will soon find their welcome wearing thin. Dealers catch on to those tactics very quickly and may simply decide that you are not worth their time, either hanging up on you, or politely (or not so politely) showing you the door. Today what you will often encounter is a refusal to quote prices over the phone, and an insistence that you go check all the other dealers out first and then come in when you're ready to buy something. In effect, this might be viewed as an acknowledgement, on the dealers' part, of the prevailing public attitude that it doesn't matter where you get the piano as long as it's the lowest price. Ultimately, when none of the dealers are able to give support or service because their margins have become too slim for them to otherwise survive, this attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Below a certain price, it is simply not worth the dealer's time to sell you an instrument (unless he's just trying to liquidate his inventory, or put the competition down the street out of business). While some piano buyers shamelessly go after the "rock-bottom" price no matter what (whether or not they have any idea of what the dealer's cost is) most people realize that dealers are people too: they have rent and bills to pay, and it costs them money just to make the pianos available for buyers to look at. Dealers, like any other humans, have a certain amount of self-respect, and really do deserve some consideration for all the many things they do in their line of business. It is a sad fact that few piano buyers appreciate or are even aware of all the things a good dealer does. Good dealers often go to bat for you with the manufacturer when there are warranty problems. Good dealers continue to try and make sure your piano needs are being met, and don't just forget you after the sale. Good dealers are an important source of valuable piano information you might otherwise be completely unaware of.

However, there are, unfortunately, some dealers who are not so good, who don't really provide much, if any service with the pianos they sell; the product is sold, the customer forgotten, and the dealer moves on to the next prospect. With such dealers it may be wise to consider how much extra you are paying for "service and support," and whether it is really worth it.

We currently live in an era of "warehouse" clubs and large chain discounters. This mentality is carrying over into the way people think about all consumer purchases, whether large or small, simple or complex. One of the most significant things lost through this retailing model is service. Sure, the prices are low at the membership "wholesale" clubs or at the various "x"-Marts that now dot the landscape. But have you ever tried to get competent product information, or even any kind of helpful assistance when shopping at those stores? These outlets are mainly useful for consumer goods that don't need much explanation or service, where all they have to do is warehouse and stack boxes, and the consumer does the rest. This approach, unfortunately, does not work well for pianos. When it comes to support and service, pianos are really much more similar to cars or other maintenance-intensive devices. When you buy a piano, you are usually buying more than the physical object. You are buying the time the dealer has put into preparing the piano for sale on the showroom floor (costing anywhere from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, depending on his location, overhead, and what he's had to do to make the piano presentable), the service you receive as a customer before and after the sale, the move, the warranty, etc. In addition, even though two competing dealers may offer the exact same brand and model of piano, there are often significant differences in the tone quality and touch of the two instruments. No two pianos are ever exactly alike.

One of the most important services a dealer renders to a buyer of a new or rebuilt piano is the "first service" which should take place within a few months after the piano is delivered. New and rebuilt pianos have two things in common: The strings, being new, are still stretching (which means more frequent tunings are required for the piano to continue to sound good) and hammers and other felts are settling and being "broken in" (necessitating touch-up adjustments such as "regulation" or "voicing.") Some manufacturers, such as Yamaha and Kawai, feel this first service is so important that they actually pay the dealer to do it (on many brands it is solely the dealer's responsibility, and he picks up the tab). The object is to perform the necessary maintenance (usually tuning, regulation and/or voicing) to make sure the new owner is satisfied, and remains satisfied, with the piano, especially during the period immediately following delivery when many critical components in the piano are acclimatizing and settling in.

Recently, I heard of a piano dealer in our area who, apparently disgusted with the public's apathy about anything other than the "bottom line", had changed his showroom around so that all he had on the floor were pianos still in the shipping crates. These were available to the consumer at tremendous discounts, that is, as long as they already knew what they wanted. Since none of the pianos were uncrated or set up, however, you couldn't see them. They weren't tuned so you could hear them, or play them. You couldn't compare them with one another or with different instruments. Since the public didn't care about service, but just low price, the dealer figured he could save himself a lot of money this way. How did the dealer expect people to figure out what they wanted? Well, he assumed they would go to his competitors and look at the pianos that had already been set up and prepped, and then come back to him for the lowest price. Apparently he is doing quite well. I wonder what will happen when his competitors all start doing the same thing he is, though.

Vertical pianos are usually quite a bit less expensive than grands, for a given quality of construction, which is probably why three-fourths of all pianos sold are verticals. New verticals will generally run from about $3000. to $8000. depending on height and quality, with prices for used or vintage ones running about ˝ to 2/3 of that. If you are looking at new Steinway verticals or some of the fancy European brands, the new prices can easily run upwards of $18,000.

It would be very difficult, in my estimation, to get any kind of good quality new grand for less than about $12,000., and that is why many grand buyers are choosing to buy used, especially if they are on a budget. New grands can easily run over $20,000. for the "name" brands in the larger models (6 to 9 foot), and if you want a Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, or Fancy European Brand, you may pay 2 to 4 times that amount, or more, depending on the size and finish. Used or vintage grands, depending on condition, can usually be had for 1/3 to 2/3 the price of the comparable new instruments, and often may be just as good, or in some cases, better than, the new ones. Rebuilt, refinished pianos may run around 70 - 80% of the price of the equivalent new ones.

The private party used piano market presents many possibilities and opportunities for the buyer. Before the advent of the internet, many private party sellers of used pianos had little or no idea what their piano was worth. Often a buyer could get a fantastically low price on a finer used or vintage instrument, simply because the person selling it, not knowing what to ask, had called up the local dealer, who had told them what they would buy it for. In many cases this figure would be wholesale or below. In other cases, private party sellers would attempt to base the asking price on what they had paid for the piano many years ago without accounting for inflation, which may have increased the value many times. Since used piano pricing information is now more readily available on the world wide web, the playing field has been leveled somewhat. However, used instruments can still be obtained, in many cases, for very low prices, simply because the person selling it 1) needs to dispose of it in a hurry, 2) can sell it below the minimum a dealer would have to charge in order to stay in business, or 3) is mainly interested in finding a good home for the piano, rather than making a lot of money on the transaction.

On the other hand, one must always be cautious when buying a used instrument because private party sellers often do not know anything about the current piano market or about the internal condition of their piano. Consequently, they may ask far too much for their instrument, based on a similar piano they saw for sale on the internet which may have been in far better condition, or overpriced as well. Again, a competent appraisal is your best defense. The best appraisal will tell you the piano's true condition, and what ones in similar condition are selling for in the market.

See: appraisals offered by PianoFinders.

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"Events," "Sales," and "Artificial Urgency"

Pianos, being large, relatively expensive, and of unpredictable value in many people's minds, (and often considered luxury purchases) are located near the top of the discretionary income pyramid . This means that pianos usually come in last place after consumer essentials such as cars, clothes, food, housing, medical needs, etc. and also after other, less costly discretionary purchases (stereos, TV's cameras, exercise & outdoor sports equipment.) Additionally, the economy has to be good: the stock market has to be up and people spending money in order for pianos to be bought and sold in any significant numbers. Any piano dealer who has been in business any appreciable length of time knows these "facts of life." It often takes a great deal of time, patience and effort for a dealer to make a piano sale (in addition to all the work customers, on their end, feel it takes to finally find and finance the right instrument.)

In such an adverse climate, competition between piano dealers for your patronage can be pretty fierce, but that does not mean that the prices will be low. Often a dealer will resort to a device I call "artificial urgency" to induce you to buy his piano, at his price, today. Events such as fairs; armory, truck, or warehouse sales; "factory outlets;" clearances; and, most recently, the "University sale" (see below) are only a few of the many schemes designed to generate a feeling of urgency about buying right now. Since these events last only a day, or at most, three (if you're lucky), there is an incredible amount of pressure to make a quick, and often, ill-advised, decision. If you buy at one of these events, rest assured that the price that you are paying is above, or at best, equal to what you would probably normally pay for the piano at the dealer's, and that it only seems like you are getting a great deal. It is a common practice at these events to mark up the suggested retail price. Remember too, that if you purchase an instrument while under pressure to make a quick decision, the chances of your contracting that illness known as buyer's remorse are much higher. If you want to buy at a sale, it is best to have already done your homework, to know what you're looking for and what it usually costs for comparison, and to also know your personal values. It might also be wise to have an expert on hand, one who is not in cahoots with the store sponsoring the event.

In recent years especially, piano sales events hosted in cooperation with respected local arts or educational institutions have grown immensely in popularity. Hence, the "Symphony Sale," "Conservatory Sale," "Opera Sale," "University Sale," etc. These institution-related events are frequently confusing to potential piano buyers because they may go there having incorrect expectations about what the sale is really about. Some people go with the assumption that the University or Opera or Symphony is selling off their used instruments, and that there are deals to be had. While it is true that sometimes there are used instruments for sale by the institution, they are really only incidental to what's really happening. (And generally you don't want a piano that has been in use in an institution for many years, since more often than not they are completely worn out.) What is far more prevalent in these primarily dealer- (rather than institution-) sponsored events is the sale of brand new, or else year-old, pianos being offered by the local piano dealer. It is important to realize that the institution frequently has very little to do with the sale, other than offering the use of its facilities or name to the local dealer for the purpose of the event. I mean, really, how many schools and other arts organizations sell off their pianos every year? (What's wrong with this picture?)

It's useful to understand a little about the strategy of these functions and how they work. Initially the local piano dealer allows the particular institution the use of a number of their new pianos for, say, a year. The dealer may provide the pianos totally free of charge, or at very little cost to the institution. In turn, the institution allows the dealer to use its name (and whatever prestige associations it may have) and often one (or more) of its buildings, for the purpose of the yearly sale, at which time the pianos that have been used for a year (or however long) will be offered for sale to the general public. Through this cooperative relationship, the institution is able to stock their practice rooms or concert halls with instruments for little or no cash outlay, (something of great utility to today's budget-strapped arts and education programs), and, in turn, the dealer gets a very effective advertising and promotional device. Most importantly, perhaps, the piano dealer (actually, manufacturer, mainly) gets to make their pianos visible and available to multitudes of potential and future pianists, teachers, and artists using the practice rooms or facilities of the institution. Piano dealers frequently tout this sort of relationship as "partnering" or "supporting" the local arts organizations. Those who are somewhat more cynical refer to it as "buying respectibility."

We have mentioned that frequently people go to these events expecting to find a piano that has been used for many years in the school or arts organization, (and supposedly these arts institutions know about good pianos), and supposedly they will have a chance of getting a good instrument at a great price (if, like we say, it's not completely worn out from years of being practiced on 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year in and year out. Maybe people anticipate they will be getting one of the professor's or artist's personal pianos. Who knows what visions may be conjured up by the vague and nebulous term "Conservatory Sale"? At any rate, you can see the chains of assumptions that can get set in motion.)

There may indeed be a few of these instruments that people imagine will be offered. But there also may be used pianos from the dealer's that were never used in the institution. On the other hand, for those looking at the newer instruments that are generally much more prevalent at these events, it is important to recognize that a piano bought at this type of sale will not necessarily be brand new, or even in great condition. There are two types of newer pianos sold at these events: Ones that have been used in the institution for a year (more or less), and ones brought over directly from the dealers, which also may be of two types: those that have been on the showroom floor for a while, and others fresh out of the shipping crate. While it is usually true that the dealer will still offer the original warranty on all these newer instruments, some may have received anywhere from light to very heavy use, or even some abuse, during the year or so in use by the institution. It is true that most "new" pianos, (unless you specifically request one fresh out of the box) have been sitting on the showroom floor for some amount of time, and have usually already been played on by a number of different people. However, having been in use in an institution for a year puts the piano in yet another class, and it is with difficulty that I can consider how these pianos can legitimately be called "new." I suppose like anything, though, it's all relative.

On the flip side of the coin, as we said, you may also be shown a brand new piano fresh out of the box that was never used in the institution, but which was brought over straight from the store to fill out the sale inventory. Depending on what you were initially expecting, a brand new piano, or a piano which had had sufficient opportunity to gather the hallowed dust from the atmosphere of the particular institute in question, there is plenty of opportunity for misunderstanding. Some dealers seem to have no concept of, or qualms about, the false or incorrect expectations they may be creating for the public with these event sales. For the dealer, it seems sufficient simply to know that the event "works" (at least for the short term), and that the end seems to justify the means. The dealers often never find out that many customers later feel "used," or experience buyer's remorse, because those people never go back, and don't send their friends. We often hear about it, though, because those disillusioned customers often call us afterwards, either trying to sell the piano, or to find another one, and they tell us about their negative experience.

The only ones that really come out ahead from these sales events are usually the piano manufacturer and their sales reps (who often exert considerable pressure on the dealers to host these events in order to increase exposure and sales (it's good advertising for the manufacturer), and the high pressure sales organization that comes in to help the dealer close the sales. The dealer and the piano buyers are, more often than not, left holding the short end of the stick. There has also been quite a bit of discussion among University and Conservatory piano technicians as to whether these events actually benefit the University, Conservatory, or Arts organization, since, for one thing, the responsibility for tuning, maintaining, and protecting (and often insuring) the pianos from damage while at the institution for a year generally rests on the institution and their piano servicing staff, not the dealer's. That is also part of the price the institution pays for the use of the pianos, and it is not insignificant.

If you are going to patronize one of these "event" sales (or sales events), it would be wise to determine in which of the above categories the piano under consideration fits, and whether that really fits your desires or needs. Also, make sure the serial number of the piano you purchase is the same as the one that ultimately shows up at your door with the movers.

People who buy at these sales are also often alumni or patrons of the school or arts organization who do so under the assumption that their dollars are benefiting the institution, or else, are buying the piano because it has been autographed by a famous concert artist or opera star (who are often encouraged to sign the pianos, on the plate or "harp" -whether they actually endorse the piano or not), and who are often even willing to pay higher than normal prices because of this. Not everyone who attends the "University" or "Conservatory" or "Symphony" or "Opera" sale does so for this reason, however. It's important to know and understand your own reasons for shopping at this type of event; otherwise, these types of sales may quite easily result in major misunderstanding or buyer remorse.

It's also very important to be aware that there are actually businesses now which advertise and offer their services to piano dealers to plan, present, and conduct these "blitz events". One of the things they provide the dealer is a staff of "specialists" adept at "closing the sale" (i.e. high pressure sales) for the event, as well as advertising and promotion experts. Recently letters, editorials and articles have appeared in music industry trade magazines, from dealers who have tried, and become disillusioned with, this system of marketing. One of the big complaints from dealers is that after hosting a number of these sales, they discover that the public will no longer buy in-between events, but now always wants to wait "until the next big sale" (even though the sale is often, ultimately, neither beneficial for the dealer nor the customer). After paying the "specialists" their fees, the advertising costs, the moving of all the pianos to the event (and often back) many dealers find they end up with even fewer profits than if they had conducted business in the normal way. For this reason many are starting to refuse to do these high-pressure events. For others, however, it seems to have become a way of life, because of the (false) expectations that have been created among the public. Many, among both dealers and customers, have mixed feelings about this way of doing business: it seems to create a more stressful, adversarial climate for buying and selling.

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So what kind of piano should I buy for my son or daughter? Or for myself?

Unfortunately, available budget is often the major factor in what kind of piano you get. For many people starting out with families, with added constraints of mortgage payments, braces, medical bills, saving for college, and the like, there simply may not be enough financial resources to get that lovely "baby" grand of your dreams right now. But while I always say buy the best piano you can afford; as a piano teacher, performer, and perpetual student myself, I have learned there are other, more significant factors.

You may find yourself making a choice between a new vertical or a used grand, or between having a piano given you for free by a relative or close friend, or perhaps buying something that is more what you want. You may be deciding between buying what you have the money for right now, or getting into some kind of financing to stretch a little or a lot beyond your present savings. Or you may need to decide between something that's ready to go right now, or something that will ultimately be better but presently needs rebuilding or refinishing. There are myriad situations, but the following guidelines should help you in your decision making.

The most significant factor

Whether all you can manage right now is a humble spinet, or whether you have means to buy a nice grand of better make, the key ingredients are love and involvement. If you as a parent love music and are actively involved in your child's efforts to learn, there is a good chance they will love and be involved with music throughout their lives as well. Here, as well as in so many other important areas of life, time is worth far more than money. No matter what you spend on an instrument, that investment will be small compared to the the amount of personal time, sacrifice and effort you and your child will put in if he or she learns to play the piano well.

Aside from these primary considerations, here are a few other significant points:

Whatever piano you choose, the action should provide enough resistance so that your child can develop some finger strength. If your child practices on an "easy" action and then encounters a "stiffer" action at the teacher's house, it can be frustrating, as well as embarrassing for the child. On the other hand, the action must not be too "stiff" for the child, for that will hinder their progress as well. If you are unsure of whether an action is weighted properly for you or your child, get the opinion of a competent pianist or piano technician, or of the piano teacher with whom the child will be studying. In general, vertical pianos have "easier" actions than grands. But pianos do vary immensely in this respect.

Proficiency is a factor. If you or your child already play fairly well it is not reasonable to expect to have an enjoyable or satisfying experience playing on a lesser quality instrument. The better you play the better the instrument you should practice on. -Ideally an instrument beyond your present ability, that will allow room for growth.

Sound quality is probably the most critical factor, and, if you are choosing the piano chiefly as a musical instrument (and not just a decorator item), should be the primary consideration, with touch (the responsiveness of the action) being secondary, and furniture considerations (size, color, style) coming in third. You should select a piano with a sound that appeals to you, just as you would if choosing a set of speakers or a stereo system. If you plan to spend any amount of time with the instrument (and if you learn to play well you will be spending a great deal of time with it) the sound needs not only to be pleasant, but something that inspires you. If you do not feel qualified to judge quality of piano sound, or touch, by all means get the opinion of a competent pianist.

Children like to be included in decisions. If possible, within reason, allow the child some degree of choice about the piano they will be practicing on; at the least, consult them before the final decision is made. While few children are capable of choosing ultimately which instrument to buy, in asking for their input you may discover some valuable things, such as whether your child absolutely hates the piano, or the piano lessons, you are considering for them. If that is the case, getting them to practice is going to be a real chore, and it might be wise at that point to reassess you reasons for buying a piano in the first place. Sometimes it's more important to get them something they can identify with now, and be excited about, (like maybe a guitar or trumpet), than something that may take them years to begin to appreciate. It is true that all children need guidance and encouragement, and very few children have a really clear idea about what they should want or have. But if your child is really dead set against something, this is the best time to find that out, not after you have made a major investment.

Sometimes children are motivated by new: They will get excited by a new piano rather than a used one. I have to admit, a lot of this is dependent on cultural and parental conditioning and values. Other children are motivated by older pianos, bigger pianos, ornate pianos, pianos they have seen at their friends homes, certain colors or styles of pianos, and even, believe it or not, certain piano names. Pretty new black and white keys are enticing to children, often more so than old yellowed ivories and worn ebonies, but again, this is not an ironclad rule. Be prepared for all of this. Know your child: after all, isn't the piano ultimately for them?

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Electronic (and Digital) Pianos:

(See also "Pianocchio, or should I buy an electronic (digital) or a real piano?")

In the last ten years or so the advent of computer technology has enabled manufacturers to make great strides in developing the modern electronic piano (or digital piano as it is now called, to distinguish it from its electronic predecessors) Digital pianos made today are very different creatures from the so-called electronic pianos of say 20 or 30 years ago, the ones made by Fender Rhodes, Baldwin, or WurliTzer for touring pop or rock groups or class piano programs. The new digital pianos, made by Yamaha, Kawai, Korg, Kurzweil, Roland or Casio, among others, actually generate their sounds using computer chips, whereas the older electronic pianos used more or less mechanical means, such as a felt hammer striking a metal bar or a string. Because of this difference in the way the tone is produced, the new digital pianos have several perceived advantages over a conventional piano and over their older electronic counterparts.

For one thing, the digital piano does not need to be tuned, and is only a fraction of the size and weight of a conventional piano. You can use headphones with it, so you don't disturb others with your practicing. On some models you can choose from a wide variety of different piano sounds, or even other sounds of other instruments, such as guitars, violins, brass or woodwinds. Some models include an onboard recorder, called a sequencer, so that with the push of a button you can record your performance and/or play it back. Many such sequencers offer the option of multitrack recording, so that you can record, say, one part of a duet, and then play the first part back while recording the second part over it. It is important to recognize that a sequencer is different than a tape recorder. Rather than recording the audio sounds made by your performance, it records a set of signals (called MIDI) generated by the piano while you play. When you play back your performance, these signals are then used to actuate the tone producing electronics in the digital piano much like a old time player piano roll actuates the keys of the player piano. Because the encoded information is a set of digital signals rather than actual sound waves (such as on a record or tape), the performance can be speeded up or slowed down without changing the pitch of the notes, or conversely it can be transposed up or down without changing the speed of the performance. In addition, through a MIDI outlet on the back of the digital piano, you can hook up to a computer where you can correct mistakes or missing notes, and do many other kinds of editing, even print out your performance in manuscript. These capabilities can all be very valuable, at times, to people involved in different aspects of making music.

Now for the down side. You might think that with all these miraculous abilities the digital piano would long ago have replaced the conventional one. However, the digital piano still has some drawbacks. First and foremost, in subtle but very important ways, it doesn't feel, or respond, like a real piano. Second, it doesn't sound like a real piano, except to the most casual ear. These two reasons in and of themselves are enough to cause piano teachers to strongly encourage students to trade in their digitals for a real piano after less than a year or two of lessons. But there are other reasons as well. Piano teachers have learned to hate all those little "instant gratification" buttons the students love to push.

It's unfortunate that most manufacturers still feel a need to load digital pianos up with all those attention-getting but distracting, and most often unnecessary, accessories. For all their rhetoric about digital pianos being serious instruments, it seems manufacturers are themselves unsure whether the digital is a genuine piano that can be sold on its own merits or a toy that needs bells and whistles to make it marketable. What inevitably happens with the digital keyboards is that the kids get caught up in button-pushing and listening to the factory-installed demos and all the different instrument sounds, and neglect learning to play or create music for themselves, because that's harder. "Enabling" features become disabling for a child: If the digital piano plays or transposes for them, they won't learn how to do it themselves. And as we all know, easy come, easy go. There is good reason why students with simple, basic, old fashioned, real pianos tend to make better progress and stick with it longer than those distracted by the "bells and whistles" of digitals pianos. Real pianos teach students the "postponement of pleasure" principle: That anything worthwhile is worth working and waiting for; also, that appreciation for, and dedication to, piano or any similar endeavor, is directly proportional to the amount of time and effort put in.

Don't misunderstand. The electronic piano does have its place. That place at the present time seems to be in displacing the cheaper spinets and consoles from the lower end of the acoustic piano market as the low priced alternative for beginning piano students. As a result, sales of spinets and consoles have decreased considerably over the last few years. Compared to most spinet pianos, the digital piano often sounds better, especially in the low bass where it is not restricted in sound quality because of physical size; and the added features often are temptations that are hard to resist, regardless of whether they will ultimately help or hinder you in your efforts to learn to play.

If you're doing computers and music, a digital piano can be very convenient: I have one myself just for that purpose, and it makes entering music into the computer infinitely easier. But if you are seriously trying to learn to play the piano, and need to know what a real piano feels like, even a small acoustic piano will be better than the digital piano, in my opinion. Ultimately, I have found, people who advance beyond a certain elementary level in piano playing will eventually find themselves trading in their spinets, consoles and digital pianos, for a more serious instrument.

I guess one of the major reasons why the real piano is still so pertinent today is because it simply does require so much attention, care, and, most often, patience. There is something just a little self-defeating about devices that do everything for you at the touch of a button and don't require any maintenance or effort. -Mostly because the person using them doesn't grow as much. It's much more rewarding to be a participant in something than a spectator. And that, really, is much of the reason for the piano: personal involvement and personal growth. The significance of the piano experience is directly proportional to the amount of work and effort one invests. It is for that very reason, in my estimation, that the digital piano has not yet achieved a position of lasting permanence.

Most of the things we do in life that are of lasting effect, like raising a family, creating a work of art, or teaching a child, are activities that seem inefficient, messy, costly, time-consuming, chaotic at times, require personal sacrifice and effort, and often leave us wondering if there isn't a better or easier way. In the divine economy, there is not.

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