Pianos Are Complex
How 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 don’t know how many parts are in the typical electronic instrument, but there’s a lot that could go wrong there, too.
Therefore, make sure that you buy an instrument that’s well-built 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 shopping. However, make this decision after carefully evaluating what each type of instrument has to offer. You are making a purchase for years, not months. 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 once or 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 and needs to be replaced.
Acoustic pianos can easily last 100 years or more, particularly when they are rebuilt. The 1918 Steinway Model O on which I teach at a local church has been rebuilt, and it still works well as a teaching and rehearsal instrument.
Weighted Keys Are Mandatory
If you’re looking to purchase an electronic keyboard, please look only at models having 88 keys. Not 61, not 73, 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 not? Only models having 88 keys always have some form of weighted action. Marketers love to throw around fancy terms like graded hammer action, but this is just the same thing. The weighted action is just passable in the cheapest, entry-level models, but it gets a lot better as you move up into the premium product lines.
61 Keys vs 88 Keys
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 overtaking acoustic pianos, much like the success of digital watches that nearly put the Swiss watch industry out of business.
It’s all about quality and servicing. You may need to replace some keys, which you can do by yourself, or have another problem that needs a technician. I strongly suggest relying on a brand that stands behind their products with support and spare parts. The widest sold brands are also the ones that technicians will know best. I’d suggest Yamaha or Kawai.
Casio is another brand to consider, particularly at entry level, though I’m unsure their quality matches the big two. Roland and Korg are smaller brands that make fine keyboards. Roland specializes in keyboards for professionals, and are priced a bit higher than comparable models from the other brands. If you’re buying used, you may need to expand your search to consider all five of these Japanese brands.
Yamaha and Kawai Models to Consider
My general recommendation is to choose the base model in each line, except in the Yamaha Portable (P) series, as I explain a bit later. That’s where you get the standard features for that line without adding significant cost for features that you may not need. Make your decision based upon the action and the sound quality. In other words, does it feel like and sound like a real piano?
At this level, up to $1000, I recommend the Yamaha P-125a as my choice for a beginning pianist. It recently replaced the Yamaha P-125 that you may still find offered. It has more features and a much richer sound than the Yamaha P-45 base model of the P series. It’s a great value.
Make sure to get a bench, the three-pedal unit, and the furniture stand to fit the keyboard and three-pedal unit. The Kawai ES120 is a good alternative to this Yamaha model.
Most people bypass this level, but it’s worth noting a couple of models in the $1000 and $2000 range. Consider the base model Yamaha Arius YDP-144and the one above that, the Yamaha Arius YDP-164. The Kawai KDP Series competes in this price range.
If you have more than $2000, you should begin by looking at the base model Yamaha Clavinova CLP-725 or the Kawai CA49. In the Yamaha series, as you step up from Portable to Arius to Clavinova, you get clear improvements, even in the base model.
Remember Why You Are Choosing An Electronic Instrument
Bargain Model – Buy Only if You Must
If none of these models above fit your budget, look at this one. It is the cheapest one that minimally fits the definition of a suitable practice instrument, because it has 88 weighted keys. The Yamaha P-45 is the base model in the P series; I reluctantly recommend it.
Don’t skimp on what I call essentials: the full-sized damper pedal, the furniture stand, and the flat bench, The sad little square pedal and the folding X-style stand are not good alternatives. I’m not a fan of the folding X-style bench sometimes offered, but it might be fine for you.
I also prefer the three-pedal unit that is available with the Yamaha P-125a and higher models. It is not compatible with the Yamaha P-45, so you’ll have to settle for the full-sized damper pedal instead. It slips around on the floor unless you use a lot of duct tape to keep it still. That’s another reason to consider buying the Yamaha P-125a instead.
Buying 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 bench, pedal, or keyboard stand. What the industry calls accessories are anything but when you go to use it. When you buy in person, you can verify you are getting those essential items.
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
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
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 though it’s quite old.
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.
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.
Pianos Are NOT Expensive
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 pianos 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 for certain markets. 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.
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
There are two types of piano stores. If you’re looking to buy used, your best bet is to find a specialized second-hand piano store. It will have instruments of many makes and models. The second kind of store will be a dealer who specializes in new instruments of one or more brands. This type of dealer will often carry some used instruments, not necessarily matching the brand(s) that the dealer sells new.
You will undoubtedly pay more money from a dealer than you would through by going private sale. As you would expect, the dealer is going to know how to price an instrument based upon comparable sales. Private sellers don’t have easy access to this information, and you will sometimes find bargains due to this.
On the other hand, you will also find some private sellers who will price their piano according to what they paid for it or some personal arbitrary criteria bearing no resemblance to current market value. If a seller is anchored on a particular price, it’s going to be difficult to get them to budge. Don’t waste your time with an inflexible seller.
You will find a greater variety of instruments from private sellers than from dealers. Even if a dealer offers used instruments as a way to make incremental income, he’s more likely to offer only newer and/or higher-end models with the best profit potential. If you value your time more than the hunt for the deal of the century, this might be the option for you.
I view long-term warranties as nearly worthless, because good pianos are resilient if they are kept in a temperature and humidity controlled environment. If a warranty is important to you, please don’t allow it to get in the way of selecting the best instrument. A ten-year warranty on a piano that you shouldn’t have bought is not going to improve the action, tone, or anything else about the instrument.
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. You’ll want to fix notes that don’t play or a broken damper pedal. However, 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.