Tips if Purchasing a Used Piano

Having a good instrument to regularly practice on is a key component of a successful piano experience. And this is something that I've touched on before in this blog post from a few years back all about choosing the right type of instrument (acoustic/digital) for your home practice environment. An acoustic piano is an excellent choice because you get the full action & resonance of the instrument. The flip side is that acoustic pianos require annual maintenance, and they can be more expensive to purchase up front. This is where used pianos come in, often students can find inexpensive or free used pianos available. So how do you know when it's worth it? What makes a used piano a good bet? Today's post is going to provide some tips into shopping for a used acoustic piano.
  • Take a piano technician 
    • If you're seriously considering an instrument, I'd recommend taking a piano technician with you. This is akin to having your mechanic look over a used car before purchasing. When you're spending several hundred or more on an instrument, its well worth the $70-$80 to have a better idea of fair price and condition of the instrument before purchasing. 
  • Ask about the instrument's history, particularly if it's had regular maintenance. 
    • Pianos should be tuned annually. An instrument that has essentially been furniture for the past 20 years can be a much riskier purchase than one that has had regular maintenance. (If you fall in love with an instrument that has been collecting dust for a couple decades, or maybe they are giving it away for free, a technician can let you know what it will take to be playable again.)
  • Check all the keys
    • Do they make sound? 
    • Do they stop making sound when you let go? 
    • Does each key sound 'good'? 
      • Broken strings will 'twang' and sometimes affect nearby notes as well, so you should be able to hear them right away, and know they are at least $70-$80 each to replace.
      • Tuning should happen after a piano is moved anyway, so if you hear notes that are slightly out of tune, that's typically not a huge deal. Notes that are way out of tune may indicate that the instrument hasn't been maintained, which could require more repair work.
  • Check the pedals - sometimes a pedal not working is a simple matter of reconnecting them, other times it's something more. Again, this is where having a technician along can be a big help.
    • Damper (right) - any notes that you push down while holding the damper pedal should be sustained when you let go of the keys without releasing the pedal. This is the most frequently used pedal, so definitely check this one.
    • Una corda (left) - shifts the hammers & keyboard very slightly to one side, causing the hammers to just strike just one string. The difference in sound is subtle on this one, so I'd recommend playing a chord or two first, then push the pedal and see if the keys shift slightly and try a chord or two with the pedal depressed, and then play them again with the pedal lifted once more. The notes played while the pedal is depressed should sound less. Una Corda notes feel 'thinner' or as though the sound is coming from further away or under water. As I said, the difference can be subtle, but when executed well in a piece of music this pedal adds an entire dimension of tonal color. 
    • Sostenuto or silent piano (middle) - this pedal can vary by the make & type of piano, the two that I'm mentioning are just the most common I've encountered. On a grand the middle pedal is usually the Sostenuto, which sustains ONLY the notes being played at the time the pedal is depressed. And on upright or console pianos, especially Kawai & Yamaha, the middle is typically a silent piano pedal that can be locked into place, allowing for students to practice without disturbing nearby neighbors (a nice feature if you live in an apartment).
Some of this may seem like a bunch of no brainers, but I've had it happen more than once where a studio family jumps at an opportunity of a free piano, moves it in excited that they're finally going to have a real instrument, and when I come to check it out, I discover it has several broken strings and no pedals - which is several hundred dollars in repairs at least right off the bat, and often not worth the money because it's indicative of larger maintenance issues with the instrument. Keeping these tips in mind will help you shop or adopt smart when it comes to your home instrument.

As far as where to look, be creative. Music stores that sell pianos are a great resource, and delivery & the first tuning can often be included. Used pianos can also be found at Thrift & Consignment stores, online marketplaces like Facebook & Craigslist, Yard Sales etc. 

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you want an instrument that has good sound & is enjoyable to play, because these will encourage good, long-term practice habits. So keep your options open as you search for your future instrument, and good luck!