Choosing the Right Piano

Electronic versus Acoustic

Choosing the right piano is not easy. You need to do some research in order to have a good chance of getting the piano that is best for you. Learn about both electronic and acoustic keyboards, even if you think you know what you will choose. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Most people see electronic keyboards as a chance to save money. There isn’t a known maintenance cost once you purchase it, unlike an acoustic instrument, which will need to be tuned twice per year.

However, wear and tear could require maintenance even on an electronic instrument, and spills could end up being more serious on an electronic instrument due to the electronics involved. An electronic instrument could last 10 to 20 years, at which point you could say that it did its job. However, acoustic pianos can easily last 100 years.

Electronic Keyboard

Weighted Keys Are Mandatory

If you’re looking to purchase an electronic keyboard, please only look at models having 88 keys. But what about the 61-key special that is being offered as a beginner’s keyboard by my local warehouse club? No, don’t buy it! Why? Only models having 88 keys come with weighted action. Plus, it’s important that you practice on an instrument that has the same physical layout as the acoustic instruments you will play in lessons, recitals, and festivals.

Brands to Consider

My preferred brand is Yamaha, due to their long reputation in providing quality keyboards, acoustic and electronic, at multiple price points. If you ever need to replace some keys or get your instrument serviced by a technician, going with the industry leader is a smart move. I’ve always hesitated to recommend other brands, because I didn’t know about their longevity or repair record. I’ve read enough to know that Roland is another good choice, even though I don’t have first-hand experience. My aim is not to provide a comprehensive view of the entire keyboard market but to guide you to a model that will serve you well.

Three Models to Consider

I recommend the Yamaha P-125 as my choice for a beginning pianist. It is the mid-level model of the P 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. If you have more than $1000 to spend, consider looking at the base model Arius YDP-143 or the next level Arius YDP-163.  If you have more than $2000, then look at the base model Clavinova CLP-625.  As you step up from the P series to Arius to Clavinova, you get clear improvements, even in the base model.

My general recommendation, with the exception of the P series, is to shop at the base model in each line. That’s where you get the most important improvements from the line below without adding significant cost. The action or touch is the most important feature, followed closely by the sampling, or how it sounds.  All of this improves as you step up from P to Arius to Clavinova. More expensive models in each series offer a variety of enhancements like better sound sampling, better materials like wood keys, better cabinetry, and sometimes subtle improvements to the action. These features aren’t worth it to me, since the pricing rises to the point that you could afford a good used acoustic piano.

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.

The major disappointment about the P-45 is that it only supports the single sustain pedal. For gigs, it’s tolerable, especially if you anchor it with lots of electrical tape. For everyday home practice, it’s annoying since the pedal never stays in place, unless you use electrical tape.  You cannot install the three-pedal unit into the keyboard stand since it’s 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 competitive across sites, so any lowball price will likely be a keyboard on the floor, without the mandatory accessories.

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. Buyer beware – use the same type of questions you would use when buying a used car to determine whether the keyboard was well maintained.

Second Opinion?

If you’d like a second opinion, read this very informative blog post from Tim Topham, one of Australia’s most influential piano teachers.

Acoustic Piano

Buying what we used to simply call a piano is a lot more complicated since you are buying a mechanical instrument with up to 12,000 parts. Here are some general guidelines.

Buy Used

Only buy new if you must, and if you plan to keep your piano for a lifetime. Else, you risk losing a significant percentage of what you paid, even on the best instrument.

Target Your Best Piano

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 provides excellent general guidance. Also, you should understand the different sizes of pianos, so that you can quickly determine which size will be right for you. Even though a grand piano will have an action based on gravity, an excellent upright will be a better choice than a poor grand!

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 in very old 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! 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.

By this point, you should decide whether you are looking for a spinet, or not. If you are, you are in luck – 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 every private seller to identify the model 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 cheaper models offshore to save on production cost.

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. What’s more important is the quality of materials, the factory, and when the piano was made.

Age Matters

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. There can be any number of issues, like a loose pin block, a damaged soundboard, worn bushings, rusty strings, and the like. However, a very old upright, especially one that was built by one of many reputable but now defunct piano builders, 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. He can also let you know whether the price being asked is reasonable compared to other instruments in similar condition.

Piano Store vs Private Sale

It really depends on you. It’s certainly easier to buy from a dealer, but also more expensive. Many suitable pianos will only be available by private sale, either because the seller wants to get more for the instrument, or because the dealer has limited space and wisely prefers to sell more expensive instruments.

Relocation and Maintenance

Even a perfect piano will need to be moved and tuned, perhaps twice, once it settles into the climate of its new home. Plus, if you are buying an instrument that has been played a lot by its previous owner, the hammers will likely need to be filed and the action regulated. This is normal, and shouldn’t affect your negotiations with the seller since the age of the instrument will be factored into the discount you receive off buying a comparable new instrument. However, if you are buying an old spinet as a starter instrument, you may decide wisely to just make critical repairs.

And Now, My Ask of You…

Has this guide been helpful for you? If so, please feel free to fill in my contact form. I’m also glad to update model numbers; one of the Yamaha keyboards I used to recommend has been discontinued and replaced with a new model number. You might have a better way I could describe something – please let me know. Best wishes to you in choosing the right piano for you!

Last Updated 2020-03-20 | Originally Posted 2018-09-12