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 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.
If you’d like some more specific information about what kind of piano you can buy in a certain price range, please take a look at this article by a piano restoration firm. There is no guarantee that you will find all of these instruments in a small market like NW Arkansas. Indeed, you may have to extend your search to some larger cities like Tulsa, Springfield, or Kansas City.