Piano and keyboard buying guide
This piano buying guide is based on my personal experience as a pianist and a person who bought quite a few instruments over the years. I had the pleasure of using mid-range and expensive electronic keyboards, and I have performed and practiced on various models of Steinways, Yamahas, Kawai even Fazioli. Suggestions given below are also based on my conversations with piano technicians and piano store owners.
Please note that I am not an affiliate of any of the piano makers mentioned in this article. Some of the instrument examples are given only for illustration purposes or solely because I have used them extensively in the past.
Try before you buy
First thing first – get to play the instrument you intend to buy. This is a must. If you decide to go second-hand and have no prior experience with piano playing, hire a professional piano technician to help you assess the instrument. If you buy new – at the very least – bring a friend or a family member (or a piano teacher) who can help you make the right decision.
Buying a second-hand piano – how old is too old?
You can ask for the serial number and the exact model of the instrument you intend to buy so you can check the age of the instrument on offer. Some manufacturers have this information ready on their official websites (for example Yamaha)
Keep in mind that a thirty-year-old piano which was used very lightly by an amateur could be in much better shape than a ten-year-old grand owned by an ambitious conservatory student. The piano technician will be able to tell the difference right away.
Typical piano size
Before you go shopping, check the available space at your place. The average width of the piano keyboard is just under 150cm, but the depth varies significantly between models. Measure the proposed space where the piano will be residing and keep that in mind when shopping.
Make sure you account for the sitting position of the pianist using the instrument. This can easily add another 70-80 cm of space needed in front of the piano.
Noise and neighbors
A digital piano will create a minimal sound which can travel through walls and floors. This is something to keep in mind if you are worried about your neighbors. With digital instruments, you can often use headphones to avoid disturbing others.
I would like to categorize this piano buying guide according to 6 price points.
Level 1: Mobile or computer app (free)
At the very bottom level of what can still be considered useful in learning to play the piano are virtual keyboard tablet or mobile apps, and PC/Mac software.
After installation, you should see an interactive keyboard displayed on the screen. You can use touch or computer mouse and keyboard to press keys on the screen.
Since the input is very different to the typical upright piano, this approach cannot be used to develop traditional piano technique, learn how to use the pedal and play pieces which require the use of both hands at the same.
I can only recommend this approach for learning how to find notes on the keyboard, assist in learning to read the musical score, and playing simple melodies.
Level 2: Unweighted or semi-weighted digital keyboard/MIDI controller (50 – 250AUD)
For a slightly higher investment of 50-200AUD, it is possible to find a new digital keyboard or MIDI keyboard controller.
In the lower section of this price range, keys will be narrower than those on the acoustic piano, and there will be less than 88 of them.
Closer to the 250AUD, there will be more options with full-sized keys with a number of keys close to 88.
My suggestion would be to stretch the budget to obtain a model with full-sized keys, even if the number of keys is slightly less than 88. Please note that 88 keys will allow you to play any repertoire composed for the piano, while 49-key instrument might already be insufficient to play both hands even the less challenging repertoire.
You can purchase second-hand gear from Level 2 for very little money, but I cannot vouch for the longevity of such purchase.
Level 3: Free or very cheap upright pianos
Those instruments can be old, sometimes over 50 years. If you have space, and you can take a piano tuner with you to inspect it, they might be worth a look. Sometimes, the previous owner simply wants to find a new home for their piano which has sentimental value but is no longer needed or possible for them to keep.
If in good condition, such instruments can create a beautiful sound and their keyboard action may still be in a state where you will be able to get few years of playing out of them.
Research the cost of moving, regulation and tuning as those can be substantial.
If you buy such an instrument form a piano store, the price will be higher, but shops often provide free shipping and tuning on arrival.
Level 4A: Weighted digital pianos
Those can cost anywhere between 1000 to 5000AUD and have action mimicking the action of an acoustic instrument and have a pre-recorded sound of a concert grand piano encoded into them.
The higher the price, the closer the action will be to the acoustic instrument.
I only had an experience with Yamaha and Roland, and they both have been very reliable for my rather heavy use.
Level 4B: Top-of-the-line digital pianos
In addition to the Level 4 instruments mentioned already, I would like to discuss their most expensive versions which contain a complete key and hammer action taken with minor adjustments from an acoustic upright or even grand piano (see an example here).
Sound is still produced via high-quality speakers or headphones using sensors attached to the hammer. The main advantage is that they have the real action of an acoustic instrument.
I have been using one of those instruments, and they work reliably when I have to practice at night, or when I am worried about disturbing others at home.
Their price is significantly higher, and they can be found for around 8,000 – 15,000AUD.
Level 5A: Lower models of upright pianos – new (4,000 – 9,000AUD)
Those instruments will often come with 5 -10-year warranty, some free tunings and they will last many years. I tend to stick with well-known brands such as Yamaha or Kawai, but I am sure that there are some lesser-known brands of exceptional durability.
Buying a piano from this category will be an excellent starting point for any motivated piano player, and it will usually take years before they outgrow the instrument.
The lower models in this segment have weaker bass notes because their bass strings are not long enough due to the size of the instrument.
Level 5B: Top-of-the-line upright pianos (10,000-20,000)
They are usually much taller than the lower-priced models but produce sound sizeably larger. Bass notes can sometimes sound better than those found on lowest models of grand pianos.
Those instruments would be my consideration for anyone who is a serious student at a conservatory level, who does not have a space for a grand piano but wants to come as close to the experience of having one at home.
Level 6A: Cheapest grand pianos (8,000-23,000AUD)
Those are often called baby grands because of their small size. Ask about the durability of components used and the country of origin of the piano. Their price often differs depending on the factory location. If you are looking at an occasional light use, you might be okay with lower-priced models. Those who are seriously committed should look at the higher end of this price bracket to find the piano that will last longer and produce a good quality sound.
Level 6B: Conservatory level grand pianos and beyond (23,000-300,000AUD)
Pianos in this price bracket are often found in music schools and universities. They are made to last and can survive many years of constant use. Beyond this point, you should consider the size of the room where your piano will be because larger and more expensive might not be better in this case.
Playing a small concert grand (for example Yamaha C7) in a small room will create so much noise that no amount of sound isolation or carpets will be able to tame it.
I hope this short practical piano buying guide was helpful. Feel free to leave a comment or question.
Please note that this article is written only as a guide and I shall not be responsible for choices you make when buying an instrument. I will not be able to come with you and try to the piano you intend to purchase. This is a serious purchase so please talk to a qualified piano technician and seek the advice of someone who can test the instrument for you before you spend your precious money.