on Buying a Used Piano
by Carol Beigel, RPT
If you plan to learn to ride a bicycle, or teach your child to ride, would you procure your first bike from the dump or acquire one with bent wheels because the price was right? Probably not because you realize that a bicycle needs to operate well enough so that the person riding can learn to keep their balance. On the other hand, you might consider going all out and purchasing a bicycle with the finest, best-fitting alloy frame, or the greatest number of gears, or even training wheels to give the novice the best chance of becoming proficient and enjoying the sport for a lifetime. Most people understand enough about bicycle riding to make informed decisions and find the compromises they need to get the job done.
Alas, this same level of understanding does not always achieve such a workable solution for piano lessons. Although it has been proven that children who play a musical instrument are less likely to get into trouble, do better on tests, participate in less violent activities, and enjoy music for a lifetime, many Americans are reluctant to invest in music education at the same level they support athletic programs. The amount of money spent on musical instruments, concert halls, music teachers and musician's salaries pales in proportion to the sums spent on sports equipment, stadiums, coaches and athlete's salaries. This situation is often quite apparent when a piano needs to be acquired for a student to begin piano lessons.
Different attitudes ingrained in cultural psyches affect the distribution of used pianos around the world. Most people who live in Asia wouldn't dream of buying a used piano, and sacrifice other things to buy new pianos. Many Americans tend to think that pianos last forever, or that "used" is just as good as "new", only cheaper. The result is a huge supply of used pianos in Asia and the demand for used pianos located here in the United States. This would be a good thing if wasn't for the fact that this huge supply of "Gray Market" pianos does not perform well in the very dry climate of many American homes during the winter. The wood used in them is not kiln dried to the low moisture content needed to prevent warping at very low relative humidity. These soundboards flatten producing a dead tone, and the wood in the piano actions changes dimensions to the point where sticking keys result. The pinblocks shrink and the tuning pins become loose, often rendering these instruments unable to be tuned. To further complicate matters, these Gray Market pianos sometimes have the same model numbers as their more expensive, kiln dried cousins manufactured for use here in North America. They are often marketed by retailers who are not "official" Yamaha or Kawai dealers, but want to advertise they sell these name brands. I do not consider Gray Market pianos to be a good value, even at what appears to be "half price" because it can be really aggravating to own a piano that is not reliable in its tuning stability or has intermittent action problems.
Good quality pianos are designed to last about 50 years, or one lifetime. The cell structure of wood eventually deteriorates over time, cloth and leather bushings in the piano action wear out, metal pins and strings become rusted, and pinblocks delaminate rendering pianos untunable. Pianos made in the United States were better constructed before WWII, and most of what is left is getting really old. Most of the small upright American-made pianos built after WWII fell apart years ago. Very few pianos are worth rebuilding, and good quality craftsmanship is expensive. It costs the same amount of money to move, tune or take lessons on a "clunker" as it does a nice piano. There really is a different musical experience between sitting down to play an old spinet and playing a concert grand piano, and you owe it to yourself to try out the full spectrum of choices before deciding where you want to be.
The most compelling reasons I have encountered over the years for purchasing a used piano rather than a new one, are they are cheaper or they have beautifully carved cases. My personal experience has run along the lines that the prettier the case the less likely it is to be a good musical instrument inside; hence my warning to stay away from antique dealers, auctions, estate sales and anything with candle holders! Even if you are determined to buy "used", check out some piano stores that sell new pianos and see what values exist. You may be pleasantly surprised that the finances can work out better, and you have a warranty as well! I have also included two other companion articles on this website, Advice on Buying a New Piano, and Advice on Buying a New or Used Disklavier that may be helpful in making this decision. Whatever else you do, make sure that YOU sit down and actually attempt to play any piano before you buy it! If you are purchasing a piano for someone else, let them participate in the selection process to customize and clarify your investment.
Should you find a used piano that meets your requirements, have it evaluated by a competent piano technician. There can be hidden damage, or wear and tear you did not notice; i.e. insect or rodent infestations, mold growing in the piano action centers, structural cracks, moisture damage or the fact that the piano has not been tuned for many years and will require major effort and expense to tune it to the standard pitch of A440 Hz. It can also be very difficult to distinguish a Gray Market model from a piano designed for use in the United States.
In the 25 years I have been a piano technician, perhaps the saddest thing I have encountered is "the piano never purchased". As elusive as Prince Charming, the search for the "right" used piano seldom results in a marriage. Don't be afraid to take the plunge and just get a piano; even a rental or an electronic keyboard if that's what it takes to start the process. If you don't get it right the first time, the world is full of wonderful pianos, and you can trade or sell it for something else. Most people don't really know what they want in a piano until they get one home and start playing it. Then, little things they never noticed before will either delight or irritate their musical sensitivities. That just means you will know what to look for next time!
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