Have you ever wondered if your piano’s model designation contains a hidden meaning? Sure you have! What follows is not quite a comprehensive study of all piano model designations, which would require an essay of book-length proportions, but rather an overview of some of the most common brands you will find in our shop and their model designations, and what, if any, coded information they contain. As you will see below, deciphering piano model designations can be as challenging as conjugating Portuguese verbs, and it is almost impossible for the casual observer to know if a piano’s model designation has any hidden meaning or not. With this in mind, let us try to explain at least some of the most common piano model designations you will to encounter in our inventory of used pianos.
For the most part, coded piano model designations apply more to modern piano models, and more often to those of European or Asian provenance. The one notable exception is Steinway, but that’s only speculation.
From 1942 until 2005, the five grand piano models offered by Steinway, an American piano manufacturer, had the following single-letter model designations:
S, M, L, B, D
Their sizes were as follows:
S = 5’1″
M = 5’7″
L = 5’10½”
B = 6’10½”
D = 8’11½”
Whether Steinway’s model designations were a cryptic clue to their size or were just a happy accident, these letter designations and their relation to models of increasing size led to the often-repeated joke in the piano industry that the models S, M, L, B, & D stood for “Small, Medium, Large, Big, and Damn Big”. Of course, this joke only worked from 1942 to 2005 when Steinway offered only these 5 grand piano models. The joke doesn’t work at other times in Steinway’s history when the Models A, C, and O were offered in addition to, or instead of the above models. Still, it’s an interesting coincidence, if indeed it is a coincidence at all.
However, other piano manufacturers very clearly and intentionally have encoded information into their piano model designations that are meant to easily identify a piano’s type and size, that is, if you know what to look for. Two good examples from which to segue from Steinway would be Steinway’s two subsidiary lines, the Boston (made in Japan by Kawai) and the Essex (made in China by Pearl River). Even though their parent company is Steinway, an American manufacturer, their model designations follow the example of many Asian manufacturers. Many Asian piano manufacturers use model designations that include 2 or 3 letters, a hyphen, and 2 or 3 numbers (e.g., ABC-123). Usually, the letters indicate the piano’s type, while the numbers indicate its size in centimeters.
(It should be mentioned that a piano’s size is always measured in the direction in which the strings are strung; top to bottom for uprights and front to back for grands)
So, Boston upright pianos have a model designation that begins with UP (upright piano), while grand piano model designations begin with GP (grand piano). Following these prefixes (and a hyphen) are three numbers indicating the size in centimeters. For example, a Boston model UP-132 indicates an upright piano that is 132 cm tall (52-inches), and a Boston model, GP-193 indicates a grand piano that is 193 cm long (6’4″). Makes sense?
Steinway’s Essex line is arranged in exactly the same way, but with the letter “E” added to the prefix to indicate that it is part of the Essex line. Two examples are the upright model EUP-123 and the grand model EGP-155.
The Boston and Essex examples are consistent throughout the entire lines, and therefore are easy to understand once you know what the letters and numbers mean. Some other manufacturers apply this same logic in some of their models while abandoning any recognizable meaning with other models. For example, the South Korean piano maker Samick frequently used “SU” as a prefix for their upright models, and “SG” as a prefix for their grand models. For example, a Samick SU-118 is a Samick upright that is 118 cm tall (46.5. inches) and a Samick SG-185 is a Samick grand that is 185 cm long (6’1″). However, other Samick models from the same time period have model designations that seem to offer no clues whatsoever about the piano’s type and size, such as the Samick models SC-300 (no clue), SM-600 (no idea at all), and WG-9C (really, just no idea whatsoever!) So, evidently, Samick did not use their coding system consistently, and they were not alone. Other piano makers seem to hint at coded meanings with some of their model designations, but not at all with other models, or at least, none that follows an established logic known to us in the piano business.
Two examples of model designations that make sense some of the time, but not all of the time, would be the model designations used by Yamaha and Kawai, the two rival piano makers from Hamamatsu, Japan, and the most widely known Japanese piano makers outside of Japan. For roughly 20 years, the primary Kawai grand piano line was the KG series, which predictably stood for Kawai Grand. All of the models carried the prefix “KG” followed by a hyphen and number. The number did not directly indicate size in centimeters, or any other form of measurement, but was simply a given model’s position in the hierarchy of Kawai grand models. For example, the Kawai KG-1 was the smallest size available, the KG-2 was the next size up, followed by the KG-3, the KG-5, the KG-6, and KG-7. Therefore, like the earlier Boston and Essex examples, the number does indicate size, but unlike the Boston and Essex, the number does NOT tell you what that size is. Interestingly, Kawai did not follow this pattern for their upright models. True, Kawai did have an upright line with the “Ku” prefix (yes, the lower-case “u” is intentional, as is the lower-case “b” further on), but it was one of many, MANY Kawai upright lines containing a bewildering number of prefixes such as “BL”, “BS”, “CE”, “CX”, “DS”, “Kb”, “KL”, “KS”, “NS”, “OP”, “SA”, “US”, “UST”, and “XO” that have no hidden meaning that we are aware of. Unless you’re in the piano business, and even if you’re in the piano business, remembering Kawai’s mind-numbing alphabet soup of model designations can be intimidating. Luckily, they make wonderful pianos in our opinion, so we have decided to find their quirky model designations charming.
(You may have noticed that there was no mention of a Kawai KG-4 model. That’s because there isn’t one. The number 4 is an inauspicious number in Japanese culture, the word for the number 4 being pronounced the same as one of the Japanese words for death, and therefore considered bad luck. Hence the number 4 is avoided in Japanese culture in much the same way that the number 13 is avoided in some Western cultures.)
Later, Kawai would introduce a grand piano line called the “Concert Artist” series, which unsurprisingly had a “CA” prefix. In the 1990s, Kawai introduced the “RX” series of grand pianos, and more recently, the “GX” line which seemed to signal an end to Kawai’s practice of using coded model designations. If there is any coded meaning to “RX” or “GX”, we are not aware of it, though the pattern of ascending numbers to indicate increasingly larger sizes remains the same (e.g., RX-1, RX-2, RX-3, and more recently, GX-1, GX-2, GX-3, and so on).
Similarly, Yamaha had an almost identical system for their grand pianos, the main difference being that Yamaha used only the letter “G” as a prefix for grand models (e.g., G1, G2, G3), and the letter “U” for upright models (e.g., U1, U2, U3). Later, when Yamaha introduced the Conservatory Series of grand pianos, those models were given a “C” prefix but otherwise followed the numbering pattern established with the original “G” series grands. This is still largely true of Yamaha’s models today, though in recent decades Yamaha has added some newer models like the GA1, GB1, and GC1 which defy explanation as far as coded meanings go.
Hopefully, this essay hasn’t created more questions than it answered. We get a lot of questions about model designations and their meanings (if any), so it seemed worthwhile to try to offer some sort of explanation. So, without any hope of a comprehensive overview, this is our attempt to at least partially explain some of the most common models you will see in our shop.
Until next time, thanks for reading.
Paul Yarish, RPT