How to Shop for an Acoustic Piano

In previous posts, I discussed Getting Your First Piano and What to Look for When Buying a Digital Piano. As a follow up, this article offers guidelines to help you shop for an acoustic piano. The purpose of this article is to help those who are new to the world of piano make more informed decisions in the face of a multitude of options.

grand pianoSo you’ve made the commitment to purchase an acoustic piano, but you want to make sure you are getting an instrument you’ll be happy with long term. Buying a piano is a huge purchase — very similar to buying a car — and you need to know what to look for on your piano test drive. If you are unfamiliar with the instrument, or just want some extra tips to help you along the way, read on!
The following tips are universal to all acoustic pianos, whether an upright or grand. Deciding between an upright and grand piano is typically the first decision a buyer will make; we will cover the primary differences between the two in a follow-up article that goes into more detail about the features and price-ranges of both acoustic piano styles. Whichever you choose, though, you will be presented with many options when shopping. Especially if you go to a piano store, you’ll find that all the instruments appear to be of good quality and in good condition, so narrowing down your choices to the best piano for you may be a difficult task.

Shop around for your acoustic piano.

To start, you need to go to two or more piano stores to do your research and shopping. Just like when you are buying a car and go to different dealerships to compare choices, you would do the same when buying a piano. The ability to compare prices and special deals is an obvious benefit to shopping around. But there is another very important reason to visit more than one store: every piano has a character all its own, and the more options you see, the more likely you are to find an instrument that is the best fit for you.
Unlike cars that are manufactured identically (same year, make, and model) and function the same way across the board, pianos constructed to be the same do not have a uniform feel and sound. In fact, there is a lot of variation between each and every piano. When you go to a piano store to make your purchase, you can get good advice from sales reps who should be able to describe the specific differences between each piano they have. Also, if you are new to piano, reps at piano stores can play each instrument for you so that you get a sense of the full sound.

The sound of the piano: brightness and timbre

Pianos are usually kept in tune pretty meticulously in piano stores so that potential buyers aren’t deterred by an out-of-tune instrument. So when considering the sound of different pianos, I’m not referring to intonation (pitch accuracy). Rather, I’m talking about the level of brightness produced by each piano, as well as slight variations in timbre (also called tone), which is akin to the differences in people’s voices.
This is where preference comes in.
Some people prefer a crisp, clear, bright sound. Others like their pianos to sound more dull and muted. When you’re in a piano store, you should ask a rep which pianos are on each side of this spectrum. Then play (or have the rep play) them back to back. Most likely, you will naturally lean one way or the other. Since buying a piano is all about finding the perfect fit for your budget, go with the sound you like! Considering the sound will narrow down your choices a bit, and you will be closer to finding your instrument.

Location, Location, Location!

Where you’re going to put your piano can significantly affect the brightness of its sound.
If your piano room has hardwood floors or high ceilings or is generally open, any piano will sound brighter than it does in the store, as the sound waves from the piano will reflect more in the room.
Conversely, if your piano room has carpeting, is smaller, or has a lot of furniture in it, any piano will sound a bit duller than it does in the store.
Therefore, when you are determining whether you want a bright sounding piano or a more mellow tone, think about how the sound will be affected by the layout of your piano space.

The feel of the piano

To determine which piano’s feel (also called response and action) you like most, you’ll have to play each instrument a bit. Even if you’re new to piano, you can still place one hand on the white keys (one finger on each) and play a few notes back and forth. A piano with a good feel will have a little resistance when you push down the keys and will go to the key bed (i.e., all the way down to where the key is completely depressed) smoothly without feeling a little click in the middle.
Along the lines of key resistance, or how easily the keys are depressed, you don’t want a piano that is very loose. A piano whose keys can be played too easily will actually hinder technique development, making other pianos that have a good feel more difficult to play. On the flip side, don’t go with a piano that is very stiff, either. I’ve found that if a piano’s keys require more effort than normal when depressing them, it simply won’t be an enjoyable instrument to play. Standard piano techniques won’t be executed easily, and playing the piano — especially in the case of children with less hand strength — will be exhausting.

Finalizing your piano buying decision

If you are purchasing a used piano, be sure to ask questions to find out about any problems or defects. If possible, take a piano technician (or a piano teacher with a good technical understanding of the instrument) with you. Inquire about the condition of the sound board. Ask if there have been any major repairs on the instrument. Open the hood and kick the tires! Reputable dealers will tend to be honest and up front about any problems or repairs.
After testing out several different pianos and considering your sound and feel preferences, you can reach a buying decision! By putting a lot of thought into your decision and weighing your options carefully, you’ll have greater satisfaction with your instrument in the long term and a desire to play it more often!

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