In this installment (check out previous installments here: part 1, part 2) I want to give you some practical tips and checks that you can use in your piano purchasing quest. I’ll try to keep this not overly technical but the geekish among you can dig deeper or contact us with your questions.
First, let’s have a reality check. If you are looking at a new piano or a used piano that is 15 years old or less in good condition and it is from a well respected builder it is probably functionally okay. Modern pianos are typically free of major problems like slipping pin blocks or cracked soundboards that plagued instruments from the early 20th century. Issues can happen but they are not common. You should still sit down and try the action and listen to the over-all sound quality and see if you find it pleasing. That should be a no-brainer but you would be surprised how many people are reluctant to play in front of a piano salesperson.
Analogy time: Imagine going onto a car lot and choosing a car but then not taking it for a test drive because you don’t like to drive in front of people. If you do not play then have a friend play it for you (preferably a friend who actually plays) or you can ask the piano salesperson to play it for you. When I show someone a piano I try to play ‘objectively’ but some instruments are more inspirational than others. Some buyers like to have an independent piano technician go over the piano. If this is a big investment that might not be a bad idea but it is probably over-kill if the piano is under $2000 since the tech will probably charge at least $100 and probably more to go over it. One more important caveat here is that all bets are off if this is a used piano owned or used by a professional or used in a school. Think car with 200,000 miles.
Tips and Checks
I will digress from my digressing now and get back to the tips and checks. A little pen light is a great item to have when probing the dusty innards of a piano. You might print this list out and keep it with you as a reference while you are doing your inspection.
Hammers: Check the faces of the hammers. Are there big grooves, little grooves or is there little or no wear. Especially check the hammers from middle C on down because they will typically show more wear from the bigger strings in the bass range. This is like the old trick on a used car of looking to see how much wear is on the pedals if the reading on the odometer looks too low to be believed. The wear on hammers is a big clue as to how much the piano has been played. Guitars sound better when they are played a lot. Pianos just wear out. If the look of the hammers doesn’t match the rest of the insides of the piano it may mean that they have been changed. Also, if the hammers look unusually small they may have been reshaped by a technician at least once – another indication of wear.
Over-ring (strings continue to ring after you lower the dampers): With the dampers closed (foot off the pedal) come down pretty hard with both hands on a big chord and then release. You should here just a smidge of very high frequency over-ring. This comes from sympathetic vibrations of the highest octave of the piano – which is open without dampers. If some notes continue to ring like pesky Monday morning telemarketers on your phone you have damper issues. They either need to be adjusted or replaced.
Action: The usual way to check an action is just to play it. Is there lost motion? Does it seem smooth, stiff or loosy-goosy like all of the pivot points are worn out.
Dynamics: Most pianos can play loudly but only great pianos can play softly. See how softly you can play before you reach the natural limits of the instrument. I like to test this with a one handed chord rather than individual notes. You get a better sense of the dynamic range of the instrument.
Keyboard: Play one note at a time starting at the lowest note and working your way up. If done correctly this should take a minute or two so take your time. You will find that the lower notes are heavier than the high ones but they should be equally smooth and responsive. Are any of the notes out of tune? A little out-of-tune just means that there hasn’t been enough maintenance or weather is affecting the tune but dramatically out-of-tune could mean stability problems and possibly pinblock issues.
Strings: If the bass strings are steel and not copper they are very old and will need replacement. If they are dull and dark copper or dark brass color they are older and the sound is probably on the muted side. Bright copper or brass on the bass strings is best. Warning: Never ever use brass polish on strings. It will destroy the sound.
Tone: Even though tone is subjective depending on personal taste and music style there are still some standards. Is it too bright? The hammers may be too hard and need the attention of a technician. Is the sound tubby like a garage door spring? String replacement is recommended and not cheap. Muted or dull? The hammers may be too soft but more likely the strings are old and dead. Again, expensive to replace. Does it seem anemic in the low range with no bass or fullness? The soundboard may have lost its crown – just walk away, quickly.
Soundboard: If this is an older piano you should check the soundboard. This is the big spruce board that takes up most of the space inside a grand piano or on the back of an upright. Using your pen light check the soundboard for cracks. These should be obvious if they are there. You can do a double check on a grand and have someone crawl under the piano and shine the light up from the bottom while you look for light at the top. If you find cracks just walk away unless it is a super nice upscale piano for a really incredible price. Then, consult a technician and get a written repair estimate before you proceed. A soundboard with crack may also have lost its crown which would be apparent in a really wimpy and thin sounding lower register. As I mentioned above, just walk away.
Next installment we will discuss pianos from different parts of the world. Keep practicing!