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How to Buy a Piano: A Buyers Guide
by Dr. Brockman

This is a wonderful time to buy a piano. Here in Los Angeles, there are many fine pianos in search of new homes, and prices are extremely competitive. In general, California pianos have not been subject to the extreme humidity of the East Coast, so vintage models are often in better condition.

Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned performer, a responsive piano will enable you to create more color and subtlety--more pleasure for you and listeners. So, buy the best piano you can afford. It will reward you and your family with many happy years. Begin with some basic questions: what is our budget? And how much space can we give a piano in our home?

Do you prefer a new or a vintage instrument? In a music store, sit down and play several used and new pianos. You'll quickly respond to one or the other. If you don't play yet, bring a friend who does, and weigh his/her reactions as well as your own. A good piano has a life expectancy of ca. 50 years, and vintage pianos which have been rebuilt can last another 50 years or more. This investment may outlive you.

Are the wood and finish of the case important to you? Often people buy pianos more for the case than the tone. If your budget is on the low side and you're serious about learning to play, opt for sound quality first.

With upright (vertical) pianos, the best sound is generally obtained from the instrument with the longest strings, all other things being equal. So choose an upright that stands tall. If you are in the market for a grand, length matters, though it requires space in your home. Some uprights actually have a longer "speaking string length" than baby grands, and thus produce a superior sound.

Japanese pianos, such as Kawai or Yamaha, are known for their dependable level of mid-range quality. Chickering, Baldwin, Knabe and numerous other vintage makes can be quite good with more individual variation. Estonian, Korean and Chinese pianos are appearing on the market, and improving in quality every year.

Steinway, Bosendorfer, Bechstein, and Mason & Hamlin will be pricey, whether new or used, but they will better retain their value as investments. Though the manufacturing quality of Steinway has fluctuated over time, who doesn't want to own a great Steinway?

Notice that Japanese, European and American pianos are characterized by different qualities of sound: tighter-more focused, darker, brighter, deeper, and more colorful.

Individual pianos have their own personalities too. Vintage pianos were all hand made. Even today, minor variations in thousands of individual parts and the way they stabilize over time, plus the finishing (voicing etc.) pianos receive in the store after leaving the factory all have an effect. With older instruments, I often wonder if all those years of Chopin and Brahms have made them mellow?  

If a piano is ca. 40-50 or more years old, the felt and leather parts of the action will be dried out and need replacing. If this has been done, be sure to ask your technician about the quality of the work during your inspection before purchasing.

Even though a piano may be in good condition, old or new, it may not be a particularly good piano, regardless of price. Buying a piano is like buying a used car; we all drive, but rarely have the expertise to judge what's under the hood. A piano has ca. 12,000 parts under the hood. So when you find an instrument you like, be sure to have a Registered Piano Technician (Piano Technicians Guild) check it out before purchasing. An excellent detailed resource for more information is Larry Fine's The Piano Book. And now his latest, Acoustic and Digital Piano Buyer. (A word to the wise, even after reading these books, you still need to consult someone who plays well, and a technician's inspection to properly evaluate the quality of a piano.)

Once I had the opportunity to play Vladimir Horowitz's Steinway model D concert grand. The tone quality of this magical instrument was somehow imbued with the character of forty years of the master's playing. He called it "my old friend". You'll feel that way about your piano too.

So start your pianosearch now!

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Dr. Brockman is a member of the Music Teachers Association of California, West Los Angeles branch, and former member of their board of directors.

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1907 Steinway Model O, 5 ft. 10 in.