Today is a great day to start learning the piano. Not only is there a long pedagogical history to piano, but there are also innumerable options for picking an instrument to start on. This can make getting started a little overwhelming, however, so this post is your introductory guide to picking a piano or keyboard.
Most new pianists nowadays tend to opt for digital pianos, so this article focuses mostly on those, but I do give a few guidelines and places to find acoustic pianos.
- Acoustic Pianos
- Digital Pianos
- Keyboard/Digital Piano — What’s the Difference?
- Portable Versus Home Models
- Recommended Brands and Models
- Where to Buy
- Final Words
There are two main types of pianos: acoustic and digital. Whenever possible, I encourage students to get an acoustic piano. It has more nuanced mechanics, which leads to a wider range of touch capability (and impacts the character of your playing — expression, lightness of touch) as well as dynamics. Acoustic pianos are larger than digital ones, which means they have a bigger sound. You also get to feel the sound vibrations in your body (my favorite part of playing!).
Of these, there are two sub-types: upright and grand.
Upright pianos are the most common type to find in a home. They tend to be more affordable and take up less space but still give your home the sense of vitality that comes from having a piano in the room. The only technical part that you’d miss on an upright is double-escapement. Double-escapement refers to the hammer mechanism; pianos that have it (grands) can produce sound again while a key is still depressed. This means you can play repeated notes much faster on a grand than on an upright. Otherwise, there is an upright that fits any preference for sound. Definitely explore many options before you purchase to find one that sounds nice to you.
There are two sub-types of grand pianos: baby and concert. Concert grands are 7’ long or more, so you don’t typically see them in people’s houses (even mansions). They’re much louder because of their size, as they’re designed to project to the back of large concert halls. You don’t need that much projection in a house. Baby grands are smaller and can really tie a room together visually. The benefit of owning a baby grand is you get rich, deep sound and double-escapement.
Picking an Acoustic Piano
The first step to picking an acoustic piano is finding a piano technician near you. Because acoustic pianos need regular tunings (annually if you play often) and calibration, you’ll need to ensure you can take care of the piano first. Technicians are also a great resource in your search for a piano. If you find one at a yard sale or on Facebook Marketplace in your budget, ask a technician to look at it. Sharing a picture on Reddit won’t give you a helpful answer; have someone who knows pianos look at and play it.
You can find both new and used models at piano galleries and be confident that they’re in good shape. Galleries typically have an in-house technician or someone they use. If you’re having trouble finding a technician, ask a nearby music store. Additionally, galleries/music stores usually have student plans for renting or renting-to-own pianos, so if any of these are in your budget, I’d recommend starting there!
If you have a really tight budget (like most of us), check Facebook Marketplace, estate sales, yard sales, or with schools. On Facebook Marketplace, I’ve seen countless listings for free pianos because the owner is moving and doesn’t want to deal with the hassle of moving the piano. As always, get a technician to look at it before you buy! Estate sales and yard sales also tend to be cheap for all items. Check with nearby schools (secondary, community colleges, and universities) that have pianos. Every few years, they’ll want to replace their instruments, so they’ll get rid of the old ones for cheap. That’s how I got my first piano! But again, always have a technician look at it first. These tend to be well-loved instruments, and it may cost more to repair them than to just buy a new instrument somewhere else.
There are a ton of great brands out there. The ones I see people most excited about (in the US at least) are Steinway, Yamaha, Bösendorfer, Kawai, and Bechstein.
If you get nothing else from this section: always consult with a technician before buying a piano.
If you are looking for something low-maintenance that you can use right out of the box, a digital piano might be for you. These are great for smaller spaces and apartments with thin walls (be kind to your neighbors!). They’re easily sold on the internet used or brand new on Ebay, Reverb, and other similar marketplaces. I would not, however, recommend buying a used one without trying it first — the seller may not have noticed that a single key stopper working or some other weird issue.
Keyboard/Digital Piano — What’s the Difference?
Keyboard refers to any kind of instrument with a keyboard on it. Technically this includes acoustic ones too. This is why in academia, there are departments of “Keyboard Studies” that include organ, piano, harpsichord, and clavichord. In the public sphere, keyboard is any digital instrument whose main feature is the keyboard (probably doesn’t include keytars!). This includes digital pianos that mimic the sound and feel of an acoustic piano as well as synthesizers that don’t.
If you’re interested in taking up piano, make sure you’re searching for a digital piano. Digital pianos feature weighted keys, realistic sounds, pedals, and more.
Weighted keys are the most important feature to look for. The top brands that feature these are Yamaha, Roland, and Nord. Nord has always been outside of my price range, so of Yamaha and Roland that I’m familiar with, I’ve always preferred Yamaha for touch.
I started on a Clavinova in 2011 (CLP-340), and the touch was a little lighter than an acoustic grand. Tt was close enough, though, that it wasn’t jarring to play a real piano in lessons and concerts. At the time, the weight mechanism was cutting edge, called “graded hammer action,” which meant that the bass keys felt heavier than the treble ones, something that’s also true of an acoustic piano. When I moved for school, I bought a P-515 that features Yamaha’s newer hammer technology: Natural Wood X (NWX). NWX feels startingly close to a real piano and features double-escapement.
The way that weighted hammers in a digital piano work is that there are actually hammers inside the keyboard that are weighted to mimic a real one. To save on weight, they’re often made of plastic and can rarely break (like after 10 years of serious banging). The NWX keys from Yamaha are actually made of wood, which is why they feel so realistic, but that makes the entire instrument heavier. If having something lightweight and portable is important to you, that’s something to consider. It’s not that heavy though — I’m 5’ and can still carry it on my own.
Portable Versus Home Models
For more realistic touch and bigger sound, a digital piano requires more space for hammers and larger speakers. If getting as close to an acoustic piano is important to you, you’ll want to opt for a home model. These often look like smaller uprights and come in beautiful wood-grain options or classic black and white (see Clavinova series — they’re so pretty).
If you plan on traveling a lot with your digital piano, then grab a portable model for sure. I’d also recommend these for students who won’t be living in one place for very long. It’s much easier to move with something that’s meant to be portable. That’s why I bought a portable one in my move for school.
Home models come with all accessories included: the stand and keyboard parts are built together, as are the pedals and music stand, and these usually come with a bench. If you get a portable, you’ll need to look for music stand (to hold your sheet music, lead sheets, tablet, etc.), pedals, a bench and a stand. Often you can get package deals, but do make sure you check what’s in the box before you buy.
Is It Important to Buy a Bench and Stand?
To save money, newer pianists often just sit the keyboard on a table and sit on any available chair. This seems like a smart way to stay under budget, but it can cause a multitude of injuries: carpal tunnel or tendonitis at the very least.
When seated at the piano with your hands on the keys, a good guideline for the keyboard/bench height ratio is that the tops of your knuckles should be about in line with your elbows without you shrugging your shoulders. For acoustic pianos or at-home digital piano models, you can’t adjust the height of the instrument, only the bench, so getting an adjustable bench is of prime importance.
Many of the Yamaha models come with a cheap, non-adjustable bench — my Clavinova did. Because I wanted to save money, I sat on an old textbook on top of the bench to get the right height. If you are able to rig your keyboard and chair to be the correct heights like that, go for it. It is much easier, however, to just buy a bench that’s sturdy and adjustable. Below are a few options for accessories:
Cheapest option: Yamaha PKBB1
I bought this Yamaha bench to go with my portable keyboard. It’s pretty skinny and not the best-balanced option out there, but it does the job. It’s lightweight and easy to transport: it folds flat. I don’t recommend having more than one person sit on it at a time (if two could even fit), but if it’s just you, this bench does the job. It has three possible heights.
For me, combined with my adjustable piano stand, I was able to find the right height ratio.
It usually goes for ~$25–$30
Mid-tier: Songmics ULPB57H
For just a little bit more, you can get a sturdier, at-home bench with a compartment to store sheet music. This bench is much comfier to sit on and much more balanced. You don’t have to fear tipping it over when you lean to reach keys at either end of the piano. If you don’t plan on traveling with the keyboard often, I recommend investing in something like this. If not this one, there are many similar ones on Amazon for about the same price.
It usually goes for ~$75–$90
Highest price range: Hidrau Model Piano Benches
If you want something sturdy and reliable, and you’re not limited by a strict budget, check out Hidrau Model Piano Benches. They have a wide range of hydraulic benches (you just push a lever instead of turning a knob, so it’s kind of like an office chair) and classic knob benches. My university as well as many high-level concert pianist colleagues of mine. These benches both look extremely classy and will elevate the interior design of your home. They’re also incredibly comfortable to sit on for long periods of time, and it’s pretty much impossible to tip them over.
They range in price from ~$300–$1500
When bought alone, portable keyboards rarely come with a stand, and the ones that do are typically pretty flimsy.
You can buy what’s called an “X-stand,” named for its shape of a giant “X,” pretty cheaply on Amazon or elsewhere, but I’d recommend opting for a Z-stand instead. X-stands don’t provide a lot of support, so when you play on one, the keyboard will rock back and forth under it. That can be incredibly frustrating, so to cultivate a happy playing experience, I suggest just opting for the Z-stand. Z-stands also fold up much smaller than X-stands can. For these two reasons, stability and portability, I bought the On-Stage KS7350, and I absolutely love it.
It folds up pretty flat and small, so that saved a lot of space through two moves. It’s also incredibly sturdy: I can play aggressively (some Schumann!), and it doesn’t shake at all. The best part is how adjustable the height is: because my cheap bench only has three options, I adjusted the keyboard to be the right height instead.
It runs ~$120–$150 and is well-worth the cost.
If you’re not worried about bothering neighbors with sound, I’d advise against wearing headphones regularly for practice. It can damage your hearing over time. But if you’re in an apartment with thin walls (like me), then headphones would be a good investment, so you can play to your heart’s content without worrying about bothering your neighbors. Caveat: I am not an audio engineer, and I do not profess to know anything about picking the best pair of headphones. So I can only really give one brand suggestion: AKG.
Since I started playing a decade ago, I’ve only ever had AKG headphones, and I’ve loved them. Even my earbuds (I’m a Samsung gal) are “tuned by AKG.” So I’ll suggest two models.
Cost-conscious: Pro Audio K240
These are semi-open, which means they won’t block outside noise as well, which isn’t necessary for most people. They have great sound for the cost and come with an adjustable jack plug, so it will fit any keyboard you have.
This set typically runs ~$45
Higher cost: Pro Audio K271 MKII
These are the headphones I use. They’re closed-back, which I appreciate because my radiators are extremely loud, and I don’t want to crank the volume (and damage my ears even more!) to hear. The sound of the headphones combined with the sound produced by my keyboard make me feel like I’m in a concert hall if I close my eyes. It’s stunning.
This set typically runs ~$150–$200
Recommended Brands and Models
With Yamaha, Roland, Kawai, and Nord, I don’t think you can really go wrong. I trust these brands. They make high-quality instruments that are fun to play and last a long time. Casio has also been celebrated as good for beginners, so if you’re just dipping your toes into piano to see if it’s something you want to do, a Casio can also be nice.
Brands to absolutely avoid are Williams and M-Audio. Friends of mine and many online reviewers complain often about instruments from these brands. Parts break within a year, or the whole instrument stops working altogether, which means you’d have to pay a lot to either repair or replace it, so it’s best to get something that won’t break in the first place.
From lowest to highest cost, here are some suggestions:
Roland FP-30 (~$700)
Casio Privia PX-770 (~$700)
Kawai ES110 (~$1000)
Casio PX-5S (~$1000)
Yamaha P-515 (~$1500–$2000) — I bought this one for my move to school, and I love it
Yamaha Clavinova Series (~$2000+) — My CLP-340 has lasted 9 years without any issues, and I love the touch on it
Roland RD Series (~$1800–$2700)
Nord Stage 2 (~$3600–$4200)
Where to Buy
In addition to Facebook Marketplace and Ebay, Reverb is a great place to find used models. Be wary of sellers, however. If you can do at the very least a video chat where they can show you that all of the keys work, do so. Otherwise, opt for something new from Amazon, music stores like Guitar Center, electronics stores like ProSoundGear, or your local music store.
I bought my P-515 for about $1200 from ProSoundGear as a “demo unit,” meaning they likely tested it to create a product review, and because they opened the box, they gave it a discount. It seemed brand new when I opened the box, and it’s been working well for the past year and a half since I got it.
From this post, you’ve seen that choosing your ideal piano means considering your lifestyle and your budget. Don’t be afraid to explore beyond the suggestions here, but always ask someone with experience for help, whether that’s a technician or even the nice folks on r/piano.
You can’t start learning how to play the piano without a piano. Once you get one, you’ll be good to start your journey. Next in this series, I’ll discuss the different options for guidance and how to find them: teachers, books, apps, courses, self-teaching, so be sure to subscribe. If you found this guide helpful, explore the many other resources on this site!
About the Author
Amy King is a music theory and piano instructor currently residing in the Chicago area.
She holds a Master of Music in Music Theory and Cognition from Northwestern University (June 2020) and a Bachelor of Arts in Piano Performance and English Literature from High Point University (May 2016), where she received the Outstanding Senior Music Major Award, which is awarded to one single graduating music student per year.
Amy has been teaching private piano lessons for 12+ years, taught classroom music theory for 5 years, directed choirs spanning ages 4–25, led and arranged for a university a capella group, and composed and arranged music for various soloists and ensembles.
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