Buying a second-hand piano – A checklist
, hA second-hand piano has many advantages, which we discussed in our article about acoustic pianos. Of course, you can also buy a second-hand electric piano, which we will also discuss in this article. However, buying a used instrument comes with its own disadvantages, the biggest of them being that if you are a beginner, it is difficult to know which instrument is good and which one is not. Fear not, at the end of this article you will have several tricks up your sleeve to rule out the bad instruments!
SECOND-HAND ACOUSTIC PIANOS
Although I keep repeating myself, getting a piano technician with you (or even your piano teacher) is very important, particularly if you are a beginner. The questions and checks below are aimed at giving you a starting point when assessing a used instrument. Please remember to ask the vendor to open the piano so you or your teacher/technician can inspect the inside of the instrument.
1. Where was this instrument stored before?
Acoustic pianos are very sensitive to temperature and humidity changes. A piano should never be placed near a radiator, near an AC, in a conservatory or right by the window. There are many wooden parts inside the piano which can suffer when the temperature suddenly changes. Also, the humidity or lack of it can damage the soundboard, wooden parts, and strings. For tips on how to take care of an acoustic piano, check our article.
If someone says the piano was stored in the conservatory or in the kitchen for 5 years, definitely run!
2. How often was the instrument tuned?
Acoustic pianos need tuning at least once a year, ideally twice or more. As such, if an instrument hasn’t been tuned regularly will probably require two tuning sessions (or more) before you even start using it. The strings might also break, which will then require string replacements. Sometimes, the piano might never maintain its tuning if it is in a bad state to start with. Ideally, look for an instrument that has been tuned at least once a year.
3. What is the age of the piano?
You can ask the vendor for the age of the piano. A piano technician will also be able to find out the age by the serial number stamped on the frame. You can also use serial number decoder websites, which will tell you how old your instrument is.
The age of the piano matters a lot. Generally, a piano that hasn’t been tuned and repaired will age badly. For example, a piano that is 40 years old and has been tuned and maintained regularly will be better than a 20-year-old instrument that has never been tuned. As a rule of thumb though, the newer the instrument, the better (unless it has been neglected).
4. Are there signs of damage inside the piano?
Many things are a warning sign when found inside a piano, such as:
- Moth signs or mouse droppings/damage
- Cracks in the frame and bridges of the piano
- Pins of different sizes
- Strings of different colour (shiny ones are newer) or rusty
- Flat hammers (they should be rounded)
5. Are the keys even?
The keys should be evenly spaced and level.
6. How often has the piano been played during the years?
A piano needs regular playing to age and sound better. However, if you are buying the piano from a professional pianist or piano teacher, then the piano might be overly used (check the hammers to be sure). The bright side of buying a piano from a professional pianist is that their piano has, most likely, been maintained and repaired to a very high standard.
7. Tests for checking the action, keys and pedals
There are several tests you can do, even if you are a beginner, to test that the keys are working properly.
- Play all the keys (black and white): none of the notes should rattle, buzz or continue ringing after you depressed the key
- Play all the keys as softly as you can: all notes should be able to play very softly
- Play the same note twice in a very quick succession: if the piano has suffered from dampness the note will not repeat the 2nd time if played very quickly
- Play a note very loudly and while holding it down count how many seconds the note rings before dying out completely (ideally, you want it to be over 9 seconds; even better is it is more than 12 seconds)
- If you play a note and it sounds like 2 notes, something is not right
- Check the hammers (they should be rounded at the end; if the part of the hammer that touches the string is almost flat, the piano has been overly used)
- Check all pedals and make sure they do not move sideways excessively when you press them
SECOND-HAND ELECTRIC PIANOS
Luckily, buying a second-hand electric is a little bit less difficult and confusing than buying a second-hand acoustic piano. They are much cheaper, as electric pianos depreciate in value much quicker than acoustic ones. However, they are easier to maintain which means there are less potential hidden defects. Make sure the piano you are buying has all the must-haves that we discussed in our electric pianos article. As well as that, check for the following:
Make sure all cable/plug/connections work properly (piano, headphones, pedal). Ask the vendor if the piano comes with all the accessories (stand, pedals, and headphones). If not, you will need to budget for buying those on top of the cost of the piano.
Make sure you play every single key on the piano when you test the piano. Alternatively, ask the vendor to send you a video with them playing every single note.
- Play all the keys (black and white) and listen for any rattling noises or sound distortion. If these are present, it is best not to buy the instrument.
- Do they have note names written on it? If they are easy to clean, that is not an issue. Otherwise, avoid it.
- If the volume is uneven from one note to another, avoid buying it.
- Play the same key piano (softly) and forte (loudly) to check the instrument can do different volumes.
Check the speakers function properly so test the piano both with and without the headphones.
Most beginners’ electric pianos only come with one pedal, but others have three. Check that the right pedal (or the only pedal if it only has one) by pressing and holding it down while pressing several keys. All notes must to continue ringing as long your foot is on the pedal. Once your foot is lifted, the sound should stop.
5. Research the brand and specifications
Check the brand, making sure it is a recognised one and the specifications. Remember there is a bare minimum that electric pianos must have even if you are a beginner, so check the specifications making sure all the points discussed in our electric pianos article are met. Checking the model will also give you an indication about how much the instrument will cost new and whether you have a good deal or not.
Hopefully this little checklist will help you distinguish between a great second-hand piano and a bad one. There are several other things that an expert technician will be able to check, so as always bring one along if you can. In the Further information section, you will find some useful articles and videos which explain more about how to check the inside of an instrument.
How to buy, inspect and evaluate a piano: Uprights (video)
How to buy a used piano(video)
How temperature and humidity may affect your piano
How old is too old
Piano maintenance and care