How to Buy a Piano, No Fluff Just Facts
Since I’m a piano teacher, I get asked quite a bit about how to go about finding a new piano. So here’s my quick and easy guide to purchasing your new piano or keyboard.
What you may not know is that the piano is such a specialized and highly technical contraption, that a piano teacher is not necessarily suited to answer the question. If fact, if you really want to know about a particular piano, you’re better served by asking a piano technician than a piano teacher.
Still, I’ve worked in the field for a long time and I’ve gone through the process myself, so while I don’t want to write an article advertising a particular brand (even though I have my preferences) I do think I can give you some pointers:
Narrow it down: Keyboard, Digital Piano, Upright Piano, or Grand. What you decide to buy really depends on your own context: why you’re buying the piano, what you plan to use it for, how serious you are about playing, and so forth.
I’m often asked about digital keyboards. Sorry to tell you digital keyboard sales-folk out there, but there is no keyboard that has the “real” acoustic touch and sound. Certainly not at the price-point most customers are interested in.
On the other hand, a decent quality keyboard often suits the needs and context of many piano students. It’s important that you have something to practice on, and for many students this is a way to get started with less money than and upright or grand piano.
I am not an expert on digital keyboard but there are a couple things to know. First of all, please at least get something with a full 88 keys and a weighted keyboard. Also, keep in mind that many keyboards you’ll find in big-box retailers for only a couple hundred bucks or so are not as good as the higher end versions, which are called digital pianos, by the same manufacturer. Do your research.
Digital pianos can range anywhere between $500-4,000. They normally have furniture stands instead of the flimsy x-stands and are not meant to be portable so they're heavy. Keyboards are meant to be portable and will never have the same kind of action as an acoustic piano. The more expensive the digital piano, the better quality you're going to get and the more like an acoustic it's going to sound.
As you move into acoustic piano territory, the terrain becomes very diverse. For many people of course, space and cost is an issue. An upright piano is an excellent choice of a beginner or intermediate student where a grand piano is not an option.
There is a huge difference between an upright piano and a quality grand piano. One that you’ll notice more and more as you progress.
Consider your options. Even ones you didn’t know about. Did you know that you can rent a piano? I bet you didn’t, and it might be cheaper than you think! If there’s a dealer near you, it’s worth looking into. Besides renting, here are some other options to know about:
Buying a new piano from a dealer.
Buying a used piano from a dealer.
Buying a used piano from an owner (ex. Facebook Marketplace or Offer Up)
Renting or Renting to own from a music store.
It’s helpful to think of this like you would when buying or leasing a car. If I buy a new or used Steinway from the local dealer, or a Yamaha from the local music store, I’m probably paying a premium for the fact that they will agree to some sort of warranty, will stake their reputation on the instrument, and will likely provide some sort of follow up service.
Also, like a car dealership, a piano store will likely have put some work into your instrument before purchase. If you’re buying the piano band new, then you’ll often get a factory warranty of some kind.
On the other hand, if I buy directly from a current owner, I may get a cheaper price, but I’ll probably end up buying “as-is”. Also, I’ll probably end up putting in some extra work bringing the piano up to shape after purchase.
For example, I bought a beautiful Steinway Model L directly from the previous owner. After the purchase I put 3K or so into the instrument to bring it up to a level I was happy with. (I was aware I’d be doing this by the way, so I factored that into my purchase decision!). I've also bought several digital pianos off of Facebook Marketplace and Offer Up right from the owner in brand new condition for way less than retail price. It doesn't hurt to look!
Renting or renting-to-own carries much less commitment than buying a piano. Like leasing a car, you want to be sure of what you’re signing before you jump in. Some piano stores will have a minimum rental policy. In some cases the instrument is insured whereas in others you’re liable for damage. I know that some stores even provide periodic piano tunings for rented or rent-to-own pianos.
Take your time and get the right piano for you. Don’t make an impulse decision when buying a piano! You’ll want to take quite a few out for a test-drive. A good piano salesman will never try to push you into a purchase, and you should never feel pressured. If you feel like a novice, try to find a friend with a musical background, or even offer to pay a pianist to come with you once you’ve started narrowing down your options. And experienced ear will pick up on many things you might not.
So how do you select which piano you want? Here’s the best advice I ever got on the subject: choose the piano that you like the best. That means the piano that sounds and feels the best for you. Because most of the time you will be the one playing it! It seems simple, but often people let marketing or brand make the decision for them.
Also, don’t limit yourself in your piano search. I’ve seen some amazing pianos listed on Craigslist type sites, and on Ebay as well. You can also check with local schools, universities, and churches. Sometimes universities will even have “piano sales” to clear out older inventory.
I have to add in that respect, I would never purchase a piano without seeing and inspecting it first hand – at least not unless it came with some sort of incredible rock solid refund policy.
Always, always, have an independent expert look and the instrument before a substantial purchase. If you end up making a substantial purchase, please don’t do it without having an excellent piano technician look the piano over for you. Many technicians will do this
for a fee, and it can save you thousands of wasted dollars. Try to find someone who isn’t affiliated with the store or person you’re buying from, and who has an excellent reputation.
Sometimes people find it hard to distinguish between the good and bad in piano technicians. A good piano technician is like a dream come true! My advice: ask the best piano teachers and pianists in town. They will have pianos of their own and will be very picky about who they let work on them. Remember: never, ever, make a substantial piano purchase without having an excellent technician inspect the piano first.
So those are my tips for buying a piano, used or new. As you can see, I’m not trying to really sell you on any particular piano, but just to give a few tips that I’ve found handy throughout the years.
Happy Piano Hunting!