Bananas for Pianos

I’ve been shopping for a new piano recently. My old piano is a Baldwin upright, built in the 1970’s. I got it in 2001 from a friend who is a professional pianist and upgraded to a grand for his home. I spent almost as much moving it two neighborhoods across Brooklyn as I did on the piano itself. A quality instrument, it still plays fine even though I’ve played it almost every day for many years. It has served me well.

I’ve wanted upgrade to a grand for a long time. I started by looking on craigslist a few months ago and realized there was a healthy market for used pianos, and it looked like there were some decent ones in my budget, but it would require some research and some patience. I looked again a few weeks ago but all the ones I was interested in were gone. So I started going to piano dealers to see how they compare. I figured the dealers would have some inventory and some selection, and their instruments would be rebuilt/refurbished, tuned up and in good shape, plus they’d also have warranties and be able to handle the delivery.

I spent alot of time the last few weeks playing different pianos and listening to their tone and dynamics and feeling their touch and response, as well as looking inside to see how they’re made, and doing alot of reading online about the history, quality and reputation of different brands. And I can tell you once you start listening and get in the zone, there’s alot of variation and you can start to discern what makes a really good piano.

I played a few rebuilt Steinways which were all really beautiful. It’s amazing, some of them were 100 years old and still hold their value. And they all have such great and consistent response and an unbeatable tone that’s well balanced between bright and mellow and mostly distinguished by a sea of lush and resonant overtones. It’s like the aural equivalent of a warm inner glow.

But unfortunately those were all beyond my budget, even the lower-priced ones. So I auditioned a number of other instruments. The one that struck my fancy was Kimball. Shiny black, very nice. It immediately seemed very warm and playable, with a big resonance and nice clear low end, being about six and a half feet long, which is a little longer than a typical baby grand. It has a great tone and response, almost rivaling a Steinway but for about a fifth of the price. It’s 25 or 30 years old but in basically new condition, having spent most of its lifetime not being played.

The better Kimballs are in line with Baldwins in terms of quality. They are regarded as well-built, sturdy workhorses but not a top-tier marque. Of course all piano companies have a long history and not all models or periods are equal, and there alot of Kimballs that are well worth staying away from. Apparently most American companies started manufacturing their pianos in China in the 80’s and 90’s and suffered from low quality in sound, workmanship and materials. It took them a while to really learn what they were doing, but newer pianos from China (almost all American brands except Steinway, which are still made in Queens NY, as well as some Japanese brands) are regarded as better built and generally a good value.

It turns out this particular Kimball is a real gem. It was built in Pawnee, Indiana at the time the Kimball owned the Bösendorfer company (world-class concert pianos from Austria, often regarded as the best in the world, superior even to Steinway) and shortly before they ended American production altogether, one of the last of its kind. It’s a so-called “Viennese Kimball” because its sound and feel are modeled on the venerable Bösendorfer concert grands and they took advantage of Bösendorfer engineering, craftsmanship and know-how in its design and construction. Plus it’s all top-flight materials: spruce soundboard, maple shell, black lacquer, ebony and ivory together in perfect harmony. Hopefully it’ll play great for many years.

The place I got it from is Ford Pianos in Peekskill NY. John Ford is a third-generation piano rebuilder and a really nice guy. First time I was there he showed me around his workshop and told me alot about piano materials and construction as well as the art of rebuilding. He gave me a good deal that included the moving and taking away my old piano as a trade-in. As an added bonus, since I’m a tall guy and my knees don’t quite fit under the keyboard, he’s making me a set of custom risers/casters to put under the feet and raise the instrument up an inch and a half. Very awesome! Turns out he’s also of Hungarian heritage, and his language skills are on the same level as mine, meaning his vocabulary is mainly centered around food.