Piano

How to Pick a Piano: Choosing the Right Instrument for Your Needs

Buying a piano can be difficult and confusing. How do you pick a piano that’s right for you? In this post I’ll break down the decision-making process to help you identify what will make the most sense for your situation.

Note: This article may contain affiliate links. That means that if you make a purchase through one of these links I may receive monetary compensation. However, I only ever include links to products I truly believe in and recommend!

Electric or Acoustic Piano?

An acoustic piano and an electric one

This is usually the first question a person asks when looking into acquiring a piano. As a trained piano technician, I may be biased, but I almost always recommend buying an acoustic if at all possible and here are a few reasons why:

Touch and Tone

Because of the physics of the instrument, an acoustic piano, even a very low quality one, will have a huge variety of different possible sounds depending on the way you hit the keys. Usually only an advanced pianist is capable of harnessing this potential, but that’s after years of playing on an instrument that at least has those sound possibilities. Basically the better you want to be down the road, the better piano you need now, and the first step for that is having an acoustic so that right away you’re experiencing the real sound that a real instrument makes, rather than the computer sounds (even the very high quality ones) from an electric.

Used Acoustic Pianos Hold Their Value Better Than Electrics

When you buy a used acoustic piano, assuming you take good care of it, it will hold its value. That said, the general sale and resale value of used acoustic pianos, especially old uprights, is considerably less than one might think. I’ll go a bit further into the value of pianos in How to Pick a Piano Part 2.

An electric, on the other hand, like all electronics, is sure to decrease in value almost immediately. (Of course, this could also mean you may be able to snag an outdated electric for a great price, which is something to consider if you think an electric would be right for you.)

Often Easier to Repair

One difficult aspect of owning an acoustic piano is that it must be tuned and serviced. I usually recommend having someone come in at least once a year for this, but depending on your climate and your piano, this may vary. The nice thing about this is you have someone coming in on a regular basis to make sure everything’s going ok with your instrument. Sticking key? Squeaky pedal? They should be able to fix these things on the spot when they come in to tune.

The technology of pianos hasn’t changed in over 100 years, so any good piano technician will have the parts and the knowledge necessary to fix almost any problem. There are even some things you can do between tunings to try to fix any issues that may show up.

Electric pianos are completely different in this way, and when something goes awry you usually have to take it into a shop somewhere that has someone who works on such things, which again will become more difficult the longer you own the piano as the technology becomes out of date and they stop building the replacement parts.

A Family Heirloom

If serviced regularly, pianos last a long time. There are pianos still floating around the world that were built over 100 years ago and are still perfectly playable. These pianos get passed down in families through the generations and can often have quite special sentimental value.

Of course, this can be both a blessing and a curse as there are often families who don’t end up being interested in music, and are therefore stuck with a very heavy piece of furniture that they would feel guilty to get rid of because it was “grandma’s piano”. To this I say: Learn to play the piano! It’ll be good for you!! 🙂

Reasons to Get a Digital Piano

Sometimes an acoustic piano just isn’t realistic. Whether your living situation requires the option of headphones when practicing, or you move frequently and can’t afford movers to help you move a heavy acoustic piano, there are plenty of reasons to us a digital. And that’s ok! You can still enjoy making beautiful music! I would recommend if at all possible, purchasing one that has its own built-in stand and piano bench, like this Yamaha YDP105 Arius Digital Console Piano.

Upright or Grand Piano?

An upright piano and a grand piano

As a rule, grand pianos are generally sold for more money than upright pianos. Often there is good reason for this. Here I will describe the difference between the two types of pianos:

Touch

The main difference between an upright and a grand is how the action (that’s all the moving parts inside the piano) works.

If you’ve ever looked inside an open grand piano, you’ve probably noticed the strings are stretched horizontally across the soundboard. In order to hit them, the hammers swing upwards, against gravity, when a key is pressed. This type of action has the most potential for control of the sound because you’re directly opposing the force of gravity.

In an upright, the action is, well upright. The strings are vertical and the hammers swing horizontally to hit them. Because gravity still pulls down, there’s slightly less control of the sideways swing of the hammers in an upright. Therefore, generally a grand has more versatility of tones than an upright.

Sound

There are two things that affect the bulk of the sound from a piano, and particularly from the bass of a piano: The strings, and the soundboard.*

*The soundboard is a large piece of wood that vibrates when the strings vibrate, amplifying the sound.

Naturally you can guess that the bigger the strings and soundboard, the bigger the sound. If you are at a piano store, find the longest grand they have and play some notes in the bass. Compare these to the tiniest upright. It’s a big difference, right?

There’s a bit of a blurred line in the middle of these two extremes. A very small grand could have the same size sound board and strings as a very tall upright. Keep this in mind when looking at pianos if bass is important to you; There are some tall uprights with fantastic bass, and some small grands that are feeble in comparison.

Footprint

Certainly something to consider when purchasing a piano is where you will put it. A grand piano, even a small one, has a much bigger footprint than an upright. Some people really value having a grand, and therefore would be willing to dedicate a room specifically to the piano if necessary. Others would prefer to have a little upright tucked in a corner somewhere. Which one are you?

Ease of Moving

All pianos are a bit difficult to move, but grands are much more so than uprights. To move a grand the legs must be removed and the body flipped on its side onto a special piano moving board called a skid board. For this reason movers usually charge extra for a grand, and if you decide to do it yourself you’re in for a much more difficult move if you opt for a grand.

New or Used Piano?

A new piano and a used one

When it comes to buying a piano, I almost always recommend buying used. Here’s why:

They Hold Their Value

As mentioned above, a used piano can usually be resold (if you can find a buyer) for the same price it was bought for. A new, on the other hand, is similar to a new car; It usually loses quite a bit of value as soon as it leaves the store.

They Can Be Higher Quality, Especially for the Price

In the early 20th century they were building pianos with top quality materials. Some pianos now are still built well, but there are also plenty that are just not nearly as good.

Since the 1950’s some companies have used plastic parts in the action, which deteriorate much more quickly than their wooden counterparts and therefore shortens the lifespan of the piano at least by half, if not more. These parts could (and should) be replaced of course, but that can often be an expensive endeavor.

There have also been a lot of changes in other materials used in the building of pianos, such as composite or filler in the case, which affects the structural quality as well as the sound of the instrument.

The bottom line is even if both the new piano and the used piano are made out of the highest grade materials, you’ll get the same quality for a lot less money if you go used.

They Often Have More Character

Depending on your preferences, this could be a pro or a con. In the past they made pianos with all kinds of fancy woods, fancy cuts, etc. I love to look at the artistic expression they used to put into the design of pianos. Now pianos tend to just be glossy black, with a clean, plain look. Even if this is the look you want, you can find used pianos with that look as well.

Going Deeper

Now that you understand some of the basics about the various different piano options, it’s time to ask yourself some questions to figure out exactly what’s right for you.

After college I worked at a piano shop for about 5 years. The man who owned the shop was a Certified Piano Technician and he taught me almost everything I know about the mechanics of pianos. When it came to helping people pick out what was the right piano for them, he had specific questions he would ask them to help flesh out what they were looking for. The following is a variation on what I learned from him.

What Level Player Are You?

If you’re just starting out, technically the only thing you need is a set of keys that hopefully make something like the sounds they’re supposed to.

In fact, there are even people who have started learning piano without the sound part, and just created their own cardboard keyboard to practice on!

If access to a real instrument isn’t possible, you can definitely get creative, but nothing will be quite as good as the real thing. The better you want to eventually become, the sooner you will want to be playing a better quality instrument. This is because playing a high quality instrument is the best way to naturally improve your piano technique.

If you’ve already been playing for awhile, it’s definitely time to make sure you’re playing an instrument that matches your level so it doesn’t end up holding back your progress.

If you’re not sure, it may be a good idea to bring your teacher along to make sure you pick something that has the versatility your playing requires. The more advanced the pianist, the higher requirements they should have of their instrument.

How Much Do You Want to Spend?

The next thing to consider when purchasing a piano is how much you want to spend. This is where buying an old upright really shines. A quick search on craigslist should show you that there are plenty of old upright pianos that people are trying to get rid of. Often they will let you take it for free if you’re willing to haul it, which is no easy feat.

If you choose to go this route, it’s important to check the piano out before taking it. Who knows what kind of care (or lack thereof) this piano has had in the past. Such variables can greatly affect its lifespan in the future, or even its playability right now!

Many people will hire a piano technician to come check the piano out. This is a good idea whenever you’re buying a used piano, and usually costs something like $50-$100. (Depending on the technician and prices in your area, this may vary). There are also several things you can do to check the piano yourself, and I will talk about this more in a future post.

If you’re willing to put down more than moving costs on your instrument, there are several price ranges to choose from. I’ll go through those here:

Under $1,000

Quite often if they’re in decent shape and the owner isn’t just trying to get rid of it, the older uprights will end up in this category. Sometimes you can find a really great deal in this price range. This is because most grand pianos wouldn’t be sold at such a low price, but you could potentially find a decent upright that is as good as or better than some grands.

What I’m talking about are old uprights that are very tall. Due to their height they may have strings and soundboards capable of creating a sound equal to or better than a small grand. However, they are still sold for less money due to being uprights. As a rule, grand pianos are almost always more expensive than uprights.

$1,000-$5,000

In this category you could find new uprights, very good used uprights, or used grands. Keep in mind that when you buy a piano new the value is lost almost immediately. If you were comparing a used upright for $2,500 and a new one for the same price, chances are the used one is a much higher quality instrument.

$5,000-$15,000

There are probably some new uprights that are up in this price range, but the bulk of the instruments you’ll find here are grands. You can find very nice used grands at these prices, including the best brands such as Steinway and Yamaha. There are probably also some smaller new grands in this price range.

Above $15,000

This is a huge category, as a big, new grand can go for upwards of $100,000. I’ve put them all together here simply because I don’t have as much to say about them. My personal feeling about it is you can find a perfectly good instrument for any level in the category below.

However, if you’re the kind of person that wants the best of the best and money is no object, there are certainly plenty of very high-end instruments to choose from. Just keep in mind that expensive doesn’t always mean better.

What Do You Want It To Look Like?

This may seem irrelevant, but after all, a piano is a big piece of furniture that will likely be placed somewhere prominent in your house where you’ll see it every day. If you hate the look of it, how inspired to practice will you be?

Everyone has their own tastes, and I mentioned on the range of possibilities above when discussing used pianos. What color do you prefer? Usually you have a choice of black or brown (many different shades), or sometimes white. Do you want it to be glossy or have a matte finish? Do you want it to have simple lines or fancy woodwork/decor? All of these options are available to you depending on where you look. (Generally there’s a lot more choice among used pianos than new.)

Make sure you identify what you like and dislike as well as what will go well in your house. You will have to live with that decision day in and day out!

Compile All of Your Data and Start Shopping!

Now that you’ve identified exactly what you want (I recommend writing it out so you have a checklist to refer to) it’s time to find your dream piano! There are three primary places one usually finds a piano:

1. Online

As mentioned above, Craigslist often has quite a few pianos to choose from, but it’s not just the low end that you can find here. Often people will decide they’d like to sell their very nice piano on their own, rather than paying fees to consign at a store. I recommend always checking what’s out there online first, even just for research purposes, before heading in to the stores.

2. Small Piano Shops

Piano technicians often open up little shops where they will sell used pianos they have bought and fixed up. You can find great deals at these places, as well as unique finds. I also like supporting these endeavors because sometimes they are rescuing pianos that might otherwise head to the dump because nobody else wants to deal with fixing them up. Save the pianos!

3. Big Piano Stores

Most big piano stores have both a new and used section. It’s a good idea to at least look around at a place like this, again for research purposes, to get an idea of what’s available in your area. Beware: I have encountered some piano sales people that can be rather high pressure. As long as you educate yourself before going in and are able to stand your ground, you should be fine.

And there you have it! I hope this was helpful in clarifying what many consider to be a very difficult and complicated decision. Good luck and happy shopping!

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Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

Related Articles:

Learn Piano: 5 Simple Steps to Get Started
Start With Piano: 10 Reasons Why It’s The Best Foundation
10 Fun and Inexpensive Instruments

2 thoughts on “How to Pick a Piano: Choosing the Right Instrument for Your Needs”

  1. I have a keyboard, yes there is a difference in sound but really to me that is not real important at this stage, I have 365 musical instruments that can play along with it.. You cant do that with acoustical piano. It is portable which I can take with me anywhere. and the sound is great. I am not going to be playing in carnegie-hall in the near future. I just want to play jazz and pop songs some easy sonatas. I am 84 yrs young. So I want to learn as fast as I possibly can. Thank you.
    John Montijo

    1. Hi John, yes those are all good points–There are definitely benefits to digital pianos. Sometimes it’s just not feasible to have a big, loud, heavy instrument in the house. I’m so glad that you’ve been able to find something that works for you and wish you the best on your piano journey!

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