Roughly a dozen times a year, I get the following phone call: “Hi Mike, I just bought a BEAUTIFUL old upright and I need you to come over and tune it”. My heart sinks. I reluctantly return the call and set up the appointment. Here is what usually happens once I get to the customers home and look at the piano.
About 20% of the time, the piano is an absolute gem. It’s a great old piano that’s been well maintained, rebuilt, tunes up nicely and has a beautiful cabinet. In this case, I congratulate the customer on a great purchase, tune the piano and all is well.
About 40% of the time, the piano is not great, but is at least in good enough shape that it can at be made playable with a few hours of work.
However, the other 40% of the time, the newly acquired old upright is, well, a wreck. While the cabinet may be something to behold, the inside will likely have some or even all of the following problems: cracked pinblock, loose pins that will never again hold a tuning, strings that are broken or have long outlived their usefulness, worn felt and leather parts, cracked soundboard, split bridges, hammers deeply cut and grooved, corroded springs, mouse or moth damage and … need I go on?. Sure it could be rebuilt if money were no object, but it would hardly be worth it even then. In the vast majority of cases, I do not recommend purchasing old uprights at any price. Usually you are much better off saving your money to buy a more modern piano. Nowadays, there are even piano dealers that allow you to “rent-to-own” a piano, meaning they will treat your rental payments like monthly payments, as if you were financing.
If you do find yourself tempted to buy what in many cases were once beautiful instruments, then by all means, please (I’m begging here…) hire a qualified piano technician to inspect it for you! I can’t tell you the number of heartaches that could have been prevented over the years if more customers had only done this. The $85.00 dollars or so you pay a technician for an inspection visit will be the best money you ever spent if it steers you away from a piano-shaped, musical money pit. On the other hand, if the technician finds you a gem, then do treat him to a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks.
It is also highly advisable to educate yourself on pianos before even calling your technician. The best way to do that is to buy a copy of “The Piano Book”, by Larry Fine. This book is a detailed and well-written resource that will show you what to look for, and what to watch out for, in evaluating a piano. I heartily recommend this book for any piano owner. You can find it in most major bookstores or on Amazon.com.
One more thing. If you do decide to spend the money and have your upright piano rebuilt, here are two place that will do a fantastic job! Precision Piano Services in North Hollywood, CA or Antique Piano Shop in Tennessee.
Thinking of aquiring an old upright? READ THIS FIRST!
Whether you’re looking to purchase a new or used piano, I would suggest beginning your quest in both cases by buying yourself a copy of “The Piano Book” by Larry Fine. It’s a very well-written, detailed and highly informative source of piano information, which you will find useful even if you already own a piano. You may notice that I refer to this book a number of times on my website. Let me state for the record that I have no affiliation whatsoever with the book or its author, Larry Fine. I enthusiastically recommend simply because it’s useful. And besides, anyone who shares a name with one of The Three Stooges is OK in my book.
MIKE’S SIMPLE SUGGESTIONS FOR BUYING A NEW PIANO:
1. Buy a copy of “The Piano Book” by Larry Fine and study the chapters about buying new and used pianos.
2. Shop at a good, reputable dealer with lots of pianos to choose from. Feel free to call or email me and I’ll tell you who the good dealers are in the LA area.
3. Even if you’re a beginning piano player, make sure you spend time playing the piano yourself. Don’t be intimidated if the salesman is a great player and the only song you can play right now is “Chop Sticks”. Occasionally I’m surprised when a new owner complains about the piano they just bought, and I then find out that they didn’t play the piano themselves in the store. While it’s true that we technicians can make improvements to the sound and feel of your piano once it’s in your home, always be sure that you’re basically happy with how the piano sounds and plays before you buy it. Even if that means “Chop Sticks”, “Heart and Soul” or “Fur Elise” all afternoon.
4. Buy the best piano you can afford. Pianos tend to be good investments. You can usually get close to what you paid for your piano if you decide to sell it later on.
5. If professional quality tone is at all important to you, I would definitely steer clear from grands that are less than 5’3”.
6. In a nutshell, play a lot of pianos at a good dealer and buy the one you fall in love with.
MIKE’S SIMPLE SUGGESTIONS FOR BUYING A USED PIANO:
The safest way to purchase a used piano is to buy one from a reputable piano dealer (again, call or email me & I will gladly tell you who they are). All piano dealers take trade-ins, and the good dealers will tune, repair and otherwise prep these used pianos into shape for prospective buyers. Granted, you’ll probably spend a bit more than if you were to buy from a private party, but what price piece of mind? When you buy from a good dealer, you can be confident that your new piano will be free of any nasty little surprises when the technician arrives. Most dealers will even throw in a free tuning and a warranty.
If you do insist on buying a piano from a private party, then I would suggest following these four simple rules:
1. Buy a copy of “The Piano Book” by Larry Fine and study the chapters about evaluating buying new and used pianos. Educate yourself.
2. Do not buy a spinet, unless you find one in great shape at a ridiculously low price.
3. Do not consider an old upright, even if it’s free! There are a few rare gems out there, but usually these antiquated behemoths are more trouble than they’re worth.
4. Once you have your choices narrowed down, and most importantly, hire a technician to inspect it for you.
That’s it! Follow those simple rules and you will end up with a nice used piano that will provide you with many years of enjoyment.