The Changing Piano World

The world of piano manufacturing is changing, and as it does, the confusion of the piano buyer is increasing. Let's see if I can help a bit with this.

For more than a century, nearly all pianos were built, by hand, in either Europe or North America. Very few instruments ever left their continent of origin. But the world is a shrinking place and the piano market is a global one. Airplanes and cargo ships crisscross the oceans with amazing speed, and they can carry anything you need to send, even pianos. At one point in our history here in the USA, there were several hundred independent companies building pianos. Today there are three. The story in Europe is much the same.

Today the vast majority of pianos made are built in Asia in enormous automated factories. China is now the leader in unit production. The average person has likely not even heard of the largest volume piano maker in the world today, Pearl River.

A brief history lesson. The Japanese were the first Asian country to export pianos to North America in about 1960. They offered a lower cost option to what consumers had seen thus far. Quality was a bit of an issue initially, partly due to the multitude of different climate zones in North America, but companies like Yamaha and Kawai were soon able to overcome this and have developed a reputation for building high quality reliable pianos that represented a good value. Next into the game was Korea. Over time, the cost of the Japanese pianos had risen and the Korean makers saw an opportunity to step in and fill the void. They too had initial quality problems that took some time to overcome, but within a few years, their reputation had grown as well. Piano manufacturing in Korea is now almost nonexistent, having moved mostly to Indonesia and China. The Chinese are the most recent to get into the game. Most industry insiders will agree that initially the landed quality of Chinese made pianos was poor, but today things have improved, and in some cases, dramatically.

Here's where the twist comes in. Many Asian manufacturers build instruments under other brand names than their own. Many of the old North American makers who are long defunct, have had their brand names revived on the fallboards of Asian pianos. Don't get me wrong here. This does not mean that they are all bad pianos. It also doesn't mean they are all good pianos. What is certain though is that they are not the same pianos as they were a hundred years ago regardless of what the advertising says. North American and European buyers are often resistant to buying pianos with an Asian sounding name that they can't pronounce. Give them the same piano with an "English" name and the chances of a sale increase.

To increase the confusion further, think about this. One well known American maker has two additional brand names in the family. The more expensive of the two brand names is made for them by a Japanese piano builder in Japan and Indonesia. The less expensive of the two was originally made for them by a Korean company whose factory is in China and is now made for them by a wholly Chinese company. Some brands of piano on the market these days are nothing more than a couple of people in a small office somewhere who buy pianos from an Asian company and have them put their name on it. Many factories make the same piano under a multitude of brand names. If you want to sell pianos and have enough money to make a large purchase, they will put any name you want on it.These are referred to by the industry as stencil pianos.

On top of all this are the well known old names that were once family owned independent companies but are now owned in whole or in part by Asian piano makers. Bösendorfer, one of the oldest piano makers in the world is now owned by Yamaha. Schimmel, one of the largest volume makers in Europe, was recently acquired by Pearl River.

How does a potential piano buyer wade through all this and separate fact from fiction? First and foremost, do some researching on your own. Use the computer you're reading this on to find out some things for yourself. Second, find a reputable piano dealer. Armed with the research you have done, ask them some questions that you already know the answers to to see if they are being honest with you. Maybe tied for second, is talk to a professional piano technician. I would suggest someone not affiliated with a particular piano store. The information is out there and make sure to separate fact from fiction and opinion. There is no one single brand that is the only brand you should buy and no single company makes all equally good pianos.

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The opinions and information contained in this blog are for informational purposes only. For information on your specific situation, please contact your personal piano technician.