When I was working full-time in the showrooms of piano shops I would tend to use analogies a lot. I found that for most people buying a piano is typically a once or maybe twice in a lifetime event for the buyer. That being the case, most people know very little about buying a piano but they do know more about buying other things. I would use the analogy of buying a car or small truck since most of us have done that a number of times. Not all cars are the same and what would be good fit for one person might not be good for the next. A big pickup would be illogical for most big-city urbanites and a sub-compact would be equally impractical for farm use. It is the same situation when you are looking for a piano. Some people want something big that has a powerful sound. Sometimes people want something small that won’t overpower a room. Most people have at least a general idea of what type of instrument that they are looking for when they come in but some do not. Here are some questions to ask:
- Do I want an upright or a grand piano?
- What is the performance level of the person playing?
- If it is for a beginner, do I want something that just meets the need now or do I want an instrument that will be viable as their skill improves?
- Am I familiar with name brands and is that important to me?
- How important is the look, style and color of the piano for my home?
- Do I have a realistic budget? Am I willing to stretch if I find something extraordinary?
- Might I be trading up in the future and does this shop have a trade-up policy?
- Will I be getting a teacher’s input or am I good with making the decision myself?
Let’s discuss the different types of pianos. The two broad categories are uprights (verticals) and grand pianos. Grand pianos are not just bigger, they are also designed differently. The action on an upright piano is operated in part by springs but the grand uses gravity and it is, therefore, slightly more efficient and easier to control. Also, the keys are longer on a grand so that also gives you more leverage and control. The strings are open to the air on a grand piano so that tends to give you more sound. Grand pianos and uprights both come in different sizes. I am not a fan of the smallest instruments in either category. Petite size grand pianos are the ones that are under 5’ long. They look nice but usually do not have a very rich sound, especially in the low range. It is hard to build a piano that small with much sonic oomph. Baby grands usually start about 5’ long and studio grands or musician size grands usually start about 5’10” and go all the way up to about 7’ for those who want a bodacious sound. Full size concert grands are generally about 9’ long and in the past, most commonly found on concert stages. Today, concert grands are finding their way into private homes of serious pianist’s or those who have rooms large enough to accommodate these amazing instruments. One more tip. Don’t ever, ever even consider something called a square grand. These are ancient instruments and they are the piano equivalent of a toxic waste dump even though they sometimes look beautiful. You can tell a square grand because they are…square and they have less than 88 keys. You probably will not see one but if you do…just say no!
Upright or vertical pianos are, as the name suggests, pianos where the strings go up and down instead of length-wise. They go against the wall (with a two or three inch air space) and are usually a bit more size-friendly for very small rooms than grand pianos. Let’s break a myth right here. When your great grandmother bought her first piano it was important that it be on an inside wall because the walls had no insulation. If your home was built in the last 50 years or if it has had insulation added then this is probably not a factor. It is far more important that you do not put your piano directly over a heater vent or within five feet of an active fireplace, woodstove or kitchen stove. If you have to put your piano in front of a window make sure that it is an insulated window and not one of the old aluminum framed ones.
There are five types of vertical pianos: spinets, consoles, studios, modern (pro) uprights and old uprights. If the piano is 39 inches tall or less it is probably a spinet. Trust me and just move on. Baldwin made about the only decent spinets and even they were severely compromised. The actions are inefficient and the strings are too short to produce a good sound. They are also very difficult to tune properly. Consoles are a better choice and they run about 40 to 44 inches high. They are home style pianos that can have a decent sound for beginners and advanced beginners and they usually look pretty (though some can look quite dated if their style is no longer popular). There is usually a significant sonic difference between a short older console and a more modern taller one. I like studio uprights and own one myself. They are typically 44 to 46 inches high and usually look more austere and business-like. They are generally built for more professional use and can compete sound-wise with small grands. Modern or professional uprights are 47 to 52 inches tall and are often polished or satin black (though you do see some wood finishes). These can be very good instruments and usually have a big sound (at least for a vertical piano). With a few exceptions I usually strongly recommend that the novice buyer stay as far away from the old vintage uprights as possible. You know the ones. They are as tall as you are (or close) and just look old. There was an old Tom Hanks movie called the Money Pit. The title referred to an old home but the concept is the same – you will spend a ton refurbishing them. The old uprights were built 80 to 120 years ago and they had an original design lifespan of about 45 years. Newer pianos can go a bit longer but pianos do not improve with age like violins or acoustic guitars. It is just the opposite. Strings go dead (very expensive to change), actions get loosy goosy, dampers get hard, etc. etc. I touched on this last post but when you see one of these (unless you know that it has been COMPLETELY rebuilt) you should hear that voice is the bullhorn saying, “folks, this is the piano police. Just close the fallboard and step away from the instrument.”
In the next segment we will discuss how to choose a dealer, private party pianos and a few closing caveats. Keep practicing!