Choosing A Piano

Whether new or used, what qualities should you look for in a piano? A piano should be good enough that it is rewarding to play, after all, learning the piano is hard work, and if a piano plays poorly or sounds terrible, that can be quite discouraging, especially to young beginners.

Some basic guidlines:

Size

Choose a piano that is as large as you have room for. A miminum of a 45 inch Upright piano or a 5 foot four inch Grand piano is recommended. A good piano needs to be at least this long because of its strings. When a piano's strings are too short, the piano is less tunable and has a sound that is not pure. Larger pianos have a deeper bass range and a more even and pure tone overall.

Spinets

Spinet pianos are not recommended for four reasons. First, because of extremely short strings, the Spinet has a sound that is impure and hard on the ear, and isn't very inspiring to learn on. Second, the Spinet has an indirect blow action, which is inferior to a direct blow action used in normal uprights. Combined with shorter keys (which have less leverage), the Spinet action has limited responsiveness, and it is difficult to control loud and soft and to play cleanly. This is not what would encourage a youngster. Third, Spinets were the bottom of the product line, and almost all brands cut corners on parts, quality, and workmanship. Fourth, Spinets have low resale value.

I must say at this point that not every Spinet is all bad, and there are lots of them still in use. Buying one just isn't recommended.

Condition of piano

If you are looking at a piano to buy, you may insist that the seller have it tuned if it has not been in the past year or so. Just as it is a good idea to call a mechanic to check out a car, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your piano technician to evaluate a piano you're going to purchase. There may be things that a piano techician could point out that could allow the buyer to negotiate a lower price, or the technician could discover a major flaw which may not be apparent to the buyer that would make it a questionable purchase, thus preventing a costly mistake.

Piano Actions

An Upright piano has a direct blow action. The action sits on top of the keys on the inside of the piano. It is superior to an indirect blow action (see Spinets above).

A Grand piano has an even more sophisticated action, with more parts that allow for faster repetition and greater control of loud and soft.

Piano Nomenclature

Upright Grand is a label that makers once put on pianos as a marketing tool. A piano is either an upright or a grand, and an Upright Grand is simply a large old upright.

Baby grand is a term not used by piano makers but by a lot of pianists and piano owners. Many people with 5'8" or 6'1" grands think they have a baby grand, when in fact a baby grand is usually 4'11" or 5'1". Again, it is either an upright or a grand. And no, I do not recommend buying a piano that is so small.

Piano Retailers

Unfortunately, going to a piano retailer can be much like going to buy a used car. High pressure sales tactics may result in a "what will it take to put you in this piano today?" kind of experience. Potential buyers need to beware of this and should not give their hard-earned money to support this sort of operation. In addition, there are so many brands and choices, and names that can be misleading. You may think a new Kohler and Campbell is an American made piano, or how about an Everett? Think again.

Worse yet are operations that claim to sell "reconditioned" pianos, but in reality are selling pianos that have only been cleaned and maybe repaired to the point of basic functionality. "All the notes work!" is just not good enough. The buyer should expect a detailed list of exactly what work has actually been perfomed. If the retailer balks, that is a very good sign that you should walk out the door immediately.

I do not want to paint every retailer as dishonest, but I have seen example after example of people and pianos falling prey to operations that only care about making a buck.

A new piano from a Retailer can have problems too. Manufacturers vary in the amount of preparation given to new pianos, some rely on the individual retailers to do a significant amount of the tuning and regulation. This shifts the burden to the dealer and their staff technician, whatever his level of competency may be.

This lack of proper preparation varies across the industry, I have even encountered Steinway grands that were grossly underprepared. A good piano technician can spot this, and see that the dealer, not the buyer, ends up paying for the necessary work.

Resources

The Piano Book by Larry Fine is a good reference for the novice and professional alike, it is filled with facts; however, it offers a lot of opinion as well so I recommend that people try to be aware of the difference.

So what does Mark Roth own?

I have two pianos. Both were manufactured around the turn of the twentieth century by A.B. Chase in Norwalk, Ohio. I have a grand that is in need of a complete rebuild, and also an upright that is in good enough condition to use as is, though I plan to gradually replace the key bushings, the bass strings, the hammers, etc. The upright is massive. It is constructed of bird's eye maple with mahagony veneer, carvings and bevels, and has nickle plated hardware. It stands 58 3/4 inches off the floor, and the bass bridge is 18 3/4 inches long, resulting in a deep and powerful bass. (The bass bridge in a similarly sized Kurtzmann grand was only 16 1/2 inches.) The large size also gives the piano a rich tenor range, and it has unbelieveable sustain. It features a true sostenuto pedal (Debussy friendly!), and a lost motion compensator on the soft pedal. (Using the soft pedal on a typical upright puts the action out of regulation while the pedal is down, thus rendering it all but useless for the serious pianist. The lost motion compensator fixes this.)

To my knowledge, nothing comparable is being made today. A.B. Chase pianos are among the finest pianos ever made.

How about a new piano?

The finest quality pianos made today come from Germany, especially those made by Bechstein and Grotrian. These pianos often command a premium price as well.

In a more moderate price range, I believe you would have a hard time going wrong with a piano made by Yamaha or Kawai. Quality control at both of these companies is impeccable, and they are definitely worth the slightly higer price than other consumer pianos on the market today.

© Mark Roth 2016