When you are in the market for a piano it can be hard to know what to look for with so many brands available. Whether you are a first-time buyer or are looking to upgrade your existing piano, the information in this article will be of great help.
We will answer some of the most common questions asked by people when they are looking to buy a piano.
- What are the different types of upright and grand pianos available?
- What are the major differences between a grand and an upright?
- What piano is right for me or my family?
- What are the best places to find an excellent piano?
- Should I buy a piano from a dealer or purchase one on the used market privately?
- What are some good brands to keep in mind?
And as always, reach out with any questions you may have! Whether the piano is new or used, we would be glad to help you find the perfect piano!
THE PIANO FOR THE LAST 100 YEARS
The piano as we know it today has remained largely unchanged in shape and design for the last 80-100 years. Although many companies have come and gone, the basic way the instrument was made has remained the same.
The only major changes have been in the area of manufacturing. If we were to go back 100 years, we would find that there were around 1000 piano companies manufacturing pianos in the United States. When the great depression hit many of them were forced to close their doors and some even began to manufacture parts to aid in WW II. Today only 4 piano manufactures exist in the United States. Most have moved to Manufacturing in China as labor costs are far cheaper.
DIFFERENT TYPES AND SIZES OF UPRIGHT PIANOS.
Let’s first focus our attention on the upright pianos. Although most people just call any piano that is box shaped an upright There are actually different types of uprights. There are 4 types and they are given different names because of the differences in height.
From smallest to largest you have the following types.
- full sized upright (incredible sounding pianos when restored).
Each of these pianos are of differing qualities with the spinet being the lowest and the full sized upright the highest. Each type offers a different tone and playing experience for the player.
THE SPINET PIANO.
The smallest of the pianos is the spinets. These pianos measure around 36 inches high or lower and were made for homes that did not have room for larger uprights. In 1936 Baldwin introduced the Acrosonic Spinet to the market and it became the largest selling spinet of all time.
Most other manufactures followed suit and by 1940 most pianos were being turned out in the spinet design. Compared to the large bulky uprights, the spinets measured 36-40 inches tall and took up a lot less room in the home.
These “spinet pianos” were not without major drawbacks, however. From the time they were made many players did not like them because they offered a poor playing experience both in tone and playability.
Our short space friendly piano actually has quite a few disadvantages…
THE PROBLEM WITH TUNING A SPINET PIANO
It is actually very hard for a piano tuner to tune a spinet piano and make it sound pleasing to the ear. This is because of how small the string lengths are to compensate for the piano’s smaller size.
When any musical tone is produced, there are several harmonics sounding within that tone. In pianos, the harmonics of each tone or string are actually slightly sharper than what they should be mathematically. We piano tuners call this inharmonicity… don’t worry about memorizing that word.
Because they are so small, spinet pianos have so much inharmonicity that they cannot actually be in tune with themselves. You can hear this most in the bass section of the piano.
The bass notes on a spinet will never sound correct because they cannot be correct. The inharmonicity is so high that the harmonics of a single note can never match up properly with other notes within the piano.
Generally, longer or taller pianos have less inharmonicity than short pianos. When a technician tunes a very short piano such as a spinet, we must make a lot of compromises in order to make the piano sound in tune.
HARDER TO WORK ON
The spinet piano began to be produced during the 1930s when the market demanded a smaller cheaper piano. Spinet pianos are generally regarded by most piano technicians as not only harder to tune, but harder to work on because of the design of the “action.”
The action is the complex system of levers and links connecting the keyboard to the hammers. The action in a spinet sits below the keys and connects to the keys using wooden elbows, metal rods and rubber gromets.
With these extra parts you cannot control the notes very well as you have more parts between your finger and the hammer striking the string. Sometimes the elbows were made of plastic instead of wood and will break over time as there were problems in the plastics design.
You also have the problems of the rubber gromets drying out and needing replacement. You can replace these parts, but it can get quite expensive and sometimes is not worth the value of the piano.
Because of the spinet design the action must be removed when doing any kind of repairs. This is a simple task on most pianos but on the spinet requires more work. Each rod connecting to the back of each key must be disconnected when removing and reconnected again when reinstalling. Because of this design it makes it harder for technicians to do basic tasks such as replacing a string, repairing a sticking key or replacing a flange.
POOR PLAYING EXPERIENCE
Because spinet pianos have shorter keys, shorter strings, and smaller soundboards, this translates to a poor playing experience for the player and a smaller sounding tone than larger pianos. With a spinet piano you will never have much control over the notes or a full well-balanced tone.
SPINET PIANOS DISCONTINUED
Because of their inferior design and sound quality, the spinet piano was finally discontinued during the 1990’s. I am not sure why it took them 60 years to finally do this.
Because so many spinet pianos were made however you will still find them all over the place on the used market. Some are still in great condition while others are so rough, they should be used for a marshmellow roasting fire.
PURCHASING A SPINET PIANO
We would not recommend a spinet piano to be the first choice of our customers unless on a tight budget. However, if in good condition the Baldwin Acrosonic spinet can be a good starter piano and will last a couple of years before the serious student begins to reach its limitations. This was a popular piano for beginning students and was well thought out in its design.
Unlike spinets consoles are still being made. The console piano is a bit taller than the spinet measuring anywhere from 37 to 44 inches. A good console will always sound better and out play a spinet.
A console piano’s “action” or playing mechanisms are smaller than the spinet because the action does not sit beneath the keys. It sits on top of the keys just like in the taller pianos. Since the console piano was not designed to be very tall however, the parts are made smaller to accommodate.
The tone and playing experience on a console is good but does not quite live up to the playing experience of more professional studio and upright models. We would recommend a console piano over a spinet if you have the budget. Consoles will usually run a few hundred more than a spinet but are well worth the investment as they are better built pianos and do very well in the home.
“THE STUDIO PIANO.
Studio pianos are more professional instruments and measure anywhere from 45 to 50 inches tall. The quality of parts and design of the studio pianos tend to be far better than their smaller counterparts.
Studio pianos have a full sized “action” or playing mechanism that sits directly on top of the keys. This allows for a very professional playing experience. Studio pianos are generally the tallest pianos produced today.
Taller ones are still produced, they are just rare to find and expensive. We would recommend a studio piano even if you are just a beginning student as it will have a great tone and will not hold you back as you advance in your playing abilities.
FULL SIZED UPRIGHT OR “CABINET GRAND.”
Even larger than studio pianos are the full sized upright or Cabinet grand as they are sometimes called. these instruments usually had string lengths and musical capabilities equal and often superior to grand pianos.
Therefore, they were labeled “Upright Grand” or “Cabinet Grand” by their manufactures. These large pianos with their larger soundboards, longer strings, longer keys and larger action were built extremely well and have a big warm tone that you will never get from the smaller pianos.
They are still hanging around by the thousands from the piano heyday of 1880-1930. They measure anywhere from 50 to 58 inches tall and often have beautifully carved case designs as was common for that time period. Many times, these old pianos are dumped to get them out of the way with few piano players realizing what an amazing instrument they could have if they were rebuilt.
Most people have never had the absolute pleasure of playing a fully restored upright piano and experiencing the massive tone that they offer. Sadly, many of the ones that are still around are 100 years old and are in a need of a major rebuild.
An exception to this rule is if you live in an extremely stable climate such as the Pacific Northwest. Pianos in that area stay very well preserved if stored in the home because of the constant climate.,
I spent two years in Vancouver Washington when I was learning the piano trade and I saw 100-year-old uprights that were in incredible condition. Because of the stability of the climate you can find them with no rust on the strings, no soundboard cracks etc.
The tone of a rebuilt upright would have to be heard to be believed. So, if you were to choose to have an old upright rebuilt, you would have a better-quality piano than 90 percent of the new ones being made today at half the price.
Grand pianos differ greatly from upright pianos in both design and tone. They vary in length from 4-8 “baby grands” to twelve-foot concert grands built for the performance hall. They can offer a closed tone or more open tone than upright pianos as you can either choose to open or close the lid.
They are generally more expensive than the upright as they cost more to manufacture. Grand pianos offer a few advantages over the upright piano as we shall soon see.
REPETITION OF NOTES
Grand pianos are completely different than uprights in that they were designed for faster repetition of notes. This is why you always see a concert piano player playing on a grand as most of the songs would be impossible on an upright. Because the strings are flat relative to the player, gravity in combination with a built in “repetition lever” causes the player to be able to play notes faster.
Most uprights average a max of 7 repetitions a second, as they do not have a repetition lever unless modified in their design. Grands can repeat notes up up to 14 notes per second. Grand piano hammers leave the strings a split second faster than uprights and this accounts for a more open tone.
The action in an upright piano is above the keyboard and depends on springs to bring the hammers back to the rest positions. On a grand piano the action is behind the keyboard and because hammers are flat relative to the player, gravity can help the hammers return to their rest positions faster also aiding in repetition.
DAMPENING OF THE NOTES
Another advantage of the grand piano over the upright is that there is no extra ringing when you release a key. This is because of the design of the piano dampers.
When you press a key on a piano a felt “damper” is lifted from the string causing it to sustain. When the note is released the felt damper falls back in to place causing the note to stop sounding. The dampers of an upright and a grand are shaped differently. Once again because of the design gravity is able to help the dampers get back to the string faster.
So, the next time you sit down to play a grand piano take note of this. Play a few keys and release them. You will hear how quickly the note dies. This is another reason why grands are used in concerts over uprights.
DIFFERENCES IN FOOT PEDALS
There are 3 foot pedals on the upright piano as well as the grand. These pedals do different things depending on the piano.
On both pianos the pedal to the far right lifts all the dampers from the strings allowing the notes to continually sustain. Most people seem to know what this pedal does but what about the two other mystery pedals?
The middle pedal on an upright will lift only the bass dampers allowing only bass notes to sustain. This is a rather useless pedal and is kind of pointless. On some uprights like Yamaha however the middle pedal controls the “practice pedal.” When the pedal is depressed a felt strip comes in between the strings and hammers allowing for quiet practice at night.
On a grand the middle pedal is quite useful and allows you to sustain one single note while you play over it. This is great for certain types of music.
The far-left pedal on an upright is also quite useless as it is never really used either. It pushes the hammers closer to the strings and is supposed to make the tone quieter but since it doesn’t do a good job of it it is rather useless.
On a grand piano however, the far-left pedal does something extremely useful! It actually changes the tone of the entire piano. When you press the pedal, you will notice that the entire keyboard shifts to the right just a bit. This allows the hammers to hit only two strings in the top sections and one string in the bass creating a lighter tone.
A GRAND PIANO IS A GOOD INVESTMENT
Grand pianos are a great investment as their value does not drop like an upright over time. You can usually get back the money you spent to buy a grand especially on the used market. If you were to buy a used Steinway for example and sold it 5 years later, you should be able to get your money back.
WHAT PIANO IS RIGHT FOR ME OR MY FAMILY?
The first thing that should be taken in to consideration is the space limitations as this will determine if you should get an upright or a grand. If you have the space and budget a grand piano can be a great investment. The larger the piano, the longer the strings can be giving it greatly enhanced tonal qualities.
If you are an advanced player, we would always recommend a grand piano. You will not be able to play complicated Jazz or Classical all that well on an upright.
If you have kids that are just starting out with piano lessons it might be better to start with a good spinet or console. But remember by going this rout you may have to upgrade sooner than later.
TRYING OUT DIFFERENT PIANOS
Before you decide on a piano, we would encourage you to sit down and play as many as you can. Both the upright and grand piano’s action are mechanically different due to its placement and string direction difference, giving quite a different feel between the two types of pianos, so make sure you play any piano prior to purchasing it!
No two pianos are the same even among the same manufactures. This difference between pianos is extremely apparent when looking at the used market. Depending on the life of the piano two identical ones can be completely different in feel and tone.
SHOULD I BUY A PIANO FROM A DEALER OR PURCHASE ONE PRIVATELY?
The first place we would always recommend is from a reputable dealer or piano technician in your area. A dealer may have new pianos or only carry used ones but either way you would be getting a fully tuned and serviced piano. Many pianos on the used market will need extra work to sound and play at their best.
Most dealers also warranty the pianos for a certain amount of time and have a good reliable piano mover that they use. The mover will always have insurance to protect the buyer of the piano from any damages that might occur to the piano or home.
If you are looking to purchase a piano take a look at our pianos You can be assured that the piano will sound and play at its best. All pianos come with a 1-year warranty.
A dealer will usually carry spinets, consoles and studio pianos. Most do not carry rebuilt upright pianos as they must be rebuilt before they can be sold. However, one particular place specializes only in the restoration of antique upright pianos.
They are called the Antique Piano Shop and have an incredible selection of fully rebuilt antique pianos from late 1800s to the early 1930s! check them out here
PURCHASING A PIANO ON THE USED MARKET
There is a very large market for used pianos, but buyer beware… many used pianos need a lot of work! Before you go looking around in the used market have a look at our post on buying a cheap used piano
BEFORE PURCHASING A PIANO
So, you think you have found the perfect piano? Before purchasing any piano from a dealer or the used market, we would highly advise you to have it evaluated. Pianos are very complicated instruments having a round 8000 parts that cause them to play and function properly.
A piano evaluation is a professional inspection of a piano from top to bottom by a trained piano technician. (Not all piano tuners are piano technicians.) All parts are inspected such as keys, felts, tuning pins, strings, bridges, soundboard, and structure.
An evaluation is something we really stress to our customers when they contact us about purchasing a used piano! Most people do not realize how complex the piano is and believe since the outside looks good, the inside must be equally as good.
This is why pianos are found on Craigslist that the seller sincerely believes is in excellent condition. They will say “It just needs a tune up.” Many times, the seller is not trying to be dishonest about the piano, but they just don’t understand how complex they are.
If you are looking to purchase a piano, it is in your best interest to have the piano evaluated by a trained technician. This way you can ensure that you are not wasting your money on a piano that needs thousands of dollars’ worth of work to make it useable again.
WE ARE HERE TO HELP
Remember we are just a phone call or message away. That 5 minutes could save you hours of problems down the road! The piano technician seems to be the last on the list when it comes to a piano. Many times, the customer will bring a piano in to the home and then give us a call wanting us to tune it up. But we should be the first line of defense as we will spot problems before they become far bigger problems for you.
No matter your needs as a piano player we would be glad to help you find the right piano. Always sit down and play the piano before purchasing and make sure it feels good under the fingers and is in tune. Test all keys from top to bottom and make sure there are no clicking, buzzing or raddling sounds and that all keys play.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE PIANO BRANDS
Here is a quick overview of some of the pianos you might come across in your search along with my comments. I do not have experience with all of these so if I do not know anything about them… well I can’t comment. I will be updating this list as time goes on.
Remember while the piano brand may have an excellent reputation it always comes down to the life and condition of the piano. Once again, we always recommend an evaluation.
- Baldwin Accrosonic: Excellent quality spinet piano.
- Aeolian: major piano manufacture that took over many piano companies during and after the great depression. Low to average quality pianos.
- Baldwin: made average to high quality pianos including a 9-foot concert grand.
- Bechstein: no personal experience
- Beckwith: no personal experience
- Betsy Ross: ol Betsy is still around after many years… would stay away from ol Betsy as she was never a high-quality piano in the first place
- Bluthner: I will gladly take one of these pianos if you don’t… very high quality!
- Boesendorfer: very high-quality pianos. They also make the most expensive piano in the world.
- Boston these pianos are a more affordable version of a Steinway but excellent pianos none the less.
- Cable Pianos: generally lower quality unless we are talking about early 19th century uprights.
- Charles Walter: one of the last piano manufactures to still exist in the US. All pianos are made by hand and are of course excellent quality.
- Chase and Baker: no personal experience
- Chickering: excellent pianos however parts can be hard to find as they experimented a lot with the Chickering design trying to improve the piano.
- Clayton: no personal experience
- Conn: generally low-quality pianos
- Conover: generally low-quality pianos
- Courier: low quality pianos
- Dohrety: no personal experience
- Duo-art: made many player pianos
- Essex: no personal experience
- Estey: no personal experience
- Everett: generally average pianos. A bit more on the bright side.
- Fischer: average pianos
- Gerhard: no person experience
- Grand: Not to be confused with a grand piano… would stay away from these pianos as even the grand company that manufactured these pianos didn’t expect them to last more than 20 years.
- Grotrian: excellent quality pianos
- Gulbransen: average quality pianos
- Haddorff: no personal experience
- Hallet & Davis: made some very mellow sounding consoles
- Hamilton: another piano made by Baldwin. Excellent piano. Was used a lot in schools.
- Hardman: no personal experience
- Hastings: no personal experience
- Heintzman: no personal experience
- Henry F. Miller: generally lower quality pianos
- Janssen: low quality pianos
- Jesse French: excellent quality pianos but are rarely seen
- Kawai: excellent pianos
- Kimball: lower quality pianos unless we are talking about the 19th centry uprights.
- Knabe: excellent quality
- Kohler & Cambell: made average quality pianos and are generally pretty affordable
- Crackauer: otherwised pronounced “crack hour:…… (We don’t recommend the use of crack.) high quality pianos
- Kronich & Bach made average quality pianos.
- Kurtzman: no personal experience
- Lakeside: no personal experience
- Lancaster: no personal experience
- Lenard: no personal experience
- Lowrey: known to be lower quality pianos.
- Mason & Hamlan: another manufacture still making pianos in the US. Excellent quality pianos!
- Melodigrand: No personal experience
- Metroppolatin: no personal experience.
- Minipiano: a very small piano… not really recommended
- Musette: made lower quality pianos
- P. A. Starck: no personal experience
- Pianola: made small player pianos. Not recommended unless you just love a honkytonk sound.
- Petroff: excellent quality pianos
- Schiller: no personal experience
- Schimmel: excellent quality pianos
- Settagren: no personal experience
- Shoninger: no personal experience
- Sohmer: average quality pianos
- Steck: no personal experience
- Steinway: of course Steinway… excellent quality pianos however this technician believes that their are better pianos than Steinway.
- Sterling: made low quality pianos
- Story & Clark: made average quality pianos
- Thomas: made low quality pianos
- Weaver: no personal experience
- Weber: made high quality uprights in the 19th centry. No experience with later models.
- Wegman: if you come across one of these pianos keep it!!! Or call if you don’t want it. This piano did not have a pinblock for holding the tuning pins in place and therefor stayed in tune extremely well. They were however to expensive to manufacture.
- Wenthrop: no personal experience
- Weser: no personal experience
- Westbrook: made average quality pianos but had a very well designed spinet
- Whitney: would stay away as these are low quality.
- Winter: low quality pianos.
- Wurlitzer: average quality pianos.
- Yamaha: I really like Yamaha pianos. Would recommend purchasing. They make average to high quality instruments including 9 foot concert grands.