What is Your Piano’s Pedigree?

Pianos are romantic, music making devices. Just their presence in a room elicits emotions. Especially once someone starts to play them, the music can really move us. There are also stars that have created timeless scenes with the help of pianos. Where would the movie Casablanca be without Sam’s piano? The concert grand at the White House is famous. Jerry Lee Lewis once actually upstaged guitar hero Chuck Berry with his grand piano. Of course he had to light it on fire, but I can guarantee that the audience was watching that piano more than Jerry Lee.

Pianos also have an air of mystery. Anybody can tell where the music comes from on a guitar, violin or drum but what really goes on inside that complex box of musical pandemonium? We know that there are levers, widgets (actually whippens), strings, and hammers, but how it all comes together to make music is an enigma to all but the most piano geekish among us. So what you have in a piano is a beautiful box with a big question mark on it, filled with romance and the ability to seamlessly integrate itself into almost any style.

All this being said, the piano has a mystique and mystiques are prone to spawn exaggeration, apocryphal stories, half-truths, and tall tales. Piano salespeople can exacerbate these exaggerations and inaccuracies either by innocent ignorance or sometimes not so innocently. I thought that as a former piano salesperson and someone who is a fan of getting to the bottom of things, I might set a few things straight about piano’s and their pedigrees. I would like to confine my comments to new pianos or we will be here all night.

In the late 1800s, there were over four hundred piano manufacturers in New York City alone and a large number in Chicago as well. Today, there are only two of significant size: Steinway and Mason & Hamlin. They are both owned and operated by independent corporations. To my knowledge, no original family members have any positions of authority in either company. That does not mean that they do not make good pianos or that they do not consider themselves trusties of a builder heritage.

Baldwin, a famous brand which we carry, is no longer built in the USA but it is owned by the American Gibson Guitar Company and I know for a fact that they are extremely sensitive to their heritage and only allow the finest materials, craftsmanship and engineering designs to bear the Baldwin name. Many of the materials and sub assemblies for the Baldwin do come from the US and other western countries. Baldwins have been and continue to be extensively used by professionals and concert halls around the world. Pretty much any other pianos with a historical American name like Kohler, Campbell or Knabe or a myriad of others is a stencil piano. Meaning that it is merely an import Asian piano with a famous name stenciled on the fall board and with virtually no relationship or ties to the original piano company. In some cases, the name of any one of a half dozen different historical builders will be applied to identical pianos in a large factory. Again, this does not mean that they are not good pianos, but they are never the first or second tier handmade instruments that their names would seem to suggest.

An interesting fact is that Portland Piano Company carries three other famous lines: Fazioli from Italy, Grotrian from Germany, and Kawai from Japan. In an odd coincidence, all three of these companies have strong connections to the founding families. Grotrian Pianos is still family owned by decendents of co-founder Friedrich Grotrian (the other founder was Henry Steinway). Paolo Fazioli still owns the piano company he started. And the CEO of Kawai company is and always has been a member of the Kawai family. In a world where piano brands are rarely what they appear, it’s nice to know that some piano companies still have a strong historical and family connection. It does make a difference when your name is on the fall board.

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