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  • Hannah Beckett

Tiers of Piano Shopping

Piano shopping is a daunting process if you don't know where to start, and unfortunately in this one area, Google isn't much help. There are many words about pianos online and very little factual information. As someone who works in the piano industry, I'd like to give a general outline of some buying basics specifically for the MDV area (brand availability and pricing ranges by geographical location so if you're reading this in Boise, my info here may not apply). Let's start by getting everyone's expectations organized with a few simple rules that will keep your piano shopping experience from landing in a ditch:


Rule #1: The budget picks the piano - the piano does NOT pick the budget.

You cannot say, "I want a Steinway for $10k." It doesn't exist. And if it does, this is bad news for either you or the piano. Probably both. Similarly, "I want a grand piano for $5k" means you're getting a very bad piano and you'd be better off with a nice upright. Grand pianos are not always better than uprights.


Rule #2: Do not purchase a piano based on resale value.

If you're already thinking about re-selling the piano, you should probably re-think your priorities. Piano purchasing is a pain, as is moving it. You should plan for a long-term instrument which can easily be either an upright or a grand. If you're worried about wasting money because the kids won't stick to it, then grab a keyboard somewhere to use as a stop-gap. As a technician, I always recommend a keyboard over a cheap piano. Keyboards are progressing in technology every year, and at least a keyboard guarantees pitch accuracy and key function. An old piano will often prove more frustrating for your child than a keyboard if it cannot be tuned to standard pitch and cannot be controlled by little fingers. Wait to shop until the budget allows for success.


Rule #3: Buy something you can grow into.

It's the same thing we do with cars and houses. You don't make a major purchase if there's a chance you may outgrow it in a very short amount of time. I will often hear people say, "Well, I'm not that good so I shouldn't get something nice." This a self-fulfilling prophecy and this reasoning ensures that you will never get any better. I'm not saying you need to get something extravagant, but if you plan on playing for a lifetime, then get something that will promote you to new levels of playing, whatever that may look like for you.


Rule #4: Understand how the market works.

A retail market is predictable and fairly stable. A private sale market is not. Don't look at private sale markets (Facebook marketplace, craigslist etc.) and think you're getting true market values for pianos. The real market is a retail market because there are pricing checks and balances brought on by competition. The prices I use in the tiers below are based on retail market. You can find whatever you want in the private sale, it just depends on how much of a treasure hunter you are. If you love the hunt, expect a chase.


Rule #5: Understand the way global manufacturers work.

Yes, there are many brands that originate in Korea and China and they offer pianos at a temptingly low price - just don't do it. Or if you do, understand that your life expectancy is exceedingly short. If the brand originates elsewhere (Japan, Germany, America) but also manufactures some of their pianos in some other Asian country, I'm less concerned. Piano manufacturers have had to diversify to fit a global economy, which means certain lines will be made at home in their country of origin, and others will be made elsewhere. It's easy to find out where pianos are made, manufacturers are fairly transparent about this because (if it's a quality company) they're monitoring the quality of those pianos very closely. If you pick a quality brand (Kawai, Yamaha, Schimmel, Steinway, etc.), you'll wind up with a quality product.


Now that you know the rules, find the tier that best fits your situation and start shopping!


Tier 0


Scenario: You want a piano but you don't want to pay for it. After all, there are so many floating around for free, why should you? Plus, it's just for the six year old and he can't tell if you got a good piano or not.

Your budget: $0


Your brands: Anything that sounds remotely American from 1900-1975.


Your timeline: The piano expired 20 years ago. It isn't working even if it still makes noise.


Your expectation: Unreasonable.


Please don't call me for help. I can't help you.


Tier 1


Scenario: You don't play, but you think your kids should take piano lessons. You don't want to break the bank because you have fickle children who decide they like dinosaurs instead of cars as soon as you redecorate their bedrooms in car themes. All you need is something to get them started, and then later down the road when they've proved their dedication you can get something more serious.


Your budget: $1,500 on a private sale marketplace. You won't find anything that cheap in a retail environment, and if you do, run away. If your budget is less than $1.5k, you're getting a keyboard (not a bad option if it means you won't get grandma's spinet with mouse nests out of someone's garage!).


Your brands/ages: Kawai 1975-1985. Yamaha 1975-1985. Baldwin 1985-1995.


Your timeline: You have five years to get something better. Get a piggy bank and have the kids do lemonade stands on the weekend.


Tier 2


Scenario: You used to play when you were a kid, now you are finally at a place in life to get back into it, and you conveniently have two youngsters who will be taking lessons too.


Your budget: $3k-$10K.


Your brands/ages: Used Yamaha or Kawai no older than 1982. Used Boston,1995 and up.

New Schimmel, Fridolin line. New Steinway, Essex line. Uprights and grands are included in this list. Keep in mind, you could get a very nice upright for this price or a not-very-nice grand. I'm probably going to recommend a nice upright and recommend you move to tier 3 before considering a grand, generally speaking.


Your timeline: Roughly 20-30 years, depending on condition and maintenance.


Your expectation: Tuned regularly, these pianos should be reliable and require little extra maintenance outside the routine. You may be shopping for a piano again sometime in the very distant future, but let life play out a bit before worrying too much about it.


Tier 3:


Scenario: You have paid your dues to the upright pianos of the world, now it's time to go moderately big. You want a grand piano, but you don't need to go concert level for it.


Your budget: $13k up to whatever you can sneak out of your retirement fund that will go unnoticed by your spouse, let's call it ~$20k.


Your brands/ages: 1980s and up used Yamaha C series and used Kawai RX series, new Yamaha GB series, new Kawai GL series, new Schimmel Fridolin series, used Boston GP series, the occasional pre-1995 Baldwin grand (but do you really want to go that route...?).


Your expectation: Your dream piano at last! If you went used and did your due diligence by having it inspected by a tech - settle in and enjoy your piano until arthritis prevents you from playing. Will this become part of the estate you will to your children? Nope. And that's okay. They can buy their own pianos some day.

Tier 4


Scenario: It's time for the lifetime purchase. Go big or go home. Sky is the limit.


Your budget: $25k - $60k.


Your brands/ages: New Kawai GX series, new Schimmel W/C lines, new Yamaha CX series, used Steinway, used uber European brand (Bechstein, Bluthner, Estonia, etc etc...).


Your expectations: You will expire before the piano does. Your kids will enjoy, your grandchildren will not (catch up America - nothing lasts THAT long!).


Tier 5

Scenario: You want a cool piano.


Your budget: $60k and up.


Your brands: Just get whatever, it's probably fine at that price point.


Your expectations: You'll get a really amazing piano. Please call me.


Found your tier? Great! Grab your wallet and go compare all your options. Most of us are only exposed to one or two pianos in life. It's amazing what you will learn about sound and touch when you go shopping - so play as many pianos as you can! And remember, piano shopping is about finding an instrument that speaks to you. There aren't right or wrong options if you're inside a quality brand. If you find one that you can't stop thinking about it, that's it! Don't get analysis paralysis and have fun!

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