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Real Florida

The Tampa tuner

John Ragusa is in perfect harmony with pianos. They tell him what the problem is, and he takes care of it.

Published December 7, 2004

[Times photo: Ken Helle]
At the Port of Tampa, John Ragusa tunes a baby grand in the theater of the cruise ship Horizon.

TAMPA - John Ragusa probably has the most unusual job at the Port of Tampa. Other port workers grease propellers, scrape barnacles, remove rust, haul baggage, pilot tugboats, handle lines, load phosphate, make sandwiches and pump gasoline from tanker to storage facility. Tuning pianos is how he makes a living.

Every time certain cruise ships arrive, Ragusa is among the first to board with his little black bag. Is there a doctor in the house? Yes, he is the physician to the pianos.


Hmmm. The A key on the cruise ship Horizon's Cova Cafe piano sounds like B flat. He turns a pin about a micrometer and gazes vacantly into the distance. Strikes the A again. BoInG. Better. Another turn of the wrench known as a tuning hammer.


Now that's more like it.

Cruise ships are like big hotels. They have lots of restaurants and ballrooms and nightclubs. That means lots of pianos. Pianos hate staying in tune in general, but nowhere are they more persnickety than on a ship at sea.

"It's the vibrations of the engines that throws them out of tune," says the piano tuner, leaning over an open grand piano like an old-fashioned auto mechanic in the movies. "It's the humidity and the rocking of the ship. It also is the pounding these pianos take day and night from some very hard playing."

Broken strings - two of them - offend his ears and eyes in the grand piano at the Horizon's Palladium Show Lounge. For the love of God, who was treating this miracle of an instrument like a toddler's wooden pounding bench? Popeye the Sailor? Jo Ann Castle, that muscular pianist from the old Lawrence Welk Show? Great balls of fire, was it Jerry Lee Lewis? Was it the Killer?

Whoever it was, he or she played like a man or woman possessed, like a crazed fiend, like a cruise ship version of the phantom of the opera. Was the phantom pianist pounding out the umpteenth version of Margaritaville when the strings gave up the ghost? Or was it the 14th Happy Birthday of the evening that snapped the strings like a rotting fishing line?

Ragusa seldom gets to meet the guilty party on a cruise ship. He only does the doctoring. He reaches into his bag, and out come the new strings he lovingly puts into place.

"Pianos are built to take a lot of abuse," he says. "But whew! This was something else."

Speaking the language

John Ragusa sometimes plays the piano on the cruise ships for an audience that includes floor sweepers or the dusk bunnies in an empty room. He plays like a guy who loves pianos, like a guy who would never consider hurting one. With delicacy. One minute it's Bridge Over Troubled Water, and the next it's The Entertainer. Then he picks up the tuning hammer again and works.

He did not set out to become Registered Piano Tuner No. 7318 of Tampa, Fla. Born in Long Island back when Ike was president, back when Patti Page was wondering how much is that Doggie in the Window?, he wanted to be a musician.

He imagined himself as a latter day Scott Joplin, the new king of ragtime. But at a piano one day, his teacher sighed with frustration at the grotesque chords being performed on an out-of-tune instrument. The teacher suggested that talented piano tuners were, in some ways, needed in the world even more than talented piano players.

At Ohio State, he studied music. But he took a couple of piano-tuning classes out of curiosity in Cleveland. He liked the craft well enough to continue with tuning lessons in New York, where his teacher, Steve Fairchild, once tuned a piano in seven minutes to claim a spot in Guinness World Records.

It takes Ragusa much longer, but that's his choice, after a quarter of a century on the job. Like a good doctor, he doesn't like to rush his patients. A piano talks to him, in a way, tells him its troubles. A good piano tuner has to go about business deliberately.

"Each piano speaks its own language," he says. "But few people can hear what the piano is telling them. Even musicians don't hear it. Pianos tell you what's wrong with them, what they need, but if you don't speak the language, you won't know."

Ragusa tunes pianos in private homes throughout Tampa. When a concert hall beckons, he'll tune its piano. David Lanz, a New Age pianist who performed at Tampa Theatre, wanted him to tune before the show and at intermission.

Cruise ships, such as the 682-foot Horizon, typically dock in the middle of the night. Sleepy passengers, about 1,500 of them, disembark with the dawn. Then chaos ensues. Meat trucks, fish trucks, booze trucks show up. Security guys run around looking worried. Who are you? Your name isn't on the list? Oh, here it is. Somebody spelled it wrong. But not us. When you gave us your name, why did you spell it wrong?

Stevedores carry aboard 7,133 pounds of beef, 1,863 pounds of lamb, 2,160 pounds of pork, 1,420 pounds of veal, 1,120 pounds of sausage, 5,299 pounds of chicken, 2,063 pounds of turkey, 4,740 pounds of fish, 600 pounds of lobster and 30 pounds of crab. They hall aboard 1,200 bottles of wine, 150 bottles of rum, 122 bottles of vodka, 120 bottles of champagne, 115 bottles of whiskey and 60 bottles of gin.

Ragusa's black bag weighs about as much as a bowling ball. Stuffed inside are balls of wire and felt and all kinds of tools. Of course, security guards who searched him last week search the bag again and ask who he is. He is the same guy as last week. What's your name? Not on the list? Oh, here it is.

"Thank you," Ragusa says. "I have to tune your pianos. You have five of them."

Murphy's Law of pianos


On the Horizon, they are Yamaha grands. Each has 88 keys made of spruce. Each key is connected to at least one string and sometimes three. Of course, that simplifies it. There are about 500 other moving parts that require vigilance.

If something can go wrong, it does. Fixing a problem often creates another problem. It is the ecology of the piano. Ragusa sometimes feels compelled to explain the art of the piano to innocent clients.

"Over time, use and compression of parts make it necessary to readjust the moving parts to factory specifications.

"Touch is not the only thing that goes out over time. Hammers harden from the constant hitting into the strings, causing the striking surface to become impacted, making the tone of the piano too loud or too bright. I can voice the piano to your pleasing. Also it may be necessary to file hammers before voicing.

"Tightening screws is a very underestimated part of regular piano service. After pianos leave the factory, the wood will lose moisture and parts become loose and wear unevenly, seriously affecting tone, power and the longevity of the affected parts."

Florida is rough on pianos. Sometimes when he cracks one open, cockroaches and spiders scamper into the darkest corners. The worst piano he ever saw was home to a nest of mice. People shouldn't eat while they play. Stuff falls through cracks and begins the food chain.

He tunes 1,000 pianos a year. Some are humble instruments, starter pianos, so to speak, but from time to time he tunes a $135,000 Fazioli. Occasionally he'll meet a wealthy client at the Steinway factory in New York who will pay him to help select an appropriate piano. At home, he plays an upright Yamaha.

The Horizon's five Yamahas are spread throughout the ship. Ragusa may be 51, but he stays in shape running up the stairs, 12 flights of them. Kevin Costner could play him in the movies. Of course, a few people have said, "Hey, you know who you remind me of? Frank Zappa."

Dances With Wolves meets Weasels Ripped My Flesh.

An off-key joke


Bad sustain pedal.

"See, this would drive me nuts," Ragusa says. The pedal creaks like a door in a haunted house. "I would expect to find a note from the piano player. "Mister Piano Tuner, please fix the sustain.' But like I said, sometimes piano players don't understand their instruments."

He is afraid he just sounded critical.

"On the other hand, a very good piano player just plays around a problem," he says. "That's the difference between a pro and a beginner. Sometimes a beginner will blame the piano before he blames himself."

He once tuned Johnny Cash's piano. At the USF Sun Dome years ago, he tuned the piano for Frank Sinatra's player. "The guy was so nervous I wanted to tell him to get a drink." When Old Blues launched into New York New York, the piano was in tune even if the player suffered the yips.

The State Fair in Tampa is among his most prestigious clients after the cruise ships. If there's a piano on a stage, he is the person to credit or to blame for the way it sounds. He reels off a who's who of country stars, from Ronnie Milsap to Waylon Jennings. They have hired him to tune their pianos.

As he cracked the hood of the grand piano, Waylon's keyboardist gave him instructions.

"Only tune the white keys. We'll pay you half."

John Ragusa, the piano tuner, has a sense of humor. But there are topics that should never be the subject of a joke.

"I know he was goofing on me. But it doesn't make sense to be mean to the piano tuner."

John Ragusa's Web site is

- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at 727 893-8727 or

[Last modified December 6, 2004, 15:52:04]

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