Weighted Keys Are Mandatory
If you’re looking to purchase an electronic keyboard, please look only at models having 88 keys. The single most important feature in a keyboard is to get one with weighted keys. The quality of weighting gets better the more you spend, just as a fine grand has a more responsive action than the cheapest upright. However, you will find NO weighting on the 61-key special, including ones that are marketed as beginner keyboards by Yamaha, my preferred brand. I’m partial to their keyboards because they have a long-standing reputation and a wide range of models at multiple price points. Feel free to research and try other brands as well, especially if you are buying used and don’t have the luxury of finding the exact model you would buy new.
Models to Consider
The Yamaha P-45, the base model in the P series, will cost about $550 plus tax once you add the mandatory accessories: bench, full-sized damper pedal, and the non-folding keyboard stand. Don’t buy the folding travel stand that looks like the letter X. The major disappointment about the P-45 is that it only supports the single sustain pedal. For gigs, it’s tolerable. For everyday practice, it’s annoying since the pedal tends to travel around the floor, never staying in place.
For just an extra $250 or so you can buy the next higher model, which I would highly recommend. The Yamaha P-115 has a slightly richer sound than the P-45, but the best selling point is that it supports the three-pedal unit that connects into the non-folding keyboard stand. If you have more than $1000 to spend, you can look at the high-end Yamaha P-255, or even the more expensive Arius and Clavinova series.
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 low-ball Internet prices. Prices are pretty competitive across sites, so any lowball price will either be a keyboard on the floor, without accessories, or worse.
If you’d like a second opinion, read this very informative blog post from Tim Topham, one of Australia’s most influential piano teachers.
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 unless you have a compelling need or reason to buy new. A piano loses more value percentage-wise once in your home than the new car driven off of the dealer’s lot.
Buy as much piano as you can. It’s costly to make a switch later on. At all costs avoid the smallest-sized upright, sometimes called a spinet, due to its inferior drop action. Most taller uprights use a direct blow action, where the key directly controls the action. This, in turn, makes it possible to have more dynamic control. A grand piano improves on the upright by using gravity to reset the action after the key is released.
Of course, larger pianos, whether upright or grand, make more noise, require more room, and are more expensive. To make things more complicated, consider the brand, age, and condition of the instrument. Although pianos that are decades old can be good bargains, those with cracked soundboards and other damage caused by unfavorable temperatures and humidity are to be avoided. That aside, I’d rather have a well-made direct blow action upright to a poorly-made grand if those were the only two choices available in my price range.
Pay a piano technician to visit the piano you wish to buy to make sure you have chosen wisely. After reading the above paragraphs, which were simplified as much as possible, you understand why this is critical! You can somewhat easily determine if the 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 has in store, 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.