Looking to buy a piano or keyboard? Have you considered all of the possibilities? Are you sure?

There is a great scene in one of my favorite movies of all-time, My Cousin Vinny, where Marisa Tomei is on the witness stand being qualified as an “expert witness.” When asked what makes her an expert on the topic of auto mechanics she famously responds, “Well my father was a mechanic. His father was a mechanic. My mother's father was a mechanic. My three brothers are mechanics. Four uncles on my father's side are mechanics…” So what makes me an expert on buying a piano or keyboard? Well, I’m a keyboard geek, many of my friends are keyboard geeks, my colleagues are keyboard geeks, my students are keyboard geeks, my mother’s-friend’s-brother’s-former-college-roommate is a keyboard geek… You get the picture. So I’m about to drop a whole bunch of “keyboard knowledge” on you in a very practical way that hopefully will help you if you’re ever looking to purchase a piano or keyboard.

The first question that needs to be answered before buying a piano or keyboard is this: For what purpose will you primarily be using the instrument?

Answers basically fall into one of three categories:

  1. Home use (practice and personal enjoyment);
  2. Professional/gigging use (playing out at various live-music venues); or,
  3. Studio use (home or studio recording).

 

REAL (USED) PIANOS

The first thing I always try to remind students, parents, or anyone looking to purchase a keyboard is that oftentimes a real piano of decent-quality can be purchased at a price comparable to that of a good-quality keyboard. Personally, I prefer to practice and play on a real piano as opposed to a keyboard. The concern, of course, is how to determine whether or not the piano you’re considering is of “decent quality.” The average consumer does not know how to be discerning when it comes to piano quality, so this consideration alone can put an end to whether or not purchasing a real piano is a viable option. In the U.S., you can usually find a piano technician or tuner who can give you his/her expert opinion on the quality of a piano for a reasonable fee (a cost that can run anywhere from $35-$100… and I can remember one time in which spending $75 on a piano technician’s opinion saved me a boat-load of what would have been “bad money.")

Here is some trustworthy advice that I've learned over the years and want to share with anyone looking to purchase a used piano: If the pin block is in need of repair, do NOT buy the piano. If the pin block is cracked, then the piano is essentially firewood and you should immediately run away, kicking and screaming if necessary. And don’t believe anyone who says the pin block can be fixed. The pin block is the piece of wood that holds the tuning pins in place - those same pins which are turned back and forth to tune the piano. "Fixing" the pin block usually involves using glue (which at best might buy the piano some more life), or replacing the pin block (a very expensive repair). A cracked pin block means that the tuning pins will spin loosely because the integrity of the wood is compromised and will not hold the pins tightly, thus the piano will never “hold a tuning” - i.e., your piano will always be out of tune. Sometimes a pin block is simply worn out over the years and the tuning pins can be pounded deeper into the wood in order to fit more tightly and hold a tune. I’ve encountered various forms of success from this method, so it seems like a “middle-of-the-road” option for someone who already owns a stressed piano. Bottom line: You don’t want to become the new owner of a piano that has issues with the pin block, no matter what the price.

All of that being said, good-quality pianos (and even some great-quality pianos) can be found all over the place by people who are just looking to get rid of them, often due to nothing more than lack of use. I have found craigslist to be a fairly reliable option for finding good-quality pianos on the cheap, with my overarching caveat being that you need to have a little bit of information about pianos, or hire a technician to help you.

Here’s a brief story about my personal experience. A few years ago I was looking to purchase a piano for home use and practice. I had planned to spend about $1500 and knew that I wanted a Yamaha or Kawai upright (well-made Japanese pianos). I looked for about a month online and found a listing on craigslist in Connecticut for an upright Kawai for $250. On one of my frequent NYC-Boston trips I stopped to see the piano, thinking that the low price probably reflected some defect or abuse. I was amazed - the piano had almost never been played (or even touched) and the woman who sold it to me just wanted it out of her house because it got no use. Even after telling her that she could probably fetch a better price, she stated that she didn’t care and wanted it gone as soon as possible. So I bought it, still own it, and it sounds and plays great! My piano-tune told me it could probably be sold for about $1600 in its current condition. I see these kinds of deals somewhat frequently on craigslist, so if you’re in the market you can get a nice deal if you’re informed and patient.

While a piano fills the need for a home-use instrument, it does not help you if you're still in need of a portable, gig-capable instrument. If you're looking to make one purchase that fills both home-use and travel-use needs, then stay tuned for Part 2 of this article. Also, real pianos are not going to be the most convenient option if you're someone who is concerned with things like MIDI capability (musical instrument digital interface), DAWs (digital audio workstations - computer recording programs like ProTools or Logic), or other computer-based applications like Sibelius or Finale. (Of course, a $100 controller keyboard would easily and fully resolve these issues). And for some people, being able to use headphones and practice without creating any disturbances to others is another reason to select a keyboard over a piano. Just remember that a lot of consumers spend a great deal of time and money trying to find a home-use keyboard that has the "feel, action, response, and weight" of a real piano without realizing that those qualities can be found affordably in --- wait for it --- dun, dun, DUUUNNN!!!! --- a real piano!

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article which will discuss the various keyboard options available and the essential features and prices of each).

KEYBOARDS

Before we get too deep into a whole discussion regarding keyboards, let's make sure we understand some of the basic terminology that is commonly encountered.

  1. Digital pianos - electronic instruments meant to emulate a real acoustic piano as closely as possible in terms of sound and feel, and sometimes even the look of a real piano. Generally not a lot of bells and whistles but has weighted keys, usually some sort of "hammer action," and most often a full 88-key keyboard. Example: Yamaha DGX-650 
  2. Synthesizers - synths are electronic instruments that usually contain a large number of sounds, samples, and patches, usually with the ability to drastically alter the sounds by using various onboard effects, parameters, and functions. Oftentimes has "waterfall keys" (non-weighted keys), lots of bells and whistles, a vast amount of onboard buttons and knobs, and can be anywhere from 25-88 keys. Example: Nord Electro 4D
  3. Controllers - generally are keyboards with "waterfall keys" (although sometimes weighted) and usually a selection of knobs, buttons, and sliders. All of these can be used to transmit MIDI data (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to an external source, such as a computer. Example: M-Audio Oxygen-49
  4. Workstations - Sort of a combination of all of the above. Generally has all of the same attributes of a synthesizer, but also includes an onboard sequencer (ie, ability to record, mix, edit, and manipulate various tracks). Can have either waterfall, semi-weighted, or fully-weighted keys, and can be available in 88-key size or varying smaller sizes.  Example: Korg Kronos

Anything can be had for the right price, and the various keyboards on the market can range anywhere from a few hundred dollars to five thousand dollars. The bells and whistles are the features that really start to drive up the cost. But this article is going to take a practical approach to buying a keyboard and assume the perspective of an average piano student who wants a quality keyboard instrument that can be used for practice, and maybe the occasional gig, at under $1000.

For starters, if we are considering a keyboard as a primary practice instrument for piano repertoire, then we really want it to have three essential features :

  1. 88 full-size weighted keys;
  2. responsive action (sometimes called "hammer-action," as would be found in a real piano); and
  3. quality internal sounds.

For the most part, this means we're not really concerned with controller keyboards or synths, but something more in the digital piano-type family (and if we can get some synth or workstation features too, that would be great). Finding the three features mentioned above in a digital piano-type keyboard that costs $1000 should be very easy, as most keyboards at that price will undoubtedly have such traits. Students need something that feels and responds like a real piano because this will make any transitions (from digital instruments to real pianos) easy, natural, and familiar. Here at JazzEdge, we use the Yamaha DGX-640, which could accurately be described as a digital piano (88 weighted keys, graded hammer action, real feel, some good sounds, etc).  The Yamaha DGX-650 sells for about $800-$1000(The 640 can still be found for sale online but has been discontinued). Yamaha really does have the "real piano feel" technology mastered. Their upper-tier keyboards feel great and have excellent responsiveness, and there is a lot of similarity in terms of "feel" between real Yamaha pianos and their keyboards. And of course, for a few hundred dollars more you can graduate from a model like the DGX-650 to the Yamaha Arius which will feature a better sound engine, 3-pedals (as on a real piano), and even a small sequencer (giving you the ability to record yourself). "But let's get to the bottom line. We get it - you like Yamaha keyboards. I thought you said you were going to lead us to a keyboard that costs under $1000.  As in, maybe in the $500 range?" And my answer is - yes! Again, we're looking for 88 weighted keys, responsive hammer-type action, and some good piano sounds for about $500. Here are my top two choices at that price range:

  1. Yamaha P45
  2. Casio Privia

Neither of these two keyboards will have many bells and whistles, but they are the most affordable options that get all the big things right (in my opinion). These keyboards allow you to own something that serves as a viable substitute for a real piano without holding you back if you ever decide to transition to a real piano as your primary instrument. They also give you the ability to take your keyboard with you, either on vacation or on a gig (both are very lightweight). In addition, you will have a headphone jack (great for practicing when you do not want to disturb other people), and almost everything made these days is MIDI-capable, meaning you could use these keyboards as controllers if you're someone who uses DAWs (digital audio workstations) or computer-based applications like Sibelius or Finale.

While these keyboards are affordable substitutes to owning a real piano for practice purposes, they are not the best option for gigging keyboardists playing in a variety of different styles and professional settings. The simple reason is that they do not provide enough features (those bells and whistles I keep referencing) to allow the player to be versatile, nor are the sounds advanced enough to be used in a professional capacity. If you're someone who is planning to buy one instrument that can be used for practice in place of a real piano, and also can be used in a professional, live-music, gig-type setting, then you may need to budget more money for your purchase. I'm often asked what keyboards I use for practice and gigs. Staying in the Yamaha family, I'm a big fan of the Motif series. I've always had a Motif in my rig, either in a full 88 weighted-key form or at present a smaller 61-key synth. The weighted action in the full-size Motif series feels great, the sounds are excellent (including a huge array of rhodes, wurli, organ, string, brass, synth, pads, and percussion sounds), they offer loads of effects, and they feature onboard sequencers (which these days are taking a backseat to programs like Logic and ProTools). And then there is their flagship workstation keyboard, the Tyros, which costs over $5000.

I also play (and endorse) the Nord keyboards, which are bright red (I think they sell a lot of keyboards just because the color is so cool). I own a Nord Stage 2 and must admit that it can pretty much do everything I've ever needed a keyboard to be able to do. The thing I enjoy most about the Nord keyboards is that you do not need to mine through endless screens of headings in order to find the one effect or parameter you want to tweak. It's all right there, in tangible form. Just spin the knob or press a button and you have the ability to alter your sound in real-time. If I had to name one shortcoming of the Nord Stage 2 it would be that the "feel" of the keys (the piano action) is a bit too light. The Nord keyboard feel is not problematic or distracting, but I just prefer the feel of the Yamaha keyboards over that of the weighted-key Nords. And the Nord Stage 2 (as with all the Nord keyboards) is pricey, and probably a bit of overkill for someone primarily looking for a practice instrument.

If you haven't guessed already, my suggestions at the more expensive end of the spectrum, for advanced players looking for gig-worthy instruments, are the Yamaha Motif and Nord series instruments. Just be prepared to play quite a few gigs before you are able to pay off your investment.

But what about those keyboards in the middle-price range? What do I suggest as my personal "likes" in the $1000-2000 field? I still like some of the Yamaha instruments, including the Motif series, which can sometimes be found in "used" condition in that price range,as well as the Yamaha Arius digital pianos. Roland also offers some great keyboards in this price range, including the FP-50, FP-80, and RD-300NX, featuring very realistic feels and sounds.

So there you have it - my top keyboard picks at the most affordable, mid-tier, and Donald Trump levels. Now I'd love to hear your thoughts. What do you own? What would you like to own? And what is out there on the market that I missed?

 

"What gear do you have in your setup?"

It's a question I get asked a lot by students and other pianists/keyboardists. I understand the curiosity. I, too, love exploring the bells, whistles, and sound samples of the newest, trendiest keyboards and pedals. One of the reasons I'm so drawn to pop/rock music is because so much of the pop/rock production is done on keyboards. I get pretty excited when I hear a new sound or effect on a song (especially in a live setting) and start wondering "What gear are they using and how did they get that sound?" There was a time when I was constantly trying out new keyboards, selling old ones, purchasing vintage gear, selling vintage gear, buying pedals, buying software... and then, of course, there were the amplifiers.

After many (M-A-N-Y) permutations, my current setup is my favorite. It also represents the longest amount of time that I gone without purchasing something new and expensive (though that could be a product of me growing more focused on practical need and efficiency than flashy new toys... a sign of my maturity perhaps? Nah, probably not). At present I have the following gear in my arsenal:

  1. Nord Stage 2, 88-key;
  2. Yamaha Motif ES-7;
  3. Two QSC K10 powered-speakers;
  4. 1977 Fender Rhodes, Stage model;
  5. 1979 Fender Rhodes, Stage model (Yes, I have two. Completely unnecessary, I realize);
  6. An old tube-amp that sounds great when it works... but doesn't work.

When I get called to do a GB gig (an outdated acronym that stands for "general business" - meaning any corporate, wedding, or club dates), I bring my Nord, Motif, and my speakers. For as long as I can remember I have not been a fan of any of the keyboard amps I've used. I won't name any brands here, but suffice to say I never played any that sounded good to me. The main problem, obviously, is that keyboards are meant to be heard in stereo in order to give you the full spectrum of sound. Keyboard amps are simply one speaker, so you're only hearing one channel (either left or right). Guitar Center know this, which is why when you go into one of their stores to try out a keyboard it's heard through a nice set of studio monitors in full stereo sound. A couple years ago I decided I'd had enough. I bought a pair of QSC K10s, just one of which sounds better and is easier to transport than any of the keyboard amps I've owned over the years. When I use both K10s in stereo my keyboards sound killer - just a night and day difference, so I don't mind bringing both speakers to most gigs when I'm supplying my own gear. If you've been unhappy with the sound of keyboard amps, too, try a pair of quality studio monitors or powered speakers. Oftentimes, the price difference isn't even that big a deal (depending on your gigging or home-use needs).

As for the keyboards, I have to say that I really, really love the Nord Stage 2. It's fun to play, it has a million different things that it can do (most of which I don't understand), but the important, most-used features are so intuitive and readily-available that it makes sound-exploration exciting (no need to toggle through endless banks of commands on a small little screen). Plus, Nord really does have some of the best "real" keyboard sounds. What I mean is, the Nord pianos, Rhodes, Wurlitzers, and electric pianos sound very close to the real thing (and the organs are getting pretty close to the real thing, too). And of course, they have oodles of sound samples and banks that can be downloaded.

I also still like the Yamaha Motif keyboards. The weighted keyboards feel great (Yamaha has the real "piano feel" and touch all figured out). The Motif ES7 is a synth, however, with non-weighted waterfall keys. I use that for a lot of my synth samples and creating some of the sounds you would hear on Top 40 dance tracks. My first synth experiences were on a Motif, so I have that format well-learned at this point, and if it ain't broke...

As for my two Fender Rhodes electric pianos, I hardly ever gig with them or even move them at all. I do play them, but I find that the Nord sounds so close by comparison that it's not worth the effort for me to take a Rhodes on a gig (for those unfamiliar, they're big, and heavy).  I've thought about selling them and probably will, simply because at this point in my musician-development I'm trying to focus more on being a better player and not getting so distracted with gear. It's easy to get caught up in the myth that you need to have the best gear in order to sound good - but in reality, it's still about the simple and basic things, like practice.

So, what kind of gear do you use? Or a better question is, what kind of keyboard would you love to own?