Last Updated on 2022-12-02 | Originally Posted on 2018-09-12
Pianos Are Complex
Pianos are complex. The action of one Steinway piano key has 57 parts. Multiply that by 88 keys. Add everything else necessary to make a Steinway grand, and you get 12,116 parts. I haven’t seen any marketing about the number of parts in an electronic instrument. However, make sure that you buy an instrument that’s built well and assembled with great quality control. Choose the right piano by doing your homework. It may be one of the most difficult and important purchases you make in your life!
Where to Start
Make a decision between electronic and acoustic before going any further. But don’t make this decision before researching what each has to offer You are making a purchase for years, not months. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages in each. Once you’ve decided your path, learn as much as you can about the instruments available and compare them to your budget. That way, you will choose the right piano for you.
Electronic vs Acoustic
Most people see electronic keyboards as a chance to save money upfront, but there are other advantages. The biggest might be the ability to use headphones and not disturb others in the household. There isn’t a fixed maintenance cost once you purchase it, unlike an acoustic instrument, which will need to be tuned twice per year.
However, wear and tear will cause an electronic instrument to need maintenance. Some things can be fixed, like a broken key, but some problems will not be repairable. A spill can cause serious damage. At best, an electronic instrument will last 10 to 20 years, at which point it has done its job.
Compare that to an acoustic piano, which can easily last 100 years. The 1918 Steinway O on which I teach at a local church has been rebuilt. It definitely shows signs of its old age, but it’s still going strong!
Weighted Keys Are Mandatory
If you’re looking to purchase an electronic keyboard, please only look at models having 88 keys. Not 61, not 76. But what about the 61-key special that is being advertised as a beginner’s keyboard by the local warehouse club? No, don’t buy it! Why? Only models having 88 keys come with weighted action, or what marketers sometimes call graded hammer action.
61 Keys vs 88 Keys
This is a big controversy, even inside piano teaching circles. I’ve seen firsthand the impact of children practicing on a 61-key keyboard.
Even in beginner lessons, a student playing a small keyboard won’t have the possibility to explore high and low sounds. That’s a fun part of learning, and it’s exploited by modern teaching methods. Also, if a student is practicing at home on a non-weighted keyboard, he often has trouble playing the mechanical action on a real piano that he’ll encounter at lessons, recitals, and festivals.
In an extreme example, I was teaching a child who was playing on a 61-key keyboard for several years. I only found out because she kept mentioning that the pieces I was assigning went off her keyboard. The parents finally replaced it with an adequate old spinet. The result was the child earning second prize in a regional festival and narrowly missing a slot in the state finals.
Brands to Consider
My preferred brand is Yamaha, due to their reputation in providing quality digital keyboards since the invention of the Clavinova in 1983. That flagship model led the way to electronic keyboards over acoustic pianos. It paralleled the success of digital watches that nearly put the Swiss watch industry out of business.
One reason that I would challenge that brand matters comes to servicing. You may need to replace some keys, which you can do by yourself, or have another problem that needs a technician. You want a brand that offers expertise when that day comes. For that reason, I’d stay with Yamaha and Kawai, though you will not find Kawai as readily in stores.
Casio is another brand to consider, particularly at entry level. Roland and Korg also make fine keyboards. However, they specialize in keyboards for professionals and are priced a bit higher than comparable models from other brands. However, if you’re buying used, consider any of these five Japanese brands as a possibility.
Yamaha and Kawai Models to Consider
I recommend the Portable P-125a as my choice for a beginning pianist. It recently replaced the P-125 that you may still find offered. It is the mid-level model of the Portable series, but has important features the base model lacks. It has a rich sound for its price, which is about $800 plus tax. For this price, you get a bench, and most importantly, the three-pedal unit that connects into the non-folding keyboard stand. Avoid the P-121 that has only 73 keys. The Kawai ES110 is a good alternative to this model.
If you have more than $1000 to spend, consider looking at the base model Arius YDP-144 or the next level Arius YDP-164. If you have more than $2000, then look at the base model Clavinova CLP-725, or the Kawai CA49. As you step up from Portable to Arius to Clavinova, or the Kawai equivalents, you get clear improvements, even in the base model.
My general recommendation, with the exception of the P series, is to choose the base model in each line. That’s where you get the standard features for that line without adding significant cost. Make your decision based upon the action and the sound quality. In other words, does it feel like and sound like a real piano?
Remember Why You Are Choosing An Electronic Instrument
More expensive models in each series offer a variety of enhancements that seem great. However, they often come at a significant increase in price. As you read the slick marketing material on higher-end electronic instruments, understand how much extra these features cost.
Many of these higher-end instruments cost more than a fine studio-sized upright, if you have the patience to find one used that’s in excellent condition!
Bargain Model – Buy Only if You Must
If none of these models fit your budget, and you want to go for the cheapest one that minimally fits my definition of having 88 weighted keys, consider the Yamaha P-45. It’s the base model in the P series; I reluctantly recommend it.
This model will cost about $550 plus tax once you add the necessary accessories: bench, full-sized damper pedal, and the non-folding keyboard stand. The last part is important: Make sure to get the rack-like permanent stand instead of the folding travel stand that looks like the letter X when set up. The travel stand is good for gigs but nothing else.
You cannot install the three-pedal unit into the keyboard stand since its electronics are incompatible with the P-45. That is the main reason I recommend the P-125 instead.
Buy In-Person versus On-Line
I would strongly recommend buying an electronic keyboard in person. If there’s any item you need to try out in person, a musical instrument is it! Plus, if there is anything wrong with it, you want to be able to return it easily. If you must buy online, be careful about Internet prices.
Prices are pretty similar across sites, so any lowball price will likely be a keyboard without a stand, pedal, or bench. What the industry calls accessories are anything but when you go to use it.
Buying Used vs New
Be very careful about purchasing a used electronic instrument. However, if you can find a used instrument at a substantial discount, investigate. For instance, it’s often possible to purchase a used Yamaha Clavinova for around what you might pay for a brand-new P series piano.
Use the same type of questions you would use when buying a used car to determine whether the keyboard was well maintained. Make sure that you’re getting the type of discount from new that makes you feel comfortable with the risk of buying used electronics.
What About Hybrids?
They are beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll spend a moment on them since it’s likely you’ll come across the term. Hybrid pianos as a category are fairly new. They are the luxury market in electronic pianos. Don’t even consider these unless you have at least $10,000 to spend.
They have a similar action to fine acoustic pianos. However, the strings, pin block, plate and soundboard are replaced with a sophisticated sound replication system. Kawai has a great reputation for these instruments, with models NV5S and NV10S being just two examples of what is out there.
I’m Not A Hybrid Fan
It’s quite simple. You are spending grand piano money, but you’re not getting a grand piano. If you’re looking for the best of both worlds, why not buy a Yamaha Clavinova or a Kawai CA49 as your practice instrument. Then, spend the rest of your budget on the best used grand you can find for your living room.
If you’d like a second opinion, read this very informative blog post from Tim Topham, one of Australia’s most influential piano teachers.
If you want to see what some of these digital instruments look like, I highly recommend watching Nicola Cantan’s YouTube video. Like me, she’s not selling anything. She just wants to help guide her students and mentorship community.
New or Used
Buying a piano new from a dealer is just one of many options. Only buy new if you must, and only if you plan to keep your piano for a lifetime. If you just want a piano for your kids during the five or ten years during which they take lessons, consider a used instrument. Most piano models have been built for decades. A lightly-used five- or ten-year-old model, compared to its new counterpart, will be priced significantly lower.
Be Careful Buying New
You can always go to a piano store and buy the best new instrument your can afford. You feel a rush of excitement, similar to what people report when buying a dream car. However, if you made a mistake or change your mind, you will feel the rush…of money leaving your pocket. A lot of it! The resale market for almost-new pianos is terrible. It has been for decades.
Most people who can afford a new instrument will not want to buy your slightly used one, even if you provide a substantial discount. Many of the people who would understand the value your instrument provides won’t be able to afford it. You’re stuck in that gap.
That said, if you value a piano enough to keep it for decades, don’t pay attention to this advice. Enjoy the instrument for as long as you can, then gift it to your children or grandchildren to give it additional life.
Target Your Best Piano by Budget and Size
It’s harder to make a switch later on since you will need to sell your current instrument, possibly at a loss, in addition to finding a replacement. It’s important to establish a budget and become familiar with what pianos are realistic in that budget. This article from Craftsman Piano provides excellent general guidance. It’s sometimes possible to find pianos for less than mentioned in this article, especially if the seller is truly motivated to sell. However, thanks to the Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and other online sites, it’s easier for a good bargain to be snapped up by a motivated buyer, sometimes from far away.
Understanding the different sizes of pianos will help you to determine what kind of instrument will best fit in your house. This is more the case for grand pianos than uprights, since even the tallest modern upright will fit in the same footprint as any electronic instrument. However, I would rather have a fine upright in my house over a poorly-made grand, any day!
A General Warning About Quality
I am not a fan of the proliferation of pianos of poor or mediocre quality that have recently flooded the market. I’ve seen this more in grands, but it happens in uprights, too. They have glossy surfaces and look amazing in the living room. However, from the very first hammer strike, you can hear the sound of remorse. These makers often hide behind famous or famous-sounding nameplates; please see my discussion on this below.
Even fine piano makers will produce models with less expensive parts to sell instruments at different price points. Steinway uses the nameplates of Boston and Essex to market pianos at lower price points modeled after instruments from Kawai and Young Chang, respectively. Yamaha differentiates its models using a model letter, which you’ll only find if you look inside the instrument. If you’re interested in a particular brand, make sure to find out how the models within the brand compare.
Don’t automatically rule out a budget line instrument; just understand what you’re getting. I bought an entry-level Yamaha GH1 baby grand as a teenager that I knew was not made to the standard of the premium Conservatory models. It was good enough for me as a home practice instrument and sold well years later when I no longer needed it.
Grand: Great If You Have the Space and Budget
You’ll notice that grand pianos are not the focus of my article, largely because I rarely have a piano parent looking for one! For most people, it’s because they don’t have the room for one, but I suspect it’s also a cost issue. Grands are more expensive in every way, including the surprise repair bills that come with a used piano bought without a piano technician’s thorough inspection!
The article from Craftsman Piano above is particularly important for grands because prices for more expensive items, in general, tend to be more thoroughly researched by the seller. You may get lucky and find a piano that’s priced to move because the owner needs to liquidate it quickly. Chances are, however, you’ll find an owner that has a price in mind, reasonable or not, and won’t be providing you a bargain. Do market research; it’s possible given the Internet. Listen to your technician’s feedback every step of the way.
Upright: The Taller the Better
Each piano key is connected to a complex mechanism that results in the hammer placement about a foot higher than the key. In taller uprights, this is possible without manipulation since the cabinet has the room to accommodate this. Each key on the piano is attached to a vertical mechanism that at its top has a hammer. This hammer hits the strings, and a damper on the opposite side silences the sound. This superior mechanism is called a direct blow action, though the quality of the action varies based upon the brand, and sometimes within the brand by height. Typically, taller is better.
Most console, studio, and full-sized uprights have this type of action. The pianos discussed here are typically between 42 and 52 inches (107 to 132 cm), but older models can even be taller. If your budget is at least $1000, you should look for this type of upright, and eliminate spinets from your search.
Upright: The Spinet Dilemma
Ah, the spinet! Savvy pianists avoid this model because its action is inferior to that of taller uprights. There is not enough vertical room in a 36-inch (91-cm) cabinet for the mechanism described above. Instead, there is a rod or wire that drops the bottom of the action well below the level of the key. This is called a drop action. In this type of action, the pianist only has indirect control over the hammer, which becomes more important as a pianist passes into intermediate and advanced repertoire.
Besides having a compromised drop action, spinets are also generally built with cheaper parts than taller uprights. Here’s where the dilemma arrives: If your budget is less than $1000, this may be the only type of instrument you can afford. In that case, try to find a spinet made decades ago by a reputable maker, in good working order, and costing next to nothing! In the U.S., most of the reputable American makers have long since gone bankrupt. As a result, you will likely be buying a piano that is at least several decades old.
Upright: Do You Want A Spinet or Not?
This is the most difficult and important decision you must make if you are looking at acoustic pianos with a small budget. You must decide whether you are looking for a spinet, or not. If you are okay with one, you are in luck, since many of the uprights built since the 1930s are this model. If you are avoiding a spinet, you will have to sort through many pianos that will not meet your criteria. Don’t rely on a private seller to identify this for you. You’re going to have to become savvy in sorting through instruments.
How can you tell quickly if a piano is a spinet? The pictures above should give you a pretty good clue. If not sure, another dependable guide is looking at the music rack. This is the mechanism that supports the back of the music, mounted in the center typically just above the keys. If at least half of the rack extends above the top of the instrument, that piano is likely a spinet. There are some older consoles where the rack is sometimes mounted higher than normal, so this quick glance method is not foolproof.
Nameplate w/o Context Means Nothing
Baldwin. Kohler & Campbell. Chickering. Hamilton. These are just four iconic brands that were once made in the United States but have more recently been manufactured in Indonesia and China. Even the finest Japanese piano manufacturers have shifted their production on many budget models offshore to save on production costs.
As an example, the Yamaha U series, which has long been considered the gold standard of Japanese studio uprights, has recently been made outside of Japan. The Yamaha T series, which uses less expensive materials than the U series, has also had its production shifted to different factories. Currently, it is reported to be made in China. Beware.
My point is not to bash the manufacturing standards of any brand in any country. It’s simply to point out that you cannot rely on a brand name alone to guarantee quality. A piano is only as good as the factory’s standards and the quality of materials used to build the instrument. Fortunately, you can often find out when and where your piano was made by looking up the serial number. A piano technician can give you an educated opinion on any instrument you are strongly considering.
A decades-old piano may need costly repairs that put it past the point of fixing. A piano technician will help you assess whether an instrument you are considering is worth the cost. Older instruments can have any number of issues, like a loose pin block, a damaged soundboard, worn bushings, rusty strings, and the like. However, don’t let minor issues prevent you from buying an older upright. In some cases, a very old upright could be a better value than a poorly-made newer instrument.
Hire a Piano Technician
If you’ve gotten this far, you understand why this is a step you should not skip. Almost anyone can determine if a piano is operable and in decent shape by playing all of the keys and looking inside. However, a technician can give you far more insight into what upcoming maintenance a piano needs, including how well it will hold tuning. Let them assist in your research to determine whether the asking price is reasonable based on comparable sales in your area.
Piano Store vs Private Sale
It really depends on you. There are two types of piano stores. If you’re looking to buy used, you’ll benefit from finding a specialized second-hand piano store. It will have instruments of many makes and models – we have one here in Rogers, Arkansas. However, they will be more expensive than what you could find in private sale, looking through a listing service like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.
The second kind of store will be a dealer who specializes in one or more brands. This type of dealer will often carry some used instruments. However, be careful buying from a branded dealer because they will charge more due to higher overhead. The dealer will have limited space for used instruments, so you’ll likely find only newer or higher-end ones with the best profit potential.
Relocation and Maintenance
You will need to tune a piano once or perhaps twice once it settles in your home. You may need to spend on routine maintenance if the previous owner played the piano a lot. That could include spending at least several hundred dollars to get the instrument regulated and voiced once it settles in your home. This is normal and shouldn’t affect your negotiations with the seller. You will already be receiving a generous discount off the price of a new instrument based on your research of comparable piano sales.
However, if you are getting an old spinet as a starter instrument, you may decide wisely to make only critical repairs. That could include notes that don’t play or a broken damper pedal. You may decide to put up with a few doinks – worn-out hammers hitting the strings – versus spending a lot on an instrument that has little resale value.
Has this guide been helpful or useful for you? Please let me know. If you’d like to Buy Me a Coffee, I won’t complain. You can share this article via the blue icon at the bottom of this article. Please contact me to report any typos, model number changes, or if you have suggestions to improve this article.