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PIANO BUYING GUIDE (Free or Inexpensive Starter Pianos)

These days it’s easy to find someone trying to give away an old upright piano. 100 years ago in the US just about every middle and upper class home had a piano. Many poorer families had pianos too. Back before radios were common, and long before TVs, piano playing was an extremely popular activity. Because pianos were in such high demand, many of the furniture companies got into the piano making business. As a result, there are a lot of old pianos that aren’t great quality.

Looking on sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace you’ll often see a good number of free pianos. Many of these pianos are extremely old and in terrible condition, but every now and then you might find one decent enough to serve as a starter instrument. Keep in mind you’ll have to hire a mover or figure out how to transport the instrument, which could easily weigh 500 pounds. Once moved you’ll likely need to hire a piano technician to tune it and perhaps do some more work to get it into decent playing condition. Tuning prices vary based on region, but expect at least $100.

If you’re willing to pay a few hundred dollars you can often find a pretty decent upright piano. Many of these won’t hold their tune especially well and won’t have a great tone, but in my opinion good action (keyboard mechanics/feel) is more important for a beginner. Of course if you’re the one listening and not the one playing you might disagree! Typically you have to pay quite a bit for an electric keyboard that can match the action of a beat up old “church piano.” With that in mind, I do understand the conveniences of keyboards. If you need to go that route, here’s a guide to selecting a keyboard.

What to look for in a free/inexpensive piano

  • Upright pianos come in a variety of sizes, from little “spinets” (about 40″ high or less), to “consoles,” to “studios,” to standard uprights, or just “uprights” (about 50″ and up). Generally the taller the piano the longer the bass strings, which in theory produces better tone…but not always. Also, the taller the piano, the heavier. But avoid spinets; they are almost always very poor instruments, with the exception of an Acrosonic (Baldwin) and perhaps a couple others, which can be okay for a beginner.
  • Free or inexpensive grand pianos are generally in very bad condition. If you’re willing to pay more, a decent grand piano will have a superior action to an upright. “Baby grand” pianos (about 5′ 6″ long or less) have such short strings that their tone really suffers. They are generally not worth the premium price.
  • When looking at a piano, make sure all the keys work and none get stuck. Sometimes sticking keys are easy to fix, but not always. So in general just avoid pianos if any of the keys don’t work. Play all 88 keys both gently and loudly from top to bottom, making sure they sound and feel consistent. The tone should also stop when you release the keys, except for the very highest keys which don’t have dampers because their sustain is naturally short. Also, make sure the keys aren’t chipped with sharp edges.
  • Make sure the instrument has an acceptable tone. Some pianos will sound extremely harsh and ear-piercing. Others will sound very dull and dead, particularly in the low bass. If you can play–even just a little tune, a few chords, or a scale–test it out and listen if the piano sounds pleasant or not. Older pianos might have some mechanical noise when playing keys, a little isn’t a big deal, but if there are a lot of keys that really clunk or rattle, it’s probably best to pass.
  • Play a little to see if the piano’s way out of tune or not. If it sounds horribly out of tune–to the point where a “tone deaf” person could tell something’s wrong–avoid it. People will constantly say, “it just needs to be tuned,” but that’s like having a car that’s been sitting in the woods for years, with doors rusting off and rotten tires, and saying, “it just needs gas.” Honky-tonk pianos have their charm, but if a piano’s way out of tune, there’s a good chance it won’t hold a tuning for long. If it’s just a little out of tune, odds are better that it will hold its tune. Most free pianos won’t have been tuned in years.
  • Test the damper or sustaining pedal (pedal on the right). Follow these steps: 1) Play a key on the piano and keep it held, 2) then hold down the pedal, 3) then release the key. The tone should now continue until you release the pedal. When you release the pedal the sound should quickly stop. Try this with several low, medium, and high-ish keys (remember, the very highest keys sustain no matter what). Sometimes a non-working pedal could have an easy fix, but not always.
  • To save time, before you go to look at a piano, ask if all the keys work well. You could also ask if it sounds way out of tune, but keep in mind the answer might not be too reliable! If the keys work, the tone’s good, it’s not way out of tune, and it has a working sustain pedal, it still doesn’t guarantee a great instrument, but odds are decent it will hold up as an acceptable starter piano. If it’s free, chances are it’s 50 to 100 years old already, and if it’s still in decent shape, it will probably stay that way for a while longer.

Moving a piano

Having a piano moved is just a matter of hiring movers. For an upright piano, most moving companies can do the job, but a dedicated piano mover will often do it more carefully and often won’t cost more. If moving a grand piano, do not use a regular mover, these pianos must have their legs and the pedal assembly removed and reassembled, someone who doesn’t know how to do this will almost certainly inflict damage. Call a piano dealer in your region for recommendations.

If you want to try to move an upright piano yourself be careful. Those old cartoons of pianos falling on people or running them over are based on real events! You will need a cargo/moving van, a truck with a nice long ramp, or a very sturdy trailer. You will also need a flat furniture dolly with 4 strong wheels, a few furniture blankets (if you don’t want to seriously mar the piano’s case), and some strong ratchet straps. You’ll also want at least 2 really strong people, or 4 fairly strong people.

Take your time!

First lift the piano straight up from both sides and slide the furniture dolly underneath. Most pianos have large handles on the back for one hand and the other hand can grip under the keyboard area. Remember, lift with your legs, not your back.

The top of the piano can be covered with furniture blankets, ratchet straps can be used to secure the dolly to the bottom of the piano (tight, but not too tight). Due to its weight, the piano will need to be lifted over thresholds. Don’t try to roll the dolly’s wheels over obstacles. Stop before stairs to plan, and when ready, navigate them with extreme caution. If there are more than just a few stairs, it is recommended to hire a professional.

Getting the piano into a vehicle depends on the vehicle type and the strength of those moving the piano. A good long ramp can make things much easier, but be extremely careful when navigating a ramp with a piano, and go slowly. A large pickup truck can move a piano, but they’re not ideal since getting a piano that high–either by lifting or with a ramp–is both very difficult and very dangerous. Also, you’ll want to be sure the truck’s tailgate is strong enough to take the weight of the piano.

Once the piano is in the vehicle, strap it very securely to a strong surface (carefully avoiding delicate parts like the music rack, pedals, or weak legs). You usually want a heavy load as far forward as you can get it, so towards the cap, and centered if possible.

Piano tuning

Piano technicians will often recommend having a piano tuned every year or every 6 months. For an old starter piano, having it tuned “as-needed” is generally fine. That might be once a year, or even longer. After moving it to its new location, wait a week or so for it to acclimate before having it tuned. Many pianos that haven’t been tuned in a really long time will be so flat that a piano technician might recommend “bringing it up to pitch” with several tuning. This isn’t necessary for an old starter piano, just have it tuned “where it is” or have them bring it up as far as they safely can with just one tuning.

When it’s time to upgrade to a better instrument, just give the old one away, or sell it for what you paid.