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piano cartoon

People ask me which piano / keyboard to buy a lot. I usually can’t answer that question, for 2 reasons:

1) I don’t know the person well enough

Which piano / keyboard is right for you depends on a lot of factors:

  • your budget
  • how long you’ve been playing
  • what kind of music you like
  • how much space you have

Unless I’ve heard you play and been to your house it’s hard for me to know what you need!

2) I haven’t tried all available models

Keyboard manufacturers release new models every year, and there’s an almost endless choice when it comes to second-hand pianos.

However, I do have a lot of experience working with many different instruments over the years, including several from every category below, so I’ll offer some timeless principles that should help you choose. The most important thing to bear in mind is:

  • none of us really buy anything, we rent everything

None of us get to keep any of our possessions when we die, so even if we buy something and keep it for the rest of our lives we’re really just renting it while we’re still alive. Hence work out:

  • how much you can buy something for
  • how much you can resell it for (if at all), and
  • how many hours you’re going to spend using it between buying it and selling it.

Then you have:

  • (purchase price – sale price) / no. of hours used = hourly rate

This is relevant for 2 main reasons:

1) Electronic and new instruments lose value faster than acoustic and second hand ones

Try and buy an instrument that’s not going to lose a lot of value over time. For instance, I once bought a high-end camera for close to $1,000, which sounds like an expensive purchase, but because it wasn’t the latest model I was able to sell it for exactly the same price 6 months later, so in practical terms I actually rented it for nothing.

2) How much time you spend playing is very important

Let’s do the math so you can see what I mean:

Imagine you buy a $500 keyboard. Within 2 years you’ll probably want to sell it, because you’ll either have gotten better, in which case you’ll want to get a better instrument, or given up the piano altogether, because you’ve changed jobs / had a baby / moved (all 3 have happened to my one-on-one students, sometimes at the same time). Let’s say you can resell it for half the price. That means:

  • you’re actually only renting it for $250 for 2 years

Now let’s imagine the best-case scenario, that you don’t give up the piano, but instead practise for 1 hour a day, 5 days a week, for 50 weeks a year, for 2 years, which would be pretty good going. That means that you’d use the keyboard for:

  • 1 hour x 5 days x 50 weeks x 2 years = 500 hours

(I’ll just mention in passing that it supposedly takes 10,000 hours to master a complex skill like piano playing. This gives you some idea of how long that is.) If we plug those numbers into the formula, we get:

  • $250 / 500 hours = $0.50 per hour

Suddenly the $500 keyboard doesn’t seem so expensive. How much do you value your time?

With that in mind, let’s look at different types of piano / keyboard, starting with the most expensive and working our way down to the cheapest. I’m not doing that to depress you, by waving something expensive in front of you that you can’t have, but because it makes more historical sense: grand pianos were invented first, for professional musicians, and then developed into upright pianos for domestic use. The advent of electricity allowed the invention of keyboards, and then touch screens allowed the invention of apps. I imagine VR will be the next big thing, but it’s not widespread enough to write about yet (and it’s going to have a similar problem to apps for several years). When considering the merits of the latest incarnation of a keyboard it helps to understand where it came from.

With all of the instruments below, there are really only two factors to consider: sound and touch (cost and size are more dependent on how much money and space you have than on the instrument itself).

I think everyone has a pretty good idea of what I mean by sound: you want an instrument that sounds good. Different people are going to have a different ideas about what constitutes good sound, and the section on grand pianos will give you some idea of what I think constitutes good piano sound, but essentially the more you pay the better something will sound.

Touch is a little less obvious, especially to beginners. Basically, when you learn to play the piano, you’re learning to perform a sets of movements in order to produce sounds. The large, solid, wooden keys on a grand piano are much heavier than the small, hollow, plastic keys on a cheap keyboard, so the movement you need to produce a similar sound on a grand piano and on a cheap keyboard are going to be very different. That means that if you master a piece on a cheap keyboard and then try to play it on a grand piano it’s not going to come out very well – you’ll have learned slightly the wrong set of movements. You might be able to play the notes in the right order, but you’re not going to be able to get them to sound good. (It works the other way round as well – if you’re used to playing pianos only you’re going to find it hard to play keyboards well.) This begs the question, why are you learning to play piano? If you’re learning so you can programme tracks on your computer then a keyboard is fine, because it’s the only instrument you’ll ever play, but if you’re learning so that you can walk into a bar and dazzle people with your piano skills, then a cheap keyboard is not going to be the best preparation.

Grand pianos

grand piano

Grand pianos are to keyboards what grandfather clocks are to digital watches. Yes, they’re large, and noisy, and imperfect, and expensive to maintain, but there’s something amazing about at beholding an instrument that’s handmade and runs on nothing but gravity. When you play a grand piano you’re producing all the sound yourself, without electrical assistance. There’s also something beautiful about the manufacturers striving to produce something perfect from imperfect materials, like wood, which is organic and ages. For example, if you look inside a piano you’ll see that the low keys hit one string each, the middle keys hit two, and the high keys hit three strings. A lot of ingenuity goes into making the transition from one to two to three strings seamless.

Perversely, the more expensive the keyboard you buy, the better it replicates not just a grand piano’s strengths, but also its imperfections. For example, if you press the pedal on a good digital piano, you should be able to hear the imaginary echo of the strings and soundboard. The better you understand how a grand piano works, the better you’ll understand what you’re paying for in a good keyboard.

However, very few people have the money and space for a grand piano, so let’s move onto uprights.

Brands to go for: too many to choose from, but don’t be fooled by, e.g., a cheap Chinese piano with a German name. Ask a) where the parts were made, and b) where they were assembled.

Upright pianos

upright piano

Uprights were invented to reproduce the sound and feel of a grand piano as well as possible without taking up so much space. Because they’re smaller, they’re usually not as loud and the keys are not as heavy, although this varies from instrument to instrument. If you’re even considering an upright piano, the big decision for you is going to be between an upright piano and a digital piano, so let’s discuss that in the next section.

(I’m not going to discuss which model to buy if you do decide to buy an upright – that’s a big topic that would require it’s own post. This article is designed to help you decide which type of keyboard to buy. Once you’ve decided you can do your own research to work out to which model to get. However I’ll say that second-hand pianos in good condition tend to be better value for money than new ones – pianos drop about 20% in price when they go from new to second-hand but barely drop in quality at all if they’re well looked-after.)

Brands to go for: see grand pianos, above.

Digital pianos

digital piano

A digital piano is an electronic keyboard that designed to replicate an acoustic piano as close as possible. That means that they tend to have heavy keys and a good piano sound but are not at all portable. They also tend to have handful of other well-engineered sounds like electric piano, organ, harpsichord, etc., that you can’t modify much. (If you want portability and hundreds of modifiable sounds go for a stage piano, keyboard, or MIDI controller, below.)

Why get a digital piano instead of an acoustic one?

1) You don’t want to disturb neighbours. By default a digital piano produces sound through speakers, but if you plug headphones in the speakers switch off and all that the people around you can hear is you tapping the keys.

2) Under a certain price, digital pianos are actually better than real pianos. For the price of a entry-level new upright you can get a really good digital piano (at the time of writing this is about $2,500). The entry level upright will have light keys and a tinny sound, but the digital piano will have heavy keys and a beautiful, resonant (albeit digitally-produced) sound. The digital piano will make you a better pianist. However, this comparison gets less true the more money you spend. Digital pianos don’t get that much better past the $2,500 point, but acoustic pianos a lot better, so if you’re spending $10,000 instead you’re definitely better off getting an upright.

3) You don’t have to tune / maintain digital pianos, whereas acoustic pianos need to be tuned every 6 months, and repairs can be expensive (although repairs are more relevant for second-hand pianos).

4) They’re easier to transport than real pianos. An acoustic piano is basically a harp in a giant box with 88 wooden hammers. A digital piano has heavy keys and speakers but none of the harp or the hammers, so it’s easier to get up and down stairs.

On the down side, a digital piano will lose its value a lot faster than an acoustic piano. Acoustics pianos haven’t developed much in the past 10 years, but digital pianos have developed at a similar rate as other technology (think of smartphones), and so become out-of-date fast.

Brands to go for: Yamaha (called Clavinovas)

Silent pianos

While we’re here I should mention silent pianos, which are a hybrid of the above 2 instruments. A silent piano is basically an acoustic piano with a digital piano built into it, so by default the sound is produced by hitting strings with hammers, but if you flip a switch the hammers no longer hit the strings and instead a digital sound is generated through headphones.

They are really great instruments, but if you don’t have one already I don’t recommend buying one, for the reason I described in the last paragraph of the last section: digital pianos lose value much faster than acoustic pianos. So if you buy a silent piano, 5 years down the line you’re going to have a perfectly good acoustic piano with an out-of-date digital piano inside it that you can’t update / replace. If you want both an acoustic piano and a digital piano and have enough space then just buy them separately – it could even cost you less upfront.

Stage pianos

stage piano

These are kind of like digital pianos, but, well, designed for the stage. That means:

  1. they’re more portable
  2. but you’ll have to buy your own stand
  3. they have more sounds
  4. but you’ll have to buy your own speakers

Out of the box they just sit on the floor and don’t make any noise, but with the right sound system they’re incredibly powerful instruments. If you’re most interested in having a piano sound and feel and are always going to keep your instrument at home, then get a digital piano. However if you want hundreds of different modifiable sounds and a pitch bend wheel on a portable instrument, then go for a stage piano. The differences can crudely be summed up by genre:

classical → digital piano

pop → stage piano

You can still play Ray Charles on a digital piano and play Chopin on a stage piano, just not quite as well.

Brands to go for: Kawai, Roland, Nord

Keyboards

keyboard

Confusingly, the word keyboard both means the part of a piano made up of keys and also electronic instrument with a keyboard and lots of sounds and speakers. In this section I’m talking about the second type.

In theory, a keyboard has everything, but in practice, I don’t think any of my one-on-one students have ever bought one. That’s because a keyboard tends to do everything badly:

  • it has a keyboard, but it won’t be as good as the one you’d get on a digital piano
  • it has lots of sounds, but they won’t be as good as those produced by a stage piano or a computer
  • it has speakers, but they won’t be as good as those of a stage piano or ones you buy separately

Maybe there are keyboards that do everything well (I’ve never played one), but they must cost a fortune, and even then I imagine that digital / stage pianos / computers are going to some things better.

At the other end of the spectrum there are really cheap keyboards available – you can get some for $200 or less. They’re not great, but if you’re starting out, something is better than nothing. However if you’re thinking of going for a keyboard you might want to consider the possibility of a MIDI controller instead, below.

Brands to go for: I wouldn’t know

MIDI controllers

MIDI controller

A keyboard is made up of 3 parts: the keyboard, which you hit, the computer, which works out what sound to make, and the speakers, which make the sound. So we have:

  • electronic keyboard = keyboard + computer + speakers

A stage piano dispenses with the speakers, so we have:

  • stage piano = keyboard + computer

However, if you have a computer, you already have a computer and speakers, so why pay for another computer to go inside your keyboard? Instead, you could buy a thing called a MIDI controller, which is a soundless, brainless lump of plastic in the shape of a keyboard, connect it to your computer with a MIDI cable or wirelessly, let your computer work out what sound to make using a music programme (like GarageBand, which is built into all Macs), and have the sound come out of your computer speakers. So we have:

  • MIDI controller = keyboard

(MIDI is an acronym that explains how the controller communicates with your computer. I can’t remember what it stands for and it’s not important enough to look up.)

The advantage of this is that it’s cheaper. A MIDI controller is likely to be half the price of an electronic keyboard with similar quality keys, so you can either save money or get better keys for the same price.

Brands to go for: I’m not an expert, and they probably change from year to year

Apps

You can probably download a keyboard app to your tablet for free. In itself, this is pretty amazing (imagine trying to download a piano for free in 1800), and keyboard apps can be useful for practicing your sight reading or playing-by-ear skills when on the go. However, I don’t recommend them for actual playing. That’s because no matter how well designed a keyboard app is, with perfectly-shaped keys and great sound, you’re still touching a flat screen instead of pressing physical keys, and therefore are practicing a completely different set of physical movements than you would be if you were playing a real keyboard. (This explains why, for example, Lang Lang plays so many wrong notes in The Flight of the Bumblebee on an iPad. Being technically one of the greatest pianists in the world doesn’t prepare you for playing a flat screen.) I wouldn’t take on a one-on-one student who didn’t own some kind of physical keyboard.

Summary

(Click to enlarge. I haven’t included silent pianos because I don’t think anyone should buy them, and haven’t included apps because they’re not keyboards.)

table

Note that any electronic instrument can be connected to a computer.

A final word

Don’t get hung on the instrument, the instrument won’t make you a good pianist. Spending thousands and thousands of hours practising will make you a good pianist. So long as you some basic keyboard with keys the same size and shape of a piano, you can learn a lot. (For example, Yundi Li played the accordion only for 4 years before ever had a piano, and he can really play.) It’s not worth obsessing over which instrument you buy unless you’re really good, otherwise you’re just avoiding the hard work required to get good. (This is a particularly dangerous trap for people with money. If you’re learning the piano and can afford an expensive instrument, I recommend starting with a cheap one and only getting yourself a good one as a reward for when you can play well.)

Anything you think I should add / change? Drop me a line and let me know.

Get the rest of the course here for 25% off!

In the rest of the course you’ll learn how to play:

the riff to John Lennon’s Imagine in time – When the Saints – Happy Birthday hands together – Amazing Grace hands together – the opening of Pachelbel’s Canon – the bass line and chords of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean

And at the same time I’ll teach you the following fundamentals (not covered on musophone):

playing in time – good hand position – how to play legato (and what that means) – phrasing – what an octave is – coordinating your 2 hands – how to play with a metronome – the right way to play chords

You don’t need to be able to sight read – that’s covered in a later course.

Part 9

Part 8

Part 7