Buying a piano

MY OPINIONS ON BUYING A PIANO

Please note that this page shows my opinions only and any advice given is only my own personal opinion: you act on such advice entirely at your own risk! (Updated 2021)

(THIS IS A BIT OF A BORING READ, BUT IT WILL BE WORTH YOUR WHILE!!)

First you need to decide what the piano is for - is it for a beginner to ‘try’ for a while, with no guarantee they will continue(!) or is it for a more advanced player, upwards of, say, grade 4?
And what is your budget?
Finally, whatever you decide to go for, you need to bear in mind that it will cost you at least £120 to get it moved, and it will need tuning about six weeks after it has been moved, which, for a first tune, will normally cost in the region of £65-£100.

Beginner / low budget (generally to be looked upon as a temporary option!):

Recycling websites such as Freecycle (http://uk.freecycle.org/) are a good place to start. Gumtree is increasingly worth checking out, as there are a lot of 'free to good home' pianos - just ensure that you check what it will cost you to transport the piano first! Ebay is also worth a visit, and if you are a regular Ebay user, you will understand the feedback rating system and have a better chance of picking up a bargain! You need to find a piano that is:

Overstrung - the bass strings cross over the treble strings and this is a more modern design (although the piano could still be over 100 years old!);

Underdamped (on uprights only) - the dampers (the bits of felt that stop the sound when you let the note go) are BELOW or UNDER the hammers (the bits of hard felt that hit the string to make the noise). An easy way to check this is to press the right hand pedal (the sustain pedal); this lifts all of the dampers off the strings so that you can easily identify where and what the dampers are;

Avoid - straightstrung (strings are all completely vertical) overdampers (dampers over/above the hammers) which will look a bit like a birdcage when you take the front off, as these will generally be AT LEAST 100 years old and are of an obsolete design; the damping isn’t very efficient and they are quite often clumsy to play. Having said that, if you get given one which is in working order and sounds reasonable, it is likely to be tuneable and useable as a first piano, but don’t spend money buying one of these!

It is essential to go and see the piano and carry out the following checks:

Ensure that all of the notes work (white AND black) - if one or two don’t, this is probably not a big problem, but if five or ten don’t work, it is likely to be a sign of a bigger problem and best avoided. (You can ask this question when you telephone / email to make an appointment to view, which could save you a wasted journey!)

Check the pedals - the right pedal should make the notes hold on or 'linger' after you have let the note go; when you release the pedal, all noise should stop fairly immediately; the left pedal will move the hammers forward on an upright, so that they cannot travel as far, therefore quietening the sound a bit, although it doesn’t make a difference to the tone; on a grand piano, the whole keyboard should move to the right (or occasionally the left) slightly - this means that the strings are struck by a different, softer part of the hammer, and so as well as quietening the notes slightly, this does soften the tone as well.

Does it sound reasonable? If it hasn’t been used for a long time, and therefore probably hasn’t been tuned either, you wouldn’t expect it to sound brilliant, but you should be able to recognise what you are playing on it. Even if it hasn’t been tuned for a long time, you shouldn’t find single notes that sound like they are playing two or even three notes - this would be an indication of loose pins, which in the case of just one or two isn’t insurmountable, but if there are more than, say, three notes doing this, then there is probably a wider problem appearing and the piano is best avoided.

Find out about the history of the piano - if it has been anywhere damp in its recent history, such as a garage, outhouse, conservatory, etc., then there is likely to be excess rust on the strings, which can cause problems, so this would be best avoided. Has it been tuned regularly (at least annually, but preferably six monthly), and when was it last tuned? If the answer is ‘Yes’ and ‘within the past year or two’ then this is good news (and ask for proof if they have it!), although it may not mean that the piano is up to concert pitch, but I can get most pianos up to concert pitch eventually (at the rate of a maximum of one semitone per tune) - I can count on one hand the number of pianos I have not been able to get up to pitch over the last quarter of a century!! If it hasn’t been tuned regularly, this would not necessarily be a problem, but do be extra vigilant with all of the checks described here.

Use your common sense - if the piano is badly knocked about or the veneer is blistered / shows signs of water damage, this would indicate that the piano has been abused and would be best left; on the other side of the coin, if it is a beautiful piece of furniture in lovely condition, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good piano, although it does generally indicate that the piano hasn’t been abused. at least!

Get a quote for moving it BEFORE you agree to have / buy it: things like many stairs / steps to negotiate, and obviously, distance, as well as the size of the piano (particularly in the case of grands) can make a big difference to the cost of moving a piano, so ensuring that you know what the cost will be before you decide is worthwhile. (Local house moving firms are often a good place to go to for a quote; if you are a considerable distance away, you may be better trying national house movers, as they may be able to pick the piano up when they are in the area, and then deliver it to you when they are next nearby, which may involve the piano going into a warehouse for a week or two, but that shouldn't hurt it as long as it is not for too long.)

Do your research if you are buying a piano - Ebay will allow you to see recently sold prices, and you can search by make / type / price etc., so that you can get an idea of what prices similar pianos are selling for at any particular time:
If you are buying privately, you will then have an idea of whether the piano is worth what the seller is asking for it; you could try to make a more realistic offer based on what you have found, and quite often, if you show a seller evidence that they have overpriced their piano, they will accept your offer!
If you are buying off Ebay, you can then decide where to pitch your maximum bid, then put it in and LEAVE THE SYSTEM TO DO THE REST!! Do not sit at your computer waiting for the bidding to end as you will be likely to get carried away and bid more than the piano is worth!

If you have chosen to go down this route, good luck! If you follow the above tips, you won’t generally go far wrong, but don’t forget that with older secondhand pianos like this, THERE ARE NO CAST IRON GUARANTEES!

For the more advanced player / higher budget:

This is a lot simpler - go for a secondhand Yamaha U1 (medium sized), U2 (bit bigger) or U3 (pretty big and imposing, but generally OMG tone & action!) - there are plenty of them about and reconditioned examples from the 1970s can be picked up from about £4500 upwards; these pianos are imported from Japan, where they are played for many hours a day as a rule and replaced with new pianos every 20 to 30 years, so they have no need for secondhand pianos in Japan itself! Some of them are reconditioned in China before they come over here, while the rest have the work done over here. In some cases a lot needs doing, and in other cases very little has to be done, but either way, what needs doing will have been done and you should get many many years of trouble free use out of what are world beating pianos (as long as you keep them tuned & serviced regularly). There are other modern secondhand pianos about, but this is what I would go for personally as I think they are great pianos and represent excellent value for money. Yes, you can buy a brand new piano for less, but not a Yamaha of this quality, and nowhere near as good a piano. The other advantage of this option is that you will normally be able to get something close to your money back if you end up not playing it much and decide you no longer want it (within a few years), as there is a good secondhand market for these pianos.

There are a few retailers about that sell examples of these pianos, but the only one who I have actually tuned for and therefore have experience of (about fifty of his pianos over the past fifteen years) is www.markgoodwinpianos.co.uk and I can vouch for the fact that his Yamahas are very good, and where there is a problem, I sort it out for him and he pays my invoice under the guarantee he provides; he has pianos at premises in Manchester and London. Of course, that is not to say that other retailers selling such pianos are not just as good, but Mark is the only one of them I have tuned for.

And then there’s the brand new option!

Of course, you could always go for a brand new piano, and your options are multiple! There are a number of shops around, all a bit of a distance away unfortunately, but they will be happy to spend time with you to ensure that you get exactly what you want. The advantage of this option is that you can choose exactly what you want and most shops will prepare a new piano to your own specification in terms of tone and, in some cases, touch weight as well, although they may charge extra for this. You generally get a five year guarantee with new pianos, and if you find a particular model from a well known maker (like Yamaha or Bechstein for example), you can often get a very good deal by playing shops off against one another! Ensure that you get delivery, a stool, and the first tuning included - the first tuning is really important because the shop will commission a tuner (quite often me in the areas I cover!) to perform the post delivery tune, during which they will check over the piano thoroughly during the tuning process, and report back any faults (not that there are any very often), which the shop will then arrange to be sorted.

Although I don’t recommend any particular pianos (although I am a fan of Yamahas and I think that the U range even beats many of the much more expensive German pianos that are available), there is a British designed (Chinese built) make of piano that I have come across which I have been very impressed with - so impressed in fact, that the school that I used to teach at purchased one of their (very nice) grand models: Venables pianos are only available from the retailer who is responsible for them - Chris Venables Pianos (http://www.chrisvenables.co.uk/), in Ringwood (about 20 minutes north of Bournemouth) and they have a range of uprights and grands which are well worth checking out as they are well built, really nice sounding, and good value for money, in my own (educated!), personal opinion. (They also have a shed-load of other new pianos, and are Yamaha and Petrof dealers to boot.)

And finally, Kawai pianos seem to be very good these days; I'm not a massive fan, as they don't have a repetition rail (and most dealers don't even know what a repetition rail is!), while Yamahas do, but they play very well and generally have a pleasant tone, sometimes more suited to European tastes than Yamahas, and the repetition rail is a regulation tool that comes in handy as pianos get a lot older, so probably not worth worrying about anyway at this stage!! New Kawais are similarly priced to s/h (similar sized) Yamahas, so are a good budget option for a good quality new piano, and many dealers sell Kawai pianos, including josefspianos.co.uk, who are a family business, and from whom a few of my customers have bought pianos in the past and been impressed with the service!


JUST TO REPEAT THAT THIS ARTICLE CONSTITUTES MY OPINIONS ONLY AND WHILST RECOMMENDATIONS ARE BASED ON MY OWN EXPERIENCE, PAST EXPERIENCE IS NOT NECESSARILY AN INDICATOR OF FUTURE PERFORMANCE!!

AND FINALLY... after reading all of this and spending some time looking at different pianos, if you would like further advice, give me a bell (07967 371132) and I’ll do my best to help.

Happy piano hunting!!!