Buying a piano can be an awfully troubling experience. They cost a lot of money, take up a lot of space, and the room for being stung is wide. Many people buy a piano when they first begin to play. They have no experience of the instrument and can often end up with either an incredibly expensive one that makes them feel guilty if they discover playing the piano is not for them, or a battered item with pedals that don't work, keys that stick and strings that immediately fall out of tune - ultimately a disaster.
This Entry aims to provide a guiding hand in the purchase of an upright piano, regardless of the musical talents of the player. However it is always advisable to look at a piano with someone you trust and who knows what they are looking at, whether they are a teacher, enthusiast, tuner or maker. In the same way that you would get a surveyor to look over a house you are thinking of buying, you get a pianist to look at a piano you are thinking of buying1.
Once you have found an upright piano you think you might like, you need to visit it, get to know it and give it a jolly good going over! Remember that it's your money you're spending, so be careful with it. It's easy to leap on the first piano you see, give it a cursory once-over and pay in cash straight away. If you can possibly restrain your wallet, however, you're much less likely to find you've just bought a heap of junk for a scary amount of money.
What to Look for in an Upright Piano
When you are looking at a piano before purchasing it, it is important to give it a thorough check inside and out. Take a torch with you so that you can see clearly around the innards; if you have one, take a tuning fork, recorder or flute and play and compare the note A on both instruments. They should not be wildly different. The piano should have been tuned before you view it, and although you will need to get it tuned again once you have positioned it in your house2, this is no excuse for it to be badly out of tune in the first place. Avoid a piano that sounds very out of tune as this may be a sign that it falls out of tune very quickly.
Take the front cabinet panels off, both top and bottom if you can, and then start poking around.
The iron frame covers most of the innards of the piano, but it's easiest to see near the bottom. The strings are attached to the frame at the bottom. Check the frame for rust, as this indicates poor upkeep and potential problems. Look carefully for cracks or bubbles; these will render the instrument musically useless, which will be upsetting, embarrassing and highly expensive for you.
If you have the fortune3 of viewing a piano with a wooden frame, be very careful. Wooden-framed pianos crop up very rarely these days and are usually for the grand connoisseur. This is because they are usually very old pianos and they demand a lot of attention. If you do fancy a wooden-framed piano it will need a very stable atmosphere and you will need to be extremely careful with it. Pianos with wooden frames go out of tune quickly and the frame may well warp, which will render it completely useless. Check for signs of warping and cracking if you view a wooden frame. However, purchasing one is not advised unless you are an expert already.
Soundboard, Bridges and Tuning Pins
The soundboard is what makes the piano work; it amplifies the sound coming from the piano. The soundboard is at the back of an upright piano behind the strings. The bridges are the lengths of wood you will see that have metal pins driven into them. When looking these parts over, you want to check for any cracks in the wooden parts, whether the bridges are firmly attached to the soundboard and whether the pins are loose or have dollops of glue around them. Also make sure that none of the pins are at a strange angle to the rest. Cracked or broken wood will cause the tone to go odd and there will be a really annoying rattle. Glued pins show that really the piano needs oversized pins rather than the current ones, and the fact that they aren't very secure can be a problem for the strings.
The ribs are the strips of wood attached to the back of the soundboard. Make sure that they are not broken or coming away. Loose ribs will cause the instrument to rattle or buzz.
The strings can be laid in two different ways in upright pianos - straightstrung or overstrung. In a straightstrung piano the strings run from top to bottom parallel to each other. This arrangement is only found in older pianos and will also increase the size of the cabinet. Overstrung pianos have the bass strings crossing diagonally to the treble strings. You really want to find an overstrung piano if you can. The sound produced is better because the strings are longer. Also check that none of the strings are rusted, cloggy or, of course, missing! You'll either get a 'thunk' noise or...nothing.
The hammers are the things that strike the strings. Check that they are regularly spaced, all there, and are all flush. Make sure that they all return to the same position when you hit a key and that they all strike and then bounce away from the strings.
The dampers are there to stop strings from continuing to sound for ages after they have been struck. They are small blocks of wood, usually covered in felt or leather. All pianos are fitted with dampers but there are two very different ways of doing this.
Overdamper systems are usually found on older pianos. The dampers are positioned above the hammers, near the top of the strings. This method of damping is not brilliantly effective and notes will often continue to sound after they have been played.
Underdamper systems are the norm for pianos now. The dampers are under the hammers and near the middle of the strings. This makes them more effective than overdampers and the sound made by the string should cut off crisply.
When checking the damping, ensure that the felts are not dirty or very hard - this will cause buzzing. Check that the note is cut off and doesn't continue to ring, and check that all the dampers lift back off the strings properly. The highest notes do not have dampers so don't be alarmed by that, it's perfectly normal.
The pedals should be checked when you are seated at the piano as if you were playing. Check that they don't squeak, that they do actually work and that they come back up after being stepped on. Whether there are three pedals or two will depend on how expensive the piano is. In reality though, there is little need for three pedals and two will do you just fine.
Test each key to ensure it plays, doesn't stick on the way down, and doesn't stay down once played. There are many causes of sticky keys and unless you are very experienced with pianos, keys will need to be fixed by a professional. Also test the feel and resistance of the keys. Are you happy with the sensitivity of the keys? Do you find it unrealistically difficult to play loudly or softly? Are all the key tops secured to the wood properly? Are the keys worn where fingers have played them a lot before? Do you like that or does it distract you?
The action is the entire mechanism between the keys and the strings. It is how the instrument responds to a key being pressed. Individual parts of the action have been covered above, but remember to listen to how the instrument responds as a whole and check each part to ensure it is there and not broken.
Finally you may look at the piano as a whole from the outside. Check the woodwork for any evidence of woodworm, chips knocked out, burning, staining or bleaching from the sun. Bleaching will suggest that the piano has not been properly looked after. A dull cabinet can be polished up and chips can be filled in if it bothers you. If the case is very dirty and scratched, this will reflect on how the owner has looked after the rest of the piano. You wouldn't buy a car that looked like that.
Victorian cabinet cases are very ornate and often have twiddly fretting with silk or ivory inset, candle holders and fancy columns. Edwardian ones are less ornate and less likely to have candle holders as electric lighting was being introduced. Victorian pianos were usually made with walnut, while Edwardian ones tended to be made of rosewood or ebonised.
Post-WWI pianos are what people often think of today. They are reasonably plain, still have columns, no panelling and an overall simple construction. The finish was generally mahogany, or for school pianos solid oak. The majority of pianos were heavily stained. Many pianos made now copy this style and it is still very popular.
From the 1940s to 1960s many piano factories were forced to close down, and budget became a major factor for piano makers. Art Deco pianos were made, with very smooth lines, no ornamentation and very plain columns or none at all. This is the style of piano you often find in a church hall or the like - pianos in this style are usually made of walnut.
Nowadays pianos can have all sorts of styles of cabineting, from the very ornate to the very plain and simple. They can have practically any finish, although the 'polyester' dense, glass-like coating is becoming more popular, replacing the standard matte or satin lacquer.
On average it is advisable to check out three or four pianos before you settle on one to buy. Once you are happy with the piano itself, ensure that you are willing to pay the amount asked. Sellers are often willing to negotiate about the price, especially if you are buying other things from them at the same time. Never be afraid to just ask. Hopefully by this time you have been comparing different pianos advertised and have some idea of the price range for the piano of your choice. Check whether there is a warranty and what it covers. If you are buying a second-hand piano allow around 15% of the piano's cost for repairs, even if everything appears to be in working order.
It is possible to rent upright pianos and for a beginner this option should definitely be considered. Many music shops allow you to rent a piano and then later purchase it once you are sure you want to keep it. This is flexible, cheap and you will never be burdened with a large accusing item of furniture.
If you are purchasing from a shop or dealer then they will often transport the piano to your house for you. Otherwise you will need to hire a large van for this, preferably using people who have experience at transporting pianos. Always be very careful not to put undue stress on any part of the piano; make sure it is padded and is not allowed to fly around, as you could find yourself losing it halfway down the motorway! Be slow, steady and delicate when moving the piano around. There are over 1,200 parts in your piano, any of which may be just waiting to break!
Once you have got your piano home and safely indoors, position it somewhere away from direct heat and sunlight, draughts and excessive damp. Move it around the room if possible to find out where the best spot is. Do not push it right up against the wall as this will dull the sound coming out of the back.
Congratulations on successfully4 purchasing an upright piano!