Are you looking for a piano for a beginning student? Remember: the newest student needs the piano that plays and sounds best. If you get an old clunker from somebody's basement, don't be surprised if your child gives up trying to make music on it.
With that said....
First, what size/style of piano are you looking for? Here's a basic chart of the differences. Now you know the correct terminology (regardless of what ads or sellers might say to the contrary). Most people really don't know anything about pianos, so you are already better prepared!
The easiest way to buy a piano is to go to a reputable music store and try out all their pianos. If you don't play, take along a friend who does. If you can't find anyone to go with you, ask the salesperson to play all of the pianos that interest you, so you can hear the difference in tone. If they won't do that - or if they don't want you inspecting the pianos thoroughly - go to a store that offers good service. (If they are supportive while you're shopping, they're more likely to take care of you once you've spent your money.)
Music stores are almost always more expensive than private sales -- they have to be, to pay their staff and the electric bill. But when you buy a piano privately, you don't get a warranty and can't take it back, so you have to know you're getting something good.
The best way to do that is to take your piano technician with you to check out the piano. I gladly do that for my customers, because I want them to get the best piano they can afford.
If your tech can't or won't go with you, find out who has been working on the piano for its current owners, and talk to that person. The owners don't remember who tuned it last? They haven't had it tuned "for a while"? Ah, well now you know something very important about the piano you're thinking about buying: it has not been maintained properly.
That might not be the kiss of death, although it should make you much more cautious. Some pianos are so well-made that they can survive abuse and neglect. Others can't. So now you need to know how to tell the difference.
Here are some basic things to listen, look, and feel for when inspecting a used piano. Again, none of these problems is necessarily deadly, but you need to be aware that they exist before you invest your money and time (and labor) in buying this piano. The more problems you find, the more work will be needed to make the piano truly playable.
- First off, look at the keys.
- Are they level from one end of the piano to the other? (A very slight arch in the middle is a good thing.) Any keys that are "bottomed out", just sitting there, have broken parts. Thank the nice people and leave....
- When you look at their vertical ends, do you see
a square or a rectangle? The more
square, the better.
- When you push them, do they go down about 3/8"? Any more than that, and the piano will be tiring to play and won't work correctly.
- Can you move the keys far enough sideways that
they hit each other? That's a sign of dried-out or
missing felt and will need fixing eventually.
- Play from one end to the other with a very light and consistent touch. Do all the notes make a sound? If not, the piano needs regulation, at least.
- Play those notes again, but listen carefully to the sound this time.
- As you play from one end to the other, is the
tone quality pretty consistent? That's what you
want! (It's hard to tell "out of tune" from
- Is the tuning pretty consistent from one end to
- Play the same note in three or four different
octaves simultaneously to really check for tuning
- Are there many notes that are badly out of tune
with themselves? You'll know when you hit one -
it will sound like howling cats....
- Now open the piano and examine the strings and action parts.
- Do the wooden parts of the keys looks as though they have been chewed? Are there stains on the wood or the strings? Mice have been living in there.
- Are any strings missing? Are the broken strings in the bottom of the piano so they can be spliced back together?
- Does the piano have all its hammers and dampers?
(Note, dampers only go so far up, and the top
20 or so notes don't have any.)
- Feel the hammers for softness (if they feel dry and hard, the sound will be thin and hard) and look for wear. If the grooves are more than 1/8" deep, they can't be reshaped very successfully.
- If there are no grooves in the hammer (if the end of the hammer is flat and looks as though it has been shaved off), parts are loose.
- Do the hammers look as though little bits of them
are missing? Are there holes in the felt? That is
insect damage. If they ate the hammers, they
probably ate other felt parts. And the piano has
sat without being played for some time.
(Playing kills the bug eggs, and it's bug larvae that
do the damage).
- Watch for wobbles/bobbles in the hammers when playing softly. Not a good sign.
- All vertical pianos need "bridle straps" -- narrow strips of
woven material that run from every hammer assembly to
a curled wire. They can be replaced, but better
to buy a piano that already has good ones. In this
picture, one bridle strap is broken, allowing the
hammer's catcher to sag. That note will not play
- Listen for clicks and buzzes while playing at a moderately loud volume. Clicks can indicate loose glue joints. Buzzes can point to separated soundboard ribs.
- Do you hear a "zing" when you release the key? Often means that the dampers are hard and need to be reconditioned or replaced.
- Are all the dampers there? The highest octaves won't have dampers, but all the other notes should.
- And finally, open the bottom of the piano and inspect the pedals, the bridges and the general condition of that area.
- Pedals should move freely and quietly. By the time you push down 1/2", you should feel resistance and see movement in the action (dampers lifting, the hammer rail moving). It's usually no problem to adjust, but it's a sign of maintenance.
- Check the bass bridge for cracks around the pins. Small cracks are usually not a problem, but big cracks affect tuning and tone - and they indicate that the piano has lived in a dry environment, which might affect the pin block and other important parts. If the bass bridge isn't cracked, don't worry about the other bridges.
- Look for any signs of mildew or water damage. If a piano has been flooded, this is where you'll find the evidence. It's more common than you might think....
- Finally, look up the piano's serial number so you
really know how old it is. Owner's usually know
when the piano came into their household, but they
rarely know its true age. Where to find the serial
- Vertical piano: inside, near or on the top, near the tuning pins, often stamped into the wood. Newer pianos might have a metal plate on the end/inside or have the number stamped on the back/outside.
- Grand piano: originally on the metal plate, near the tuning pins. If the plate has been repainted, the number might be gone. In that case, look on the soundboard, near the hinge closer to the keys. Not there? You'll need to remove a leg....
- With the maker's name and the serial number, you
can have your technician look it up in the Pierce Piano Atlas,
or email me, or use this site:
Your library will have several very useful books (or can order them through interlibrary loan):
- Piano Servicing, Tuning, and Rebuilding for the Professional, the Student, and the Hobbyist by Arthur Reblitz
- The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano by Larry Fine
- and Larry Fine's website includes much of the book's contents
My webpages "How does a piano work?" and "Books for Piano Owners" include more information that will help familiarize you with the parts of a piano and how they (should) work, as well as books to help you learn even more. You can also contact me, and I'll be glad to talk to you about what to look for in a good used piano. Want me to go along? Just ask!