Buying a Piano

Buying a Piano

Piano Restoration Brunswick Pianos Geelong

We offer the following free advice – the only cost is your time to read it!

“The China Syndrome”

There has been a dramatic change in the selling and marketing of pianos in Australia over the past five years. A colleague in the piano industry recently went to China to the 2005 Piano Convention. He reported that there were approximately 120 different piano manufacturers in China mass producing millions of pianos per year. Dozens of these pianos are now being imported and sold in Australia under pseudonyms. Many traditional pianos once made in Europe, the UK, the USA and Australia have had their names re registered and placed on Chinese pianos. This is nothing but a deception on a large scale and the Chinese pianos have no connection or resemblance whatsoever to the original piano.

In Australia we are constantly hearing on the news about the weakness of our labeling laws. For example, an article of clothing made in China will have “designed in Australia” or “Australian owned company” but will in fact be made in China. This is across the board now in an ever increasing number of industries. A customer of ours, a lawyer with a large Australian car company, told us that the Chinese will be manufacturing all cars sold in Australia within ten years.

The most laughable case at present as far as deception goes is a traditionally famous American brand piano which has long been out of business which has now turned up in shops in Melbourne with “London, New York, Paris” written on the front on the name board. We have seen these pianos at the warehouse stacked to the hilt, Grand pianos and all with ‘Made in China’ stamped all over the boxes.

One of our personal pianos we own is a Beale pianola (player piano). Playing this piano is a joy. The depth of sound is immeasurable. The traditional Beale made in Sydney from approximately 1900 to 1970 is considered a quality instrument. In December 2005 a shop in Melbourne sold brand new Beale pianos for $2,995. This Chinese made piano with “Beale” written on the front is no relation whatsoever to the original Australian made Beale. This scenario is duplicated dozens of times with dozens of pianos from China being sold off as something they are not. In our experience (February 2006) most pianos under $10,000 appear to be made in China.

It may turn out to be that some of these pianos are reasonable to play but if their quality is so outstanding as some of the beautiful glossy brochures that we receive espousing their worth say they are, then it is about time that the silent ones behind company screens be up front and all the name boards have “Made in China” in the brass lettering instead of “London, Paris, New York”

One striking quality of all these pianos at the Chinese convention is the lack of depth of sound. A colleague in the piano industry who is an extremely competent pianist played nearly all the different brands, some with the most bizzare names and concluded that they all sounded very similar and that they had no depth of sound. Yes, the cabinets were very impressive; it is amazing how chipboard can be presented.

To describe depth of sound to a novice can be quiet difficult. When an inexperienced person hears a piano being played they hear three things:

  • The piece of music
  • The tone of the piano
  • How well the pianist is interpreting the piece of music

If a prospective buyer of a pinao goes into a shop full of Chinese pianos trying to establish which piano has the best sound it will be very difficult when they all sound extremely similar. It will be the same as a person with dozens of jars of Vegemite open trying to taste which one is the best!

A piano with true depth of sound will have a richness of tone and evenness throughout the entire keyboard. An inexperienced person could easily hear the difference if you heard, for example, our Beale pianola compared to to $4,000 Chinese made Yamaha.

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At Brunswick Pianos we restore one traditional piano at a time. We can also offer advice on the pros and cons of modern pianos and help customers select suitable modern pianos that fit their requirements.

Our traditional pianos are generally stripped and French polished and we have the action (the motor of the piano) restored (see section on restorations).

Restoring Piano Brunswick Pianos Geelong

Steinway and Sons
Serial No 56149
Originally built in 1887
A rare classic Steinway. Totally rebuilt, restrung, repinned with new hammers and action. An example of one of our restored pianos.

These pianos are becoming rarer as time goes by and no doubt their value will increase over the next decades as opposed to the hundreds and thousands of modern pianos coming out of Asia.

People buying a piano will always say “I don’t know anything about pianos” so they are left with conflicting opinions. Which do they believe? A commission sales person selling mass produced pianos of varying grades and qualities? Or a piano tuner/ technician who re builds pianos and sees all of the pianos out in the field. Advertising by Piano companies has interesting tactics. An opening line on a radio advertisement (with classical music playing softly in the background) could go something like this:

Why buy someone elses problems that can cost you thousands of dollars in repairs. Buy a brand new such and such student piano from $3000 with a ten year guarantee. A visit to a retail outlet can be very impressive, posters on walls with concert pianists in the world’s finest music halls proclaiming their piano to be the finest in the world.

The guarantee book that comes with the piano is beautifully printed and even in some cases has a fancy red seal. The customer may be told by the salesman that “Piano technology is continually improving and most new pianos are based on Steinway features now that patents have run out and also that new pianos have improved tone and control, more expressive pedaling and are generally more enjoyable to play.”

These statements sound impressive to the prospective buyer but to a piano technician they are merely a fanciful sales pitch.

Pianos made in the golden period of piano manufacturing ( generally considered to be the early 1900s) were designed and built and then a price placed upon the instrument. Modern pianos in the new century are built to a price by profit driven multi-national companies.

Stephen Rae Piano Tuner and piano restorer Geelong melbourne

The rear structure of a piano manufactured in 1900

Stephen Rae Piano Tuner and piano restorer Melbourne geelong surf coast

The rear structure of a piano manufactured in 1990

Only the tuner sees all of these new pianos from one year old to 20 years old and is able to advise customers whichmodern pianos are of a high quality and which pianos are not. A large percentage of pianos manufactured in the old communist East Germany and China 20-30 years ago should simply be thrown to the tip.

In recent times we have had many examples of dissatisfied purchasers of modern pianos. For example:

  • Music teacher bought a five foot six inch new baby grand piano and within two years several bass strings had lost their resonance and she has been unhappy with the tone ever since. It cost her $18,000 new and she was unable to sell it anywhere. Eventually she traded it back to the company she bought it from for a small upright piano which she has also since sold as she was not happy with that either. The whole exercise cost her about $10,000.
  • A music teacher bought a 105 cm small upright for $6500 and after a few months wanted to know if I could alter the touch on the piano because many of his younger students around six to seven years old could not get a sound out of it as the they could not press the keys down . The touch was too heavy. This could not be altered. What would one think the value of this piano would be at twelve months old?

It is interesting that up until recently all pianos by the supposed leading piano manufactures in Japan had , stamped on the frame, ‘Made in Japan’. This is no longer the case. Why? You do not see on modern pianos, stamped proudly ‘Made in China’ or ‘Made in Indonesia’ Why is this?

The modern pianos coming out of Asia now, and there are hundreds of thousands of them flooding the market cannot ideally be judged until twenty years from now. Even some of the Grands made in Asia have manufacturing problems in their first two or three years. What actually is covered by the guarantee and who will take responsibility for it is an interesting issue.

If a piano tuner/ technician/re- builder was to have an ad on the radio in similar circumstances it could read like this:

“Why waste your money on a cheap mass produced tinny sounding particle board piano that may have lost its resonance and retail value in ten or twenty years? Restore your finely handed crafted traditional piano that has already lasted 100 years and if given some extra TLC will last another 100 years long after some new pianos will be put out for the hard rubbish
collections with the old toasters and washing machines.”

Of course, not all traditional pianos are suitable for restoration either. Each individual piano has to be judged on its merits.

It is not feasible for a lay person to attempt to judge the quality of any piano, modern or traditional. Most modern pianos are black and shiny and the keys are black and white. They may all look the same but they are not. It takes substantial knowledge and experience to know the differences between all the brands and models of modern pianos. To be able to judge if the piano is acceptable only an experienced technician can quickly make this assessment. A music teacher or competent pianist is not able to judge issues that are relevant to buying a piano. The same applies even more so to an old traditional piano.

If a lay person, music teacher or pianist is not familiar with the terms for example:

  • Three quarter iron frame
  • Full iron frame
  • Straight strung and cross strung
  • Rear and front escapements.
  • Overdamper and underdamper
  • Semi tone below A440
  • Concert pitch
  • Cracked frame
  • Cracked bass and treble bridges
  • Loose pins
  • Dead bass strings
  • Buzzing soundboard
  • Fractured pin block

to name a small cross section of phrases, and their relevance to the value of any piano, then it is merely a gamble in attempting to buy without advice.

We have over the years, when tuning a piano for the first time, advised the customer to take the piano back and ask for a refund. It is extraordinary that people are game to buy a piano for thousands of dollars without having it inspected first.

So many customers will use the phrase “It’s a nice piece of furniture.” There is little point in having a nice piece of furniture and a useless musical instrument sitting in the lounge room when with assistance you can have both the functionality of a beautiful musical instrument as well as the beauty to view.

The new fad is buying a piano over the Internet. Some people in this instance have bought a piano without ever actually seeing it or touching it first hand, or having a competent piano technician assess it.

Some people may score a lucky strike, however the only advice we can offer is to have the piano inspected by a competent tuner/ techinican who is also a piano player, first before purchase. Spending $100 or so on the inspection fee far outweighs the imprudent gambling as in one case, of $7000.

Customers are welcome to call us on 0488 116 696 for any further direction.