an acoustic piano, a digital piano or a keyboard?

Choosing what piano to buy can seem like a daunting project. And if you are considering the purchase of a brand new acoustic piano, it’s also a major financial investment. So it’s no wonder people want some guidance.

The first questions to ask yourself concern your living arrangements and purpose for the piano.
1) Do you have room for a full size acoustic piano?
An acoustic piano is the kind that is “unplugged”; it needs no electricity to play. It is very heavy to move (heavier than a refrigerator).
Upright acoustic pianos come in a variety of heights, from 40″ to 60″ tall, but all of them are 58″ wide and 25″ deep. Acoustic grand pianos are the same 58″ wide at the keyboard end and they can be anywhere from 3.5 feet to 9 feet deep. The larger the piano, the greater the depth and resonance of the tone – and the more you pay for it.

2) Do you have means to get an acoustic piano into your place?
Do you have some very strong friends? With very sturdy trucking ability? Or are you willing to pay piano movers (starting at $300 for one move)?
Is there room to maneuver a piano up the stairs and through the doors and hallways?

3) If your living arrangements cannot handle an acoustic piano, then see below for help selecting a digital piano. 

4) If you do have room for an acoustic piano, do you like the “real sound” of an actual acoustic piano? Any digital instrument has a sound that is produced by a recording of a piano and comes through speakers. Most people can tell within seconds whether the tone quality they hear is from a “real” (acoustic) piano or a digital re-creation. How important is that difference to you? Do you want a piano sound that reverberates throughout the instrument? Or is a recording of such reverberations fine with you?

5) Do you care what your piano looks like in your decor? Do you want a real acoustic piano to look as good as it plays? Have you always wanted a grand piano (even a small one) because they look so cool? Do you have one end of a large room just crying out for a full-size, furniture quality piano?

6) An acoustic piano needs to be tuned twice a year, fall and spring. A tuning costs $100 on average. Is this level of maintenance agreeable to you?

Let’s say you have decided that a real acoustic piano is what you want. You have several possibilities to obtain an acoustic piano.
1) Buy new from a piano dealer
Minimum purchase $2000 – for a console piano about 3.5 feet tall. Anything bigger goes up in price.
If you take even minimal care of a piano, it will last 50-100 years. So it can well be worth the initial investment, as well as the maintenance (tuning) costs.
Feel free to contact Andria with questions about specific brands and dealers.

2) Buy used or refurbished from a dealer. A decent used piano needs to have a good solid sound board, “hold a tuning” (stay in tune for 6 months) and have consistent action (movement) of all the keys. These can be difficult to ascertain unless you are well acquainted with pianos yourself. So you want a warranty or guarantee from the dealer for 6-12 months. If the dealer won’t give you that, you have good reason to suspect that piano spent way too long in someone’s garage before it made it to the showroom.

3) Find a used piano yourself. It surprises most people to find out that there are many, many used pianos out in the world just looking for a good home.
      First, simply start telling everyone you know that you’re looking for a piano. In a relatively short time, someone will offer you an acoustic piano. Sometimes for a price, but often for free if you will just agree to MOVE the thing. Remember, piano movers charge at least $300, so use that as a bargaining chip.
ASK ABOUT THE PIANO’S HISTORY – if it’s been in one home for its entire life, great. If it’s been tuned regularly, great. If the current owner has that lovingly attached tone of voice when speaking about the piano, that’s a great clue. But if the piano has been moved a lot, ignored for years, or left abandoned in an unheated garage – you need a piano tuner to check it out before you go to the trouble of moving it. NOTE – a piano NEVER recovers from being under water.
      Second, check on Craig’s List. Again, many people simply want to find a good home for their beloved piano that will not fit in their next apartment. Remember, as you work out that price, keep that moving cost in mind.
      Third, pay a piano tuner to check out the piano for you. Yes, this will cost you $50-100 but it can keep you from paying to move a piano that has a cracked sounding board that will never stay in tune. If you have a pianist friend, they may be able to play the piano for you and tell you if it’s good enough. But only a piano tuner/technician can tell you about hidden problems.

Reasons for choosing a digital piano.
1) Small amount of room. Digital pianos are 58″ wide, just like an acoustic piano, but they can be as shallow as 15″ deep and 36 ” tall.

2) Lighter weight. Only 100-150 pounds, easily moved by two adults.

3) No tuning. For the price of tuning for 4 years, you can purchase an entire good quality digital piano. Digital pianos can break, just like all equipment, so they are not maintenance-free, but there is no twice-a-year tuning maintenance.

4) “Bells and whistles”. Digital pianos have an incredible number of additional features. You can record yourself and make CD’s of yourself – or send your recording over the Internet to a friend. You can hook it up to a computer and print your own music. You can play along with background accompaniments (like karaoke for piano). Besides a piano sound, you can produce the sound of a guitar, violin, organ, saxophone and a thousand more. And that’s only a small sample of all a digital piano can do.

5) Buy a new instrument. Because digital pianos are electronic equipment, they will not last as long as an acoustic piano. You can count on a good ten years. However, after ten years, there are going to be components that need replacing. For that reason, buying a used digital doesn’t make good economic sense. You’d only want a used digital if it were being sold for a very low price.

6) An electronic keyboard is NOT a digital piano. Don’t expect to take piano lessons on a keyboard. For details on this, see my article  –  The Difference Between a Digital Piano and an Electronic Keyboard.

7) Recommendations for digital pianos.
Digital pianos are always being improved. Please email Andria and ask for current recommendations at Andria@EnjoyPianoNow.com.
A source of thorough, experienced information that I trust is: AZPianoNews – Digital Piano Reviews. Follow the link to Tim Praskin’s review of the current models.

Reasons for Choosing an Electronic Keyboard
1) Inexpensive. A small electronic keyboard can cost as little as $25. They can also be much more elaborate and cost over $1000. Everything in between is available as well.

2) You want to learn to play the organ. An electronic keyboard has the same “touch” and feel as an organ. There is no difference in the sound whether you press hard or soft on a keyboard.

3) Very small, very light. The smallest keyboards are very easy to carry and to travel with.

4) Do NOT expect to take piano lessons on a keyboard.  Much of expressive piano playing comes from being able to play soft, loud and medium on a piano. A keyboard cannot do this.

WARNING: In my experience, a keyboard is frustrating for a student to play on. Within six months of playing on a keyboard, a student will want to quit.

Every student wants a piano sound – loud percussive sounds for rock music, soft flowing sound for ballads. A keyboard just doesn’t do these things, then the student is blamed for “not practicing enough.” It’s not the student’s fault; it’s that a keyboard makes for an unsatisfying playing experience.

The student is actually showing good musical sense – a keyboard is NOT all that musical. They were designed for inputting musical components (notes) into a computer, not for expressive playing. Requiring a student to “prove you’re interested in piano lessons” by playing on a keyboard is setting the student up for failure.

5) “Bells and whistles”.  Many of the same features available on a digital piano are also available on a keyboard, such as different voices (organ, guitar, trumpet, harp and many more) and styles (drum beat backgrounds with which to play along).

6) Buy a new instrument. As with all electronics, various parts of a keyboard tend to break over the years. If you are offered one for free, sure, take it. But don’t pay much for a used keyboard; repair personnel charge by the hour.

Now that you know the differences, purchase what fits your family’s lifestyle and start your enjoyment of playing the piano. Your investment now results in life-long satisfaction.