The Acoustic Piano
Just as there are acoustic and electric guitars, in the piano world there are the acoustic piano and the electric piano. We will explain the acoustic piano on this page, and the electric or digital piano on another page.
There are 4 general types of vertical acoustic piano: the spinet, the console, the studio, and the upright; and 3 general types of acoustic grand piano: the baby grand, the medium or parlour grand, and the concert grand. Each is determined by the height or length of the piano.
A Vertical Piano is a piano where the strings are perpendicular to the horizon.
As pianos became more popular, piano builders started to look for ways to make their pianos use less floor space. As a result they decided to build their pianos where the strings would stretch up vertically in front of the pianist instead of horizontally like the grand.
Some of these early attempts to build a vertical acoustic piano produced rather interesting looking pianos.
In order to place the acoustic piano up against the wall in vertical position, there had to be a compromise made in how the piano action worked. The grand action has an advantage in that it uses gravity to put the action parts back to their resting position. The vertical, however, must use springs in order to return the parts to their resting position.
No matter what has been tried, the vertical acoustic piano action has never performed as quickly nor had the ability to perform the nuances of the grand action – until the Fandrich action was introduced in 1989. Note the small spring that is attached to the top of the jack and to the backcheck dowel in
this picture of the Fandrich action.
This really makes the Fandrich upright feel like you are playing a grand. It's simply amazing!
There are several choices you can make in purchasing an upright acoustic piano. Generally upright pianos are categorized into four types:
Full-size or Professional Upright.........47 - 60" high
Studio...........................................44 - 47" high
Console.........................................40 - 44" high
Spinet...........................................36 - 40" high
For instance, the pianos above are a 43" decorator console on the left, a 47" studio in the middle, and a 55" full size or professional upright on the right.
Spinet Pianos 36 - 40" High
Unless a spinet piano is all you can afford, or you simply can not put a piano in your home that is taller than 39", I would not recommend you purchase this type of acoustic piano.
Why Not Buy A Spinet?
1. They are difficult to repair.
The reason this type of piano action (the mechanical motor inside the piano that you operate when you push the keys down) is hard to repair is that most parts on it are not very accessible. Notwithstanding they have full size parts, when you strike a key, the action pulls a part up that it is attached at the back of the key. We call this an indirect blow action or drop action.
In this picture of a Baldwin Acrosonic you can see the hammers on the left and the keys on the right. The end of each key is attached by a rod to the action which is below the keybed. Minor maintenance requirements on this type of action, like tightening the screws, are time consuming. Even a simple repair becomes a major ordeal.
Indirect Blow or Drop Action Viewed from Above the Keybed
For example, to replace a damper flange which is on the back of the action, you can't just tilt the action back, remove the flange and replace it - you must first remove the entire action, (which takes perhaps 30 minutes) replace the part, and then put the action back in the piano taking another 30 minutes. For a simple repair that would normally take 10 minutes, the time has ballooned to about an hour.
3. Because the strings are very short on this type of piano the tone is generally poor, particularly in the bass. Also, the poor harmonic structure produced off the bass strings makes it difficult for a technician to tune the piano well.
View of Indirect Blow or Drop Action Below the Keys
4. On older spinets built during the 1940's and 50's many manufacturers used plastic parts in their actions. This was a new venture and after many years we learned that the plastic of those years became very brittle. Unless these have been replaced, you are simply asking for a repair bill that may be more than the piano is probably worth.
5. The legs on a Spinet piano are usually thin, not supported at the bottom and many are simply threaded into a bolt under the keybed of the piano. When moved the chances of these being damaged or broken off is quite high.
Console Pianos 40 - 43" Tall
While the console acoustic piano is probably the choice of most people, because they are still not very large and the price is still quite low, they present some problems for purchasers because what you see in a cabinet may not be what you want to get as far as the type of piano action is concerned.
Console pianos can have 3 different types of actions in them. They can have an indirect blow or drop action, a compressed action, or a full blow action. We have already explained the problems with the indirect blow or drop action in the spinet piano.
The Console acoustic piano with a compressed action can have its own set of problems. Compressed means just what it says - compressed. The action therefore has parts that are smaller than either the indirect blow or full blow action.
Because the parts of the action are smaller, the angles they meet at are not optimized for good leverage. This results in more friction and wear as well as slowing down the ability to repeat notes quickly.
Note the height of this action is about 8" compared with the next picture which shows the action is at least 10" high.
Baldwin Compressed Action
In many consoles built in the last 50 years, there is a tendency for the keys to "stick". Usually this is caused by the extra friction in the compressed action and partly because the keys in a cheaper acoustic piano are usually not weighted properly or not weighted at all. When the action doesn't return to its rest position due either to the extra friction of the parts, or because of the unbalanced keys which depend on the weight of the action for them to return, notes may play poorly or not play at all.
Pearl River Full Blow Action in Console Piano
Before you buy a console acoustic piano, I would suggest that you find out if the action is indirect blow, compressed, or full blow. If the salesman is not knowledgeable about which type of piano is which, (and they generally aren't if all they can do is either play a piano or any other instrument) I would read the literature provided by the manufacturer (some literature is useless) or ask a technician you can trust.
Studio Piano 44 - 47" Tall
The studio acoustic piano uses a direct blow action with the action resting directly on the back of the key. Studio pianos will generally have a better sound than either a console or spinet and touch will also generally be better. Because these pianos can have much better sound and touch due to their design, manufacturers also tend to spend more time on the quality aspects of these pianos.
The reason a studio piano sounds better than either a spinet or console piano is that the strings are longer and the soundboard is larger providing better resonance and greater volume as well as clearer and better harmonics from the strings.
Upright Pianos 48 - 60" Tall
While all uprights are verticals - not all verticals are technically uprights, although the common use of the term upright to describe any vertical acoustic piano is commonplace.
Uprights are the largest of the verticals. This type of piano uses a full size direct blow action that has extra parts on them called stickers. At the top of the sticker is a dowel that can be adjusted. These parts extend from the key up to the whippen (or bottom) of a direct blow action.
Pearl River Full Size Direct Blow Action
There really is no such thing as an upright grand - a piano is either a vertical or a grand. Perhaps they should be called verticals and horizontals.
If you can afford it, this is the best type of acoustic piano to buy for a typical home that does not have a lot of room for a grand. Usually height is not an issue. As well, consider this - most full size upright pianos sound better than a baby grand, simply because their string length is longer and soundboard area is larger than a small grand. And the price of a good upright can be thousands of dollars less than a grand of comparable sound quality.
A grand piano is an acoustic piano whose strings are parallel to the horizon. Perhaps this type of piano has been called grand because they are physically imposing compared to verticals. They are certainly grand compared to most verticals when it comes to sound and touch.
The action of a grand is situated so that all of the parts sit under the strings. When the hammers strike the strings one of the advantages of a grand piano is that the parts return to rest because of gravity.
The action in a grand piano allows for faster repetition of notes and for better control giving the pianist the ability to bring nuances to the performance not possible on a vertical. However, if the person playing does not have the skills to take advantage of this action there is really no use in purchasing this type of acoustic piano. Unless, of course, you are looking for 'the look' and not for better performance.
Because the lid of the grand piano can be partially or fully opened, it also provides a way to direct more of the sound to the audience rather than in an upright where most of the sound is directed right back to the performer.
Because a grand - even a small one - is grand in size, to have it look aesthetically pleasing in a room there must be adequate room around it. If how it looks isn't important then the area it is placed in needs to be at least 3 feet longer than the piano for the pianist and bench and at least 7 feet wide to be able to lift the lid. So for instance, a 5'7" grand would need a room at least 8'7" in length and 7' wide in order to still be serviceable. Most homes don't have rooms that small so the possibility is that anyone that could afford one could have a grand piano - if that's all they wanted in the room.
Small or Baby Grand - 4'6" to 5'6" Long
Although the action on grand pianos may be superior to the vertical piano action this type of piano is usually inferior in sound quality to a good upright acoustic piano. The reason for this is that the strings and soundboard area compared to the upright may be shorter and smaller.
I'm afraid it is a fact that most baby grands are usually purchased by people who want 'the look' of the grand piano. Some parents wanting to upgrade their piano for their promising musicians think that this will give them the next best experience.
Salesmen will point out to gullible buyers that the grand piano is better because they have an additional mechanism on the action operated by the sostenuto pedal that gives another option for sustaining the notes. However, this mechanism can also be found on some of the tallest upright pianos and the loss of good sound in order to obtain this feature on a grand piano is not in my thinking justification for buying a baby grand. My recommendation would be to buy the best upright you can afford before considering a baby grand. But then, situations are all different, and there may be a good reason to buy a baby grand rather than the full size upright.
Medium Grand, Boudoir Grand, Parlour Grand 5' 6" to 7' 6" Long
These grand pianos have much better sound in the bass and tenor sections - particularly at the break (where the strings change direction and form a V). With a much richer sound this acoustic piano is the next upgrade from a good upright. With a grand this size you can start to obtain the sound and nuances not available on any other acoustic piano mentioned to this point. Even within this classification of piano there is a huge difference in tonal quality between even a 5' 6" and a 6' 1".
Not too many people have a piano larger than a 6' 1" in their home, but the difference is striking between that and larger pianos. Truly, the bigger they get, the better they get. The problem becomes space.
Concert Grand 7' 6" to 10' 1" Long
This is truly a grand acoustic piano and is meant for larger venues. A 7' 6" piano is not small, but this is the size typically used for small concert halls where chamber music and smaller audiences are common. A lot of time is spent making sure a piano fits the hall. If the piano is too large it can overpower the acoustics of the room. However, if you're playing a piano with a large orchestra you need the capability of a 9' to 10' piano to project the sound to the back of concert hall and to be able to be heard with the orchestra.
As the purpose of this website is to generally acquaint you with either a digital or acoustic piano for the home, no other reference will be given on large grand pianos.