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Hi everyone,

This is my first post and I am not sure whether it's better in this category or the Adult Beginners category, so bear with me.

I am looking at purchasing a grey market Japanese Yamaha in Melbourne, Australia. My budget is $6,000 AUD or (preferably) under.

I played as a kid, commenced guitar at about 13 as it was "cooler", continued to dabble in piano/keys but lost my touch, learnt bass guitar and mandolin to an apparently proficient level, spent my 20s heavily involved in live performance and recording in a variety of genres, hated the lifestyle of a touring musician in bands that were always "about to be huge" (sleeping on floors and in cars, struggling to make rent, relying on my long-suffering partner to provide sustenance and shelter, etc.), and am now a mature age university student with a renewed interest in piano (the only instrument, in my opinion, that can be played without ever having to have the experience soured by regularly dealing with other "tortured artist" types - many will likely scoff, but piano was invented to be a self-contained ensemble, as far as I know).

A couple of years back, I inherited an absolutely disgusting Bentley from my great aunt and found my old Hanon book and recommenced practice. As the piano sounded so bad, it wasn't much use for anything else. I learnt some bad habits from the bad piano, but I also have PP which ruled out doing anything "musical", per se. As I recently moved house, I decided I'd invested enough time and effort to warrant an upgrade. I called the tech who had done a surprisingly decent job on the Bentley not long after I got it trying to reinforce the soundboard to get rid of some of the disgusting overtones and tuning it so that at least a couple of the notes were at concert saying I needed an upgrade. He said he had a Gulbransen pianola which had had the pianola part removed and looked ugly which would be suitable for $400 AUD (almost $1000 after moving and tuning). As we were moving in the middle of the Melbourne lockdown (apparently one of the strictest in the world) I was unable to inspect it. It arrived and had similar problems so I requested a tuning. He sold it as serviced, but I figured as it would need tuning after the move he may have been waiting to do the whole piano as a single job. He left and it sounded flat (the free tuning app I downloaded rediagnosed my PP), with the similar horrible overtones and sustain to the old Bentley I'd, by this stage, given away (and delivered myself on the truck I hired to move house so that "free" meant free) to someone who insisted they liked its "character".

I called the tech and after a couple of days of negotiation he agreed to the offer I made when initially complaining (a full refund of the tune and piano - I incurred the cost of initial move - he also removed the Gulbransen from my space and I arranged for another friend to take it for nothing, making the friend fully aware of its many flaws from the outset). As I said to him, it was more of a polite demand than an opening gambit to be negotiated.

Now I'm sans piano and semester starts in about a month. I have some savings, but not a lot considering our current circumstances. I intend on buying something that will last me for at least the duration of my university studies, hopefully longer. I'd be practicing as part of my daily routine (at least 45 minutes) and really can tell good tone from bad. I've now gone into several new and used dealers to try pianos, but my fingers betray my ears. I play Maple Leaf Rag and Rondo Alla Turca with mistakes and they tell me things are better than they are (both my playing and the piano I'm considering). It's like going to a used car dealership and kicking the tyres. They think they see you coming.

The aforementioned tech has tentatively agreed to inspect any piano I'm seriously considering for a reasonable fee, and I figure it's better the devil I know. He actually isn't a bad guy (I don't run a business, but given the current economic situation if somebody I didn't really know called basically offering me money I may feel compelled to take it) and we have a few mutual acquaintances so I'm relatively confident he'll do a good job of the inspection if I can get him to actually do it. He says he's busy with tunings for the next month due to the school term restarting (likely true) but I sense he considers me a difficult customer and will avoid the inspection job unless he's desperate for the work. I've also told him that, as he isn't selling the piano, I'm aware that it's all care and no responsibility on his behalf.

That out of the way, I'm after advice on the following:

- What to watch out for when buying grey market Yamahas

- Whether I should go private sale vs the shipping container grey market dealers

- Any other local techs that are unlikely to use my lack of proficiency to put it over me in case the current one can't inspect the piano or doesn't want to

Sorry for the long initial post. Looking forward to being a part of the Piano World community, particularly once I find something decent to practice on!

Tim

P.S. Corrections/advice on appropriateness of post and content embraced wholeheartedly.

P.P.S. I should add that I mainly just play chromatic scales slowly at different intervals when inspecting. I know enough to know that it's no use trying to "showboat" in a piano store as a beginner. A couple that I've really liked I've played the Joplin/Mozart tunes along with some simplified Stevie Wonder to get a sense of the versatility of the instrument.

Last edited by Tim_Au; 01/18/21 08:13 PM.
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Hello, Tim, and welcome to Piano World!

I read your thread, with interest, and it was a good read. I sensed some similarities in our musical backgrounds, but you're a young guy and I'm an old guy. So, I suppose you could say that we both have "been there done that", to and extent, but you are still the young guy and have many musical years ahead of you. smile

But, alas, being old is not so bad, and being retired is ever better. smile

It sounds like you know a little about acoustic pianos, enough to know what you don't like in a piano. That will help you choose another, most likely.

In terms of the grey-market Yamaha pianos, the subject has been discussed many times here on PW. You can Google it, or search the archives here. I find Google faster, and still brings you back to PW for the good stuff.

It would be nice to have the tech check out any used piano you may be interested in. But if that is not possible, you will have to rely on your own wits, suspicions, musicality and common sense. And even then, there is no guarantee.

Take a look at what is available, play around with them, whether playing scales or chords, or whatever you can play. It sounds like you play fairly well already. So, let your own ears, hands and fingers, and eyes, be the judge. As far as what to look for, there is a pretty lengthy list in the archives here, and no need for me to re-write it. The most important thing is to get a piano that you like to play, and like the key-touch, and like the sound/tone, and can afford.

As with all things used, be aware of excessive wear and tear, or things that just don't feel right or sound right. One of the main things is to make sure it will hold a tune, and for as long as possible. It would be nice if you could talk the tech into checking out the piano prospect for you.

Good luck!

Rick


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Thanks,

I found a 1988 U30BL (I'm still getting my head around model numbers - does BL just stand for black?) I liked today at a large grey market retailer. The amount the salesman said was just over the top of my budget, but it was far better than the majority in the store (most weren't even in tune) and I can foresee it lasting me for life if I'm able to make a counteroffer and he accepts. Could anybody recommend a technician? I'm aware I could just look one up, but it's like cold-calling a mechanic and admitting you know nothing: fraught. I figure if there is a tech who does a decent job on the inspection they could well end up with a customer who will require tuning every 6 months or even more (Melbourne climate and fussy ears) until they retire or I am no longer interested in music or able to play (most likely when I'm dead).

Happy to post a photo if this is appropriate once I work out. My experience with internet forums is limited and I don't use social media.

Cheers,

Tim

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I'm not sure about the protocol of replying to my own posts or replies, so please feel free to inform me of the etiquette.

From what I have experienced in stores and read on this forum and online both before and after Rickster's reply, dealers selling new and used "made for Australia" Yamahas disparage grey market ones due to poor quality control, while grey market dealers tend to (somewhat righteously) argue that "made for Australia" Yamahas are overpriced. The main impetus for each type of dealer to rubbish the other is money, and as is the case in most disagreements of this kind the truth is somewhere in the middle.

My main concern with the grey market is that the piano has spent months at sea on a shipping container in tropical heat, and this will likely have caused its condition to deteriorate. If this isn't a big issue, it doesn't seem too difficult to tell when they've been played to death or improperly cared for long-term. Staccato should sound like staccato, the dynamics of the keys should be relatively uniform and there should be no buzzes or overtones. To my knowledge, if any of the above occur then there's something wrong that will be costly to fix if it's fixable at all.

On the other hand, the price of a new Yamaha U series or similar mean it's a grey market piano I'll be buying. A definite plus for me was that the other people in the grey market store (there were a couple of families buying for children) didn't seem to know good from bad tonally meaning I have a bit of an advantage in that regard and also got to see the sales staff successfully claim that the relatively dilapidated pianos these families were considering purchasing were decent, sharpening my sense of smell as well.

If there's anything else I should be wary of then feel free to let me know. Also, as above, I'm keen to know the etiquette for replying to my own posts such as now as this is the first time, to my recollection, I've been a member of an online forum or similar.

Cheers,

Tim

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Hi Tim,

As for replying to your own posts, some here do it a lot, and I've done it before myself. So no worries there. smile

Getting back to grey-market pianos, I think those who worry about them the most are the dealers who do not sell grey-market pianos. I think the primary premise of the grey-market piano argument is that the piano woods (primarily the soundboard?) were seasoned for a different geographical area/market's climate. Some believe that argument and some don't; some say it doesn't matter. I'm not sure, to be honest.

What I do know is that I bought an older Yamaha C7 semi-concert grand piano several years ago, from a large Church who went to all digital pianos, and I liked the piano so I bought it, and at a very good price for a used C7. I did look up the serial number on Yamaha's website, that tells you if the Yamaha piano was made for the US market or not (not meaning it is grey-market). It just so happened that the C7 showed to be made for the US market, which I was pleased with. However, had it not been made for the US market, and been a grey-market piano, I would have bought it anyway. I bought it in the first place because I like the way it played and sounded (and still do), though it did need some work, and I got it a price I could well afford.

So, the grey-market thing may have some merit, pro or con, depending on whether you are buying or selling. What's more important is the actual condition of the piano. Also, it seems to me that the seasoned for climate argument is nullified when you think about the fact that most homes are climate controlled. But the grey-market piano argument, pro or con, really depends on who you want to believe, or who is the most convincing. Since I've never actually owned a grey-market Yamaha, I can't offer direct experience one way or the other. I do know, however, that Yamaha makes a very good quality piano, grey-market or not.

Good luck!

Rick


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Tim,
Yamaha upright pianos in Japan have two main uses. The first is that it is an essential purchase for parents and they buy new ones. These will be well looked after and when the children lose interest or move to a Suzuki violin school the pianos get sold back to the store who send them to Yamaha's associate factory in Yamamoto for 'refurbishing'. These are then sold as container lots to USA and to Europe. Such pianos are an excellent buy. However the other use is the hundreds (thousands?) of uprights that have an eight hour day being played in Japan's music schools. The refurbishment of these might be inadequate as there will be worn parts that will not have been replaced. The case will have been polished and I have seen a video of these being oversprayed and the strings tarted up using a rotary wire brush.
This is where an experienced technician can identify inherent problems provided they are not employed by the retailer selling the piano. You will require to have the piano tuned and regulated in future so it is wise to use the same technician for the examination. Hope this helps,
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I have seen GM pianos that were fantastic, and some that were pretty poor. One grand literally deconstructed in the home within a year and was unplayable (but the case looked like new). The dealer initialky balked at standing behind it but after one of his on techs condemned it they came to an "agreement" (I don't know the final details).

Point is that they ABSOLUTELY need a thorough inspection by an impartial tech. Ultimately though it's a risk, one that some are willing to take.

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Thanks for the advice.

Peter: I fully understand. The salesman was telling me that you can tell whether it's a school piano that's been thrashed to death by whether the middle hammers are more worn than the extremities as more beginners play in the middle of the keyboard. While this bears a kernel of truth, I would assume this also occurs on most pianos because the middle is the middle. Nearly every player, bar some boogie woogie and rock and roll players who really hit it hard at the top and bottom (also idiosyncratic jazz players and maybe some other genres I'm less familiar with), is going to hit the middle more because using it as the root position allows for maximum range. I'm concerned the one I like may have been "restored" for sale and have problems down the track, as the salesman said you can tell it's a good one by the even, light wear across the hammers. Maybe it's seldom been played since new and properly maintained, but I'm not prepared to bet over $6000 AUD on it. Knowing a bit about guitars, it doesn't matter who the owner is. Frets one to four are almost always the most worn for similar (albeit slightly different) reasons.

I was also possibly too honest when I told the salesman $6000 max. I've noticed that whatever figure I give as a maximum, the salesperson always has one there that they can "reduce" to about $500 more than said figure. Then again, if I say $5000 for a piano advertised at $7500 I get escorted over to the ones that are overpriced at $5000 due to audible problems to prove that "you get what you pay for". As I said earlier: they see me coming.

As the tech hasn't replied, I'm keen for any objective recommendations for a tech/tuner in the Melbourne area. I guess that I'm discerning which is kind of a drag when near enough is good enough for most non-professional applications, but the upside is I would be employing the tech more regularly than most customers (whenever I can hear it needs tuning) for the foreseeable future and am willing to pay a fair price for a decent job without trying to lowball them (which I would imagine is quite common when many piano owners don't understand the level of expertise and dedication required to be a tech).

I'm also well aware that this is somewhat mooted by the fact that decent techs aren't short of work. Still, suggestions welcome.

Let me know whether asking for tech recommendations is within the forum rules (which I have read, but are more aimed toward sellers and techs than consumers). I'm not quite sure and willing to remove the post if necessary.

Thanks again,

Tim

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You could ask who services the concert instrument at a good classical venue. If that person is not available, perhaps they can refer someone.


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Tim,
I don't think you have told us the age of this piano? There are those here who can tell its age from its serial number.
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I checked out a couple of Kawaiis today that the above tech has for sale. One sounded better than the other and was only $4250 due to scratches. Both were similar vintages to the Yamaha I have my eye on. The Yamaha I liked sounded brighter, but brightness doesn't necessarily mean I'll like it as I progress (although maybe I will). Has anyone here found that brightness can become grating? Can it be tamed if so? I thought the brighter the mandolin the better when first starting out, before I realised that this became grating. I did like that the practice pedal on the Kawaii made it somehow sound a bit like an electric. Still, I'd save a lot of money with a Nord Electro if this was the main purpose for the piano.

I am wondering whether $6000 AUD will get me a piano that fits my prerequisites:

- Staccato sounds like staccato, with next-to-no lingering sustain

- No buzzing or rattling on any note

- Able to be tuned to a standard that won't bother somebody with PP, and will stay there for at least three months (preferably six)

- Be durable enough to endure daily use for at least 10 years (again - hopefully longer) with regular maintenance

The Yamaha I really liked fit the bill (although over budget by a bit), but I'm worried it may be some sort of smoke-and-mirrors trick and it will have problems down the track.

I've now read a reasonable amount on grey market pianos, and am aware that whether it's been owned by a school or privately makes a difference as Beemer pointed out. I'd add another theory to the mix that I haven't seen covered (possibly because it's a theory and can be debunked):

As they're shipped in containers, where the container is stacked on the ship would seem to make a massive difference. If the container is closer to bottom centre, it won't have been baking or freezing (possibly both - depends on the shipping route) on the open seas for many months as the other containers will insulate it. The opposite applies for a piano from a container near the edge of the stack. It's going to have endured all of this and, further, be rocked around considerably more while this happens due to torque.

There's no way of ascertaining where a container was, but could my theory hold water and contribute to the huge difference in quality between one grey market piano and another? Does anyone know how they're packed? The container would be swung around on a crane before being unpacked which also seems fraught if packed incorrectly.

Thanks for your replies so far.

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Just my opinion, based on my own experience, but in my view, a really bright sounding piano will always be on the bright side, regardless of the amount of voicing. Hammer voicing will tame a bright sounding piano to sound less bright, and more pleasant, but will not make a bright piano sound mellow. If a hammer is overvoiced, in an effort to change the tone from bright to mellow, it can kill the the tone and the power and ruin the hammer.

Hammer voicing can, however, remove the sharp edge, or shrillness/unpleasantness of a bright sounding piano; but will not make a bright piano into a mellow mellow piano. This is especially true with older, harder hammers.

So, the level of brightness, or mellowness, you hear to start with is what you get, if you buy the piano, although voicing can improve the tone. You might, however, drastically change the tone of the piano, in terms of brightness or mellowness, if you have the hammers replaced, which can be very expensive.

Re: the boat ride... I'm not sure about this, but I'd think the grey-market pianos would be properly prepped for overseas shipping, crated and wrapped in plastic, the same as new pianos, that take the same boat ride. I doubt they just shove them in the container and let them rock back and forth, and bump in to each other as the ship rocks, but I'm just speculating.

There are risks in buying any piano, new or used, in my view, but perhaps more risk in buying a grey-market piano. The cost savings, I suppose, is what makes it worth the risks, or not.

You are wise to try many pianos before making a decision. Pianos are a heck of a lot easier to buy than they are to sell, as a general rule.

Good luck!

Rick


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Rick's own experience with tone brightness in a piano is pretty well spot-on, as far as my "experience" goes.

Regards,


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Thanks Bruce and Rick.

I am only surmising but the main thing where grey market pianos seem to be inferior is quality control. Where they make up or this, as Rick says, is in price. This being the case, I think that a grey market seller who is selling a piano for $4000 (I plucked this figure out of the air) is not going to pack it as well or worry about the shipping as much as someone like Yamaha, whose reputation is based on quality. Any company selling something has new relies on the buyer receiving it as new. A company selling something as secondhand can afford to let a few things pass.

Imagining that my shipping theory does hold and that I am a grey market importer for a moment (apparently they pick the pianos themselves - but then they're not gonna say, "we don't give a rat's as long as it's got hammers, keys and a Yamaha badge" in their promo material), if it was cheaper to import by filling empty spots instead of booking well in advance I would do it. I'm not an unscrupulous capitalist, but if I was...

I know somebody who works on the wharves (if you need a fur coat PM me - just kidding) and will ask him about whether those who ship cargo in containers can pay extra to get it shipped in a decent spot. I'm starting to believe that the climate/torque scenario has some influence, because it makes too much sense. It may even apply to new pianos. There's still an element of chance involved there (which is offset by a more extensive manufacturer warranty) whether this occurs or not, as there are always some instruments (particularly acoustic ones) that over-or-underperform against the average for that model. Unless I'm disproven (and I'm happy to be), I can't help but think there's a kernel of truth in the shipping being a factor.

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Another thought: iff my theory holds for both new and used, the current vintage of imported pianos won't be great due to shipping delays caused by coronavirus. Even though the ships usually sit just offshore meaning the rocking is kept to a minimum, they'd still sitting there in the heat.

Rick, here's another thing I'm considering: when you move a piano it affects the tuning. Whether it's packed well or not, it's still being moved and will become out of tune from the gravity on the soundboard as it doesn't just sit at very close to 90 degrees to the ground, as it does once it's off the ship. Particularly with shipping delays, this could mean a piano is sitting there out of tune for longer and this, in turn, could cause more longterm problems.

It's interesting to consider.

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Originally Posted by Tim_Au
Another thought: iff my theory holds for both new and used, the current vintage of imported pianos won't be great due to shipping delays caused by coronavirus. Even though the ships usually sit just offshore meaning the rocking is kept to a minimum, they'd still sitting there in the heat.

Rick, here's another thing I'm considering: when you move a piano it affects the tuning. Whether it's packed well or not, it's still being moved and will become out of tune from the gravity on the soundboard as it doesn't just sit at very close to 90 degrees to the ground, as it does once it's off the ship. Particularly with shipping delays, this could mean a piano is sitting there out of tune for longer and this, in turn, could cause more longterm problems.

It's interesting to consider.

Definitely things to consider. It sounds like you are covering all your bases, or at least thinking about them as you round the bases headed toward home plate. smile

I've purchased several used pianos over the years. Some had not been tuned or serviced in many years. I honestly do not think that a piano being out of tune for long periods of time is overly detrimental to the health of the piano; maybe not a good thing, but will not harm the piano like being housed in an unconditioned space for long periods of time. That will harm the piano.

Worst case scenario, if a piano isn't tuned for a long period of time, and becomes way out of tune, it could be more expensive to have it tuned initially, due to the technician having to do a pitch raise (tune more than once to pull up to pitch). And, the piano may need tuning several times, at closer intervals, to become stable, as far as the tuning goes.

I does matter a lot, however, how tight the tuning pins are; that is more important than not being tuned in while, or going long periods of time without being tuned.

I'd be more concerned about what kind of environment the piano is housed once removed from the ship, than how out-of-tune it is.

Good luck!

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As far as QC goes, my understanding is that these pianos are just randomly picked and put in a container that houses perhaps 40 pianos. They comprise the good, the bad, and the ugly. The buyer takes what he gets. The benefit is that these pianos are CHEAP!!! That is why they are sold this way. The buyer gets some good ones that he can get pretty nice profit on. He then needs to figure out what he is going to do with the bad ones. Some will attempt to pass them off as good. Others will trash them as part of the cost of doing business.

The fact that this practice continues is an indicator of the profit involved, despite the risk.

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Thanks.

Rick - I meant it's interesting to consider with regard to my theory, not necessarily my buying one although it would have an impact if it could be proven. As it stands, I'll likely base my decision on sound and, if possible, any defects a tech can spot.

If a mad scientist with unlimited resources was on the case, they could work out when there had been major shipping delays to different parts of the world and get a tech to inspect both new and grey market pianos that had been shipped in that time and then compare them to pianos shipped either side of it. A noticeable increase in defects would prove it. It would never happen, but that's the only way I can think we could be sure. It will never happen.

You definitely know a lot more about pianos than me, Rick, but are you certain about the tuning thing? Even guitars need string tension to not develop problems in the neck and/or soundboard (I'm certain of this) and the tech who has nothing to gain from lying and is pretty well respected says it can be an issue. Can the pins loosen from lack of tension? As always, I could well be wrong.

Peter - this makes sense. I would say 80% of the pianos at the grey market place had audible problems that somebody who wasn't a musician would likely miss. In fact, I saw them miss them. The salesman depressed the sustain pedal and played some quick arpeggios along with an excerpt of a piece (maybe Czerny) at dazzling velocity (because he likely does it 20 times a day on bad pianos - impressive nonetheless and a clever distraction) before saying it was a beautiful instrument and that he had no idea why it was only $3500. This makes me wary of the one I like when, to my ear, it's better than the one next to it that's $1000 more.

I'm not really asking for specific advice with this reply, although any advice is good advice. Just thought I'd add what I've been led to understand. It isn't a lot, I know.

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Lack of tuning does not "harm" the piano in any way. Harms the ear.

Peter Grey Piano Doctor


Peter W. Grey, RPT
New Hampshire Seacoast
www.seacoastpianodoctor.com
pianodoctor57@gmail.com
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PK0T7_I_nV8
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