Piano Finders

Piano Finders

Frequently Asked Questions by Buyers

Reflections of a Pianist

1. How do I get a good price on a new piano?

When buying new products, you may be used to shopping several stores to find the best price. If you try to do this while buying a new piano, you are going to run into many problems and perhaps even end up spending far more than you would have if you approached it differently. We want you to have a successful experience buying a piano, so we have written some tips here to help you out.

Shopping for a Good Price: The piano business is a small industry, when compared to the computer industry, for example: Unlike computers and other smaller items you have purchased, you will not usually find several stores in your area that carry the same brand. As a matter of fact, most manufacturers only give one dealer per geographical territory a right to sell their brand. And each dealer is usually restricted so that if they try to sell or advertise outside their territory, they may lose their dealership. What this means is that when you are looking for a particular brand, you may not be able to price comparison shop for the same brand by going to stores in your neighborhood. And if you start contacting dealers outside your area, you may find them unwilling to work with you, or if they are, they may be violating their contract with the manufacturer.

How do you get a good price when the local dealer has exclusive selling rights for the brand you are interested in? Well, first of all, it is important to know that the dealer is usually prepared to negotiate. Although they have exclusive territory for their brand, they are also very aware that there are dealers with competitive brands in the same area, and that you may choose another brand over theirs. But how do you know what price to negotiate for? After all, the dealers set their own list prices, so their really isn't a manufacturer's suggested list price to work from. Nor is there any authorized publication that reveals wholesale prices. To solve this problem, Piano Finders has created a Price Comparison Guide for you that will give you help in knowing what to negotiate for. With this guide, you will have the information you need to work with your local dealer and you should be able to buy a new piano at a fair price. Also, the local dealer is your resource for warranty work, moving, tuning and other services that also come with the piano.

by Karen E. Lile

2. What are "grey market" pianos?

See article on grey market pianos.

3. Do pianos need to be seasoned for different climates by the manufacturer?

See article on Seasoning pianos for different climates.

4. Why do they make bigger and smaller pianos?

The answer to this particular question is not as obvious as one might think. It really has to do with a number of forces within the piano industry and outside. The most immediately apparent answers, of course, are that some people have more space, or money, than others. But there are a number of other significant reasons as well.

Pianos really fulfill multiple functions. Not only are they considered musical instruments, but over the years they have been regarded as furniture as well. While the laws of physics and acoustics are what principally determine what size and shape a piano "should be", the trends and fashions of the furniture industry are more often what determine what size and shape a piano actually "is". These two determining forces, in recent years, have seemed to be in direct opposition to each other, as pianos that are big and have good tone have not been "fashionable" in a market that has repeatedly emphasized smaller, more compact furniture.

(If all other things, (i.e. construction, quality, and design) are equal, the larger the piano is, the better it should sound. But sometimes large pianos simply don't "look good" in a certain location. Sometimes the "interior decorator" wins, sometimes the "musician." Sometimes, happily, both.)

Speaking of market, another major factor determining the size of a piano is, and always has been, marketing. If you don't happen to have the means to buy a manufacturer's 45" (tall) studio model, they will often try to accomodate you with a smaller, less expensive piano, but which still has their name on it. It works both ways, really. When you come into the store, you might be shown a 37" (tall) spinet, and then exposed by steps to taller or longer pianos that have more features, better sound and maybe are more what you want, until you, or the salesperson, finds out how far you are really willing to go. And, of course, the price goes up incrementally also, until you reach the point where your checkbook begs for mercy. Curiously, I've heard from contacts close to the factory that it really doesn't cost much less to make a smaller piano than a larger one. So from that point of view, at least, it may often be possible to get a good deal in a shorter, less expensive piano.

For the sake of explanation, it is useful to examine some cultural trends from the earlier part of this century. As 1900 rolled around, young people began moving out of large "high maintenance" homes in more rural areas and into smaller "lower maintenance" apartments in urban areas. They had grown tired of all the toil and upkeep involved in maintaining large family holdings and estates and heirlooms, and were seeking the freedom of a simpler lifestyle, one that would let them get out and meet people for a change. -Especially the womenfolk, who were the ones most apt to be stuck at home practicing on, or polishing, those acres of mahogany veneer that were the upright pianos of those days. There was a corresponding movement in the furniture industry towards smaller, simpler, household furnishings. This included pianos, but not so much in a big way until another circumstance occurred. That event was the great depression, which hit in 1929. The fact that it was so hard to sell pianos of any kind during that period forced manufacturers to downsize, in more ways than one. They combined forces with the prevailing trends in furniture design to make an instrument they felt would be more appealing to the masses. The upshot of this was the development of two distinctly new entities: the spinet; and the miniature, or "baby", grand.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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5. What is a "spinet?"

Lester spinet

Lester Walnut Burl 35" Spinet circa 1939

The spinet was a natural result of the trend in the furniture industry, around 1920, towards smaller, more petite furniture. It was basically an effort to cram all the piano possible into a cabinet of miniscule size. In this particular battle between tone quality and fashion, tone quality lost. (Although as you can see, some of them had some pretty fancy cabinets.

  • (Note: The general rule for pianos is: the longer the strings, the better the sound. In pianos that are very short, the strings cannot be as long as they need to be for best tone, specifically in the bass (or lowest notes) where strings need to be their longest. (In vertical pianos the maximum string length is restricted by the height of the instrument.) Low notes require the longest strings, so short pianos usually have strange sounding bass notes. The mid- and high- range notes are not affected as much, but they're still not going to sound as good as on a longer or taller piano with a larger soundboard. (Of course, if you're used to listening to a spinet, a concert grand is going to sound strange at first.)

The result of these efforts to make an especially small piano was a vertical that was extremely short, around 36" tall. What factors initially determined the size of the case are all but unknown today. Sales literature from the companies that presently make spinets reveals nothing about why the case has to be no more than 37" high. (Lester, one of the most successful of the spinet-making piano companies, who brought forth the famous "Betsy Ross" spinet of fifties fame, actually made pianos as short as 35" tall.) Sadly, the real reasons why spinet pianos had to be that size have become all but forgotten. The first "spinet" came out in 1935. (Now that I think of it, that may have been the reason for the height measurement. I can see the ads now:"35 in '35.")

The spinet was soon copied, by many manufacturers. One advantage of the spinet was that, like the grand, the piano had a view. Because it was so short, height-wise, you could actually see out over the top of it. Of course, unlike the grand, the view was usually of the wall, but it was the thought that counted. (Especially since the sound left much to be desired. You had to use your imagination a lot.)

Many "respectable" piano manufacturers of the time refused to make spinets. They considered the tone quality of these small fry instruments to be beneath them. But because of the strong prevailing winds in the furniture industry at that time, pianos of conventional size were now considered too large by the furniture standards of the majority of public, who bought the small, insubstantial, insignificant pianos in substantial, significant numbers. Curiously enough, Steinway, who refused to make spinet pianos, introduced their smallest grand, the model S (for spinet grand, perhaps?) in 1935, the same year as the first spinet was introduced.

At one point when the spinet was at it's most popular, nearly half of all the pianos produced for that year were "shorties": spinets and consoles. Throughout the forties and even well into the fifties, these furniture trends continued, and for at least a couple of decades, there were very few U.S. manufacturers making any vertical taller than 45". It has been only in more recent years, that manufacturers have again started making the taller uprights. -Which makes me believe that during that time, the manufacturers felt that if you were serious about piano, you would buy a grand. Perhaps a baby grand, if you did not have the space for a mature one.

Spinets present additional difficulties for the piano tuner, because the action, being down below and behind the keys, must often be removed in order to perform repairs that could be done quite simply on other types of pianos. Because of the placement of the action an additional linkage must be used between the key end and the action mechanism. It is because of this extra link that spinets are sometimes referred to as "drop lifters" or "indirect blow actions," because the end of the key does not push directly on the action mechanism as it does in larger pianos. As a consolation prize, however, most spinets have fewer strings to tune than larger pianos do. -Usually not enough, though, that the tuner is going to charge you any less for a tuning, but it couldn't hurt to ask.

See also additional information on spinets under consoles, below.

Today much of the former market for spinet and console pianos has disappeared, having largely been displaced by the electronic, or "digital" pianos.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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6. What is a console?

Chickering Console

Chickering 42" Walnut Console circa 1980

A console is a small vertical piano that is a few inches taller than a spinet. Most consoles are between 40" and 43" tall, as opposed to 35" to 39" for a spinet. The advantages of a console over a spinet are that: 1) the action (hammers and moving parts) can be above the level of the keys, so that the key can push directly on the action mechanism instead of being coupled through an additional link (as it must be in a spinet). This gives the console a more solid, less spongy feel, and it's also easier for the tuner to service. Because of this more direct means of coupling between the key end and the action, consoles are usually referred to as having "direct blow" actions. 2) The strings in a console can be longer, so hopefully you get a little better sound in the low bass notes (where the shortcomings of the spinet are painfully apparent.) 3) The keys are usually longer in a console than in a spinet, because they don't have to be shortened in order to sandwich the action down between the rear of the keys and the strings, as is the case with the spinet. Longer keys in general give you a better touch.

One drawback of the console is that in order to squeeze the action in between the key and the correct striking point on still fairly short strings, the action parts have to be shortened or "compressed". For this reason consoles are often described as having "compressed actions". This makes the touch on a console less nice than on larger instruments. In contrast, spinets may have "indirect blow" actions but often still have "full size" actions, in common with the larger pianos.

Pianos taller than spinets and consoles (43" and over) usually have direct blow and full size actions.

Of all the vertical piano types available, consoles usually come in the greatest variety of designer styles and trim, since most people who buy this size piano are as concerned with its furniture aspect as its musical.

by Kendall Ross Bean

7. What is a studio?

Kimball Studio

Kimball 45" Studio in Satin Oak circa 1979

A studio is a piano that is generally between 44" and 47" tall. These are usually instruments designed for more serious, or institutional, use. Many churches and schools have 45" studios in their classrooms and auditoriums; brands such as Baldwin's "Hamilton", Everett, Kimball (pictured, right), or Wurlitzer; in oak, walnut or basic black, have been very popular here in the United States. In recent years Kawais and Yamahas have been appearing in churches and schools as well.

Studios are usually built more solidly than shorter pianos, with toe blocks and reinforced legs, and often the the styling is very simple and functional, as in the picture above, without trim or frills. Because their construction must be more substantial than that of spinets or consoles (in order to meet institutional standards), studios are often bought for the home as well, by those desiring a well-built instrument And because studio model pianos are usually priced to meet the bids and budgets of school and church purchasing agents, they are usually a pretty good value for the private consumer.

The studio is tall enough to accomodate a full size, direct blow action, which many pianists prefer. Since they have longer strings, studios can actually have the equivalent sound quality of a 5' to 5' 9" grand.

by Kendall Ross Bean

8. What is a professional?

Kawai Professional Upright

Kawai 52" High Gloss Walnut Professional

A professional is the tallest of the vertical pianos currently being made, and is between 48" and 52" tall. The professional has the longest strings and largest soundboard of all the verticals, and is usually purchased by artists or others needing or desiring a serious instrument but who have neither space nor budget for a grand. Like the studio, the professional is more heavily built than the shorter uprights and generally is offered in more plain, functional styles. Like the studio, toe blocks and reinforced legs are usually standard on the professional. With pianos of this height, you can get sound quality comparable to that of a 5'5 to 6' grand. However, the action on an equivalent grand (all other things being equal) will be better.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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9. What is an upright?

Kingsbury Upright

Cable "Kingsbury" 55" Oak Upright circa 1903

An "upright" is the older type of "vertical" piano that your grandparents, or great grandparents may have owned. This type of piano was very tall, often between 55 and 60 inches, and as a result usually sounded better than most of the newer, shorter, vertical pianos on the market today.

Notice in the photo at right how much taller this piano is compared to the "studio" model pianos next to it. (No one makes pianos of this height anymore. The tallest you will find in new pianos today is around 52". Gone also in today's pianos are the elaborate carvings and fancy wood veneers.) Because of the height, the "upright" piano could have a larger soundboard and longer bass strings, resulting in a sound quality that would often rival that of good-sized grands. For these tonal reasons, and also because of the high quality of materials and construction, many people are having these older uprights refinished, rebuilt, or otherwise restored. The difference in craftsmanship between these old works of art and what is being produced today is pretty obvious. Unfortunately, if you ask a dealer of new verticals what they think about these older uprights, their response will usually be: "You don't want to practice on a beat-up, worn-out old upright, do you?" But the very question is silly. Of course no one wants to practice on a beat-up, worn-out old upright. What you want is an upright that has been maintained in good condition or that you or someone else has had repaired or rebuilt. See also difference between terms "upright" and "vertical".

by Kendall Ross Bean

10. What is a player piano?

AutoPiano Player

AutoPiano 55" Mahogany Upright Player circa 1916

In the years immediately preceding the Great Depression of the 1930's here in the United States, probably 3/4's of all the pianos built were player pianos. Music was recorded by punching little holes on paper rolls (visible in the upper part of the piano in the photo) When the roll was spooled across a sensing mechanism that detected the holes, the piano would automatically play the music: the keys would move, and the selection or song would be performed. The words of the song would often be printed on the roll, and as you pumped, you could sing along. On most of the players, power was provided by foot-pumping the large rectangular pedals which folded out of a sliding door in the bottom panel (see photo). Later on, some of the players had electric motors to supply the power. A series of levers directly in front of the keys would provide the person playing the piano control over loud, soft, sustain pedal, and speed of the selection. When you wanted it to look like a normal piano, the roll, the pedals and the levers would fold up and/or hide behind sliding doors or covers. The giveaway that an old upright was once a player is the sliding doors below and above. Many older uprights have the doors, but the player mechanism has been removed.

The player piano was a great boon to households where no one played. In those years the player was essentially the entertainment center of homes all across America; the predecessor/substitute for the radio, the phonograph and the television until those inventions came along and eclipsed the player's popularity. Unlike the radio or phonograph, however, the player piano was not inexpensive. In a time when the best non-player pianos available cost around three or four hundred dollars, a good quality player piano often cost close to $1000. Only the very wealthy could afford to buy them new; like with Cadillacs, everyone else got them second or third hand.

A player that is still working, or carefully restored can be a lot of fun; if there is a quantity of rolls that came with it, it can be the source of many evenings' enjoyment. Everyone loves a player piano, except the guys who have to work on them. If you get a player, make sure either you or someone in your area knows how to service it. Few piano tuners know how to fix them, even fewer want to bother with them. But if they have been competently rebuilt or restored they should give you few problems.

The New Electronic Player Pianos

Today you can buy pianos with high-tech computer-type player mechanisms installed: The Yamaha Disklavier® is one type of player piano system that uses computer floppy discs, or more recently, compact discs, instead of the old style paper rolls, and has a large library of selections on disc. Unfortunately the Disklavier only comes in Yamaha pianos. PianoDisc® (Music Systems Research) in Sacramento, California, however, makes retrofit player kits that can be installed in almost any piano. QRS/Pianomation® in Buffalo, New York, also makes retrofit player kits that can be installed in virtually any conventional piano and also offers many other player products. They have a catalog with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the old style paper rolls for older players. Their catalog can be downloaded from the internet.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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11. Why are there three kinds of pianos: grands, square grands, and verticals? (A short and hopefully amusing history of the development of the piano)

A customer came into our showroom one day and beheld for the first time a grand piano.

"What's that?!" she exclaimed.

While most people have at one time at least seen a grand piano, and are aware that pianos do take different forms, many people don't really know why we have both grand and vertical pianos or what the differences are between the two, or why there is another type of piano, the square grand, that pops up from time to time. Actually, at one time there were many different kinds of pianos, but we can basically group them all into three main categories. Two of them, the grand piano and the square grand, historians like to think, are offshoots of earlier forms of keyboard instruments, the harpsichord and the clavichord. The third category, the modern vertical or upright piano, was developed as an alternative to the square grand when in its later years it got too big and complicated.

The grand piano: O.K. Well then. A good place to start is probably with the person who everyone sort of agrees invented the piano in the first place. Bartolomeo Cristofori was an inventor way ahead of his time who lived in Italy before it was even called Italy and who invented the piano also, before they even had a name for it either, in 1709. Not bad for someone born in 1655 in Padua. Cristofori's invention looked a lot like an instrument that already existed, the harpsichord. The major difference was that instead of plucking it's strings with quills, like conventional harpsichords of the time, Cristofori's invention had little leather covered hammers which struck the strings and then rebounded, giving the player much greater control over the loudness or softness (called dynamics) of the sound. Since it resembled a harpsichord, and since the journalist covering the story at the time, a man named Maffei, didn't know what to call it, Cristofori christened it gravicembalo col piano e forte, or "harpsichord with soft and loud." Today we have shortened that name simply to "piano," which modern people, many of whom have a hard time with Italian, find much easier to say. Cristofori's "harpsichord" looked much like our modern grand piano in it's basic shape, only it was somewhat smaller, had a square tail instead of a round one, and did not have 88 keys. The strings ran parallel to the floor, away from the performer (or in other words, from front to back), just like in a modern grand; it had a large triangular shaped lid that opened, with a stick to hold it up, and the whole thing balanced on three legs. Most of the earliest pianos looked like this, like a harpsichord. In a way, I guess you could say that the first pianos were grands.

Incidentally, one of Cristofori's pianos is on display at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. It is amazing how faithfully Cristofori was able to anticipate the modern piano, even to the point of painting it standard concert grand black, when most of the harpsichords of his time were quite ornate, with paintings and such. Believe it or not, it is playable still, and has even been used to perform concerts of period music, of which you can obtain recordings. How's that for building something that lasts? Perhaps newer isn't always better. However...

...Although Cristofori's invention would ultimately revolutionize the world of music, little notice was taken of him or his new instrument at the time, undoubtedly due to poor marketing strategy, and the lack of high gloss finishes.

Though Cristofori was without honor in his own country, for some strange reason news of his invention traveled with the speed of light to what we now call Germany, even though they didn't have E-mail back then and some translation was involved. There, in the 1730's, an instrument maker named Gottfried Silbermann apparently tried to incorporate the principles of Cristofori's piano action into his own harpsichords, using Maffei's report as sort of a do-it-yourself manual. His early piano building efforts were unsuccessful, due to some errors in Maffei's description of Cristofori's action; however, Silbermann was able to demonstrate quite convincingly that journalists aren't engineers, for whatever that's worth. Finally, fed up with editorial incompetence, Silbermann managed to get one of Cristofori's instruments brought into the country, and, much like American car designers do today with new model Japanese cars, he was able to take it apart piece by piece and see for himself just what made it tick. After he figured out the trade secrets he became quite successful, due mainly to the complete absence of litigation for patent infringement on the part of Cristofori, who in the meantime had died, in 1731, at the ripe old age of 75. Since Silbermanns' instruments were a one of a kind, hand-made item, not unlike those of some other piano manufacturers today that have a high snoot quotient, he did a brisk business catering to the wealthy and the nobility. Then, as now, the grand type of piano, as well as it's predecessor, the harpsichord, has been the instrument of the wealthy and the upwardly mobile. It remained for another type to fill the needs of the masses.

The square grand As always seems to happen when someone makes a good product, and miraculously makes money on it, there followed a raft of cheap imitations. Other German harpsichord and clavichord builders started to build pianos that were not as sophisticated as Cristofori's, or Silbermann's. They left out important parts, put the hammers in backwards, and did other questionable things, but most importantly for our explanation here, made a cabinet that was based on the clavichord rather than the harpsichord. This cabinet was rectangular, with the strings running from right to left in front of the player rather than front to back, as in a harpsichord. (Their explanation for doing this was undoubtedly that they were trying to combine the best of the old with the best of the new, and combine the simplicity and features of the clavichord with the new expressive powers of the piano. But Mozart complained to his father about these very instruments in a letter and so, because of lack of celebrity endorsement, these pianos were considered inferior. ) At any rate, this was the beginning of yet another form of piano, which is seldom seen anymore today, often called the square grand. Later, much larger and heavier versions of this type of piano evolved, like the ones that you see in movies about the Civil War, or that great-grandma brought across the plains in a covered wagon. Square grands, for the most part, have since gone the way of the horse-drawn buggy and the spinning wheel. They are no longer made, and haven't been since around 1890. As all types of pianos became larger and heavier than their 18th and 19th century progenitors (the harpsichord and the clavichord), the ones based on the clavichord model proved to have too many design complications. The early ones had some slight advantages in that they were small, relatively light, and took up less space than the early harpsichord- (or grand-) shaped pianos. As pianos became more massive over the years, with more keys and heavier strings and cases, these advantages were lost and the time became ripe for a new form of piano, one that no longer took up so much space. (See, some things never change-they had the same problems with furniture size in those days).

The vertical piano. The early attempts at making a vertical piano, that would fulfill the requirements of providing a good sound without taking up so much floor space, were sort of a comedy of errors, as we now look back upon them with our perfect 20-20 hindsight. At the time, however, 19th century inventors were quite baffled as to how to make a piano with vertical strings. Initially they felt that tipping a grand piano on its keyboard end and putting the keys in front was the proper approach. This viewpoint resulted in some rather odd monstrosities however, as the longest portion of the strings ended up way above the level of the keys, making for (very) tall cabinets. Hence names like giraffe piano were not uncommon. These pianos often had to be tied to the wall to assure they wouldn't tip over on top of the keyboardist. Piano playing at that time was definitely a dangerous profession, perhaps as dangerous as being the piano player in a western saloon would later prove.

John Hawkins, an American piano builder and perhaps one of the first with an eye toward safety engineering, finally realized that everybody was looking at the problem upside down and backwards. He realized that the early colonists of the States had enough problems with bears and hostile Indians without having to worry about pianos falling over on top of them. Turning the strings of the giraffe type piano upside down and backwards, he came up with the first true "low" upright piano by placing the longest sections of the strings below the action and close to the floor. This was the beginning of our modern day "vertical" pianos. Of course, he first had to figure out how to keep from reversing the high keys with the low ones (the upside-down part, without the backwards). Incidentally, the first piano he built here in America, (still extant, in the Smithsonian, I believe), has a novel innovation: a keyboard that folds up into the piano. This feature was unfortunately not adopted by later vertical piano builders, but it definitely made it easier to squeeze between the piano and the sofa in small quarters.

Over the course of the 19th century the vertical piano gradually superseded and replaced the square grand, until it is really the only available alternative to the grand today. The only reason this piano "family tree" is not common knowledge today is because it was ultimately chopped down for wood to make Hammond organs.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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12. What are the real differences between a vertical(upright) piano and a grand?

There are many more differences between a vertical and a grand piano than what immediately meets the eye. While the most obvious difference between the two pianos is the shape of the case and the way the strings run, there are a number of not-so-obvious, yet perhaps more significant differences. Grand pianos usually have a much more sophisticated action than vertical pianos, with a greater number of moving parts (nearly 10,000 in your typical grand action, as opposed to 5 or 6,000 in a vertical or upright.) The additional parts in a grand action enable a pianist to play repeated notes and trills faster and softer than in a vertical, besides facilitating a number of other important expressive effects. In addition, gravity plays a part in the difference between the two piano types. Because of its position relative to the horizontally-oriented strings, the action of a grand piano is "gravity assisted"- meaning that the return of the hammer is helped by gravity, rather than just by the rebound from the string. The upright piano, on the other hand, requires an auxiliary spring to cause the hammer to return to it's resting place. In the grand, the pianist's fingers literally have to lift the hammer against gravity, making for a "stiffer" action and more positive feel: gravity actually helps keep the hammer connected to the key throughout a greater portion of the cycle, giving the pianist more control. In an upright, there is a much larger portion of time during the cycle where the pianist has no control over the hammer. These factors, among others, give the grand action a very different feel from the upright.

In addition the design of the grand piano is more suited to optimal placement of certain parts, such as dampers. In an upright, the dampers and the hammers are on the same side of the string. Ideally, dampers should rest on the string in the same place the hammers are hitting, so they cannot be optimally placed in an upright. As a result, most upright or vertical pianos have a certain amount of afterring (i.e.strings continuing to sound after dampers have come back down) which can be annoying. In a grand, hammers and dampers are on opposite sides of the string, so both hammers and dampers can be placed in the best location.

While there are many well-built vertical pianos on the market, as a rule quite a bit more work goes into the grands at the factory, because it can be justified by the higher price people pay for a grand, and also by the general perception that a grand is a more serious instrument.

Today vertical pianos generally occupy the lower end of a manufacturer's price range, and grands the higher end. Between different brands there may be some overlap in the the price of one manufacturer's most expensive upright and another (perhaps less prestigious) manufacturer's least expensive grand. When you look at a single manufacturer, however, there is usually quite a leap in price between their most expensive vertical and their least expensive grand, usually amounting to several thousand dollars difference. Grands have become very expensive, in case you haven't noticed.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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13. I hear the terms upright and vertical both used, sometimes it seems, interchangeably. Is there a difference between an upright and a vertical piano?

If you walk into most piano dealerships today and refer to their vertical pianos as uprights, they will look at you as if you have committed a faux pas, or even worse. In the world of piano politics, the politically correct term for the newer, shorter breed of pianos you see today that are not grands is "vertical". "Upright" now seems to be reserved for those archaic old heirlooms from grandma's day that were over four feet tall, frequently ornate, heavy as lead, and which, because of their size and materials and workmanship, are much better sounding, better made and more durable than pretty much anything you can buy new today. Because of the recent (within the last sixty years-everything moves a little slower in the piano world) emphasis on smaller furniture, smaller dwellings and the like, this older style of piano is no longer "fashionable", and neither is the term "upright" that used to refer to all pianos of this type regardless of height.

On top of this, when you add all the vertical subcategories (spinet, consolette, console, artist's console, studio, professional, etc,) that the piano marketing people have coined and that have come into general usage, but not general understanding, it can get quite confusing. If you think this is bad, however, see the discussion in this book about what to call electronic pianos. Even Noah Webster would have been bewildered.

For the sake of current usage and to avoid confusion therefore, vertical will henceforth refer to the newer kind of upright pianos, and upright will refer to the older kind of vertical pianos. There. Now are you totally confused?

by Kendall Ross Bean

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14. What is a baby grand? How small does it have to be to qualify for the term?

Historically, the term "baby grand" seems to be more a marketing strategy than any real delineation of size. Recently I saw a Sohmer 6'5" grand from around the turn of the century (around 1900) that had the words "baby grand" cast into the plate. I was surprised, because this is quite a bit larger than the 5' 7" that is generally considered the ceiling for "baby" grands today. Since the time the term was first coined however, it has been used for so many different purposes (both marketing and size), and apparently misused by so many different people, and it's meaning has become so vague, as to virtually defy definition.

In the late 1800's and early 1900's when the piano was reaching the zenith of it's technological development (pianos made today have really not changed much since that time, as far as the basic design) piano makers felt you really couldn't make a tonally viable piano under about 6 to 6 1/2 feet long. Hence the designation "miniature grand" found cast into the plate on pianos such as the Steinway models "M" (5' 7") and "O" (5' 11") made earlier in the century. (This designation has since been removed in more recent years.)

On occasion, I have been requested to appraise someone's "baby" grand. Upon going out to the home to have a look, I found the piano to be at least seven feet long, which in my book would qualify for what they call a semi-concert grand.

I have since come to believe that often the term "baby grand" refers as much to how people feel about their piano than any particular size the instrument might be. In other words "It's my BABY!" Getting people to feel this sort of possessiveness about a musical instrument was, and is, incidentally, a very effective marketing strategy. The piano dealer now rivals the stork in effectiveness: Thousands of "babies" have been taken home as a result of this clever association.

In recent years however, people got tired of all this nebulousness and decided to try and pin the size down once and for all. So they picked a somewhat arbitrary figure and said, O.K., any piano 5' 7" or under is a baby grand. Whether or not you accept this definition is totally up to you. A lot seems to depend on the era in which the particular piano was made, and the public understanding of the term at the time; and also the purpose of the piano manufacturer using the term.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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15. As I have talked to various people I have heard all sorts of names used for the various sizes of grands. Now I'm totally confused. Can you help sort them out?

Unfortunately no one has ever set out clear cut definitions for these terms. A lot simply depends on whose using them and what their experience has been.

Here are some more or less arbitrary terms for grands that you will generally find frequently misused among the public, along with my understanding of what they mean:

  • Petite grand: anything 5' long or under. Kimball once made a little grand called "La Petite." It was very short. Grands can actually run as short as 4'5". They don't sound like much though. If you're concerned about tone quality it would be better to buy a spinet than a 4'5" grand.
  • Baby grand: anything 5' 7" or under, give or take a few inches. (But see #7. What is a baby grand?, above)
  • Living room grand: around 5' 8" to 6 feet. Not to be confused with the "Family Room grand" which is usually an electronic organ or digital piano, or the "Rumpus Room" grand, usually a beat-up old upright. Some people think the Steinway model "L" is short for "Living room grand," as that is a popular size of piano (5' 11") found in many living rooms.
  • Studio grand: Pretty much the same as a living room grand, around 6 feet or slightly more, although most college piano professors I know have Steinway model B's in their studios, which are seven feet long. (The pianos, that is.)
  • Miniature grand: I have found this term cast into the plate of Steinway model M (5'7") and O (5' 11") pianos from the 1910's and 1920's, although the practice has now been discontinued. It hearkens back to a time when manufacturers thought the smallest viable grand that could be made (according to the laws of physics and acoustics) had to be at least 6' long.
  • Semi-concert grand: Usually pianos have to be at least seven feet long to qualify, give or take a few inches.
  • Concert grand: around 9 feet long, plus or minus a foot.
  • Cabinet grand, Upright grand: Not a grand at all but a tall old upright piano. Doesn't even look like a grand. This term was employed on a number of uprights earlier in the 1900's, because these instruments, often over 55" tall, were thought to have the equivalent sound of a grand. The term is often found on the fallboards of these pianos, just below the name of the maker. It is also found sometimes on pianos of better make: Some Steinway uprights from the later part of the 1800's were discovered by the author to have this inscription cast in the plate: Upright Grand String Frame. What this meant is that, among other things, this upright had a duplex scale like some of your finer grands, which was a nice feature, but still a long ways from being a grand.

Sometimes you may encounter terms that were used in the 1800's in the British Isles. Most of them are archaic and you seldom ever hear them today, but every now and then a customer will ask me about them, so here they are:

  • Boudoir grand
  • Parlor grand
  • Drawing room grand
  • Music Room grand
  • Semi-Grand
  • Cottage Grand

One factor helpful in understanding why these terms were employed is that, historically, the question has usually been (with grands) "Where do I put it?" Associating the type of room with the type of piano proved useful at this certain period in history. As room sizes changed, however, and names and functions of rooms changed, the terms became confusing, so other name-associations were sought.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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16. How long should a piano last?

Pianos frequently outlive people. In our rebuilding shop we often restore pianos that have been passed from grand- or great-grandmother down to grandchild. Some pianos we see are a hundred years old, have never been rebuilt, and are still relatively playable! After restoration I wouldn't be surprised if they should last another hundred years. Like other types of fine furniture, a well-built piano should be able to last several generations. Many people don't realize that a well-made piano is actually superior in construction and materials than most of the supposedly "fine" furniture being made today. For one thing, few items of household furniture are required to withstand 20 to 30 tons of internal string tension.

There are four basic factors that determine how long a piano will last. The first factor is how well the piano was built in the first place: the quality of materials, design, and construction. Second is the type of environment in which the piano is kept. Third, the amount of wear and tear, or usage it gets; and finally, the type of care and maintenance it receives. With proper care and the right environment, a well-made piano should last indefinitely.

Used Piano Sales in the U.S.

An interesting sidelight: In estimating how many pianos there are today in the United States, due to the difficulty in tracking used piano sales, and also owing to the lack of knowledge as to exact point when pianos "bite the dust", researchers have had to rely on some "guesstimates". One of the guesses they came up with was that the average life of a piano was around thirty years. (From what I have seen this estimate is pretty conservative) Adding up the number of new pianos sold over the last thirty years (a known quantity), they came up with a figure of approximately 10,000,000 pianos still abiding here in the U.S. of A. If we include the entire present population of the country, including men, women, and children, (have I left anyone out?) oh yes, and teenagers, thank you, that's one piano for about every 25 people. Individually, many pianos last much longer than 30 years, of course, but many are destroyed through fires, floods, moving accidents, and institutional use, so supposedly it all evens out. To shop online go to Pianos for Sale.

Pianos Used More Frequently

Pianos used in college practice rooms, elementary schools, churches, theatre and performing groups, night clubs, bars, restaurants, and hotels, generally have a much higher mortality rate and shorter life expectancy than pianos as a whole. In a practice room situation at a University or Conservatory, a piano might not last longer than ten years before having to be completely rebuilt, or even put to sleep. Professional pianists who practice four or five or more hours a day and piano teachers who spend most of their day teaching will put a lot of wear and tear on a piano, also. Pianos used in concert halls might get a new set of hammers every five years, and be restrung at ten year intervals. While the structural parts of a piano may hold up well despite heavy use, keys, hammers and strings will wear out just like the tires on a high mileage car. How hard the piano is played is a factor: A concert artist playing a two hour program of heavy advanced literature, particularly one who "projects" (read "pounds"), can throw a nine foot concert grand completely out of tune in that short space of time. For that reason, it is not unusual for a tuner to be kept on hand throughout an entire concert or recording session, often coming out during intermission or other breaks to touch up the piano. And speaking of tuning, pinblocks (the block of wood in which the tuning pins are anchored) will wear out quickly where pianos are being tuned frequently.

Vertical Piano Life

Do not expect most vertical pianos made today to be as durable or last as long as grands, simply because most piano manufacturers seem to feel that if you are really a serious pianist you will be getting a grand. Consequently, they make the grands more durable, and the verticals less, from what I've seen, especially with regards to pedals and keys and other components that get a heavy workout.

A History Note

When a conference of piano manufacturers and builders was convened in the early part of the 20th century, for the purpose of sharing ideas about just such questions as how long a piano should last, they came up with the answer "about ten years". History has shown that estimate to be very, very conservative. At that time, however, piano builders were very concerned about their instruments being able to hold up in a variety of conditions, and by our somewhat lowered furniture standards today, pianos of that time could have been considered overbuilt. Also manufacturers at that time were aware that many of their pianos would have to be shipped, if not around the world, at least across the country, often by varying modes of primitive transportation. Their pianos might have to withstand a prolonged ocean voyage around the Horn, in order to reach the West coast, and once there, would very likely be subjected to further abuse: perhaps a long wagon ride over rough and rutted roads, or being pushed and shoved around by countless draymen or dockworkers, not necessarily skilled in piano handling or moving. There was no guarantee there would be anyone who knew how to tune or service the piano once it reached it's final destination, so the only alternative was to make sure that the instrument was built so solidly that despite all the jostling and bumping around, the piano would arrive in reasonably good tune. The prevailing ethic 70 or eighty years ago, at least among the better manufacturers, was that a piano should be built like a house, able to withstand the test of time and the years. Even the "average" pianos built during that period were much more sturdily constructed than most of what you see today. Those people who projected a ten year life expectancy for pianos some eighty years ago had no idea what our furniture products would be like today, with particle board and vinyl paper veneers, and with built-in planned obsolescence.

Of course there are a lot of different qualities of pianos, and not all are made with the same materials or care of construction. Some technicians feel that because some piano makers use different, shall we say, ingredients and recipes, some of their pianos will not last as long as others.

When it comes down to a particular piano, it is really best to have an expert make a determination about its durability. Piano Finders offers appraisals and consultations in our online store at D&R Masters for these purposes.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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17. Should I buy an electronic (digital) piano or a real one?

Whether you decide to buy an electronic (digital) piano or a traditional piano is a personal decision that depends a great deal upon your values and priorities. The article, Pianocchio, written by Kendall Ross Bean, offers a professional pianist's perspective on the differences between the two. Piano Finders only offers appraisal, consultation and upgrade services for the traditional piano, not for the electronic piano. Many of the dealers we provide referrals to carry both electronic and traditional pianos.

by Kendall Ross Bean

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18. Is a rebuilt Steinway still a Steinway?

The Steinway trademark is put upon a piano that represents what the Steinway company sold to the public as a new Steinway at any given time. There is not just one type of scale design (size of strings, thickness of soundboard, etc.) that has been used for Steinways over the last 100 years. The company has changed its design for different models, through out the century. What they are making today, is not the exact same piano as what was made in previous years. But they are all Steinways, because Steinway represented them to the public as being made new from their factory. Once used and even if rebuilt, the piano does not cease to be a Steinway. But the Steinway company does cease to have control over a piano when it is sold to a private party. The purpose of a trademark in US law is to give the buyer of a new product an accurate idea of who the source of the product is. Thus, Baldwin, cannot use the Steinway name on pianos they sell. But trademark law does not extend to products once they have been sold to the public. If someone is buying a used piano that says Steinway, as long as it was originally built in the Steinway factory when it was new, it is still a Steinway, even if it has been changed afterwards. What would be unethical and illegal, is to take a piano originally built by another manufacturer and put the Steinway name upon it. Here is an article on the purpose of a trademark: About Trademarks Using Piano Finders® as an Example.

The current company that manufacturers new Steinway pianos today takes the sales position that if the piano has been rebuilt without using the new steinway parts that they make, it is not a Steinway anymore. However, this is merely a marketing campaign, not a statement of fact. As long as the piano being rebuilt was originally built in the Steinway factory, it is still a Steinway. There are several reasons to come to this conclusion:

  1. What makes the Steinway what it is musically, is the Steinway patents and the scale designs. Sometimes replacement parts made by Steinway don't match the original scale designs as well as replacement parts for used Steinways made by other companies such as Renner in Germany. When rebuilding a Steniway, we generally use the parts that are the closest in weight, quality and other attributes to what the original was. This may or may not be the newly manufactured Steinway part.
  2. A good rebuilder tries to replicate the scale and design of the Steinway when they are rebuilding the piano. So, if the rebuilder has been true to the spirit of original design in their rebuilding, the piano can't help but be what it was designed to be. But, even if a Steinway were rebuilt poorly or radically changed, from a legal standpoint, the Steinway can't cease to be from the Steinway factory originally, just like we can't change who are parents are. Once a Steinway is "born" a Steinway, it always remains one, even if it is in poor shape.
  3. In our experience, there is no market difference between a piano rebuilt in the Steinway Factory and one rebuilt by a good rebuilder outside the Steinway Factory. If the job was well, they would both be valued the same. The public is not usually willing to pay more for a rebuilt piano from the Steinway factory than from another shop.
  4. The Steinway manufacturer today considers its used Steinways to be its biggest competition to its sale of new Steinways. Steinway's attempt to discredit the rebuilding work of other fine craftsman is not only ineffective, but less than credible.
  5. If people want a new Steinway, they should buy one. Those who buy the Vintage Steinway rebuilt, usually do so because they think it is a better instrument and they like the quality, touch, tone and appearance better.

by Karen E. Lile