Piano Finders

Piano Buying 101

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

Many Piano Brands Available Today

Pianos come in a bewildering assortment of brands, styles and sizes

Last updated on May 29, 2012. Please select "view", then "refresh" or "reload" on your browser to be sure you are viewing the latest version.


Many people, as they start shopping for a piano, soon find themselves overwhelmed by all the different styles, models, sizes, finishes, and brands available. Often, they 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 the 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.

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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., German, Austrian, Italian, 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, South Korea, 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. (To help you sort out whether a private party is asking a reasonable price for a used piano, we offer the Ballpark Appraisal Service.) 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. To help you ascertain whether a dealer is asking a fair price for a new piano, we offer a comparative pricing guide at this site. See Piano Finders Price Comparison Guide. On the other hand, these same dealers will also often have clearances and other sales events where deals can sometimes be had, because they need to move the pianos and get out from under the flooring charges and interest. Be 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 shoppers. On one end of the spectrum is, for example, the customer 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." On the other end is the shopper 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 shoppers actually fall somewhere 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 appraiser.

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 six sizes of grands: the models S (5'1"), M (5'7"), O (5' 10 3/4"), A (6' 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 model "C", formerly produced in New York, but now discontinued.) The Models O and L are, as you can see, basically 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, another possible reason why production was resumed in New York.

New 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 vintage model C's, A's and O's, from the New York factory, and also vintage and used 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 $45,000. list for the model S, and go up to around $100,000. for the Model D. (List prices for year 2007, 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. Steinway's 3rd line piano is called the Essex; Essex pianos were initially built for Steinway in South Korea by Young Chang, but today pretty much all the Essex line is made in China by Pearl River. Both Boston and Essex piano lines are reportedly designed to Steinway's specifications and then built for them by the Asian manufacturers. During the first 10 years of ownership of an Essex, or at any time with a Boston, Steinway offers full trade-in value toward a Steinway grand.

The question often comes up whether one is better off buying a Boston or a Kawai grand, since the Boston pianos are made for Steinway by Kawai. The Boston piano is really a different creature from the Kawai models and should be treated as such. Some pianists feel that the Boston has a more "vintage American piano sound" with a bit more warmth and richness to it. Others can't see much difference, or prefer the Kawai. Supposedly one of the differences between the comparably sized Kawai and Boston models is that the Boston has a wider tail and thus more soundboard area, and longer bass strings, although to look at the actual specs, this seems more like hair-splitting; having more soundboard area does not always make the sound of the piano more appealing (many people prefer the sound of the Steinway O to that of the L) and at least in one instance, comparing Kawai's 5'5" RX-1 to Boston's 5'4" GP-163, the Kawai has the bigger soundboard and just as long a #1 bass string. Steinway design of the Boston piano is progressive in some areas and more traditional in others: to distinguish, perhaps, the Boston from the Kawai, Steinway emphasizes that Boston pianos have all wood action parts (Kawai has pioneered the use of ABS and ABS carbon action parts in their pianos, which parts they say are lighter, quicker, more responsive, and not as affected by humidity as wood action parts)-so the gauntlet has been thrown down. When they first came out the Bostons were more expensive than the Kawai models, but due to the devaluation of the U.S. dollar recently things have changed . From what I can see, this year the list prices on Boston and Kawai similar size models seem close enough so that, for all practical purposes, price difference should not really be a major factor in a buying decision. Those considering buying either a Kawai or a Boston really should try both to see which they like best. Both brands really have much to recommend them, and both incorporate many design features of high quality instruments.

Steinway has in recent years resumed manufacturing, at the New York factory, two models which for decades had only been manufactured at the Hamburg facility. These are the models A (6'2") and O (5'10 3/4"). Production of model A's in New York ceased during World War II. Production of the Model O was suspended in 1923, when it was replaced by the Model L. The model L has now been discontinued, replaced by the O. The Model O and L pianos are essentially the same length (5'10 3/4" ), although the L, by virtue of its more squared-off tail, has a larger soundboard. The model C (7'5")was no longer produced in New York after 1936. It is still only made in the Hamburg factory.

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(Baldwin's Official Website)

The Baldwin Piano Company has gone through some major transitions and changes over the past decade. For many years it was the largest piano company/conglomerate in the U.S., and during the greater part of the 20th century most of their pianos were built domestically. In business since 1862, the Baldwin Piano Co. and its subsidiaries made a huge number of pianos over the years, millions of which are still with us in one form or another, in homes, schools, churches, theatres, restaurants, and concert halls, to name a few. These pianos, from humble spinets to artist's concert grands, were made under many brand names (not just Baldwin), all owned or controlled at one time or another by the Baldwin Piano Company: Acrosonic, A.B. Chase, Hamilton, Howard, Ivers & Pond, J & C Fischer, Wurlitzer, Monarch, Ellington, Kranich and Bach, Valley Gem, St. Regis, Schroeder, Sargent, Winton, and, for a time, even the revered old Chickering. To the very best among all these pianos,the name Baldwin was affixed; over many years, it became a name synonymous with quality.

In 2001, due to a number of problems common to the U.S. piano industry at the time, including foreign competition, and problems with management, Baldwin declared bankruptcy and was bought up by the Gibson Guitar Co. of Nashville, Tennessee. Gibson is currently in the process of restructuring the entire company and model line and, after gradually phasing down (or out) production stateside, and at Baldwin's Juarez, Mexico action-making facility, is moving production to their two plants in China, at Zhongshan, and Dongbei. New versions/reproductions of Baldwins best selling vertical models of the past are currently being made at Zhongshan. At Dongbei, new model grands and verticals are being built. The jury is still out on the quality of these new offerings from China, of a respected old piano name. Theoretically, there is no reason why the Chinese, under Gibson/Baldwin management, can't build as good a piano as anyone. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and that remains to be seen. Initial reports have been complimentary.

(For those wondering how to distinguish the Chinese-produced Baldwin pianos from those that were made in the states, the dot above the "i" in Baldwin, if you look at it closely, is actually a small "c" on the Chinese-made pianos; on U.S.-made Baldwins, there will usually be either a regular dot, or no dot, above the "i", depending on the model year.)

That said, the following will refer to previous Baldwin pianos made in the U.S., some of which will still be available on dealers' floors, and many of which will be available on the used market.

Baldwin used to make, and sell, many times as many pianos as Steinway each year; like Steinway, it was 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 $53,000, list; a Steinway Model A grand is 6'2" and around $60,000. list (satin ebony finishes, as of 2007). The Baldwin "L" gives you an inch more piano, and is $7,000. less than the Steinway A. (Also, despite the list price, Baldwin models are usually discounted more than Steinway, 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.

Currently the list price of new Mason & Hamlin pianos seems to be running slightly less than what Steinway is asking for theirs, and the Mason & Hamlins, like the Baldwins, currently still seem to be susceptible to more discounting off the suggested retail price than the Steinway. That may change, as more people buy the Mason & Hamlin instruments, as the name becomes better known again, and as the factory achieves and maintains the original quality level of the instrument during its heyday back in the early 20th century. So for the present, like Baldwin, Mason & Hamlin pianos may present a significant value over the Steinway.

Presently Mason & Hamlin is expanding their offerings. For many years only a few models were produced: a 50" upright (model 50), a 5'8" grand (model A), and a 7' grand (model BB), in various finishes. A 9'4" concert grand has recently been added to their line, as also a remake of the 6'2" AA model, which has been redesigned to be longer (6'4"), completely different, better, and more similar in design to the A and BB models, according to a factory spokesperson. (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 the new 9'4" concert grand has been in production, and available to artists, for a time(and has undergone real-world testing and feedback from the artists.) 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.

Click here to continue to Part II of Guide to Piano World

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