Choosing the Right Piano

Welcome to the Complexity of Buying a Piano

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 the count of parts in an electronic instrument, but it’s enough that you should want it to be built well. A piano may be one of the most difficult purchases you make in your life!

Sure, you could go to a piano store and buy the best new instrument money can buy. That might work great. However, if you made a mistake or change your mind, understand that you will lose money. A lot of it! Your piano hasn’t changed, but the market has. Not many people who can afford a new instrument will want to buy your slightly used one, at least not without a substantial discount. Others who would dream to have your instrument can’t afford it.

If you value a piano enough to keep it for many years, with the intention to maybe gift it to your children or grandchildren, you might not care about any of that. You bought a piano to enjoy for life. However, if you are looking to buy a piano just for the five or ten years during which your family will play it, you’ll most likely want to think more carefully about your decision. Should you buy an acoustic instrument, or go for an electronic one? New or used? All of this is going to require doing a bit of homework. Are you ready to get started?

Electronic vs Acoustic

Having an open mind at first helps to make sure that you don’t eliminate your best solution. I recommend learning 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, but they can also be super useful in allowing practice past the bedtime of your youngest kids. 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 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. The 1918 Steinway O on which I teach at a local church shows signs of old age, but it’s still going strong!

Electronic Keyboard

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, which are part of many 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. When the parents finally replaced it with an adequate old spinet, the child earned second prize in a regional festival and narrowly missed competing in the state finals.

Brands to Consider

My preferred brand is Yamaha, due to their long reputation in providing quality keyboards, acoustic and electronic, at multiple price points. One of my reasons to support the industry leader is practical; you may eventually need to replace some keys or get your instrument serviced by a technician. I’ve always hesitated to recommend other brands because I don’t know about their longevity or repair record. The Roland brand is great but their models are in general a bit pricier than Yamaha. 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 Yamaha Models to Consider, Plus a Kawai

I recommend the Portable P-125 as my choice for a beginning pianist. 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. 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-625.  As you step up from Portable to Arius to Clavinova, you get clear improvements, even in the base model.

My general recommendation, with the exception noted below for the P-45, 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. Make your decision based upon the action and the sound quality. In other words, does it feel like and sound like a real piano?

Don’t Get Too Excited About Choosing An Electronic Instrument

More expensive models in each series offer a variety of enhancements that sound great, but they often come at a significant increase in price. I always chuckle when reading the slick marketing material on the higher-end Clavinova, filled with platitudes about how real these electronic instruments become as you spend more money. Many of these higher-end Clavinovas cost more than a used Yamaha or Kawai studio-sized upright!

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 to the stage with lots of electrical tape. For everyday home practice, it’s annoying since the pedal never stays in place, unless you want to have the ugly sight of electrical tape stuck to your floor. 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 sitting on top of your kitchen table, with none of the necessary 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. 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.

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 her mentorship community.

Acoustic Piano

New or Used

You’ve already been warned about what can happen if you buy a piano new from a dealer. Only buy new if you must, and 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. Even a lightly used five- or ten-year-old instrument will be priced a lot lower than a new one.

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 look shiny 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 nameplates below.

Even fine piano makers will often produce models with less expensive parts, sometimes in separate factories, in order to sell instruments at different price points. Steinway uses the nameplates of Boston and Essex to pianos at lower price points modeled after instruments from Kawai and Young Chang, respectively. With Yamaha, however, you’ll just get a different 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 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! 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.

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.

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. 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, especially one that was built by a classic but defunct piano builder, 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 her 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. 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

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. This won’t break the bank, but you should build a few hundred dollars extra into your budget just in case. 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.

Helpful? Useful?

Has this guide been helpful or useful for you? If you’d like to share this info, you can do so via the blue plus sign icon at the end of this article. If so, please feel free to let me know. I’m open to making this article more useful, plus I like to keep up to date with Yamaha’s frequent change of model numbers. They almost always replace a discontinued model with a strikingly similar one at the same price point. Best wishes to you in choosing the right piano for you!

Last Updated 2021-11-20 | Originally Posted 2018-09-12

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