Man of 1,000 Steinways: The Steinway Hunter!

Piano Lessons / interview / Man of 1,000 Steinways: The Steinway Hunter!

Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today we have The Man of 1,000 Steinways, The Steinway Hunter, Bob Friedman! Bob Friedman goes way back in the piano industry and has probably found more Steinways than anybody I know! There are a lot of parallels in our lives. Bob is a piano technician, I’m a concert pianist. We both got into pianos because of various reasons and have been involved with them our whole lives. We’re going to have a nice, lively discussion here. So I want to welcome Bob Friedman. Hello Bob!

Bob Friedman:
Hi, Robert, thank you so much for interviewing me. I appreciate it very much.

Robert Estrin:
It’s a real pleasure! For people who are not familiar with you, because you’re kind of invisible to the public, Bob’s the man who locates and provides Steinways to countless piano rebuilders and stores all around the country and around the world. And he’s been doing it a heck of a long time! The parallels in our lives are so interesting. I got into pianos because of my teaching and my performing. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you got into it – as a piano technician. Is that right, Bob?

Bob Friedman:
Yeah. Actually I was speaking with my wife today and realized this is my golden anniversary, 50 years since I put my hands on a piano that needed a little bit of work. Interestingly enough, my father was also a concert pianist, but he never toured. He trained very early in life. But at a certain point in his teens, he put it down. You know as a concert pianist, you’re supposed to take the music out in front of you and memorize it. He refused to do that, so his agent let him walk. He put the piano down shortly after that. He never picked one up again until 1971.

In ’71, I was 17 years old. There was a gentleman who passed away who lived across the street from us who had a beautiful old Sohmer upright. I went into the house and saw the piano. The girl said it was for sale. So I dragged my father in there because I had seen him play at family parties, but I really had no idea how accomplished he was. My mother and I begged him to buy the piano. He didn’t want to do it, but we still begged him to do it. And he did it! He brought the piano home and he wailed on it! He played Rachmaninoff like the day he put the piano down when he was a kid. He’d never forgotten how to play!

I was taking mechanical drafting, architectural blueprint design in high school. I had some really good teachers show me mechanical know-how. The piano had one note that was always not working in the upper register. My father noticed, but he never called anybody in to fix it. So one day when he was at work, I took the action out of the piano. My mother walked through and she said, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m going to figure out what’s wrong with this piano.” I noticed that one of the springs was out in the jack that pushes the hammer up and I fixed it! Later that night, he came home from work and I watched as he played the piano. I never told him I had fixed it. He played that note and it worked. He did a double-take. He must have figured it fixed itself! That’s where it started for me. And that was probably 4,000 Steinways ago.

Robert Estrin:

4,000 Steinways, wow!

Bob Friedman:
Well, I lived in a truck for almost 30 years traveling the country buying and selling pianos and meeting everybody I did business with. I’d go to everybody’s homes. I’ve had coffee with more people than Starbucks probably serves!

Robert Estrin:
I just read your book, The Steinway Hunter and I absolutely was drawn page to page. It is really compelling! It’s such a pleasurable read, I highly recommend it. It brought back so many memories of my life after I graduated from music conservatory. I was teaching piano at the time and the first question I would always ask students was, “Do you have a piano?” It was surprising how many people wanted lessons who didn’t have pianos! I knew that wouldn’t work. So that’s how I got into finding pianos. I’m sure we could swap stories about some of the crazy ways we’ve found pianos.

Bob Friedman:
I’ll be honest with you, I probably have 300 stories! But after three years of editing and 20 years of writing I used just 25 stories. I’m not a writer, but with the help of my dear wife and some very highly skilled editors who also had pianos in their lives, we made it happen. All of us had something in common. They love the piano and therefore they helped me with the book. But to finish another set of 30, 40, 50, stories… I mean, we have so many stories. We could probably sit here until all our hair falls out, just telling stories!

Robert Estrin:
I believe you! One of the things about pianos is that you’ve got to move them. I’ve moved hundreds, maybe more than hundreds of pianos. And that was back in the day when they were mostly those big, tall, heavy, upright pianos. I don’t know how I did it! I’m not a big man, but my back to this day, knock on wood, is strong, because I always lifted correctly.

Bob Friedman:
I’ve had nine rescinded discs in my back over the years! But I’ve always strengthened myself and I’ve come back. I had a blue dolly back then. I carry a picture of it with me, because it reminds me of a very good friend who is in the dedications in the book, his name was Henry Karen. And this is actually a picture of Henry’s dolly from when we both had blue dollies. He’s passed on now. He looked just like Jimmy Cagney. He pointed me in a direction when I was very young. He saw that I had a lot of children. I have five children, actually. He saw me driving up in an old beat up Matador wagon with a U-haul on the back. I used to deliver basically no name pianos to him. And then he had one Steinway. He looked at me and said, “You’re never going to be able to support your family with that. That’s the piano you want to go for.” He said, “Go for that, and you’ll do okay.” And that’s where it started. He gave me the tip. He said, “Stay with Steinway.”

Robert Estrin:
In the used market, there’s nothing like Steinway. Everybody knows the name and the power of that company. It’s the piano that everybody looks to restore. Because the fact of the matter is that in the used market, Steinway holds its value better than other pianos. So if somebody’s going to restore and put thousands of dollars into a piano, they might as well put it into a piano that’s going to sell for more. Here at Living Pianos, we actually celebrate all the great American and European pianos, which can represent phenomenal value. And as you well know, each piano is unique. There are some great pianos from a variety of manufacturers. But a great Steinway is still a great piano, and there are always people looking for them.

Bob Friedman:
They call it the standard piano of the industry. What’s interesting is that 1878 was the design of the tubular action frame and the duplex scale. It hasn’t changed much since then.

Robert Estrin:
Yes. It’s kind of amazing that pianos from the 1880s had some of the same scale designs they’re still making today. There was a documentary about Steinway a number of years ago. They said that if you took somebody from the 19th century and transplanted them into the New York factory today, there’d be a couple of new rigs, but they’d be pretty much right at home. Because fundamentally, they build pianos the same way they did over a hundred years ago, which is pretty remarkable.

Bob Friedman:
Absolute geniuses, they were! But they didn’t live long lives because every time they got a disease, it took them over. They almost died from exhaustion because they worked so hard. They were perfecting everything that they did.

Robert Estrin:
I remember back in the day before the internet was a thing my wife and I would hang out downtown. We were living in Bloomington, Indiana. I had graduated from school there in piano performance. I kind of fell in love with the small town. But we would hang out at the bookstand waiting for the Recycler classified newspaper to come out. As soon as it came out, we made a beeline for it to see if there were any good pianos in there. And then we would have quarters in our pockets and go to the nearest payphone, because this was before cell phones. If there were any deals we would try to get there as fast as we could!

Bob Friedman:
You’re absolutely right! That’s very cool!

Robert Estrin:
I always felt that that was the ultimate way to get pianos, to be there first. You gotta get there and find the pianos that really need restoration that somebody else wouldn’t even know what to do with. A diamond in the rough. But then later on, I met people who did things a little differently, more like a patient fisherman casting the net and just waiting, which is another approach instead of the hunter. But since you wrote the book, The Steinway Hunter, obviously you’ve been aggressive in finding these instruments in all sorts of ways. I’m wondering how technology has changed the way you work.

Bob Friedman:
When there was limited technology my mother was a very helpful tool and a catalyst to advertising for me. When I finally decided to go with Steinway and stay with Steinway, my mother worked in USA Today classifieds. This is in one of the stories from my book. My mother and two other women actually designed the USA Today classified network in a Gannett newspaper. They picked three people they thought could put this format together. She explained newspaper networks to me, and there were many newspaper networks in this country at that time. She said, “Go to the library and go in the Gale Book of Publications, and you’ll find every printed newspaper in the country. What you can do is call them up on the phone and just give them your ad.” My ad was,

“Steinway grand piano wanted, any age, any condition, will take cash and pickup,” which means I had to live in a truck for three decades!

There were about 25 networks out there. I had to call them on the phone and ask them to run the ad. They wouldn’t take credit cards in those days. You had to send them a check. So once your check got there, they printed the ad. Then all of a sudden, my ads started running in 15 states at the same time! When the calls started coming in, I had to get in the truck. There were no photographs. You couldn’t do what we do today seeing pictures on the internet of what you’re buying. So I literally had to live in a truck at truck stops because there were no cell phones and there was no GPS. I went into people’s houses and became friendly. I’d make the deal and carry the piano out. And if I wasn’t traveling with another person I’d have to go to the local gin mill and hire some people to help move the piano into the truck.

Robert Estrin:
I’m sure there are a lot of people who are watching this wondering how they can find a Steinway. So here’s a question I have for you: of all the Steinways you’ve seen, about 4,000 Steinways, how many were actually fairly good to go without doing substantial work?

Bob Friedman:
Very, very few. You can have a piano that’s 10 years old, that a cat lived in. You can have a piano that’s five years old, that the dog got jealous of and chewed the legs. In the dead of heat in the summertime when I would go as far as Chicago or Indiana or down to Texas and then come back to New York with 12-16 pianos side-by-side in a 24 foot truck, there was something very interesting that happened. Everybody’s house has a certain scent, whether it’s what they’ve cooked their whole lives or what the animals smell like, whatever it is. Everything your house collects, your piano collects because of the felt in the piano. It picks up the smells of the home. So you have to deodorize the piano when you get it back. But when it gets in the felt, and it’s an 80 or 100 year old piano, you’re not getting it out. So therefore the piano needs restoration, new hammers, new felt everywhere. So when I got back to New York City after one of these trips I opened the back of the truck and the smell from all these pianos being in people’s houses for a hundred years nearly knocked me off the bed! It was so disgusting. It was the smell of every piano that was in everybody’s house for 80, 100 years.

I equated that smell to the smell of success!

Robert Estrin:
Yeah, that’s right. You need to be willing to put that work into them. We get piano consignment offers literally every day. People have pianos for sale and almost everybody says, “The piano’s perfect. It’s great.” But people don’t know how much maintenance a piano requires in order to be good. To give you one extreme example, there was a piano back in Indiana years ago that somebody was trying to sell. They said, “I’ve got this great piano.” So, we went out to look at it. It was way out in the country. When we got there, we were walking through a field. We were led to, believe it or not, a greenhouse! It’s just a dirt floor! We got to the end of it and we saw this big old upright sunken maybe a foot into the mud. You could see that the wood was destroyed. This was a greenhouse. It was humid, of course. So I said, apologetically, “Well, I’m really sorry, but I’m not going to be able to do anything with this piano.” And he said, “Why not?” I said, “Well, there’s obviously some water damage.” And he replied,

“Water damage? That’s not water damage, that was from the fire!”

As if there was something you could do with this old upright, sinking in the mud, that’s been in a fire and gotten wet! So, that’s an extreme example. But when somebody buys a piano with the best intentions and then they never tune it, they don’t understand that a piano degrades just from not playing it and not servicing it. The piano is going to take a tremendous amount of work to get back to any kind of performance level.

Bob Friedman:
That’s one of the reasons I got into wholesale supply, not supplying the public, but supplying dealers. First of all, there’s only so many people in your public area, unless you’re in a very busy area. I didn’t live in a very busy area. But there are thousands of dealers and hundreds of rebuilders, so everybody always needs stock all the time. So it keeps moving. But the reason I got into it was because I would find myself reconditioning and rebuilding a lot of pianos. And in the end, I really couldn’t get the retail money out of them that I wanted because there weren’t enough people in my area to buy. So, I would wholesale to a dealer somewhere, which meant I was kind of wasting my efforts. Because you know how much work it takes to put a piano back in shape when nobody’s taken care of it. I was giving my work away! And I was saying to myself, “If I’m going to continue to give my work away, I’m not going to earn any money.”

Robert Estrin:
So you found a niche for yourself. You’re one of the only people who really specializes in this. And what’s cool is that you’ve managed to transcend into modern technology and the internet, and I’m sure that helps you tremendously. Hopefully you’re not still moving them yourself!

Bob Friedman:

The heaviest thing I pick up now is either a drumstick or a paintbrush.

Maybe I’ll pick up a tennis racket every now and then when my knees allow. But I’m still finding and buying more than 200 pianos a year.

Robert Estrin:
Wow, that’s impressive! What we do here avoids the whole problem of market area, because we started Living Pianos online piano store back in 2006, before everybody else thought of it. And now of course, it’s the way everybody is buying everything! And because of media and the quality of the internet, if you’ve got decent speakers or headphones, you can actually get a really good preview of a piano. Of course, some players have to play the pianos. And we welcome them to fly in, which some people do. But many people don’t have enough experience with pianos anyway. So they trust their ears and have confidence in what we do.

Bob Friedman:
You play so well, and your recordings are so good, that they’re getting almost exactly what it would sound like in their homes. I’ve listened to your recordings. They don’t sway. The volume is right. The instruments are done right.

Robert Estrin:
I was very lucky to not only grow up in a musical household. My father, Morton Estrin, was a concert pianist, but he also had professional recording equipment in his studio in our home. I always got his hand-me-down tape recorders. And I also attended his recording sessions. So I’ve always had a passion for music technology. It goes hand in hand for me. I also love photography. So it kind of takes all my skill sets and wraps them all up. It’s a blast! I get to meet so many people who love the piano. And now I’m getting back to doing a lot of teaching. As a matter of fact, I’ve got students in Australia, Pakistan, Scotland, Alaska, all over the world! The power of the internet is just so incredible, that I can connect with so many great people who love the piano! So anyway, I want to tell everybody that if you are interested in the piano and want some great stories, check out Bob’s book, The Steinway Hunter. It’s a great read! It’s available at Amazon. And also, can you get it at bookstores as well?

Bob Friedman:
You can get it at Barnes and Noble. You can get it at Walmart. But Amazon is the quick one.

Robert Estrin:
I’ll put some links below so that people can check it out. If you love the piano, you’re going to love this book! I want to thank you for the service you do for the whole industry, as well as a secondary way to piano buyers. Who knows how many of these pianos would end up in the landfill if you didn’t rescue them and find people to restore them.

Bob Friedman:
You just gave me chills, because that’s one of the things that actually got me into this. Because when the phone calls started coming in, when I was running nationwide advertising, I would say, “Are you sure you don’t want to keep it in the family?” They’d say “No, we’re downsizing. And if we don’t donate it, we’re just going to have somebody come and take it to the landfill.” I’d say, “Don’t do that!” So you really feel like you’re not just bringing music to people, but you’re keeping these instruments alive! Especially Steinways. They are really made to last. I say it’s a 300 year piano. Steinways that came out of the 1870s, people are restoring now! So if it lasted that long, that means the next restoration will last that long. We won’t be here, but somebody will want these instruments again.

Robert Estrin:
The pianos will still be around! It’s a little bit of living history. I think about the thousands of pianos that Living Pianos has restored and brought back to life. People will pass those instruments down to future generations, because 99% of pianos aren’t made that way anymore. It’s a lost art, that hand work, and the quality of the wood and all that. Before we go, I think you had a couple of artifacts you wanted to share, is that right?

Bob Friedman:
I actually do. There’s a story in the book called, “62554” about an old Steinway upright. It was in my home for a short time and I ended up selling it. The numbers are my birthdate backwards! And what was interesting, but sad, in that my mother had just passed away and I’d had a trip planned. So I waited a week, but then all these appointments were set up across the country, so I had to get on with it!

It was almost three o’clock in the morning when I finally got to a young gentleman’s house in Cleveland. I opened the piano and I saw the numbers backwards and I looked at him and said, “I know those numbers,” then I realized that it was my birthday backwards!

It was almost like from the piano inside looking out at me.

And it was just after my mother had passed away. Some people think it’s creepy. I don’t, because I brought it home and I actually sold it to a couple, a lawyer and accountant, who had a big church they had just rebuilt. When I described the piano to them they said, “That’s exactly what we’re looking for because everything in the church has this design in it.” So they came and they purchased it. It was an 1870s Steinway upright that had been completely restored before I purchased it. The young gentleman’s father had restored the piano. His father had passed away and he sold it to me. And when I sold this piano, they wanted it badly enough to where the price they gave me helped me with a deposit on the house that I raised my children in! So it actually almost felt like my mother was helping me.

Robert Estrin:
That’s an amazing story!

Bob Friedman:
If you buy the book and read “62554,” you’ll understand that one!

Robert Estrin:
I’ll leave you with one interesting coincidence that we once faced here about 10 years ago. We got two Steinway Model M’s from completely different sources. Both in mahogany. We were living in a live work loft in the Santiago Arts District in Orange County, California at the time. The two pianos were right next to each other. And we were shocked to discover that they were one serial number apart! They must’ve been next to each other on the factory floor!

Bob Friedman:
And they stayed together?

Robert Estrin:

We just happened to get them from two different sources and there they were reunited after about 80 years!

Can you believe that? What are the chances of that?

Bob Friedman:
That was meant for you to be there. And we’ve had many things that were meant for us to be there in this industry.

Robert Estrin:
Absolutely! I hope that all the people who have pianos from you and pianos from us are still playing and enjoying them, and that future generations get to enjoy those pianos! I want to thank you so much, Bob, for coming and joining us here! I encourage everyone to get your wonderful book, The Steinway Hunter!

Bob Friedman:
Thank you Robert.

You can find Bob Friedman’s book, The Steinway Hunter HERE!

For premium videos and exclusive content, you can join my Living Pianos Patreon channel! www.Patreon.com/RobertEstrin

Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

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2 thoughts on “Man of 1,000 Steinways: The Steinway Hunter!”

  1. This isn’t about a piano, but your story about looking at the Recycler as soon as it came out so you could snatch the pianos before anyone else got them reminds me of something that happened in our family, which you might enjoy.

    On this particular day, I took the pickup and went to Costco. As near as I can remember, it is the only time I drove to Costco in the pickup, and i don’t remember why I did it. So I was in the store, and I had a question I needed to ask the folks at home, and I called them on the cell phone, and I think that is also the only time I ever called anyone from Costco to ask a question, at least up to that time. So I got someone on the phone at home, and our oldest son said, I saw an ad for a computer printer that is for free, first come, first served, would you pick it up for me? So I asked my husband to meet me at the place, and we got there, and it was one of those huge printers that is almost as tall as you are and takes 17″ wide green and white striped printer paper, I mean one of the early printers which was really huge. So my husband I loaded it into the pickup and just as we finished shoving it in, another couple drove up, they wanted the printer, but we already had it.

    So I drove home, and we got there, and our son came out and peered into the camper shell, and his jaw just about dropped to the floor! He had no idea it was one of those huge old printers. So I said, “Be careful what you pray for. You just might get it.”

    Later, he was able to trade it to a company that wanted to use it for parts, for something he wanted more.

    So I can relate to your story from personal experience!

    1. It’s amazing sometimes what people are giving away or selling cheap on Craigslist! The secret to getting great deals is to be open to possibilities. For example, if you’re shopping for a car, not looking for a specific color, or even necessarily brand or model. A couple of years ago I was on the hunt for high end microphones for my new studio. I ended up with some phenomenal mics! Some of them I had no immediate use for. But they have been so incredibly useful to me since then. Buying something of great value for a low price is rarely a bad decision!

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