Go-to guy for tuning

By CHRISTINA COSDON, Times Staff Writer
Published October 28, 2007

Largo native Justin Elliott is a 22-year-old master piano tuner and restorer with a gift for making pianos "stand up and sing," as one of his customers said.

He has been tuning professionally for seven years and has tuned concert pianos for the Clearwater Jazz Holiday and for Elton John, the Ramsey Lewis Trio, Herbie Hancock, Jim Brickman, the National Philharmonic of Russia, George Benson, Jamie Cullum, Alicia Keys, Chick Corea, Manhattan Transfer and others.

Several years ago, he restored an 1887 Steinway - with more than 10,000 moving parts.

Locally, his 1,500 clients include performing arts centers, churches, teachers, - many with children learning to play.

He recently worked with composer Dick Hyman during his recording of more than 100 pieces for a history of jazz, which will be coming out in the spring of 2008. "I've worked with Justin since then," Hyman said. "He's a wonderful tuner and technician and I've gotten in the habit of calling him up when I have a concert in Florida."

When did the mechanics of the piano become your passion?

My parents bought a baby grand purely as decoration when I was 12. I taught myself to play and when a technician came out the following year to tune it, I discovered I had an ear for it.

Why is tuning an art?

Servicing a piano isn't just the twisting of tuning pins to get it in tune. Controlling tone isn't something you can physically touch. It's feeling and sensing as well as using your hands. It's a gift.

How do you learn advanced techniques, such as regulating and voicing?

Voicing or controlling the tone of the piano is almost a lost art. Yamaha offers the best training out there and I have completed all the courses it offers in the U.S. I plan to take more advanced classes in Japan. They offer a whole world that goes beyond what Americans have ever known about piano service.

What's the most valuable piano you have tuned?

Probably Elton John's red pianos, worth at least $100,000, and a 1910 rosewood Steinway, valued at $80,000 for a customer in Sarasota.

What are your plans?

To design and build pianos.

"I'm impressed that a person that young has learned a dying trade, that he has the love, the knowledge and the experience at his age to do what he does. He can rip a piano apart and put it back together totally transformed."

Mac Russell of East Lake, a customer who has been a pianist for most of his 63 years and plays a Petrof, regarded as the Steinway of Europe.