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Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos #2946365 02/13/20 11:24 AM
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AWilley Offline OP
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Grey-market pianos: I know what Yamaha says about them ("buyer beware!") and what resellers say about them ("they're perfectly fine, this is just Yamaha USA being anti-competitive") but I'm interested in an independent view from technicians who actually service them.

The background: I recently had a tense conversation with a dealer who sold my mother a greymarket Yamaha U3. My mom had had me talk to the dealer on the phone beforehand to ask pertinent questions, and I had asked about the condition of the piano: wear and tear, cracks, condition of felt, amount of "life" left in the hammers, anything unusual I should know, etc. All his answers indicated that it was a lightly used piano in excellent condition. It was from the 1990s and selling for 6k, so I figured that with the relative newness the piano should have a lot of years left in it, and that's what I told my mom. Yesterday I saw the piano for the first time. As soon as I opened it I could tell something was off. It didn't feel as "new" as I expected. The felt was yellowing in places and not as soft as I'm used to, and the wood looked older/darker in color than I'm used to seeing in other Yamahas. Basically it looked like it was from the 1960s instead of the 1990s. The hammers had been reshaped, but it was clear from the profile there was a lot of wear before that. It was really out of tune despite having been tuned only 3 months ago, and when I started tuning it the pins were very loose. At that point I knew it was grey market.

That afternoon I walked into the piano store and asked the dealer about it. As soon as I said the words "grey-market" he took me into his office and gave me a 20 minute spiel about how grey-market is a made-up thing, a scare tactic to disparage competition, and that so-called grey-market pianos are 100% as good as used pianos from any other source, even better because they've been professionally reconditioned. I brought up the specific issues I had noticed, and he suggested that I was imagining things because I was being protective of my mother. I suggested that all used pianos aren't created equal. A 30-year-old practice room piano from Hawaii isn't the same as a 30-year-old piano from someone's home in California. Heavy playing combined with high humidity take a toll. I tried to make the point that Japanese climate is also very humid and the piano was probably played heavily until the institution that owned it determined that it had reached the end of its useful life for them. He countered that Japanese climate varies (ok, fair) and that the real reason the pianos are exported is because in Japanese culture you don't buy used things.

Anyway the suggestion that I was imagining things really bugged me. So I'd like to ask other technicians out there: what, if anything, have you noticed about grey-market pianos? How do they compare against other used pianos that you inspect or service? I realize every piano and its history is different, but is there a trend?

To any rebuilders: is there any truth to Yamaha's claims about "seasoning" their pianos? Yes I know the US has wet places like Florida and dry places like Arizona, but aren't we generally less humid than Japan? Could the looser tuning pins be a result of intentional manufacturing difference?


Anthony Willey, RPT
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Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946424 02/13/20 02:20 PM
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Ed Sutton Offline
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My overall experience of grey market pianos is that people have paid too much and have been "sold" on a bargain that is not a bargain. I trust my judgement of tuning pins, bass strings, hammers and key bushings. I've seen a polyester touch up person buff and polish a scuffed Yamaha case to look brand new.


Ed Sutton, RPT
Just a piano tuner!
Durham NC USA
Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946467 02/13/20 04:24 PM
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I’m not a tech, but I specifically asked my (independent, non-shop-affiliated) tech this question last time he was here to tune my (non-grey) Yamaha.

He said he has not had any more issues with grey imports than original when comparing apples with apples. Probably the grey market import guys in my city have done their homework and passed up the poor quality or thrashed pianos or at least had the right amount of refurb done on them.

But that’s just my area. The next state over might have a less reputable set of importers and a grey market population with a whole set of issues.

I doubt you can generalise.

Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946480 02/13/20 04:54 PM
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Originally Posted by AWilley
is there any truth to Yamaha's claims about "seasoning" their pianos? Yes I know the US has wet places like Florida and dry places like Arizona, but aren't we generally less humid than Japan? Could the looser tuning pins be a result of intentional manufacturing difference?


I think seasoning the piano is not the thing so much as seasoning the wood BEFORE it is cut accurately. The last thing you want is for the wood to shrink due to seasoning after it has been cut.

So this would mean defining in advance for each serial number piano whether it was to be dry climate or Asian climate. For a dry climate piano you would choose pieces of lumber that had been drying in the yard longer. Then, the wood for dry pianos might get say 24 hours in the drying kiln instead of 12 before being cut.

So if you visited the factory you would not even see any of this happening - it would have been pre-determined on the build sheet for each piano and the batch instruction for the guy running the kiln.

For anyone who thinks this sounds far-fetched - I work with Japanese precision measuring instrument manufacturers and I can tell you they are past masters of accurate inventory control. It would be a piece of cake for Yamaha to control every piece of wood that goes into a piano and know the exact moisture content before it was cut.

Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946546 02/13/20 07:56 PM
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I was told by a Yamaha rep that they have several protocols for seasoning the wood depending on the target destination, and that their standard for the Asian market is several % points higher than for North America. Taking a piano from there (that was built for there) and subjecting it to the central heating in our climate (in general) is a recipe for disaster and is why they take this stand.

I have seen very good grey market pianos and I have seen very bad ones. The ones that have in fact been well reconditioned are generally pretty good. Ultimately it's going to depend on the integrity of the dealer. They buy them in container loads (often) with a mixture of good and bad. Some try to squeeze every penny of profit out of these loads and are unwilling to discard the bad stuff. However the same is true of used instruments NOT from the grey market.

Ultimately you have to personally inspect it, unless the dealer has a long standing reputation of NOT dumping the junk on the unsuspecting.

Too bad your mom was taken. Sometimes though creating an atmosphere of around 60% can alleviate some of the problems (but this is very hard to do in the winter in the north).

Pwg


Peter W. Grey, RPT
New Hampshire Seacoast
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Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946557 02/13/20 08:26 PM
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I have seen both ones that do fine in the Chicago climate and those that start getting slipping pins and regulation issues in the first winter...

You're right, the action seems to look different - I wonder if they go through some sort of bead or soda blasting to clean them up? The ones I've seen recently coming to this area seem to come through a 'refurbishing' operation in Mexico.

Ron Koval

Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: P W Grey] #2946561 02/13/20 08:54 PM
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Originally Posted by P W Grey
I was told by a Yamaha rep that they have several protocols for seasoning the wood depending on the target destination, and that their standard for the Asian market is several % points higher than for North America.


You would hope that if they’ve gone to the trouble of several different protocols that they would deliver according to geographic area and not just have one generic “American” standard. You’d think that a dealer in Florida would get the Asian market version and one in New Mexico would get the dry climate version.

It’s not like it would be hard to do once you’ve already set up the system.

Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946597 02/13/20 10:58 PM
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Ed McMorrow, RPT Offline
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Most of the Grey-Market Yamaha's I have seen looked rather nice but sounded a bit dead in the sustain, had less than ideal tuning pin tightness, and had more than a few false beats.


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Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946715 02/14/20 08:52 AM
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I'm sure that what they say is true (Yamaha). The fact is though that the primary reason that these pianos end up over here is high profit potential. Dealers buy these things at rock bottom prices (in quantity of course) and sell the good AND the bad for significant profit. If there was no profit to be had this entire grey market issue would not exist.

Pwg

Last edited by P W Grey; 02/14/20 08:53 AM.

Peter W. Grey, RPT
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Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946726 02/14/20 09:23 AM
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I hadn't even heard the term "grey-market" decades ago when I ran into the same baffling situation described by the O.P. ....
An apparently "brand new" piano on the outside but an "old upright" appearance on the inside. And, it was labelled as a model "U-2".
I kept looking back and forth between the exterior and interior trying to comprehend what I was seeing. That was when I learned about "grey-market" and that the U-2 had never been imported into the US by Yamaha.
However ...
for models like U-1 and U-3 Yahaha's stance on what they call "greymarket" (the term, "parallel import", avoids the negative connotation) puzzles me. From a manufacturing standpoint, the concept really doesn't seem to make much sense and isn't practiced by any other piano manufacturer. That is, a Steinway is legitimate anywhere in the world. Same with Mason & Hamlin, Bechstein and whoever else. One can't assume that the owner of any give instrument might not move to another part of the planet and therefore their they should anticipate that their piano may fall apart elsewhere.

Yes, S&S New York hasn't routinely imported Hamburg instruments but they don't have a "not made here" mentality and forbid dealers to touch them should they be imported by non-Steinway channels. Any Steinway (or other brand) owner will get equal consideration from Steinway headquarters and Steinway dealers no matter where the instrument was instrument was originally purchased and where it currently is located.

Also, "the American climate" as a concept is simply nonsense. Houston and Fargo or Arizona and Alabama are as different as Congo and Kazakhstan in terms of climate.

Yahama's refusal to support all their pianos wherever they may be located seems to be corporate greed enshrined in policy represented as something for consumer benefit.
I'm open to correction with fact-based information to the contrary.


Keith Akins, RPT
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Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2946766 02/14/20 10:55 AM
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P W Grey Offline
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Keith,

Though I don't know this for a fact (so it is an assumption) it may be that Yamaha's policy(ies) was formulated long before the mass transportation of used instruments (and therefore unforeseen) which I think began at the first tanking of the Japanese economy (someone correct me if I am wrong).

Also, since Yamaha' s warranty is twice the length of SS, they would be on the hook for a whole lot more climate related issues than would SS. Also I think SS voids it's warranty if the owner does not take steps to control the environment (ambiently) whereas I'm not sure if Yamaha takes as rigid a viewpoint on this.

I'm not saying I agree with any of this...just trying to make sense of it (if possible).

Pwg

Last edited by P W Grey; 02/14/20 10:55 AM.

Peter W. Grey, RPT
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Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2947213 02/15/20 12:09 PM
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I don't post here in the tech forum often, but by and large, the issues you posted have nothing to do with being grey-market and everything to do with being a below-average condition used piano. If the same U3 piano came out of a local school after ~30 years, with higher than average use and a so-so HVAC system...but was polished up to look new, the results would be the same. I'm very sorry that your mother's wasn't as good as it looked. If she'd bought a Baldwin with the same issues, you wouldn't be looking for another cause.

We've sold so many of both (grey or not), placed them in high use situations and the feedback is the same...it's the condition that matters, not the origin story. Florida State University, for example, purchased over 70 used uprights for their practice studios from us over about 9 years. Approximately 50 were grey market, which they were fully aware of. We screened, prepared, and serviced the used pianos the same way we do for all of our customers, and these were pianos bought right off the floor. We stuck with sturdy institutional models in good condition. We had exactly 1 warranty claim out of the 50+ and it happened to be a Kawai (Kawai's version of the grey market story is a little different and changes if you've ever followed it). For FSU, it was a good value proposition because we supplied pianos that were in excellent condition. Their savings for some models was small, others more substantial. They were also prepped, not "new-in-box" that so often comes with any bids for new pianos.

Around Atlanta, there are some re-sellers that source used pianos, including grey market, that are decidedly B- to D+ condition. The issue is with the condition and (or in our market, the seller).


Sam Bennett
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Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2948708 02/18/20 07:09 PM
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AWilley Offline OP
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Thank you for the feedback. Having spent some more time with this particular piano, one more thing I've noticed is that the tone is "thin" for lack of a better word. Not nearly as robust as I'm used to on other U3s. I also discovered several soundboard cracks, including a series of cracks that traces the edge of the treble bridge instead of following the grain. I'll post further when I get some time back around a computer.


Anthony Willey, RPT
PianoMeter
Willey Piano Tuning
Re: Technician perspectives on Yamaha grey-market pianos [Re: AWilley] #2948968 02/19/20 10:09 AM
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Ed Sutton Offline
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The grey market pianos are already past Yamaha warranty. The issue has been that Yamaha required a serial number before they would sell repair parts, and would not supply repair parts for grey market serial numbers. I don't know if this is still their policy, it may have changed. Kawai has always been willing to sell repair parts, as I understand it.

The dealers I've known who specialized in grey market pianos were low-end hustlers selling C-D grade used pianos as "factory reconditioned," implying that they came from the Yamaha factory.

The wholesale price lists I've seen do offer A grade pianos, at a significantly higher price.

I would expect a reputable dealer would sell A grade pianos and would have the technical wherewithal to offer a dealer warranty.


Ed Sutton, RPT
Just a piano tuner!
Durham NC USA

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