Piano For Dummies
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Buying a piano can be as much fun as buying a car — generally without the pushy salesperson. You get to test drive different instruments to find the one that suits you best.

Surfing the Internet can be great for comparing keyboards and getting a handle on digital lingo. Virtual showroom tours, product demonstrations, and used and new price quotes abound. You can certainly find some available models that your local dealer doesn’t carry and preview some models and features that manufacturers are planning to introduce.

Taking a test drive

No matter what kind of music store you walk into, the pianos and keyboards are there for you to try out. Go ahead — touch it, play it. Push the buttons and turn the volume up and down. If it’s a piano, have a seat and play a while. It’s just you and the keyboard . . . and the other customers and salespeople standing around listening.

If you’re shopping for a digital keyboard, keep in mind that keyboards may be routed through processors, effects, and other digital enhancements to make them sound better. Kindly ask the salesperson to turn off all effects so that you can hear the keyboard as is.

Notice the following about each piano or keyboard you try:

  • Is the overall sound full or wimpy, bright or dull?

  • Do long notes actually last as long as you play them?

  • On an acoustic piano, do the top five keys sound good, not metallic? Do the lower five keys sound good, not thick and sloppy?

  • Do you get a quick response when you play the keys? Is the keyboard too sensitive, or not sensitive enough?

  • Do your fingers have enough room on the keys?

If you like the sound and feel of one particular piano or keyboard, take a good look at it. Do you like the size, color, and overall look? Can you be happy with it taking up half of your living room for the next 25 years? Can you make out any noticeable dents or scratches that would signal you that this is a used piano? Used pianos can be great buys, but not if they’re selling at new prices.

Negotiating price

You found the perfect keyboard for you, and you’re in love. Your next step is to leave the store with a polite “I’ll think about it” to the hovering sales manager. Spend the next few hours or days searching for that identical piano at a lower price. When you’re 100 percent sure that you can’t find it cheaper and still can’t live without it, head back to the store and start negotiating.

Many people think that the art of negotiating a price is reserved for car buying and movie star contracts. On the contrary, the sticker price on a piano is merely a starting point. Generally, you can hope to get anywhere from 10 to 15 percent off the sticker price. The closer you pay to the dealer’s asking price, the more likely the salesperson is to throw in freebies like delivery to your home — which can sometimes cost as much as $300 — or a free year of tuning, piano cleaner, or fuzzy dice. A deal can work the other way, too: If you’re buying accessories like a keyboard stand, amplifier, some software, and some cables, the salesperson will be more receptive to making a deal.

Start negotiating a price with the salesperson only after you’re pretty darn sure you’re going to buy that particular instrument. If you’re not going to buy it, don’t waste the salesperson’s time by trying to reduce the price just so you know how much she’s willing to move. And using price quotes from two or three different stores is manipulative and unfair, and you probably won’t win. When you tell Piano Superstore that Pianos ’R Us can beat their quote by $1,000, the Piano Superstore salesperson is likely to say “Then go buy it from Pianos ’R Us.”

Go in the store with an absolute maximum dollar amount in your head. When you’re sure about a particular model, sit down with the salesperson and ask for the best price she can offer on that piano. If you get an answer equal to or less than the maximum figure in your head, shake hands and write the check. If the price is nowhere close to what you’re comfortable paying, stand up and say, “Well, thank you very much. You have my number if you change your mind.” Remember, there are more piano stores and more piano models in this world.

A piano store is a store like any other, complete with sales at key times during the year. For example, Memorial Day is always a big piano-buying time. Shop around, and then keep an eye out for sales and promotions.

Finding good buys (and avoiding scams)

If you shop around and find a piano for a ridiculously low price — far lower than the same model anywhere else in town — it’s either used, broken, or a Memorial Day sale to really remember. Be smart about any deal that seems too good to be true. To ensure that you’re getting a good deal on a quality instrument, hire a professional to look the piano over before you purchase it, even if — maybe especially if — you’re buying a used piano.

That said, you can find bargains if you choose pianos with a few miles on them:

  • Used: Be patient and take a look at a variety of instruments. There are many very good pianos out there, and sometimes people need to sell them for perfectly reasonable reasons. Check the papers, check online lists, and if you find your dream piano at a garage sale, the low, low price is not necessarily an indication of anything wrong. You may just find a perfectly good piano with many glorious years left in it for a fraction of the cost of a new one.

    Cosmetic dings don’t affect the sound quality, so the value of your piano’s outer beauty is up to you to decide. It’s the inner beauty that counts.

  • Demo: Demo models are also good buys. Stores frequently loan pianos to local universities or concert halls for use by students, competitions, and guest artists. Even if it has been used only one time, the piano can no longer be sold as new. Of course, pianos don’t have odometers, so you have to take the dealer’s word for just how used a piano really is, but most dealers will be honest about this point.

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