Piano Buying Basics
An acoustic piano can be one of the most expensive — and difficult — purchases most households will ever make. The "difficult" aspect arises from several factors that are peculiar to pianos and the piano business. First, a "modern" piano is essentially a 19th-century creation about which few people — even those who have played piano all their lives — know very much, and about which much of what they think they know may not be accurate or current. Thus, a person who sets out to buy a piano is unlikely to have a social support network of family and friends to serve as advisors, as they might if buying a car, house, or kitchen appliance. Even music teachers and experienced players often know little about piano construction or the rapidly changing state of piano manufacturing. They often rely on their past experience with certain brands, most of which have changed significantly.
Second, acoustic pianos are marketed nationally in the United States under some 70 different brand names (plus dozens of additional names marketed locally) from a dozen countries, in thousands of furniture styles and finishes — and that's just new pianos! Many once-popular brands have long gone out of business, yet pianos still bearing their name are made overseas, often to much lower standards, and marketed here. Add in more than a century's worth of used pianos under thousands of brand names in an almost infinite variety of conditions of disrepair and restoration. Just thinking about it makes me dizzy.
Third, new pianos can vary in price from $2,000 to $200,000. But unlike most consumer items, whose differences can be measured by the number of functions performed, or buttons, bells, whistles, and conveniences contained, most pianos, regardless of price, look very similar and do pretty much the same thing: they're shiny and black (or a wood color), play 88 notes, and have three pedals. The features advertised are often abstract, misleading, or difficult to see or understand. For this reason, it's often not clear just what you're getting for your money. This can lead to decision-making paralysis.
Last, while many piano salespeople do an honest and admirable job of guiding their customers through this maze, a significant minority — using lies, tricky pricing games, and false accusations against competing dealers and brands — make the proverbial used-car salesman look like a saint. And once you get through haggling over price — the norm in the piano business — you may be ready for a trip to a Middle East bazaar.
As you shop for a piano, you'll likely be bombarded with a great deal of technical jargon — after all, the piano is a complicated instrument. But don't allow yourself to be confused or intimidated. Although some technical information can be useful and interesting, extensive familiarity with technical issues usually isn't essential to a successful piano-shopping experience, especially when buying a new piano. (A little greater familiarity may be advisable when buying a used or restored instrument.) Most technical information you'll come across relates to how the manufacturer designed the instrument. You should focus on how the instrument sounds, feels, and looks, not how it got that way. In addition, technical features are often taken out of context and manipulated by advertising and salespeople — the real differences in quality are often in subtleties of design and construction that don't make good ad copy.
For 20 years, The Piano Book has acted as a textbook on how to buy a piano, but over the years many people have asked for something a little simpler. Acoustic & Digital Piano Buyer is the answer, and this article is the beginning. For those readers who love reading about the finer technical details, The Piano Book is a must read. But in the interests of brevity and simplicity, we decided in this publication to keep technical details to a minimum.
The purpose of this article is modest: to provide an overview of the piano-buying process, with an emphasis on the decisions you'll have to make along the way, and on the factors that will affect any acoustic piano purchase. To do this succinctly, it will be necessary to make a number of generalizations, which you can discard in favor of more complete or nuanced explanations as you advance toward your goal. References are given to other articles in this publication, or to The Piano Book, for further information on selected topics. In addition, for answers to specific questions that arise while you shop, I recommend visiting the Piano Forum at Piano World (Piano World), the premiere website for everything related to pianos and pianists.