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Types of Piano

'Overstrung', 'underdamped', 'cottage piano' etc etc. What are all these different pianos? Here we describe the main types you will come across, which ones are recommended and why...

Upright types

Bechstein Overstrung, with action, removed, showing the string layout.

 

Upright pianos made recently are all overstrung and underdamped. These terms describe the layout of the stringing and the position of the dampers within the mechanism of the piano.

Stringing

The two main upright piano types are (1) overstrung, where the bass strings cross diagonally in front of the mid and treble strings, and (2) vertical strung (or "straight-strung") in which all the strings run parallel.

Vertical Strung, with an underdamped action

An 'Ibach' - modern overstrung piano

Overstringing, first used in the 1850s, gives longer bass strings providing richer sounding, truer bass notes as well as a more sturdy construction. Also, the bridge, which transmits the string vibrations to the soundboard, does its job much more effectively as it is further from the edge of the soundboard. With a few notable exceptions (e.g. certain Bechsteins) "straight-strung" pianos are best avoided as their tone, especially in the bass, is inferior and they tend to be less stable. This is why manufacturers stopped making them around the middle of the 20th century!

Damping

An overstrung piano with overdamped action. The dampers are fitted to the wooden structure at the top, above the hammers.

The dampers are a crucial part of the action of a piano. They prevent the strings from vibrating when notes are not being played.Earlier pianos were often overdamped -; meaning that the dampers were situated above the hammers. These were much less effective than underdamped which operate further from the end of the strings and hence cut the sound off more cleanly. Also, the linkage that lifts the dampers gives the action a different feel, so for these reasons, underdamping is always preferable.

Grand Pianos

Virtually all grand pianos made since around 1900 are overstrung, and they exist in lengths from around 4ft to over 9ft. The smaller sizes are inevitably somewhat lacking in tonal quality and for serious playing a good upright would be a far better choice. The main advantage of a grand piano is that the action (provided it is a proper "repetition" action) can give much greater control of the dynamics when playing, as well as faster and more accurate repetition of notes. If looking to buy a grand piano, the main factors to consider are the build quality, type of action, tonal quality, size and condition. It is definitely worth having a good tuner/technician check for these things, or to buy from a reputable dealer/restorer.