"Hmmm...they all start to sound the same after a while."
How to buy a Used Piano
First of all: DON’T BUY A PIANO AT AN AUCTION, AND DON’T BUY IT BECAUSE IT’S AN “ANTIQUE”!!!!!! It’s a 99.9999% chance it’s junk, regardless of what it looks like. Watch my videos on Youtube for examples of used pianos and what to watch for. (links) Pianos are as diverse as dogs. The first step should be to decide on a budget and type of piano. Do you want: A grand? It will cost more and take more space. An old upright (80 years or more)? Mostly, they’re worn out and cost a lot to fix, but there are good ones. A not-so-old upright (1950’s onward)? Many of these are consoles (40-45 inches tall) Or spinets (36 inches tall)? Many of these consoles and spinets are poor pianos. A newer upright (1980’s onward)? How important is the appearance of the piano?
You can check many sites on-line for used (Kijiji, Craigslist, Ebay, to name a few). You can call a dealer. They may have good trade-ins, and usually you get bench, tuning, delivery, perhaps even a warrantee. It will cost more than if you had bought the same piano yourself, but at least you know it’s been looked at. Music teachers and technicians may know of some good deals. If it’s a private sale, in addition to the make and age, find out why they’re selling, when it was last tuned, and how often it was tuned. Once or twice a year is considered a minimum; I’m content if it’s done even once a year. If they say they bought the piano new 10 years ago for a child who never took to it and now they’re moving, it may be a really good buy but badly in need of a tuning. That’s no problem, though it will take several tunings before it stays well. If it’s jammed into a corner with all sorts of stuff piled on top and filthy keys with crayon all over, it’s safe to say it’s neglected, but may still be good for all that.
When you find a piano you’re interested in, take along someone who plays. Beware they may have their own preferences, so try to develop some idea of what tone you like.
Play all the keys, one at a time. Make sure they all work, playing both slow and soft and fast and loud. Listen for noises: buzzes, rattles, clunks, squeaks. Listen for noise when you use the pedals. Listen for the tone in the bass. Do the strings have a bright, clear sound or just a dull tone that dies quickly?
There’s a lot to evaluate in a piano, so it’s best to hire a technician to check it out. He should check: Tuning pins (tight enough to keep strings in tune) Bridges and soundboard (splits, cracks, loose glue joints, odd sounds) Strings (rust, dead tone, strings broken/missing/mismatched) Action (springs still strong, how much wear and tear on parts, especially action centres) Keys (warped, loose tops/fronts, worn bushings, side-to-side/in-out play) And other items. The evaluation worksheet I use has over 30 items that I routinely check off, so accurate estimates can be made quickly.
Many old uprights reached their peak between the early 1900’s and the Great Depression, 1929, when hundreds of the more than 300 American and Canadian builders were forced out of business. There were many good pianos before then, but they are that much older now, hence more worn out. Most European and English uprights from this and earlier eras are flimsy compared to their North American counterparts and don’t do well in our climate. I’ve found some of the better German grands (Bluthner, Bechstein) held up well.
Pianos were very much the centre of home life from the 1800’s until about 1930. In the 1920’s, radios became affordable and began to displace pianos. Most pianos made in the ‘20s were player pianos. Most of the pianos work, but the players don’t . Often, the entire mechanism has been removed from the piano.
If you can get a pre-1930’s quality brand upright piano in good shape, and there are still some around, they have some major advantages. They have large soundboards and longer strings. Ivory keys were the norm. If they’re not chipped, they feel better than plastic, which is all that’s available today. If they have one of the better- made actions, like a Wessel, Nickel & Gross, they can be made to play almost as well as a really good grand. They are simply much better crafted pianos, overall, in my opinion.
That being said, they are now considered to be almost worthless and there’s little demand and perhaps less appreciation for them. I’ve heard of dealers telling people to junk the piano without looking at it, simply because of it’s age.
During World War 1 and 2, most builders were engaged in the war effort, so there weren’t many pianos made. Some technicians made munitions; they had a steady hand making bombs and such (not my line of work!). After World 2, it took some time for pianos to be made again. The majority were consoles and spinets and were meant to be pretty little pieces of furniture rather than serious musical instruments in the little bungalows built for men returned from the war and their families. In the 1960’s, Japanese pianos (Yamaha, Kawai) began entering the North American market. They didn’t do well in our climate. In the 70’s, Korean pianos followed (Klingerman, Schnabel, Wagner, Samick, etc.). These were based on European designs and could be very inconsistent. Eventually, the Chinese entered the market as well. Nowadays, most pianos sold here are made in Japan, China, Korea, Indonesia and Mexico. Many more American and Canadian made pianos vanished from the scene around that time. They were dealt a further blow by the arrival of digital pianos and synthesizers. Nowadays, it’s an extremely tough business. In my opinion, the recognition by parents of the developmental and educational importance of music with their children, particularly piano, is what’s keeping acoustic piano sales alive.
1.How often should I get my piano tuned?
A: At least one or twice a year, if you expect a good musical result. Piano builders are serious about this: Yamaha warrantees are void if the piano is not tuned annually. More Info: Most piano builders want their pianos tuned 4 times or more in the first year. The steel wire used in a piano has a “memory”; it’s springy, same as a safety pin or any other spring. It remembers it’s shape even after being bent, otherwise the coils would simply unwind or break when bent. Since the molecules in the steel creep for a couple of years, the strings constantly go out of tune. When you tune the piano many times during these first years, the wire “memorizes” its position, and stays in tune far better in the future. Changes in humidity then become the main factor in tuning stability unless it's heavily used.
2:How long will a piano stay in tune?
A: This question in other terms is: how long will a structure made mostly of wood , under 20 tons of tension more or less, stay put without distorting in even the smallest degree when another 500-1,000 pounds or more of tension is added? It’s a slow process. Strictly speaking, a piano will start to go out of tune after 3 days or so, losing its edge gradually, just as if a pianist stopped practicing. That's assuming the piano is in good condition and tune to begin with. All bets are off if the piano hasn't been tuned for 5 years or more. More Info: If the piano is very out of tune, it will actually be going out of tune while the technician is working on it because the load on the bridges and soundboard increases so much when the strings are tightened. So, if you want your piano to stay in tune, don’t let it go out of tune much. Even More Info: The bridges and soundboard swell with more humidity and shrink with less. These changes alter the bearing of the strings, and over time they go out of tune. The cast-iron plate moves with temperature change, but far less than wooden parts.
3.What do I look for in a used piano?
A: The subject is large. There's a separate article about this in this section.
4.How much does my piano weigh?
A: if it’s an upright between 36” and 42” high, probably between 350/500 lbs. Studio pianos:45-48” high- 500 lbs. Old uprights: 500/750, sometimes 1,000 for the largest. Grands: anywhere from 500 for a baby to 1,000 or more for a concert-grand. If you don’t want to feel shorter because you squashed your spine, hire piano movers.
5.Should I buy a digital piano?
A: The merits of digital pianos are: a good one sounds great through headphones (this gives privacy and quiet to apartment dwellers but can be hard on the ears if the volume is high); they’re portable; they can be less money than a new piano; they don’t need to be tuned , regulated or voiced. The merits of an acoustic piano are: they are much more responsive to how they are played and there is currently no equivalent to the feel of the let-off in a real piano action; there is no substitute for the “tone vapour” (the natural reverberation of all the strings vibrating when the sustain pedal is depressed); the soundboard is a much better “amplifier” than the amplifier and small speakers of a digital piano. In short, a real piano has what could be called a “soul” that is absent in the digital realm, and the player has some degree of control over tone that a digital piano doesn’t offer without actually changing the sound that’s loaded into it. I rather doubt many top pianists prefer to practise or perform on a digital unless they’re in an electric band.
6.What do the pedals on a piano do?
A: Pianos really need only one pedal, as far as 99.9% of upright players go, and that is the sustain, sometimes called “loud”, pedal. The left one on an upright is usually a half-blow: this moves the hammers closer to the strings so the sound is quieter, but alters the touch so there’s a lot of play (lost motion). The middle either lifts the dampers off just the bass strings, or interposes a muffler strip between the hammers and strings for a dramatic change in tone and loudness. In the better pianos, the middle is a sostenuto; any note(s) held while the pedal is engaged will keep ringing. The grand piano players often make use of the left, usually a una-corda (Italian for 1 string, not quite the case these days) or “shift” pedal: the whole action moves toward the treble to produce a softer tone by having the hammer hit only 2 of the 3 strings. The middle pedal is either a bass sustain, same as an upright , or a full sostenuto , as do some better uprights. Sometimes the middle is a dummy and does nothing. This is a dead give-away that it’s an El Cheapo piano. More Info: Some 19th-20th century pianos have pedals that do all sorts of wacky things, from honky-tonk strips to bells and whistles, and even bass-pedals like a pipe-organ. Most of these are clumsy things with little musical value. Nowadays, synthesizers are handy for the way-out sounds.
7.Can I have my piano on an outside wall?
A: Yes and no. In harsh climates in a house with uninsulated walls, it’s best not to. In a modern, energy-efficient home, no worries. More Info: Pianos tend to stay in tune best where temperature and humidity never vary (you could consider a “Dampp-Chaser” in-piano climate control system). The closer you can come to this in your home, the better, and,as a matter of fact, your comfort zone is much the same as the pianos. So, avoid drafts and putting your piano near heating vents and cold-air returns, doors and open windows. Another aspect to this question is, what is the ideal humidity? For both you and the piano, between 40-50% relative humidity. Drier is hard on mucous membranes, damper encourages mold.
"Tune at least one or twice a year, if you expect a good musical result. Piano builders are serious about this: Yamaha warrantees are void if the piano is not tuned annually."
Pianos can harbour some strange things. There’s even a case where a robber hid inside a piano. He was caught when a cop searching the house for the thief tried plunking a tune on the piano, and nothing happened. When the bottom panel was removed, voila! The miscreant was revealed. Other things are revealed from time to time. I was servicing an old player piano in the country a few years back. I kept hearing a very odd sound when I played certain keys. Piano technicians are like old-time car mechanics, they learn to discriminate and categorise sounds: is it a buzz, a rattle, a groan, creak, squeak, squeal... The sound I was hearing wasn’t exactly a rattle. It had elements of a rustle to it, too. This was a piano where it was necessary to take off the music desk as well as the fallboard (keyboard cover) to see anything. When I removed it, I screamed and almost dropped the fallboard when I saw what was making the sound. Have you seen the first “Alien” movie, when the chest-burster erupts from John Hurt’s chest and flashes its two sets of jaws? Bloodcurdling. It was enough to make my hair stand on end. What I saw, believe it or not, looked like the skeleton version of that creature. It was about three feet long and had a nasty skull with not one, but two sets of fanged jaws. After a moment, I was embarrassed to realize what I was looking at was a snake who had swallowed a mouse, or rather, tried to swallow but choked to death on it. If you’ve never seen a mouse skeleton, you’d be surprised at how big the front teeth are. They are very large and sharp, rather like a chisel. When you see them in profile, they make quite an impressive set of fangs. The mouse’s head stuck out beyond the snake’s jaws, which had large fangs of their own. The net effect, at first glance, was of a frightening horror-show prop; not only two sets of jaws, like “Alien”, but skeletal to boot! And there it was, resting on top of the keys all those years. Pianos are usually a safe haven for mice where they can scurry unseen and unsuspected through the galleries under the keys and elsewhere, and they like to chew up the felt. They can make a mess of dampers and hammers, left to their own little devices. The mice venturing into this piano had a little surprise laying in wait for them, though. The snake had a good gig there,with his meals being auto-delivered. He was useful to the piano owner too. Sadly, this was one time he’d bitten off more than he could chew.
One of my country jobs took me to a back-road acreage near O-----, west of Edmonton. I went to the wrong house at first. Luckily, the lady of the house was there and she put me right as to where I should go, but was dubious about me going in the first place. “You’ll know where her place is, because the weeds are over your head. If you look hard, you’ll see a tumble-down fence and gate. Go in there. Her husband left her some time ago, but he pays her bills. She’s this crazy cat-lady. They bring her groceries from time to time, and that’s about it.” That sounded out of the ordinary. The cat-woman part was almost the least of it, as I found. Sure enough, the weeds were tall and when I forced my way through into the “yard”, the place seemed to have a Hitchcockian aura about it. It was an old-style prairie farmhouse with grimy windows and a screen-door falling off the hinges, banging in the wind. Classic bad-omen sort of stuff. I was shocked to find a pup, maybe about 6 months old, tied to a chain only about 3 feet long. The wretched dog was surrounded by a circular wall of its own droppings. I stepped up on the crumbling porch and knocked on the door. All it took was one look at the eyes of the woman who answered to tell she was mentally ill. She was wearing a filthy old housecoat and her hair was a wild thicket. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see a bird nest there. When I entered, there was an eruption of sound: the chittering of monkeys, the flapping of parrot and parakeet wings, the yowl of cats springing from concealment. The stench set me back on my heels, an ammoniacal reek that was like walking into a wall of congealed concentrated cat pee. And not only cats! The birds and monkeys had laid their taint as well. It was an uttermost shambles of a menagerie, a total cacophony of birds and beasts having their way with everything. I unconsciously held my breath. Every sofa, every chair and table was piled high with mounds of dirty laundry, all of it soaked with urine and feces. There were large mold patches evident; dead cats and birds in various states of decomposition were laying here and there. The old Heintzman grand was not spared the indignities of the rest of the furnishings. The lid was open at its highest and the interior was heaped with dung, a great cone of it like someone had dumped a wheelbarrow. There was a steady drip through the soundboard onto a giant wet spot on the rug. I doubt the builders ever envisioned one of their instruments becoming a litter box! The old woman walked over and struck a key, producing nothing more than a faint thud. How could it do more, with the strings buried in crud? “Somewhere over the years, the piano lost its tone. Think you can get it back?” she yelled, over the continuing din. I don’t recall exactly what I said, but it was not in the affirmative. I was already angling toward the door seeking a quick escape. I couldn’t get out quickly enough. I stopped by the first house after fleeing the madwoman with my tail between my legs. I recounted my experience, and the lady had a good laugh about it. To this day, that old grand is in a class of its own of piano wretchedness.
At that time, there was little public discussion about mental illness. Now at least there's some recognition that people like her need help and compassion.
Sometime in the early ‘80’s, Sheila Jordan and her group did a gig at a club in Edmonton. I got a call from the club management around 8 pm that night: someone had forgotten to book the tuning, could I come ASAP? The band wouldn’t come on until it was done. This was pretty serious so of course I said yes. When I got to the club, it was packed with disgruntled patrons. It was well past time for the show to start. When I started tuning, the crowd’s murmur swelled accordingly, so I couldn’t hear the faint beats tuners use to tune the piano. The sound men tried pumping the piano through the sound system; that was even worse. The crowd simply stopped murmuring and began yelling. I noticed the pianist kept sticking his head round the curtain, looking at me anxiously (for the life of me, I can’t remember his name, but he’s a first rate player). Time was dragging on and something needed to be done. I didn’t have an electronic tuner either. But sound is vibration, and other body parts besides ears can feel vibration. It’s just not usually used in a comparative way, discriminating subtle differences between a large number of speeds . I raised my knee, pressed my thigh underneath the keyboard and pushed up hard. I could feel the vibrations well enough to assist me in the tuning. That was a good thing, since by then the crowd was really loud because of the liquor they had blotted up in the meantime. I finished up and as I was getting ready to leave, the piano player began warming up. He turned and asked how I managed to do the tuning. He looked surprised, to say the least, when I told him I used my leg because I couldn’t hear.
Sometime in the late 70’s or early 80’s a couple of Russian pianists emigrated to Edmonton. They were of an order of dedication well beyond the typical made-in-Western-Canada sort, or for that matter, the Japanese or German or really anybody else, at the time. For example, they would practice until their fingers bled from the nails, then tape up their fingers and keep playing. This was hard-core, hammer-and-tongs, Olympic-scale training, to be sure. And indeed, the fruits of their exertions were heard in marvellously nimble Chopin Etudes, and Bach fugues rattled off with the inexorability of a lava flow. Now they were busy cutting their swath through the local music community. They came with little more than an infant girl and the clothes on their back. The local Kawai dealer had given them an upright to practice on as a gesture of promotional goodwill. I think it backfired, though, because they beat the piano to death in about three months. We checked it out in the shop as a possible trade-in and it had probably had had 10 years of use in 3 months time! In their quest for another piano, they showed up at the Baldwin dealer where I worked as a technician. We stood around open-mouthed as they played, and after trying a number if pianos took a Hamilton. Being able to look right over their shoulders, I was, to say the least, impressed. I was sent off to service the piano after it had been delivered to the 12th floor of their hi-rise apartment. The couple left after I arrived and I had lots of quiet and time to do a good stable tuning. I knew I was dealing with the elite, so I’d better make it solid as I could. It was a good thing I did. The lady showed up first. She was hardly a big person, weighing perhaps 110 lbs. including the 10 lb. rock in each hand. But size doesn’t necessarily equate with power. She was itching to try the tuning, but she didn’t actually play. She stood there, bunched her fingers up, raised her arm on high, and slammed a key for all she was worth. She did this a half dozen times or so, then continued on other keys. The piano yelped like an elephant stepped on the keyboard. Just about then, Mr. Z------- showed up. Excited Russian flowed from Ms. P-----. We’d done the paperwork on the piano, so I took my tools and left them to it. As I walked down the hall, I heard her striking the piano. Riding down the elevator, I heard her. Walking across the lobby, I heard her. And, walking down the downtown-street to my car, I could still hear that piano being thumped, unless my ears had been imprinted by the sound. When I got back to the shop, sales manager Roger Jolly grinned as he said, “they really like your work, they say they’ve been trying to knock the piano out of tune but it’s held up.” I said, “You wouldn’t believe what they were doing to that piano…” Note: Though factual, no offense or favour is intended for any particular piano make.