Piano Pitfalls #1 – Buying a Used Piano

by Richard Smith

Small piano suitable for beginner or student,
Reasonable price. Ring xxxxxxx

Advertisements similar to this appear regularly in most classifieds. Having seen this ad, most Mums and Dads (not aware of pitfalls and not wanting to spend too much, “in case our daughter or son does not like learning”), buy the instrument. The instrument concerned may be small, and also fit “in the small space between the bed and the wardrobe in the child’s bedroom”. Poor Child, already fighting a losing battle, because of attitude. Practising in the bedroom, isolated and alone, is too depressing for an adult, let alone a child, Do you realize that we haven’t even given the piano a second thought yet?

Let’s suppose a second family sees the ad. Not knowing very much about pianos, they realise although within a reasonable price range, it may not be suitable. This family then contacts a reputable piano tuner to inspect this instrument. For a very modest charge (compared with the price of the piano) this can be arranged. How grateful this family would be if the piano tuner said. “built in 1890/1900, 1.5 tones low in pitch, breaking strings, won’t hold in tune, over damper action. This piano is worthless.” It is the parents responsibility to ensure that their child or children commence piano tuition on a sound instrument, ie:

  1. It must be on pitch, A440. 
  2. It must have an even touch.
  3. It must have tuning stability.
  4. It must have an evenness and quality of tone.
  5. It must have durability.
  6. It must have an iron frame. 

Parents must realise that teachers are with their students 1/2 or 1 hour per week. After lessons, the students are on their own. The teacher’s piano and the piano at home must be at the same pitch.

The choice of teachers is also very important, one having a good reputation, accredited if possible.


Yes there are, although as the years progress, the traditional good European pianos are deteriorating.
Pianos have a similar life expectancy to the human being. The first twenty-five years are rich and good, the next twenty-five years, attention in the way of major repairs can be expected, after that, a general fatiguing of components/strings, pinblock, sound board, action etc to name just a few. This is providing the piano has had regular attention from a competent piano tuner. An instrument without this regular attention, deteriorates much faster.

The period from approx. 1920 to 1939, produced many fine instruments, particularly the quality German brands. Many are still good quality today. However, it must be stressed, many poor instruments were also manufactured in this period and today are not worthwhile. The number of pianos built before 1920 is outstanding and this is where we have to be very careful.


Upright piano action can be grouped basically into two sections:
Under-damper and Over-damper.
Over-damper actions are designed to place the damper (ie. the felt pads resting on the strings), above the striking hammer. This was a very clumsy arrangement, where the dampers were attached to a board above the hammers. This involved a wire for each note, and became very hard for the piano technician to regulate as the piano became older. Older type pianos thus finished with a very uneven touch, due to this primitive action. These pianos were built around the turn of the century.

Although pioneered in the early 1800’s (Erards 1835 a notable example), the under-damper action for pianos did not take precedence till the 1900’s. The dampers through an ingenious design, were placed underneath the striking hammers. Moving parts were kept to a minimum through the use of the “spoon”. This action is a must for all pianists, whether commencing or professional. Only under-damper action pianos are manufactured for upright pianos today, thus giving good service, a better control of regulation for the tuner, and an even touch of about 2 1/2 oz. for the pianist.

No matter how even and good an action was originally, do not forget an under-damper action wears, and when old and fatigued, unevenness becomes apparent. Hammers become misshapen and chattery. The action loses its burnish, or lubrication, thus hastening the wear of vital felting eg. cushions, checks, etc., centre pins and bushings become loose and worn.

This all creates an unevenness of touch, thus necessitating a huge repair bill from the piano tuner or technician. After major repairs, the whole action has to be re-regulated by the technician. A vital, pains-taking and expensive work. Upon discovering an under-damper action piano, does not the idea of an inspection before purchase, seem even more sensible at this time?

First published in Keyboard World magazine, September 1980