An industry staple, the Yamaha U-Series have long been regarded as some of the most sturdy and reliable pianos on the market and to this day are often a go-to recommendation for teachers up and down the country.
But are these pianos still what they used to be? And can they match the quality of other options available on the piano market today?
In this guide we will break down what caused the Yamaha U-Series’ rise to popularity and offer a current overview of the U-Series market. We will cover not only the new Yamaha U-Series, but also the far more commonly found Reconditioned Yamaha U-Series, things to note and why when and where the piano was built matters.
The Rise To Popularity
First created in the 1960s, the Yamaha U-Series was made when Yamaha (and Japanese piano manufacturing in general) were undergoing an economic boom and massive expansion. This, combined with rapid industrialisation meant that Yamaha were among the first to be able to produce a number of instruments at mass volume, something they are still experts in today.
As with many new production processes, the first few batches of the U-Series did contain imperfections that were eventually refined and iterated out of the production process. Generally speaking, unless they have been incredibly well looked after, it is rare to find the earliest versions of the U-Series that are still in showroom condition.
By around the mid 1970s however, Yamaha had perfected their mass production techniques and they were now able to produce these quality instruments reliably and at volume. With this in place they began to take their instruments out to the world and boy were they popular. Yamaha had created an instrument that was perfectly suited for use in colleges and schools as they were bright and forgiving, yet responsive enough to support more established players alike.
It was not uncommon for schools to be purchasing multiple U-Series at a time and consequently, by introducing these instruments into schools and colleges, Yamaha had quickly built up their reputation within the teaching and education community. As many teachers and students were using Yamaha U-Series in their lessons, they soon became the go-to affordable acoustic piano for advancing players.
Their reputation for consistent quality grew, this continued and it is very common to hear teachers telling their students to get a reconditioned Yamaha U Series pianos.
As Yamaha's popularity increased so did their production sites. Yamaha is a huge corporation, one of the largest companies in Japan, and has hundreds of factories. The entry-level models such as the popular Yamaha b-series (b1, b2, b3) are actually made in Jakarta, Indonesia.
How can you identify where you piano was made?
Every piano manufacturer has their own model numbers and serial number. Unfortunately there is no central repository of pianos like there is with cars, for example. As a consequence it can be difficult for laypeople to determine exactly where and when a piano was made. Yamaha have quite a good naming and serial number system.
Read our Reference Guide to Yamaha Model and Serial Number here
Being produced all over the world has meant that many U-series pianos vary in both tone and touch based on where they were made, for example the Japanese models are generally considered to be made of a higher calibre than the likes of the Taiwanese pianos. The serial number on the instrument will also give you an indication of the year it was produced, as a general rule of thumb if the number is:
Under 1 million - the piano was made in the 1960’s
1 million to 2.8 million - the piano was made in the 1970’s with 2.1 million being from 1976
3 million to 4.8 million - the piano was made in the 1980’s
4.83 million to 5.8 million - the piano was made in the 1990’s
5.9 million to 6.28 million - the piano was made in the early 2000’s
Serial numbers above this will have been made after the 2000s.
It is worth noting that there was a major update to Yamaha’s production and the U-series model in 2002, with significant design changes that now make the U-series significantly different from their older counterparts. These featured a new iron frame and redesigned bass bridge butbut can be more than double the price of many reconditioned exampls.
Today, the Yamaha U-Series finds itself in an interesting position whereby new U-Series models are still being produced, however it is actually the Reconditioned Yamaha U-Series that are more sought after and are what is being actively recommended to many piano students across the country.
Understanding The Reconditioned U-Series
Now that we have explored the rise of the U-Series, it is worth delving into what has happened to the older U-Series pianos over the past 50 years. As most reconditioned U-Series pianos were produced in the 1970s-80s, these pianos were fantastic recommendations for affordable instruments during the early 2000s, but today they are now between 40-50 years old which as any piano technician will tell you, is typically the time where things will begin to need replacing on acoustic pianos.
As pianos are primarily made from natural materials such as woods, wools and leathers, these materials do degrade overtime and after prolonged use, particularly components such as the strings, hammer felts and loops on the piano’s actions will begin to deteriorate and thus will need to be replaced. Whilst it may sound simple, these are not easy tasks and can quite quickly become incredibly expensive issues to solve, to fully refurbish a piano could easily cost between £5,000-£10,000+.
When these parts are replaced, we call this ‘reconditioning’ the piano. ‘Reconditioned’ can mean many things within the piano industry as we have written about before in our guide to buying reconditioned pianos, however ultimately it boils down to three key definitions.
If you only see or hear the word ‘reconditioned’ on its own when viewing a U-Series, this is generally a bit of a red flag as on one hand it can mean anything from a full reconditioning, repairing the soundboard or bridges, felts, loops, actions, keys, finish and almost reconditioning the entire instrument outside of the cabinet, OR on the other hand, it can mean simply shaving the hammer felts a tiny bit…and unless you’ve got a full receipt of what work has been done to the instrument, without a technician’s advice there’s no real way of proving what’s been done and the quality of the work.
There are those in the piano industry who are aware of this and use the brand authority and legacy of the U-Series in order to sell older instruments for more than they are worth. This is why we would always recommend asking exactly what work has been done to the piano before purchasing.
This definition is perhaps the most convoluted, potentially misleading and variable as just because the piano is ‘manufacturer reconditioned’, this does NOT necessarily mean it’s been refurbished by the manufacturer who actually made the piano.
For example if you purchase a reconditioned Yamaha U-Series that has been ‘manufacturer restored’, this does NOT directly mean that it’s been restored by Yamaha, rather it will have been restored by another manufacturer or technician and not undergone Yamaha’s specific reconditioning procedures. Whilst this particular manufacturer may be incredibly high standard (and there are plenty of great restorers out there!) It could just as easily be someone who considers piano restoration a hobby and doesn’t really know what they’re doing or have much experience in extending the longevity of the instrument.
Again, the devil is in the detail here and without a full receipt of what works have been done on the instrument, we wouldn’t recommend purchasing it without an independent technician’s approval.
‘Yamaha Certified Reconditioned’
Thankfully, this is the easiest and most trustworthy method of purchasing a reconditioned Yamaha U-Series.
The easiest way to tell if a piano has been fully reconditioned as intended is to check the cabinet or inside of the piano and look for a sticker or certificate that says the piano was ‘Yamaha Certified Reconditioned’. This is where Yamaha themselves have done the restoration in house or by a trusted technician under their own procedures.
These pianos are still fantastic quality, regardless of their original age and are the ones to look out for, however because of this, they are also the most sought after and so are likely either going to become increasingly hard to find, or will have a hefty price tag attached to them.
An easy analogy to follow is that buying a reconditioned piano is very much like buying a used vintage car such as a Ford Escort. They were incredibly stable and secure at their time and can still be worth a lot of money when fully reconditioned and had a full interior and engine rework, but if they have perhaps only swapped the seatbelts or tyres…that old engine is inevitably still going to fail and unless you are willing to invest thousands of pounds into getting it restored yourself, you are stuck with something that is inherently worthless.
Another good analogy is to focus on mileage. For example it’s unlikely that you would touch a car that has done over 150,000 miles, regardless of how old it is, but even those older cars that have done few miles but are 20, 30 or 40 years old, parts will still have perished depending on how well it has been kept. Whilst they do not have odometers so are a little harder to judge, the exact same can be said for reconditioned and older pianos. Luckily, we do have a checklist for you to follow on our guide to buying secondhand pianos so you know what you look for!
Shipping The U-Series
Being built in Japan, getting the U-series pianos to the UK inherently requires a significant shipping cost. This is of course factored into the price of the piano and as pianos are significantly large and heavy objects, the fees on piano exporting are often surprising to many.
Within the past few years and the backlog of COVID and various other shipping cost increases, some are even reporting that to unload a standard shipping container is easily within the realm of £10,000 compared to previous prices of around £1000-2000. (Source)
To put that in some context, think about how many mobile phones or laptops that each sell for around £700-£1000 each could be put in that same amount of space.
For example a U3 has a volume of: 1,302,795 cm3
(65cm x 153cm x 131cm)
A single iPhone 11 (excluding the packaging) has a volume of: 94.81cm3
(7.57cm x 15.09cm x 0.83cm)
If we divide those numbers up, in the same space as one Yamaha U3, you could fit 13,741 iPhones. This of course is a huge difference and in order to compensate for this, most of what you are actually paying for when purchasing the U3 is going to be in shipping costs.
This is why it is not uncommon to see even 50+ year old U-Series pianos being sold for over £5000-£6000. When for the same amount of money you could also be getting a brand new, Far Eastern instrument or for a little more a European handcrafted piano such as a W.Hoffmann..
In summary, we believe that the Yamaha U-Series are fantastic instruments and do very much live up to their previous reputation as being the ‘workhorses’ of the piano industry and music education. Today, they can still represent excellent value for money and we would recommend trying them along with a variety of other options. The rising quality manufacturing from the Far East with Kawai's K-series from Indonesia and the advancing Chinese instrument. If you have the budget then consider new Japanese instruments such as the Kawai K500 or European hand-crafted instruments from the likes of W.Hoffmann or even C.Bechstein.