Looking to Buy a Piano or Keyboard? (Part 1 of 2)

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).



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).

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