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Helpful tips: What to look for when buying an acoustic piano

To buy a piano and decide between a new or used piano, or even an upright or grand piano, can be a real challenge! What to look for. New or used? Here are some helpful tips that will make your shopping process a little easier.

Grand or upright piano:

Pianos have two basic configurations (with subcategories): the grand piano and the upright piano.

In grand pianos, the frame and strings are horizontal, with the strings extending away from the keyboard. The action lies beneath the strings, and uses gravity as its means of return to a state of rest. There are many sizes of grand piano. A rough generalization distinguishes the concert grand (between about 2.2 m and 3 m/9.84 feet long) from the parlor grand or boudoir grand (about 1.7 m to 2.2 m) and the smaller baby grand (around 1.5 m).

Upright pianos, also called vertical pianos, are more compact because the frame and strings are vertical. The hammers move horizontally, and return to their resting position via springs, which are susceptible to degradation. Upright pianos with unusually tall frames and long strings are sometimes called upright grand pianos. Some authors classify modern pianos according to their height and to modifications of the action that are necessary to accommodate the height.

  • Studio pianos are around 42 to 45 inches tall. This is the shortest cabinet that can accommodate a full-sized action located above the keyboard.
  • Console pianos have a compact action (shorter hammers), and are a few inches shorter than studio models.
  • The top of a spinet model barely rises above the keyboard. The action is located below, operated by vertical wires that are attached to the backs of the keys.
  • Anything taller than a studio piano is called an upright.

New pianos:

For a new piano you will have to visit a store. New pianos are not for sale privately. You'll receive a warranty plus comprehensive service. 

It is a common misunderstanding to think that a new piano is ready to be played right out-of-the-crate.  On the contrary however when a piano arrives there are several steps that must be taken before the piano is ready.  These steps are called ‘prepping’ .

Click here to watch a video about preparing a new piano.

Used pianos:

Used pianos should be thoroughly checked before arrivoing in your home.

When is the piano ready for your home?

When a new or used piano arrives at a piano store, there are several things that need to be done. This is called ‘prepping’. Both new and used pianos need to go through the same process of ‘prepping’, however a used piano usually needs a lot more work then a new one.

Shopping for a used piano on your own:

1) It is best to start your search for a piano early, as soon as you know you will want to purchase one, even if it will not be right away. This way you can start learning about pianos at your own pace and have time to get all the information about the instrument, piano brand names, prices and more.

2) It is important that you are realistic and come up with a budget. Please keep in mind that it is always better to buy the best piano that you can comfortably afford .It is very important to know which level of quality you are looking at and not just get caught up in a single brand name but more importantly what kind of quality piano parts were used in that price range.

3) It is important to know that most piano companies make entry level and midlevel and high end pianos .It is important to determine which level of quality you are looking for.

Purchasing a used piano has become very popular. A used piano can be of a tremendous value given you bought a good one. A good quality piano can easily last 50 yrs or more and still have a great sound. When you start looking at used pianos you need to be careful, especially if you are buying one privately that has no warranty, no tuning and you have to pay to move it yourself. In that case it is best to find a piano technician in your area and have him appraise the piano for you. They will be happy to assist you usually for a small fee. In a private sale we recommend strongly to consider inviting a piano technician to come along with you to look at a piano.

Important questions to ask when you are looking for a used piano:

1) When was the piano's last tuned?

A piano should be tuned at least once a year regardless if it's been played or not. This is one of the most neglected questions to ask when buying a used piano. Not regularly tuning your piano can have a huge effect on the piano's tuning stability and the future performance and the enjoyment you will get from playing your piano. You won't enjoy playing a piano that is out of tune no matter what price you paid for the tuning. If the piano hasn't been tuned for more than 5 yrs, we recommend getting a piano technician to check this piano before you think of purchasing the instrument. The piano technician needs to check the pins to see if the piano has ability to hold the tension of a properly tuned piano and if the instrument will maintain its pitch and tuning.

2) What is the history of the piano?

How many owners did this piano have .It is very important to know how it has been used .Was it just used in a home by a beginner? Was it in a music school?

3) Should I buy a new or used piano?

This is a question only you can answer after you have educated yourself regarding pianos. In general you will find that you can buy a new entry level piano at about the same price you can buy a professional high quality upright used piano and even though the used piano is older it will still retain its great tone because of its superior construction. Sometimes you can save as much as 50% buying a used piano compared if u were to buy a similar model brand new. When you buy a new piano you should get a manufactures warranty usually around ten years. You should also get a free delivery and set up (if you live locally to where you are buying from) and you will get a free tuning after delivery and a piano bench for the piano. Upright pianos come in many heights anywhere from 42 inches tall right up to over 54 inches tall. In general the taller the piano is the more volume it will have because of the longer strings and larger soundboard. The tone of the piano i.e. if it sounds bright or soft, comes from the quality of construction and the parts used in a individual piano and it is best to look around to see what your options are and the different price ranges offered.

4) What’s included in the price when I purchase a piano?

When you buy a piano there is price to consider but also the overall cost to you. A piano that is new or used needs to be tuned after being moved also the cost of moving should be considered as well as if there is any kind of warranty on the piano parts and labour and you should get a piano bench if possible.

Also remember that all piano companies make entry level, midlevel and high end pianos.  It is important to know which level of quality you are looking at and not just get caught up in a single brand name but more importantly what kind of quality parts were used in that price range.

Important components of a piano

  1. TUNING PINS/PIN BLOCK
  2. STRINGS
  3. BRIDGES
  4. SOUNDBOARD
  5. PEDALS
  6. ACTION

A piano has over 10,000 parts that work together to make a piano sound and feel to its maximum potential, in this section we will break them down to there major components.

1) Tuning pins and pinblock

Playing a piano and learning to play a piano is lots fun. It is very motivating and inspiring when the piano is in tune. This is especially important with beginners because playing a beautiful sounding piano is a rewarding experience.  This experience motivates them to practice more.  With this in mind the tuning stability of a piano is very important that a piano gets tuned and stays in tune. The tuning pins and the and pinblock are at the heart of this capability .The tuning pins go into a hard piece of a laminated wood which should be made from hard rock maple it is the preferred choice for pinblock construction. The tuning pins enter the pinblock where a good pinblock will be able hold a minimum of 100lbs of pressure. This will ensure the strings will be held at a good tension and hold pitch. A qualified technician can check it with a special tool.

2) Strings

The quality of strings and their condition are another very important factor when looking for a piano.  Pianos have both bass and treble strings.  The bass strings have a copper winding around them and the treble strings are made of steel.  The condition of the strings can be visually inspected to see if there is any rust or corrosion.

3) Bridges

The bridges can be found near the bottom of the piano attached to the soundboard. This is where the sound and vibrations of the strings are passed on to the soundboard which is the amplifier of the piano.  If this part of the piano is not working efficiently it will dramatically affect the sound and tone of the piano. There are two bridges; a bass bridge and a treble bridge.  The bass bridge passes the sound of the bass strings to the soundboard and the treble bridge passes the sound from the treble strings.  It is important that both bridges be solidly glued to the soundboard, have no cracks and the strings are attached properly.

4) Soundboard

The soundboard is basically the amplifier of the piano.  You will find it at the back of the piano. Some entry level and mid-level piano use laminated spruce which is not very good.  A good soundboard is made of spruce.  Sound travels 10 times faster with the grain of the wood so the straighter and tighter the grain the better it is.  In a used piano you should also check to see if there are any cracks or major separations on the soundboard as these will also affect the sound.

5) Pedals

Pianos will have either 2 or 3 pedals. The most commonly used pedal is called the damper or sustain pedal.  It is the pedal on the right hand side.  When this pedal is used it allows the piano strings resonate after the key is released.  The pedal to the far left is usually the bass sustain pedal. When this pedal is used it will soften the piano sound by moving the hammers closer to the strings.  The pedal in the middle is, in most cases, a study pedal which lets you play the piano at a very low volume.  Be sure that the pedals don’t make excessive noise when they are used.

6) The Action

The action of a piano is everything that happens in the piano from pressing the key to the hammer hitting the string. This is the most expensive and sensitive part of the piano. The action is what gives the piano its feel and the ability to have good or bad control of the dynamics and speed of playing the keys.  If you are looking at a used piano, you should check to see that the hammers are aligned properly and if the felts on the hammers appear in good condition.

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