The most important factor to decide is whether you want an electronic keyboard or a real acoustic piano.
Here are several things to keep in mind as you make this first decision:
Before you buy a great big acoustic piano, think about why you are buying it: if you are buying it for a child, and they have never played piano before, you might consider buying an inexpensive electronic keyboard first to determine the level of interest the child has. If your child demonstrates interest, then consider upgrading to a real piano. Why? Pianos are big and expensive, and once you buy it, it will cost $200-300 to move it, every time. And if you want to sell, it is not quite so easy. And if you CANNOT sell it, they are hard and expensive to dispose of (unless you have bought a very top of the line model such as Steinway.)
Do you have room for an acoustic piano? An average piano requires at least five feet in width, plus room to get around it. And if it’s a grand, it can be 5 to 6 feet long. The average acoustic piano weighs at least 500 pounds.
Are you planning on moving? As mentioned above, piano moving is not cheap unless you have some strong friends and a truck. Count on $200-300 for a simple move. Then add more to the cost if you have steps. Piano movers have been known to charge as much as $100 per step if it is a difficult move. You can shop around for movers and save a bit, but choose a reputable company that has experience moving the specialty of pianos. The point is that if you have an acoustic piano, do not plan on moving it around easily or inexpensively.
ELECTRONIC MUSICAL KEYBOARDS
Let’s assume you have decided to buy an electronic keyboard for reasons of cost, convenience or portability. Here are points to consider before you buy:
You must know why you are buying the instrument, once again. For example, if you are buying a small electronic keyboard for a small child who has never played, my advice is to get the simplest, least expensive keyboard. The reason is that you do not know what your child’s interest will be until the child actually tries the keyboard. The may love the keyboard or they may not. Your safest bet is to purchase an inexpensive model until your child shows interest. Then you can upgrade inexpensively rather than paying a lot initially for an electronic musical keyboard.
Do not let a sales person sell you a fancy model with a lot of features. There are dozens of models made by companies like Casio that cost perhaps $99 and will do everything you need to do and more. I’ve seen and taught people who were sold horribly complex keyboard setups for $7500, and they would have derived exactly the same education and enjoyment from the $99 model. The truth is, and I’ve owned recording studios so I have some idea of it, that there are no features on an expensive electronic keyboard of which a beginner can make fruitful use. Get the simple model first.
What are the requirements of a keyboard? Good question. A basic electronic keyboard for piano lesson or recreational use should have around 48 keys (a few more or less) counting both the black and white keys. This is what most basic electronic music keyboards (Casio) have. The keys should be ¾ of an inch wide: that is the standard width of keys on all full size piano keyboards. You may run across a “mini” keyboard which has smaller width keys, but I would recommend against those types of models: even the smallest child can handle a full size keyboard in their own way, and it is better they learn on the same setup they will later play upon.
If it comes with a sustain foot pedal, get that model. It should be moderately expensive, say an extra $25 or so, but it is worth if you have the choice. If no choice is offered, you’ll do fine with the model without the sustain pedal. The pedal adds a certain depth to the sound, an added enhancement to the rather flat sound of an electronic piano.
If possible, your child’s experience or yours will be far richer with a real, acoustic piano, assuming it is a fairly good model in reasonable shape. Pianos should last 50 years if not abused. But you will run across many, many beat up old pianos, because they are hard and expensive to get rid of.
The reason an acoustic piano is better is simple: the answer lies in both the physical and pyschoacoustic experience of playing a piano versus playing an electronic instrument. The primary difference is that on an electronic instrument the sound is confined to a small speaker, even on an expensive model. No matter how loud you set it, the electronic model cannot match the acoustic model. The reason for this is that the acoustic piano has a deep, rich sound, which is vibrating your floor and all the walls, resounding and reverberating in the room. It’s just a better musical and aural experience.
With that in mind, how do you go about purchasing a reasonably priced used piano? Here are a few factors to keep in mind:
If you want to know about expensive pianos, that’s outside of this discussion. Just so you know, for comparison purposes, a well-preserved model of the Steinway brand (the “Mercedes” of pianos) will fetch at least $15,000 to $25,000, and well into the $75,000 area and up if that’s what you want. But we’re not here for that.
The type of piano you get depends largely on where you get it. Let’s divide it into STORES and INDIVIDUALS. Stores such as piano clearing houses or outlet dealers, or wholesale houses, are in general offering pianos of recent vintage and of Chinese, Japanese or Korean manufacturers. The piano manufacturing business has been taken over, in the low price range, by the Oriental companies. They are able to turn out a creditable instrument in the $2500 retail price range. You can pay much more, but as of 2008, the low end for a new Chinese upright piano is $2500.
Be careful with wholesale piano outlets: the nasty truth in the piano business is that these places often, not always, but often buy what is known as “factory returns.” These pianos are pianos with problems, usually a funny clicking here or there, not able to be tuned properly, etc., but not such bad problems that they cannot be sold to the unwary buyer. They may have a variety of subtle problems that may never bother you. To be honest, I have such a piano, a Chinese upright I bought a while back for a teaching studio, and it works just fine after constant practicing punishment! But for how long? That’s the question. But for most people’s kids who play only a little, you’ll never have a problem.
Regardless of where you buy it, it pays to have an independent professional take a look at it. I have looked at pianos for prospective buyers, and there is a wide range of both junk and jewels out there. The opinion of at least a decent pianist can be invaluable.
What you are looking for, regardless of price, is condition. Do all the notes play? Is it in tune? Does it look neglected? Is it obviously damaged? Is it new, used or almost dead? You’d be surprised what people might think you’d want to buy, especially from a private home. On the other hand, I once consulted for a family that had bought a house, and it came with a Steinway. They hired me to play it and see what it was worth. It was a breathtaking PERFECT Steinway 7 foot (the professional size) that was easily worth $60,000 to perhaps $80,000. Perfect. How much did the sellers want? $10,000. I said buy it, and they did. Moral: you never know what you’re going to find.
If it’s junk, stay away at any price. Do not ever be swayed by piano salespeople. They are very good at convincing you that this piano is sensational. The truth is that a piano contains thousands of parts and they will baffle you with things you know nothing about until you’re convinced that the $18,000 for a 4-foot Kawai grand is just what your daughter needs to get started. The only lasting test is a pianist playing it and saying, ”It’s good.” We’re the only ones who would know.
In short, if buying from a store outlet, expect a Chinese model in the low price range. And it doesn’t matter what the name printed on the piano is. I’ve seen hundreds of pianos with names like (not quoting) Hugo Van Altenbrunner, or some such exalted Teutonic name, but it is made in Shanghai, my friend. The low end is all Oriental pianos, some very good, some not so good.
If buying from an individual, then anything is possible. A good place to look is locally. Families grow up and out of the piano market. April and May are good months to buy because most corporate relocations are at that time and leave people with expensive pianos they don’t want, can’t sell, and will take any reasonable price for.
Look in the local newspaper, talk with other families, these are a couple of approaches. I will tell you this: never ever buy a piano sight-unseen. I’ve seen them advertised online in what appear to be great bargains.
But the truth is that pianos are like people and used cars, very unique, each with a different history. Let a pianist take a peek under the hood.