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The Consumer FIVE EASY PIECES

By Mitch Lobrovich |

There aren’t too many things you can buy in this world that will last as long, give as much pleasure, and be us trouble free as a piano. Pianos cost nothing to operate and require only a few hours of maintenance a year. Consider another nice feature of the instrument: It gets better with age (to a point of course). That means in many cases you can pay less for a good used piano without really getting less.

“A good used one – really, we hate to tell our customers this – but a good used one’s just as good as a new one.” says Lonnie Goodman, Jr. of Goodman Music Co., one of the area’s largest piano dealers. “The only difference is that you don’t get the warranty from the factory. But a good used one has been broken in. It’s like a violin. As it gets older the soundboard mellows, and it gets a better sound. A lot of people come in and sit down to a used piano and say “Oh. I like that sound a lot better than that new one.’ and that brand new one may be a much higher quality piano.”

Pianos are available in five basic sizes: spinet, console, studio, upright and grand. The rule of thumb in selecting a size is that the bigger they are. the better they sound; increasing the length of the strings and the area of the soundboard produces a richer, fuller tone. Naturally, when you’re dealing with used instruments, you’ll find exceptions to this rule, according to the original quality of the piano and how well it’s been maintained.

The following is a brief rundown on the various sizes, beginning with the least expensive.

Upright. Most of these venerable old beasts are 50 to 70 years old, but rebuilt, they still make pretty tolerable music. Standing four feet high and taller, they’re often advertised as “practice pianos” in the classifieds. They are the most abundant type of used piano, starting at about $300 and ranging up to $2,000 or more for a particularly ornate model. Usually you can find a good functional upright for around $400 or less.

The disadvantages of some of these low-cost behemoths are that their ancient cabinets can be downright homely, the keys may be discolored and worn, the action- the mechanism that brings the hammer up to the strings when the key is depressed – probably won’t feel as smooth as on a newer piano, and the tonal quality may have diminished somewhat over the decades. Another problem is that because the strings are often old and brittle, most uprights can’t be tuned to concert pitch (which won’t matter unless you plan to train for a singing career, or accompany your records or instruments that have fixed tunings). Also, an upright won’t stay in tune as long as a newer piano. You’ll just have to sit down and let your eyes, ears and hands be the judge of whether an upright would be a satisfactory piano for vou.

Spinel. Originally designed for folks who have limited space, the spinet looks like a decapitated upright. The smallest piano made, 36-38 inches high, its tonal quality suffers because of its shorter strings and smaller soundboard. Its action is not as quick as other pianos, due to limited cabinet area. Serious piano players don’t have anything nice to say about spinets, but they could be fine for beginners or those on limited budgets. Spinets range from $700 to $ 1,200 new. Used, decent spinets can be found for $500 to $700.

Console. The most popular size, the console is 40-41 inches tall and has nice tone and action. Prices start around $1,000 for a new one and can climb up to $2,000. You can probably get a good used console for $700 to $800.

Studio. 44-48 inches tall and plain looking, this piano is designed primarily for institutional work, the type you see in schools and churches. It generally has a better tone than the console and is priced from $1,500 to $2,500 new. Good used studios start at around $900.

Grand. The ultimate piano because of its superior tone and action. Grands come in several sizes, from baby grands just under five feet tall to the nine-foot concert grand. Used grands are now in great demand because current costs of material and labor are putting a steep price tag on today’s better new models.

It is said that the best pianos ever made were grands built in America during the Twenties, when abundant raw materials, cheap labor and loose money spurred piano builders to spare nothing in the pursuit of perfection. Now piano dealers are finding that rebuilding these peerless instruments is more profitable than ever. Garland Piano, for instance, specializes in restoring grands of Roaring Twenties extravagance to “98 percent of their original condition.” They sell for $5,000 and up – about what you’d pay for a medium-priced new grand. You can find used baby grands of more recent vintage for as little as $1,000 or so, but don’t expect mint condition. Good new ones run between $3,000 and $4,000 and concert grands can get into five digits.

Though the prices listed above were based on quotes from dealers, you’re most likely to get the best deal from an owner. There are certain plusses in buying from a dealer, however, that should be weighed before you choose a piano. All dealers include free delivery and one free tuning, sometimes a second. These services would cost $50 minimum otherwise (more about moving and tuning later). Also, a reputable dealer will give you some sort of guarantee, whereas you have no protection when you buy from an owner.

To help you avoid getting stuck with a hunk of cacophonous junk, Lloyd Hebert, a piano technician, teacher and professional musician, offers this advice: “Number one, take a look and see that all the keys are even. If the keyboard is not even, you can assume there will be a problem.” Ordinarily this means the felt is worn, which would cost $30 to $40 to replace.

Next, “play through the keys. If the piano’s out of tune it’s all right, but it should be out of tune uniformly. Look for one area on the piano that sounds horribly out of tune compared to the rest. That would indicate the biggest problem there is – the pinblock.”

The pinblock is a piece of laminated wood that holds the tuning pins. It’s the heart of the piano. You can’t see it because it’s hidden behind the metal plate that supports the tremendous tension of the strings. It has more than 200 pin holes drilled in it and with age, will dry up and tend to crack from one hole to the next, allowing the pins to slip. “In other words, the piano won’t stay in tune. The worst thing a person can do is buy a piano with a defective pinblock.”

Things can be done to correct it, such as putting a sleeve around the pin, but that tends to open up the crack more, says Hebert. You can also use a liquid pin tightener, which is by no means permanent, or try larger pins. But, says Hebert, if your pinblock’s bad, “it’ll eventually cause more problems.”

Another major concern is the soundboard, a large flat piece of wood, usually spruce, that covers the back of the piano. It amplifies and reinforces the vibration of the strings. Many soundboards have cracks that you can plainly see by looking at the back of the piano. These aren’t necessarily bad, unless they’re large, in which case there will be a very unpleasant rattling sound when you play loudly. The soundboard will also rattle if it has come unglued from the ribs that hold it in place. This can be remedied inexpensively, though.

Finally, before you buy a piano you should take a look at its insides and check its general condition. See if the strings are rusty, which would mean you’re going to have a tuning problem (it costs about $200 to restring a piano). Check the hammers to see if they’re worn and wobble them gently to see if they’re about to fall off- a sure sign of a junker. If you’re concerned about looks, you can have new key tops put on for about $75 and refinish an upright for around $300.

“As a last word,” says Hebert, “if someone finds a piano that he likes, but doesn’t know anything about, and may end up spending a lot of money on, he should call a tuner to come assess it for him.” That would cost around $15 but could save you 10 times as much.

After you’ve found the piano you want, there’s the problem of moving it. As a rule, don’t try to move it yourself. Pianos are heavy items and you could easily tear up your home, yourself or the piano. Call a mover, and a professional piano mover only, particularly if you have a grand.

Professional piano movers charge from $25 to $30 to move spinets and consoles, $30 to $40 for studios and uprights (add $10 to $15 in each case for an upstairs move), and at least $40 for grands. Prices will vary according to the amount of work involved and how far you want your piano moved.

Once a piano is moved (it should be set up in the home where the humidity is most constant), it will probably need tuning several weeks later. The standard rate is $25. Ideally, you should have your piano tuned every six months.

When you start looking for a used piano, you’ll naturally want to begin in a music store. Dealers in the Dallas area who usually have a good selection of used pianos include A-American Piano and Organ Co. in Town East Mall; Arnold & Morgan Co., 510 S. Garland Ave.: Garland Piano, 2529 S. Garland Rd.; Goodman Music Co.. 314 W. Jefferson Blvd.: McBrayer Piano & Organ Co., 9845 N. Central Expressway: Munselle Piano & Organ Co., 2330 Rock Island Rd.. Irving; and Oak Cliff Music Co.. 612 W. Jefferson.

In Fort Worth try Bruce Music Co., 3409 Indale and 612 W. Pipeline in Hurst; McBrayer-Bartlett Piano & Organ Co., 5727 E. Lancaster and Midtown Piano & Organ Headquarters, 2300 N. Haltom Rd.