Piano Finders

Piano Buying 101

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

Many Piano Brands Available Today

Upright or Grand? New or Used? US, Asian or European?

Last updated on May 29, 2012. Please select "View", "Refresh" or "Reload" on your browser to make sure you are viewing the latest version.

Japanese Pianos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Top of Page

"Gray-Market" Japanese Pianos

The section following is specifically about Japanese "gray market" pianos. For a Definition of Gray Market Pianos in General, click here

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

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

One of the biggest headaches for both manufacturers and dealers of new pianos is the used piano market. Sales of private party (and other) used instruments frequently take a large chunk out of the the markets and profits of dealers and makers of new instruments. Pianos often have a long life, and can last for many decades; this can be a good thing for many people, but is often not so good for those who make and sell new pianos.

In Japan, recently, there has been a large number of used pianos that have come on the market. There are several apparent reasons for this. One is that Japan's population has been aging, in recent years, and parents whose children have left home often sell their pianos in order to free up space (as in Europe, space is at a premium in Japan - far more uprights are sold than grands). Beginning in the late 1990's there have also been economic and financial crises in Asia, and an economic recession in Japan that radically decreased consumer spending in that country. The demand for pianos in Japan dropped sharply as a result. Before that, in the mid-1980's the Japanese piano market had already became saturated; Japanese piano manufacturers, realizing the threat of overproduction or overcapacity, had voluntarily decreased production, but it apparently wasn't enough. The immediate result, of all these forces was a excess of used Japanese pianos in Japan, and on the export market (many of these pianos ended up in the U.S.A.)

Another factor contributing to the large quantity of used Japanese pianos available is that, historically, Japanese consumers have had an aversion to buying used products, including pianos, due to certain cultural beliefs and perceptions. This has been changing, slowly. In the past, Japanese families would buy one piano for life, so it had to be good quality (no starter or entry level pianos.) Japanese families have only in the last few years been starting to do that which many U.S. families have done for decades: buy a digital or used piano first, and then wait to see how their child progressed before investing in a new, or more serious, instrument.

(It seems, however, that this aversion to purchasing used instruments pertains mainly to Japanese pianos: Used Steinways are in great demand in Japan, and there are businesses that buy up used Steinways in the U.S., and then ship them to Japan, where they are then sold for 2 to 3 times the price (or more!). So the cultural bias against used pianos seems to be a bit selective, to say the least. I perceive that it's probably advantageous for the Japanese to get used Japanese pianos out of the country, in order to make room for the sale of new pianos, and not clog up the economy, which is pretty much reliant upon both the production, and sale, of new products.)

There are some additional factors: Owners of pianos in Japan, including private parties and institutions, are frequently encouraged to trade in their older pianos for new ones, even though the older ones may still be in very good, or even excellent, condition. In Japan, a piano is a prized possession, and most Japanese are fastidious about how they take care of their instruments, having them regularly serviced, and keeping them covered when not in use. American consumers are frequently amazed to see the immaculate condition and finishes of these used Japanese (from Japan) pianos, which may be anywhere from 10 to 30 years old or more.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

Humidity Control for Pianos

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

Outdoor vs. Indoor climate

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

How to keep an (electronic) eye on the piano

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

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

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

Top of Page

Examples of some different types of climates (outdoor)

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

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

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

Humidity control specific to used "tropical" instruments

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

Top of Page

Two vs. Three pedals

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

Some of the reasoning behind the new model names and features

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

Korean Pianos

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

Stencil Pianos

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

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

The name over the keys

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

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

Top of Page


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

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

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

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

(Back to Korean Pianos)

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

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

Top of Page

Piano makers moving up in the world

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

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

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

Top of Page

Higher quality pianos - features, design and construction

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

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

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

Top of Page

Comparison of Korean with Japanese instruments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

Chinese Pianos

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

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

Why people buy Asian Pianos - Pros and Cons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Many pianists, however, are still not very impressed with most Asian pianos (the exceptions to this would be the more expensive, top of the line models from either Kawai or Yamaha). Pianists generally feel that, with the afore-mentioned exceptions, Asian pianos in general are not as durable and simply do not sound as good as a quality American or European piano. Another oft-expressed opinion that has some validity is that the better quality U.S. -made instruments seem to get better with age, while the Asian pianos are the best when new on the showroom floor, and then go downhill after that. On the other hand, critics of new U.S.- made pianos often level the accusation that it's not so much that they get better with age, but that they haven't been properly completed at the factory and it's up to the purchaser to work the bugs out over the next couple of years, similar to the recent situation with new American cars.

Top of Page

European Pianos

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

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

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

In more recent years the new political status of the former Soviet bloc countries such as Czechoslovakia and East Germany has initiated an influx of pianos from those regions, with names like Petrof, Weinbach, Sangler and Sohne, Weiler, Nordheimer, Becher and Estonia. Petrof, from Czechoslovakia, has been available for some time now in the U.S. The general perception among technicians and artists is that the quality of these brands ranges from relatively good to mediocre. (An exception to this would be Estonia, which many pianists feel has become an exceptional piano, and which has been perhaps one of the piano world's best kept secrets until now. This is apparently due to a change in leadership several years ago which has had the effect of turning the factory completely around, to where it is now producing one of the world's finest pianos.)

Some people feel that these brands may represent a attractive value because lower labor costs in these new, emerging nations often translate into a lower sticker price on the finished instrument. Experience with pianos from these nations has taught, though, that most of them will need a fairly substantial amount of tweaking and other post-manufacturing prep by a competent technician to put them in shape. Whether the dealer is willing to do that necessary prepping is always a question mark. Sometimes dealers do not do the prep work because they can get away with it with inexperienced piano buyers. And there is still some question about the ultimate life-expectancy of these pianos, compared to some of the higher quality U.S. or West-German instruments.

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

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

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

Top of Page

Vintage Pianos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vertical Pianos vs. Grands

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

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

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

Piano Size

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

"Single quality" vs. different qualities

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vertical classification

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

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

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

Grand types

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

Piano Styles and Finishes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

The importance of Parents

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

Top of Page

What to expect to pay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See: appraisals offered by PianoFinders.

Top of Page

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

The "Symphony", "Opera", "University", "Conservatory", "College", "Armory" and "Warehouse" Piano Sales

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

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

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

It's useful to understand a little about the strategy of these functions and how they work. Initially the local piano dealer allows the particular institution the use of a number of their new pianos for, say, a year. The dealer may provide the pianos totally free of charge, or at very little cost to the institution. In turn, the institution allows the dealer to use its name (and whatever prestige associations it may have) and often one (or more) of its buildings (as well as its alumni or patron list), for the purpose of the yearly sale, at which time the pianos that have been used for a year (or however long) will be offered for sale to the general public. Through this cooperative relationship, the institution is able to stock their practice rooms or concert halls with instruments for little or no cash outlay, (something of great utility to today's budget-strapped arts and education programs), and, in turn, the dealer gets a very effective advertising and promotional device. Often, if the organization is an Opera or a Symphony, the dealer will try and make sure that any artists who use the piano (in any way, even, say, as a stage prop) will sign their name inside or on it somewhere, making the piano unique and special in the eyes of many buyers. Artists love to pursue immortality this way, and will often affix their signature regardless of whether the piano is a stellar or mediocre instrument. Then for years afterwards the buyer can testify to all their friends and guests that the piano was actually used at one time by so and so. Most importantly, perhaps, the piano dealer (actually, manufacturer, mainly) gets to make their pianos visible and available to multitudes of potential and future pianists, teachers, and artists using the practice rooms or facilities of the institution. Piano dealers frequently tout this sort of relationship as "partnering" or "supporting" the local arts organizations. Those who are somewhat more cynical refer to it as "buying respectibility."

We have mentioned that frequently people go to these events expecting to find a piano that has been used in the school or arts organization, (and supposedly these arts institutions know about good pianos), and supposedly they will have a chance of getting a good instrument at a great price, perhaps even one that has been touched or played on by some famous artist. Maybe people anticipate they will be getting one of the professor's or artist's personal pianos. Who knows what visions may be conjured up by the vague and nebulous terms "Conservatory Sale" or "Opera Sale"? At any rate, you can see the chains of assumptions that can get set in motion.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

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

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

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

The most significant factor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page

Electronic (and Digital) Pianos:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top of Page