Whether you are just starting to play the piano or you have been dabbling for years and have decided to put serious time into your playing, you will eventually need to buy a piano to show off your amazing talent. But before you manage to catch one you need to find out what's around for you. First you need to decide if you want an electric piano, an upright one or a grand. Electric pianos need no tuning and take up minimal space, but they do tend to start losing their sound after about seven years or so. Grand pianos should always be looked over by an expert and while the same basic principles apply as with an upright piano, you should always seek professional advice. If you do decide to buy an electric or grand piano then this is not the Entry for you, we're just talking about upright ones.
So now that's sorted, grab a tape measure, a notepad, and stick on some Chopin or Liszt while we take a look at what pianos are out there and where you're going to find your prize.
New Or Second-Hand?
Choosing whether to buy a well-made but expensive second-hand piano or a new medium level piano for the same price will usually come down to the inclinations of the individual. If you want your piano to also be an item of furniture that you can impress important people with then you're probably going to be looking at an older piano. If you are buying for someone just starting out, a medium-priced new piano is probably the answer.
'Suitable for Beginners'
This phrase should strike a warning bell when you are looking for a piano to start on. It is better to buy a medium-priced new piano than to buy a cheap old one. Remember that a poor piano will discourage a beginner. Cheap, slightly battered pianos are fine for those who already know what their music should sound like but not beginners who will not be sure of this.
New pianos tend to take up less room than old ones and, in a house that is dust-free and minimalist, will look less cluttered and shabby. Other people feel that old pianos have gained character and lend a nice cosy feel to a room. Make sure that you will not grow to resent the space your piano occupies. Older pianos will also tend to fall out of tune faster than new ones, so the cost of that should be taken into account. It is worth noting, if you aren't happy to spend maintenance money, that modern houses tend to be too dry for antique pianos. Made before the invention of central heating, antique pianos will quickly go out of tune due to the lack of moisture in the air. If they still have their original tuning pins, these will often shrink and loosen in the dry air, furthering the musical damage and upset to your ears.
What Sizes Are Available?
The smallest upright pianos can be less than 85cm1 tall; examples include 'spinet' upright pianos built in the USA, and the Eavestaff 'Minipiano'2. On the other hand, upright pianos can reach a height of over 150cm3, resulting in strings as long as some grand pianos. This produces a richer tone due to the longer strings and larger soundboard.
The width of a piano is much less variable however and is generally around 150cm. The number of keys is usually 85 or 884, although 72-key5 pianos, or even smaller 'yacht' pianos, are available. These are not only smaller in length but also in height. When buying your first piano it is perfectly reasonable to start with a slightly smaller piano, although you will eventually find your fingers playing invisible notes off the ends.
Before you start looking for a piano in earnest, measure not only the space you wish your piano to live in but the route it must take to get there. Passages, staircases, corners and doorways are notorious for jamming pianos and will result in grouchy removal men and embarrassed harassment on your part.
The average upright piano can weigh anything from around 170kg6 to 230kg7. It depends on how large it is and how old. When you buy your piano make sure you have adequate lifting power to get it through doors, up steps and the like. Also be alert for a suspiciously light piano...there's something wrong with it.
Where to Look
Music Shops: Music shops are always a good first port of call for a new piano. Depending on the size of shop there will be a reasonable selection to choose from and you will have a shop assistant to help you fulfil your requirements. Try to be sure that the shop is reputable before buying a piano from it. Check the general air and condition of the place; that's the atmosphere your piano has been living in. Also bear in mind that a shop is there to sell, so sometimes you may find yourself being steered in a certain direction.
Makers: It is possible to buy both new and second-hand pianos directly from the company producing them. Many, such as Steinway and Yamaha, have websites so that you can look at their pianos initially from the comfort of your own home. Buying from the dealer is a good idea if you firmly know what you want and expect from a piano, and they often sell their pianos cheaper than a shop will. However, this is probably not necessary for a beginner's piano or if you have a tight budget.
Magazines and Newspapers: Both music magazines and local newspapers will often contain adverts for pianos. Obviously remember to check where the piano is located - you'll be upset if you set your heart on a piano that is the other end of the country from you and will cost the price of the piano again just to get it to your house! You will often find certain buzz words used in adverts; make sure you know the meanings and which phrases you are looking for.
The Internet: There are thousands of places on the Internet to buy a piano. However there is then the danger of realising that, in your excitement, you've purchased a piano off the Internet and you've never actually seen it. Make sure that you can view and play the piano before committing to spending any money. Check what the arrangements are for transporting it home and whether there is any form of warranty given.
Schools: Many people (especially children) obtain their first piano from a local school. It is important to remember that a piano used for teaching will have taken a lot of abuse from children for a long time. Old school pianos usually have faults; worn out keys and pedals, and the sound produced will often be poor. However if money is limited and it is possible to practise on a good piano then purchasing a piano from a school can often be a practical and successful route to take.
Auctions: Auction houses often have pianos, usually brought in when the owner has died and nobody in the family wants the poor thing. Be careful when viewing pianos at auction. Unless the auction house specialises in musical instruments, the surveyor will have been looking at it from a furniture/antique view. Most pianos at auction need some technical work done on them, so remember to figure this into your price range. Additionally, there will be a 'buyer's premium' (around 15% of the total price) and tax to pay on top. Set yourself a maximum price and stick to it - don't get caught in a 'bidding war'. Piano Auctions Ltd in London specialises in auctioning pianos and is a very good place to look. Restorers, professional players, and amateurs can be found there; if you have a while to make your catch then going to an auction and just talking to the bidders and looking around first time is a great idea and will give you more confidence about eventually bidding yourself.
Once you have tracked down a piano you like the sound of you are ready to view and purchase it. But don't stop looking just because you've found one. You're likely to be disappointed and need to continue your hunt. Try to track down three or four before making the ultimate decision. Good luck!