Electronic versus Acoustic
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.
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 a 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. There are other good brands that you might consider. Roland is popular among my colleagues in private Facebook groups. 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.
Models to Consider
I recommend the Yamaha P-115 as my entry level of choice for a beginning pianist. 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 entry level Arius YDP-143 or the next level Arius YDP-163. If you have more than $2000, then look at the entry level Clavinova CLP-625. As you step up from the P series to Arius to Clavinova, you get clear improvements, even in the base model.
For me, the action or touch is the most important feature, followed closely by the sampling, or how it sounds. There are other features that add cost that don’t matter much to me, but might be important to you. Remember, you get most of the important features of each line in the base model. 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. Consider whether these touted benefits are worth the extra price and not just something that seems important from the advertising copy.
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. I don’t recommend it above due to its one major drawback described below. This model 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; it’s designed only for gigs. 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 practice, it’s annoying since the pedal never stays in place. You cannot upgrade to the three-pedal unit since it does not work with the P-45.
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.
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. 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 the type of piano that’s best for you. 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!
The action is of primary importance. 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 since the cabinet has the room to accommodate this. This preferred action is called direct blow, though the quality of the action varies based upon the brand, and sometimes within the brand by height. Typically, taller is better.
Why a spinet may or may not be a good choice for you. The action of the spinet will be inferior to that of taller uprights, based upon the use of the drop action, necessitated by the shorter height of the cabinet. In order to accommodate the height of the mechanism, there is a rod or wire that drops the bottom of the action well below the level of the key. This, in turn, means that the pianist has a less refined control of the key. If your budget is just in the hundreds of dollars, this may be the only type of instrument you can afford. However, if you are buying this as an instrument for a beginning student, it could be an excellent choice.
Age matters, but not always as you might think! 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 American piano builders, could be a better value than a poorly-made newer instrument from Indonesia or China.
A nameplate without context means nothing. Baldwin used to be a fine American-made piano that was a close competitor to Steinway. Today, Baldwin pianos are made in China by a company that bought the naming rights out of bankruptcy. Even the finest Japanese and Korean companies have shifted their production on cheaper models offshore to save on production cost.
Hire a piano technician to make sure you have chosen wisely. After reading the above paragraphs, you understand why this is critical! 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.
Buying from a store versus 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.
Your budget should consider relocation and maintenance expenses. 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 really shouldn’t affect your negotiations with the seller, since the age of the instrument will provide a sizable discount off the price of a new instrument. However, if you are buying an old spinet as a starter instrument, you may decide only to make critical spot repairs.