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Advice About Used Pianos For Parents of Young Beginning Piano Students


There are many common misconceptions about buying pianos for young students, and one of them is that a suitable piano can be had for only a few hundred dollars. The truth is that, to progress, young students need better pianos, not worse.

Parents may not want to invest a lot of money in a piano — after all, the child may lose interest — so an older, cheaper piano may seem the logical place to start. However, a bad purchasing decision at this point in a student’s learning tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In many cases a piano that is too old, too small, or simply not good enough will soon become useless to the student. Students don’t have enough experience to distinguish between a bad piano and their own lack of ability. When a piano’s action can’t be regulated to the correct touch, or its strings tuned to a harmonious sound, the student, unable to duplicate what was taught in a lesson, will become frustrated and discouraged, and will lose interest. No amount of practice on such an instrument can overcome its shortcomings. And when you include other factors — the costs of moving, tuning, and repairs; an older piano’s shorter remaining life; lack of warranty protection; the need to hire experts to make repeated trips to evaluate the conditions of various older pianos — a new or more recently made instrument may start to look like a bargain in the long run.

Piano Finders

For these reasons, I would encourage the financially able family to look at good-quality new pianos, or better used pianos no more than 15 years old. And with a young talented student, moving up to a quality grand is never a mistake. If an older piano is chosen, it should be one that was of good quality to begin with, and has been restored to like-new condition. If you’re concerned about a child’s continuing interest, I suggest renting a new instrument now, with an option to purchase it later. Most reputable piano dealers offer month-to-month rental programs.

Although good and bad pianos have been made in every decade, and every used piano must be evaluated on its own merits, certain decades or categories of piano frequently found in today’s used-piano market should raise red flags:

Old uprights — These are usually 48" to 60" high and somewhere around 100 years old. Many buyers will purchase an old upright with the idea that it might have antique value, then quickly find out that it doesn’t.  In some instances, buyers fascinated by old uprights see them as an opportunity to tinker with and learn something about pianos. There’s nothing wrong with this — as long as a young student is not saddled with it.

Most pianos that are a century old and have not been discarded will need extensive restoration before they can be useful to the student, but few are worth enough to have such work performed on them. Many have difficulty holding a tuning, and/or desperately need new strings, hammers, dampers, or pedal repairs — or all of the above. Parents who purchase these deteriorating instruments as practice pianos for beginners will probably face a constant stream of complaints and subsequent repairs. In most cases, this category of used piano should be avoided for use in serious practice.


Here are some brand names from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — and others from a little earlier and later — that are probably best avoided by students, though some may be acceptable for casual use if carefully serviced or reconditioned.

The names in the left column were some of the many brand names owned and made by the Aeolian Corporation, which went out of business in 1985. Many of these, and other names not listed, were “stencil pianos” — essentially identical instruments with different names applied to them, to meet dealers’ needs. Note that this list applies to the use of these names only during the mid to late 1900s. Some of these names were used in earlier periods on fine pianos, and several are still being used today, but on pianos that have no connection to the ones warned about here.

  • Bradbury
  • Cable
  • Duo Art
  • George Steck
  • Hallet, Davis & Co.
  • Hardman, Peck & Co.
  • Henry F. Miller
  • Ivers & Pond
  • J. & C. Fischer
  • Kranich & Bach
  • Melodigrand
  • Pianola
  • Poole
  • Vose & Sons
  • Winter & Co.
Other U.S.-made brands of the period
  • Betsy Ross (by Lester)
  • Brambach (by Kohler & Campbell)
  • Currier
  • Estey
  • Grand
  • Gulbransen
  • Hobart M. Cable (by Story & Clark)
  • Jesse French (by Grand)
  • Kincaid (by Grand)
  • La Petite (by Kimball)
  • Lester
  • Marantz (by Grand/Marantz)
  • Rudolf Wurlitzer (by Wurlitzer)
  • Westbrook (by Currier)
  • Whitney (by Kimball)
Foreign-made brands of the period
  • Belarus (Belarus)
  • Daewoo (Korea)
  • Horugel (Korea)
  • J. Strauss (various countries)
  • Sojin (Korea)
  • Suzuki (China)
  • Tokai (Japan)

Small, cheap, American-made pianos from the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s — During this period, American companies started feeling the competition from Japanese (and, later, Korean) makers who could undercut their prices. The result was that the few remaining American makers of inexpensive pianos began to cut as much cost as they could from their production. In addition, small pianos, especially spinets, were heavily promoted for their cabinet styling at the expense of their musical qualities.

Spinets, which are 36" to 40" high, have a recessed, or “drop,” action that is connected to the keys with long “stickers” of wood or metal. These actions are difficult — and thus expensive — to repair. Also, during the 1950s and early ’60s, many spinet actions were manufactured with connecting parts, called “elbows,” made of plastic — a technology then in its infancy — which eventually deteriorated and broke off. Installing a set of replacement elbows can cost hundreds of dollars.

Spinets were usually the least expensive entry-level pianos a company would manufacture, and most are not worth repairing. Many of these small, cheap pianos were so poorly designed and constructed that, even when new, and regulated and tuned as well as possible, they played poorly and sounded terrible.

The first wave of pianos from this era began to enter the used-piano market in the 1980s, as the people who originally purchased them began to retire. But many others were passed on to this generation’s children, and now, as those children retire, a second wave of these instruments is entering the market. Even pianos from this period that were well made — and there were some — are now 30 to 50 years old, and so are likely to need some restoration before they will be suitable for the student. Caution should be used to separate those that have potential as good student instruments from those that don’t. (See sidebar for some of the names from this period to be avoided.)

Early offerings from Korean and Chinese makers — Korean pianos made before the early 1990s, and Chinese pianos from before the early 2000s, often exhibit unpredictable, idiosyncratic problems. Quality control was erratic, and wood was often not properly seasoned, resulting in sticking keys and binding cabinet parts. Replacement parts can be difficult to obtain. Especially problematic were the small console pianos without legs (continental furniture style).  These pianos tend to be plagued with sticking keys that repeat too slowly due to poor action design, a problem that can’t be inexpensively corrected.

Of course, the used-piano market also offers many well-made pianos from the past, including some with famous names, that are of potential value to a student, but these can also present pitfalls for the unwary. Don’t buy, without professional guidance, a piano that is not thoroughly playable and tunable, with the idea that you can simply have a few inexpensive repairs done once you get the piano home. Get repair estimates before you commit to purchasing any used piano. Every piano technician with any experience has stories of arriving at a tuning appointment to work on a newly acquired piano, only to find an unserviceable instrument. The fact that the instrument may have been rebuilt sometime in the past is not necessarily an advantage. A piano that was rebuilt 40 years ago is no better than a 40-year-old piano that has never been rebuilt, and if the rebuilding job was not competently done, it could be worse — it’s more difficult to properly restore an instrument when certain critical design specifications have been modified due to a past restorer’s mistakes.

Finally, don’t rely on a private seller for important information about the piano you’re thinking of buying. Even the best-intentioned sellers — including ones who play well — tend not to be knowledgeable about piano construction and mechanics, and may have absorbed erroneous information about the instrument, or forgotten important things about its history. Hire a piano technician to inspect any piano you’re seriously considering buying. Sometimes, just a phone call to a technician will be enough to verify whether or not a particular instrument should be considered a serious candidate; if it is, the next step is an inspection by that technician. 

Over the past 35 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry: service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role as a concert-piano technician, she has tuned and prepared pianos for concert and recording work in such venues as Town Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. At present, Phillips lives in Georgia and works throughout the southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at [email protected].

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Reader Comments

Disheartening article of yours.
By: Created: 02/24/2019
Apparently if one takes your advice a student unlike yourself with the financial backing of your wealthy snobbish background should not accept a 30 or 40 yr old well maintained and regularly tuned Wurlitzer or Kimball for which there are plenty. I have personally donated several pianos of this condition and the recipients were more than grateful as well as wise to accept. Your article is very biased as your spoiled.

DeVoe & Son or W.S. Wessel
By: Br. Mariano Created: 01/24/2019
Anybody know anything about these two piano builders?

Answer to Kimball Spinet
By: Larry Fine Created: 01/08/2019

If the piano's musical insides are in poor condition, you would be doing a disservice to someone to give it to them. If in good condition, however, it might serve as a beginner piano for someone who could not otherwise afford one. Then they can step up to a better instrument later if and when they can afford to. However, as long as you don't misrepresent the piano's quality and condition, it's up to the prospective donee to decide whether it's right for them. It's not your call to make.

Should I give away my Kimball Spinet?
By: Jeffrey Created: 01/04/2019
My wife bought a Kimball Model 3093 piano in the mid-1980s and it has seen little use (outside it is like new). It is 37-1/4" tall, Queen Anne style, with cherry finish. I've seen these advertised for $250 - $500. She was a proficient player; I don't know why she was sold a 37" piano instead of a 42", but that is irrelevant now! If I sell it, someone would have to pay for delivery and tuning. BUT, MY QUESTION IS THIS: if I give it away, as it sits, am I doing someone a favor, or a dis-service?

Answer to 1949 Hazelton Brothers
By: Larry Fine Created: 12/30/2018
We have an excellent article on how to sell or donate a piano. See https://www.pianobuyer.com/Articles/Detail/ArticleId/28/HOW-TO-SELL-YOUR-PIANO

1949 Hazelton Brothers console piano
By: Cynthia C. Created: 12/30/2018
I inherited a 1949 Hazelton Brothers console piano and would like to find out how I can sell it? I do not know how or where to begin to sell a piano, can you give me some advice? I live in the New York City area.

1887 Mason & Hamlin's Screw stringer piano
By: annebee Created: 12/27/2018
Amazing Piano that maintains tune/tone. My daughter was selling this piano. It was beautiful and still in great condition. I was totally impressed how it sounded even though it had not been tuned in years. Piano's have fallen in to the trap of mass production. Wish it was possible to trace the History of a piano like DNA has done for ancestry.

Who is Earl Maxwell?
By: Paula Created: 12/23/2018
I have a Baby Grand and it only says Earl Maxwell with date of 9/25/57. Do you have any info on this Piano or its maker?

Age of piano isn't always a factor.
By: Jeff Alterman Created: 11/25/2018
Although it might be best to acquire a used piano that is no more than 20 years of age, there are those people who cannot afford a recently made used piano. Many times an older one will have to do. This doesn't mean that the piano is on its last legs. Many older pianos can serve a child that is starting out provided that they are still in good enough condition.

Gulbransen Pianos
By: Jeff Alterman Created: 11/22/2018
I have come across a few Gulbransen pianos for many years. They were probably medium quality pianos at best. Like practically all other piano manufacturers, they started to make spinets and consoles during the mid to late 1930s. The Gulbransen consoles were generally O.K. The later Gulbransen spinets were not that great and probably not worthwhile. I think that the studio uprights were also O.K., but not great.

Used-piano brands to buy
By: Larry Fine Created: 11/05/2018
Several comments have asked what brands of used piano to buy. There is no good answer to that question, because whether to buy a particular used piano, in most cases, depends on its condition rather than its brand name. That said, Baldwin, Kawai, Steinway, and Yamaha are probably the most common choices, and among the most likely to give satisfaction and have good resale value. You can also find a list of better brands of the period from 1900 to 1930 in our main article on buying a used piano.

Piano BRANDS to avoid
By: MH Created: 11/05/2018
One of the piano brand Suzuki from the list listed as a Chinese brand but Suzuki is Japanese brand. I feel like too many brand from the list should be avoided. I’d like to know a list of piano Brands to buy.

Answer to Gulbransen upright
By: Larry Fine Created: 11/02/2018
The article speaks specifically to "the financially-able family" and suggests that they invest in a better piano if they can afford to. A sufficiently motivated student can learn on almost anything, and a lesser-quality piano is better than none. Also, the article speaks of Gulbransen (and others) from the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, mostly spinets and consoles. Somewhat older and larger Gulbransens, if in good condition, may have been fine.

I learned how to play on a Gulbransen upright
By: www.lee-allen-pianist.com Created: 11/01/2018
... and it was great. So I guess my inner-city single-mother schoolteacher mom should have insisted on a Bösendorfer or nothing huh?

What brands would you recommend for a child?
By: Priya Created: 10/23/2018
Thanks for the very informative article! What brands would you recommend for a child learning the piano?

Answer to "Poole Piano"
By: Larry Fine Created: 09/17/2018
Piano appraisals take some time and thought to do properly. The best course of action is to hire a piano technician to inspect and appraise a piano. Alternatively, but possibly less accurately (because we can't inspect the piano), we have a Seller Advisory Service through which we give an opinion of value for a fee. See https://www.pianobuyer.com/Classifieds-Services/Seller-Advisory-Service

Poole Piano
By: Bill Johnson Created: 09/17/2018
I am trying to appraise a 1922 Poole grand piano. Very little information can be found on it. In the mid-20th Century, the Poole name was absorbed into the giant Aeolian-American Corporation, and Aeolian continued to build the Poole name until the early 1980s. SN: A72224, Black, Need help to determine value it has been completly rebuilt. Bill Johnson 313 595-7802 Email: [email protected]

Answer to Estey for $1700
By: Created: 08/19/2018
Pianos were made under the Estey name by various makers from the mid-1800s to the late 1900s. It's unclear when your piano was made -- the serial number suggests about 1928, but the Pierce Piano Atlas is a little vague about this. In any case, the brand names mentioned in the article refer to their use during the period during the mid to late 1900s, and your piano may not be from this era. The best route to take is to have the piano inspected by a piano technician before purchase.

What brands ARE recommended?
By: Created: 08/16/2018
I read your article and found myself much better informed. I have but one question, what brands WOULD you recommend to be on the look out for in the newer slightly used pianos or new ones altogether. thanks for the reply. sincerely, a parent of child learning piano.

Estey for $1700??
By: Joan N Created: 08/16/2018
We want to buy our son a baby grand. Found a used one for $1700. It is an Estey and has the numbers 7599 on a small metal plate. Some of the keys have chipped edges (according to post). We have an appointment to see it tomorrow. Are all Esteys ones to stay away from?

Tyrolian upright piano
By: Created: 08/01/2018

What age is this piano and who makes it? It is 43" high 60" wide and 23" deep. Is this a good piano?

Answer to "Which one?"
By: Larry Fine Created: 06/19/2018
You've given very little information: Grand or vertical? What models? Any restoration work done to any of them? Being sold privately or by a dealer? The same price or different prices? It's also hard to imagine that a 50-year-old piano would be in the same "excellent condition" as a 6-year-old one. Nonetheless, on the basis of what little information you've given, and knowing nothing else, I would say that the 6-year-old Samick would be the best choice.

Which one?
By: Dawn Created: 06/17/2018
If i have the option of a 6 year old Samick, a 25 year old Young Chang, a 50 year old Baldwin or a 30 year old Mendelson all in excellent shape what would be your pick?

great article
By: Created: 06/10/2018

It sure is nice to know how one should look for good quality pre-owned pianos, specifically those that will not exceed 15 years old. I believe that while pianos are durable and are meant to last, buying something older than 15 years may present some difficulties to maintain. Thanks for this information about the age of the piano that we should look for. 

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