Robert Estrin - piano expert

5 Misleading Piano Terms

An important lesson for the piano enthusiast

In this video, Robert talks about the piano world and how often we are misled by the industry, shops, schools, and more. Pianists, beware!

Released on December 11, 2019

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome to I'm Robert Estrin. Today I'm going to tell you about five misleading piano terms. You may have heard some of these terms and wondered what they mean or they just sound scary and you want to know more about them. So let's dive right in. Five terms that you may have heard before or maybe you haven't.

The first one we're going to talk about is gray market pianos. What are gray market pianos? You hear that term and it sounds pretty foreboding, almost like it's illegal or something. Well, truth be known, gray market's a term coined by Yamaha North America. Yamaha North America is the sole distributor of Yamaha pianos on our entire continent. So every new Yamaha piano that is sold in North America must go through this corporation, which is separate from Yamaha International.

Well, truth be known, Japanese culture doesn't like used things so much. So there's a glut of gently used Yamaha pianos in Japan that nobody wants to buy there. So enterprising business people refurbish the pianos and then they distribute them in the United States. Used Yamaha pianos. Now, naturally, Yamaha North America's not too happy about this because it cuts into their market. And so they do everything they can to try to squash it.

Now what are some of the things they say about them? There is certainly some truth to what they talk about. And you should be aware of this. Yamaha wasn't really an export company until the 1970s, so when you're talking about really old Yamaha pianos, were they made for other climates? Well, not so much. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't. It's hard to say because they weren't designed to be sold all over the world. So Yamaha talks about the climatization of their pianos for the North American climate.

Well here we are in Orange County, 10 miles from the beach. Now the beach, I can tell you right now it's probably 10 degrees cooler and probably has about 20% higher humidity than we have right here. And that just 10 miles away. Go an hour and a half inland and you could either be in the desert in Palm Springs where it's, right now it can be 114 degrees for all I know. Or you could be in the mountains where sometimes there's snow even when it's 90 degrees here.

What I'm trying to point out is that there are many climates right around us. What about the whole North American climate? What the heck is that? So it's kind of funny to say that pianos are climatized for the North American climate because it's so diverse. I think pretty much if you have any late model Yamaha, even from the '70s and beyond, the instruments are made to handle climates around the world.

Now else is a problem with buying gray market Yamahas? That is, Yamaha's that did not get sold originally through Yamaha North America. Well, if a technician is ordering parts from Yamaha North America for a Yamaha piano, and they provide the serial number to Yamaha and it doesn't match one that they sold, they won't sell parts. Now is that a big problem? Not necessarily. First of all, there could be other Yamaha serial numbers that can be referenced in order to get parts. Secondly, Yamaha is not the only parts manufacturer and the parts aren't so unusual on Yamaha pianos that other fine parts from Abel, Renner, and other companies couldn't be a good fit for Yamaha pianos. But you should be aware that this is what gray market is all about. Trying to avoid the competition with used Yamahas in North America. Should you be concerned? Possibly if it's an older Yamaha, otherwise I think you should be in good shape.

Let's move on. Now a similar parallel here is Steinway. Steinway's biggest competition you'd think would be Yamaha or Kawai maybe or Bosendorfer. No. Actually the biggest competition Steinway has is used Steinway. Why? Because you go into a Steinway store, you see $80,000 piano. Then you look on the used market, you see the for half of that or maybe even less. So obviously this is a big concern for Steinway.

Now they have coined a term called "Steinwas," claiming that if you have a Steinway piano and one part on that piano or parts of the piano were not made by Steinway, for all purposes it's not even a Steinway anymore. Now is there truth to this? Well, yes and no. Sometimes it can be true. In fact, there's nothing more crushing for Steinway than to see badly restored Steinways tarnishing their good name. And I applaud them for trying to keep that high standard.

However, there are also some absolutely stupendous rebuilders of Steinway pianos. Steinway does rebuild pianos, but they could only do a limited number of rebuilds every year. So obviously for all those used Steinways that had been made for over a hundred years, there are really high quality rebuilders out there. And they may choose to use Steinway parts. But why wouldn't they just use Steinway parts? Is it the save a few bucks here or there?

Not really. I can imagine there might be some inexperienced rebuilders who think, "Oh, I'll use a cheaper part," but the extra labor it's going to take to make that part work is going to negate any savings in the part. The real reason why some rebuilders choose to use different parts instead of Steinway parts is Steinway is not a parts builder. In fact, the only parts that they have on hand are to pianos their currently building.

Now you might have a, let's say a Steinway M from the 1920s and you need a new set of hammers. Now an inexperienced rebuilder might just order a set of hammers from Steinway thinking, "Well, for do a Steinway model M, it's got to be right." Well, fact of the matter is, the specifications of Steinway pianos vary over the years. So it may or may not be the exact right weight and geometry for a specific piano from the past that you're planning to rebuild.

The good news is there are many companies that make really fine parts. And in fact, here's a truth, Renner, the German company, all the inside parts of the action on Hamburg Steinways had been made by Renner. They don't build their own action parts, so certainly Renner should be good enough. And if Renner's good enough, Abel makes great hammers. There are a number of companies that make excellent parts. The critical thing is using the right part for that specific piano. If it's a Steinway part, terrific. But if the Steinway part isn't the right match, you might be better off using other parts for a specific Steinway piano.

All right, well, what else do we have? Sometimes you go into a store and you wonder about a piano and a sales person might say, "Oh, you've got an all-spruce soundboard." And you go, "Oh, I've heard that spruce is good on a soundboard." And you think all spruce must be great. Well, all spruce is a clever way of not indicating to you that the soundboard is not a solid spruce board, which is the preferred board for high quality pianos.

A laminated board is simply plywood. Now, what's wrong with that? Well, first let me tell you what's right with it. A laminated board is much, much more durable, just like plywood is less likely to crack than solid wood. Why is that? Because the grains are put layer upon layer crossing each other with cement between. So it's almost impossible for a crack to go through because it's going to be the grains at 90 degree angles to one another. The bad news is that that very fact makes the soundboard less beautiful sound, the vibrations are not as rich and wonderful. So you're actually better off with a solid board unless you have a harsh climate. So if you hear the term all spruce, realize that's a little deceptive because you want a solid spruce soundboard unless you're in a harsh climate.

We've got two more for you now. One of them is something you've seen time and time again, and that is the GOB sale, the going out of business piano sale. Now many of these are legitimate. As a matter of fact, when you consider that in 2005 there were over 1,200 piano stores in the United States and today we have a little over 150 or somewhere around 150 piano stores. A lot of piano stores have gone out of business, so there are legitimate going out of business piano sales.

However, this is the way it generally works. A store can't keep running a business depleting inventory and still have enough money to keep the lights on and pay all the expenses. You get down to two pianos, how is that going to possibly work? Simply, it can't. So usually going out of business sales entail a partnership with another store that feeds additional inventory as the store that's going out of business, their inventory gets depleted so that the store can function. So there's a lot of hype that goes into these and they are sometimes very successful sales event with tremendous amounts of promotion and advertising going into them. So it's not necessarily a bad place to buy a piano, but you should be aware of what really is going on.

Worse yet, sometimes you see people taking advantage of this. And a store will do on going out of business sale for months or years and then change names and do the same thing all over again. I've seen this happen and it's, it gives a bad name to the whole industry.

Lastly, and related to this are the famous college sales. College piano sales. And you'll see these college sales all the time. You wonder, "How can they have so many used pianos to sell? Didn't they just have a sale last year?" Well, the answer is yes, in all likelihood. Here's the way it works. College piano sales are a partnership between a manufacturer, a store, a supplier, and a finance company. And they go to a school and they offer to put several free pianos in the school for a year and in exchange for having a sale that is promoted to the entire mailing list of the university or college.

So it makes for a very potent event. The fact of the matter is, though, the vast majority of the pianos at college sales aren't the university's pianos. Now, that's actually a good thing. Because if you've ever seen what school pianos look like, they are thrashed. Because they get used so much, the cases are beaten up, they're worn out. So indeed, the pianos that have just been there for a year, usually kept in studios, not in practice rooms. Those are sold. But that might be just a handful of pianos.

Yet you have a whole school full of dozens of pianos that come from a store that is trying to capitalize on this event by selling a wide range of inventory. Is it a good place to buy a piano? Possibly. If you know exactly what you want, you don't want to go to the negotiating process, you can just get a piano if you know what you want. But it's definitely not the place to go if you want to try out pianos and have any kind of leisurely, relaxed way of exploring different instruments for yourself.

It's a high pressure, quick, if you know what you want, here's the price, buy it situation. So while it's not completely deceptive, you should understand what it is. And actually part of it is good news. You're not buying these thrashed college pianos mostly.

So those are five things that are not what they might appear to be. And I hope this has been helpful for you. If any of your piano shopping and you have other questions, Living Pianos is always here as a resource for information for you. Thanks so much for joining me again. Robert Estrin here at, your online piano store.
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