What piano should I buy to take lessons?
I get asked this question all the time. It depends on a couple of things.
First of all, what is your goal for learning the piano?
If you want to become a good pianist, then there is only one investment you should try to make, a good acoustic piano. A regular “acoustic piano”, (one which has to be regularly tuned), has nuances in sound, touch and feel that just can’t be replicated by digital keyboards. It has hammers that hit strings and everyone one of them is as different as people’s personalities! That’s what makes them interesting.
I will admit that the new digital keyboards are getting really good and have many advantages, but there still isn’t anything like learning on an actual acoustic piano. The picture on the right is a Yamaha U3 which is one of the finest acoustic upright pianos that can be bought today.
Can you get started on a digital piano? Yes, but eventually you will want to get some practice time on an actual acoustic piano. Good pianists don’t learn their foundation on digital pianos but good pianists play digital pianos. I own some of the best digital keyboards made, with the best “sampling” technology around. They have come a long way in sounding like an actual acoustic piano, but in my opinion, there is still something missing. I always find myself going back to my acoustic piano if I really want to hone my skills as a pianist.
There are basically two kinds of keyboard actions on digital keyboards, “weighted action” and “non-weighted” and some claim to be “semi-weighted” actions. A “weighted action” keyboard has the same feel and touch as a regular acoustic piano. They cost more, but are coming down in price all the time. For example, a Kawai EP3 88 key weighted action digital piano we use for training costs around $1200 new and includes speakers and an amplifiers built in. It sounds quite realistic for a digital piano. By comparison, a used good acoustic piano will cost you more than twice as much new. An acoustic piano needs to be looked at as a long term investment. If taken care of they can easily last 100 years. Since their life is so long, you can always find a good used piano for much less. “Craigslist” is a great source to find used pianos in your local area. Many of my students have found real bargains on Craigslist. If a used piano has been well taken care of, there is no reason not to purchase one.
The advantage of a weighted action digital piano is portability and you never have to tune them. Most weigh in at around 100 pounds or less. An acoustic piano typically weighs around 400 pounds or more and should be tuned at least once a year. Depending on your climate, it may need to be tuned more often. Plan on spending about $100 dollars a couple of times a year to keep it in tune. This is just standard maintenance for an acoustic piano and if you don’t do this, the piano might require more extensive repairs down the road. It’s also very difficult to learn to play the piano well on a piano that isn’t in tune.
There is a very good device that you can install in all acoustic pianos today that will add many years of life to it and will reduce the amount of times you need to have it tuned. It is called a Damp Chaser by Damp Chase Electronics and can be installed by many piano tuners. It basically regulates the humidity level inside your piano to a constant humidity level of 42%. Since most of the piano is wood, this device keeps the piano’s wood from swelling and drying out as the humidity level changes in your home throughout the seasons. It ensures your piano will stay in tune longer, requiring fewer tunings and maintenance. In fact, it could add years of life to your investment. I highly recommend it as part of your investment in a good acoustic piano. In the Southern states you rarely need humidification in a piano so tuners typically just install a low wattage dehumidiafaction bar which keeps the humidity down inside the piano.
What if I don’t want to become a great pianist? Maybe it’s just a casual hobby for me? OK – then a digital piano is fine, but I strongly recommend getting a weighted action digital piano if you intend to learn to play the piano with any degree of skill. You just won’t learn the proper feel and technique of playing an acoustic piano on a non-weighted action keyboard. Also, forget about “semi-weighted” action keyboards; only full “weighted action” will do. If price is a concern for you, look for something a few years old. You will likely find a musician who wants to upgrade and is willing to part with his perfectly good older weighted action keyboard. Again, expect to pay around $750 on up for something decent. Roland, Yamaha, Korg, Kawai, and Kurzweil are all excellent brands. Most weighted action digital keyboards have keyboards built by a company named FATAR out of Italy. They have almost perfected the actions within good digital keyboards. For example, the action in my Kurzweil PC3X rivals my Yamaha Acoustic piano.
If you aren’t sure what you are really buying, try to find someone that knows pianos to take along with you. You might try to find a local piano teacher, musician or piano tuner who would be willing to look at it for a modest fee. You are better off paying a little up front rather than making a costly mistake. This is especially true if you are buying an acoustic piano.
There are good acoustic pianos out there and there are what I call “furniture” pianos. In other words, they look nice in the living room, (like a piece of furniture) but are not very good instruments. I won’t mention names but I will recommend Yamaha, Kawai and Baldwin acoustic pianos. They cost more, but are good instruments that hold their value well over time. There are certainly other brands worth considering, including premium brands like Steinway and Bosendorfer; but are typicallly out of the price range for most people. The brands I mentioned, you typicallly can’t go wrong with unless they were abused. Things to look out for in a used acoustic piano are rusted strings, keys that stick and sound boards that are cracked.
Something else to consider is that a lot of weighted action digital keyboards do not have speakers built in. They usually require some kind of amplification and external speakers to hear sound. Basically, you will need to connect one or two ¼ inch cables into an amplifier. If you want something that sounds even better, you will want to get “active-monitors” which are speakers that have amplifiers built into them. I highly recommend “active monitors” as you will have stereo sound and will get a much more realistic piano sound while practicing. You should expect to pay $300 and up for decent active monitors along with the cost of the cables. Take a look at the Alesis line of lower end active monitors. I highly recommend the Alesis M1 Active MKII’s for the money. They are excellent sounding monitors that rival monitors costing much more.
So what are non-weighted action and semi-weighted action keyboards good for? Mainly for musicians creating computer based music or those that play in bands. First of all, they are light and portable, so they are easy to haul out to shows or as muscians call them, (gigs.) Some musicians like them for playing Organ and Synthesizer parts because they have a light touch and feel like actual Organ keys. There is nothing wrong with these keyboards to add to your arsenal of keyboards, however, I don’t recommend you using one of these if you are just starting to learn how to play the piano. Many parents will buy cheap versions of these keyboards in their local retail stores to get something for their children to start with. It’s ok to start children on these cheap keyboards but don’t expect them to stay with them for long with a qualified piano teacher. Most parents purchase them becasue they don’t know if their children will be interested in learning the piano and therefore don’t want to make a big investment. I fully understand this logic, but have also seen children who have been severly hampered from progressing their skills because they don’t have the proper piano to learn on.
You may also hear of keyboards called digital controllers and workstations. This is another form of keyboard that offers a musician the ability to play, record and edit music all within the keyboard or “workstation”. This is another big topic I won’t go in to in this article. A good quality 88 key weighted action “workstation” can also be a viable keyboard for someone to learn on. However, they typically cost a lot of money and have capabilities that go far beyond what a beginning piano student needs. Why add this complexity when learning the piano is hard enough?
So, in summary, if you want to become proficient in playing the piano, there is no substitute for getting a quality acoustic piano. Second best is a good weighted action digital piano that has a realistic piano sound with 88 keys. This typically will require you to purchase some decent external active monitor speakers, but some of the newer keyboards have speakers built in. (Like the Kawai EP3 mentioned earlier) Yamaha, Korg, Casio and others also make 88 key weighted action keyboards with speakers built in. The price of these keyboards keeps coming down and may be a viable option to start learning the piano on, however, you can typically find a good used acoustic piano for the same price or less.
An acoustic piano requires regular maintenance and a digital piano does not. An acoustic piano will sound more realistic because it is the real thing! Newer digital pianos today have become very realistic sounding, but in my opinion, are still not near what you will get from playing a real acoustic piano. Acoustic pianos don’t go out of fashion and won’t become obsolete. Digital instruments all become obsolete with time as newer technologies are constantly evolving.
Don’t shop for a non-weighted action keyboard until you become proficient with your core skills or just want a keyboard for computer input as a hobbyist.
Think of purchasing a quality piano as a long term investment. You will want a keyboard that you can “grow into”. It may cost more upfront, but in the long run, will save you money as you won’t have to upgrade to a better keyboard later.
Author, Dave Sass
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