The best advice that can be given is simple: invest in Larry Fine’s The Piano Book. The fourth edition was released in November 2000. It is available in UK, Europe and Australia from the Pianos Online Shop on this site. Much of the advice given on this page is based on Larry Fine’s book, but there is no way a web site can provide you with the depth and detail of the book.Simple steps in buyingAllow yourself at least two months to develop your ideas and compare pianos. Do your homework – think about your needs and resources.More homework – learn as much as you can about pianos – how they work, different makes, good and bad design and manufacturing practice. Learn what questions to ask. Pianos Online is a good starting point but seek advice from other people you trust.Try out lots of pianos in dealers’ showrooms while you continue to learn about pianos and review your initial ideas and firm up what you need in greater detail. Use the shortlist facility on Pianos Online to select pianos from the database and to write your notes on them as you go.Decide and negotiate with the dealer of your choice – all dealers in new pianos a re in the Pianos Online database.Take delivery and settle in with the piano, watching and listening carefully for the first six months.Enjoy your piano for the next, say, five years.Review your needs again and decide whether to stay with your piano or change to another.
First Things First
Before going to a dealer, think about your needs and constraints
This is the section to read if you have not yet thought about your real needs. It is written to be of use to all levels of pianist. If someone else is paying for your piano they too will be interested in the guidance given here.
Acoustic versus digital or electronic
It is tempting but misleading to view the world of pianos as being split between digital and acoustic. Pianos Online intends to extend its service to include digital pianos so it has no bias against them. However, just as there is a choice between playing the cello, guitar or trumpet, so there is a choice between the acoustic and digital piano. If your enthusiasm is centred on music that makes much use of electronics, be it jazz, pop or modern classical it makes sense to have a digital piano. If your budget allows it, we would encourage you to have both a digital and an acoustic piano. But if, like many people you have a leaning towards non-electronic music then you might still consider a digital piano instead of an acoustic piano primarily to save money.
In favour of the digital piano
Price – usually £1,500 to £2,000 will get you a decent digital piano but only a low end acoustic upright piano.Size – more compact than an acoustic piano and lighter in weight.Reduced maintenance – no need to tune them although changes in temperature may affect a design that utilises mechanical components. However, like all electronics, component failures can be catastrophic and very expensive to repair.The MIDI sampler and synthesiser can be used to reproduce the sounds of any musical instrument (or other sound source) to form an accompaniment to your playing. A good quality digital piano nearly always incorporates a recording facility, which you can use to hear yourself play or to perform duets with your self.The MIDI sampler and synthesiser can be used in conjunction with personal computer software for rapid composing and arranging. (This is an excellent use of a digital piano in addition to an acoustic piano)
Against the digital piano
Sound quality – consider that the bottom A of a piano has a fundamental frequency of 27.5Hz and has a sharp and high attack. Such notes can be reproduced reasonably accurately by good Hi-Fi loudspeaker systems costing several hundred pounds. You cannot expect the loudspeaker system in a digital piano costing around £2,000 to compare.The touch of cheaper instruments is totally different from an acoustic piano. Even high quality digital pianos with touch sensitive balanced keys are some way from an acoustic piano. This does not matter if you never want to play an acoustic instrument. But if you are tempted to use a digital piano as a cheaper early step towards the acoustic instrument you will find the later transition difficult. The sampled sound source in a digital piano is nowadays of excellent quality: it is generally sampled at a very high data rate and at many different intensities of the acoustic source (which also alters the harmonic structure in the case of a piano). However, generally the sampling is taken from an grand piano. So if your acoustic piano is different, especially if it is an upright with an alternative electronic means of listening through headphones and stopping the piano hammers from striking the strings; then the sound you hear will be quite different from your own piano. Trying to adjust your playing to achieve the acoustic sound of your piano is not possible: you will always get, in effect, a recording of the notes of a grand or other piano you do not have. A further deficiency of the digital piano’s sound system is that it is based on single notes. It does not reproduce the effect of an acoustic piano with many notes sounding together and interacting.As technology advances you will be tempted to upgrade your digital piano. If you bought it primarily to save money, then you may find the saving somewhat elusive.Depreciation on a digital piano is likely to be high because the technology continues to develop. Repairs are likely to be expensive.
For the acoustic or traditional piano
There is no substitute for the traditional acoustic piano if you want the sound and feel of the real thing. Your musical ear develops over many years and these differences will become more acute as you advance. Your playing technique, on the other hand, is formed early on and it is hard to change. So if you do not start by playing an acoustic piano you risk never being able to make the transition to acoustic. You can revert to a digital piano at any time. Better investment – longer lasting, mature technology. Beauty – if you want your piano to be an object of visual as well as aural beauty, there is more scope with traditional acoustic pianos.
New or used?
The term “used piano” covers a wide range of meaning: from a dilapidated instrument on its last legs to a re-built instrument carrying a similar guarantee to a new piano. The average life of a good quality piano is about fifty years. Although, they deteriorate over that time they can be re-built – sometimes incorporating manufacturer’s improvements – to give them another fifty years. Re-built pianos are somewhat cheaper than new pianos, the other classes of used piano are cheaper still.Against this, you need to be much more careful in choosing a used piano and incur a greater risk of something going wrong. You need technical knowledge and should always seek the services of a qualified piano technician to inspect any used piano before buying. If you opt for “used”, you also have to find the piano of your choice and that can mean a lot of phoning and travelling. Used pianos of the same make and model can be in very different condition. Much of the information Pianos Online provides about manufacturers and new pianos is equally relevant to your quest for a used piano. Some models remain in production for many years.
The amount of space you are prepared to devote to your piano depends on the enthusiasm of you and those living with you – or next door – for the instrument. You can fit a Steinway Model D in your one bedroom flat and although it will not sound the way it will in the concert hall, it will feel very much the same. Except for the aural feedback. The second point is the acoustics of your room. Size and shape of the room, soft furnishings, the materials used to construct the floor, ceiling and walls and the position of the piano will markedly affect the way it sounds. If you are the only listener you can decide for yourself how limiting this can be. If you have an audience then you will want the instrument to sound its best so you will need to decide whether to let the piano determine the room or vice versa. The third point is that the showroom or practice room where you try the piano before buying it may be quite different from the room you will place it in. The difference can be so great that you would be forgiven for thinking that you had bought a completely different piano once you get it home. It is best to tell the dealer about your room and discuss the options should you be surprised by how it sounds once you get the piano home. Also remember that the piano should be sited away from radiators, fires and air conditioning outlets as these cause varying temperature and humidity which will cause it to go out of tune or, if extreme, will cause permanent damage. The piano should also be placed out of direct sunlight to avoid fading of wood veneers or warping of keys. Most pianos are about 5′ (1.5m) wide. Upright pianos generally sit against a wall and need about 2′ depth plus about space for the pianist. The main variable is the height. This affects the action and the tone as well as how a piano can dominate a room. Generally, other factors being equal, the bigger the better. Pianos in lighter colours and with sloping fronts are less dominating. Grands are generally 4′ 6″ to 7′ 6″ (1.4m – 1.9m) long and should be sited away from the walls. Price is very sensitive to length! Generally, a grand sounds and plays better than an upright. However, it may well be that you can find an upright with a tone closer to your needs than a smaller grand piano, particularly one below 5′ 6″ (1.7m) in length.You can search the Pianos Online database of pianos by principle dimension – height of uprights, length of grands. Finally, a small piano is built small to make it cheaper. It will quite probably also be lower quality in terms of workmanship and construction as well as in sound and feel.
It is a common mistake to buy a cheap, poor piano – new or used – for a beginner. It is hard enough to learn without having to deal with problems within the instrument. Beginners are often put off for life if they are discouraged in this way. A good piano is a pleasure to play and listen to. It encourages you to grow into it and rewards you as it responds to your improving ability.If you can afford a grand piano it would help beginners who find it particularly difficult to change from one piano to another. Having lessons on a grand and practising at home on an upright can be very trying as the two have a completely different feel.
Music style and tone
Music style and tone are very much a matter of personal preference and for most beginners music style is not really an issue. But it is an issue for a pianist who has developed to the point of specialising or at least favouring a particular music style. Classical music – Bach, Mozart, even Beethoven – has, in common with much modern music, a need for great clarity. It does not need great fullness of tone and walls of sound – other than to be heard in a concert hall much larger than that for which it was written. Great power is required for much of the Romantic period’s music such as that of Rachmaninov and Liszt. Some music is greatly enhanced by specific features such as the sostenuto pedal but this is more the exception than the rule. (The sostenuto pedal prevents notes that are sounding from being damped after the keys have been released, so they continue to sound. It is useful if you want to hold a bass note through a change of harmony.) Jazz might require full tone and power to compete against amplified instruments. It can also be amplified with microphones, in which case its natural tone will be somewhat altered. Many jazz musicians like a bright piano and do not need long sustain. You will hear people talk about ‘German’ and ‘English’ and ‘American’ tones of piano. These terms go back into the history of piano development as explained on this site. The differences in these broad classifications are real but very hard to explain in words. Within these terms there are great variations between makes and pianos. You will hear terms such as warmth, brightness, depth, brittleness, soft, full, strong and many other adjectives used to describe tone. Just remember that there is no accepted definition of any of these terms – unlike the wine industry’s accepted terminology to describe the tastes and smells of wines. Ask the dealer to illustrate what they mean when they use these terms. Although, like wines, it is a question of personal taste, your perceptions and appreciation of tone will change as your ability matures. As they do with wine!
The average price of a new upright piano in UK is about £4,500. You can pay as little as £1,500 or as much as £25,000. Grands are priced from about £6,000 up to about £90,000.A cheap piano will often prove expensive to maintain, especially a used one, which can, like a car, have major defects concealed at the time of purchase. It will cost about £40 – £60 to tune a piano in good condition, a small running cost to bear in mind. A cheap piano will depreciate much faster than a quality piano. You need to consider the full cost of ownership. Remember that a dealer will include a variety of additional items in the price: a stool, delivery, installation, tuning for a period of several months, lessons, accessories, finance. It is tempting to shop around trying to save a few pounds. The best advice is not to. Go with the dealer you trust and who you feel understands and meets your own needs best. It could save you many hundreds of pounds if not thousands in the longer term. The Pianos Online database gives a price band for each piano where it is possible to establish it You can search the piano database by price band.
It is quite right to want the piano to fit in with your style of décor. In the case of concert halls and public places, the standard black finish is accepted and expected – unless you want to create a highly specific impact. For domestic use it is worth paying to have a finish or style that fits in with your home and the music you want to play. A piano that looks good invites you to play it more than one that does not please your eye. The manufacturer and piano database of Pianos Online contains photographs of a selection of pianos to give you some idea of the styles available from a manufacturer.
Setting priorities – what is really important to you?
Simply, decide where you are prepared to compromise and where you are not. The obvious issue for every purchaser is price versus quality. Consider whole life costs rather than just initial purchase costs. Also be prepared to change your mind as you learn more about what is on offer and test your ideas on the pianos. Remember that you will change your perception of a piano as your musical aptitude matures, so give greater weight to a long term view rather than short term economies.
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