Not all piano players need a Bosendorfer (thank heaven)
If you’re thinking about buying a piano for yourself, your kids or just to have for the whole family to use, then there are a multitude of things to consider. First off, you should realize that buying an acoustic piano is a serious investment on the order of buying a new car, and you should treat it accordingly. Like in buying a car, doing as much research as possible, test driving and knowing ahead of time exactly what it is you need are all imperative to being a satisfied buyer.
If after careful deliberation you decide that a grand piano really is what you’re looking for, there’s good news. Unlike buying a car or boat, most grand pianos can hold their value phenomenally well. A well cared-for Yahama C7 or Steinway Model B won’t just last a lifetime and then some, they’ll often be salable for nearly as much as their original sticker price. This can be even truer with respect to used pianos. Unlike some other big ticket items, used grand pianos will often be as good or in some cases, even better than their brand-new counterparts.
Still, there is a lot to consider and for many people buying a top-of-the-line grand doesn’t make much sense. While grand pianos do hold their value remarkably well when properly maintained, not properly caring for them can be utterly ruinous to the instrument. For those with small children or limited space, a grand piano will often not be the best option.
What’s more, even for seasoned musicians, acoustic pianos are not frequently the optimal choice. In fact, more often than not, a grand piano is a luxury item best indulged in by those who can treat the instrument as any other high-end piece of furniture, even for those who will be frequently playing it. Extreme care in a climate-controlled setting away from any potential sources of trauma for the life of the instrument is a good rule. One smashed bottle of soda from a carried-away niece or nephew can turn into a $20,000 bill.
Broadly speaking, there are three categories of keyboard instruments which roughly correspond to price range, although there will be considerable price-point overlap at the extremes. The categories are electronic keyboards, upright pianos and grand pianos. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each category.
Buying an electronic keyboard
As late as the year 2000, owning an electronic keyboard had enough drawbacks that it often wouldn’t have been the first choice of serious students or professionals. Keyboards from the mid-90s, even those from top brands like Yamaha, had weak sampling, poor action and often ran into the $2000-plus range, adjusted for inflation. If you wanted to get an electronic keyboard like Yamaha’s top-end Clavinova line, you would have been shelling out $10-15 thousand dollars. While those pianos were arguably as good if not superior to acoustics in that price range, there were clear trade-offs as well. Keyboards were not clearly a better option.
Sometime around the mid-2000s that began to change. The sampling became far better. Speaker technology advanced, giving the small internal speakers incredible clarity and projection. Over the last decade this progress has only hastened.
Today, owning an electronic keyboard is by far the best option for a wide swath of the piano-playing public. Consider just some of the benefits of opting for an electronic, rather than acoustic piano:
- An electronic piano never goes out of tune
- The initial purchase price is a tiny fraction of an equivalent acoustic piano
- Modern sampling is incredibly good and has the genuine sound and feel of a grand piano
- Volume can be turned down or headphones can be worn for playing at all hours and all situations
- Most electronic keyboards are much lighter than older models. This makes them highly portable, a great asset to a gigging musician
The list could easily go on. Of these items, the ones which are probably most relevant are the initial cost and the portability. It’s possible to get a very good, slightly used electronic piano on Ebay for less than $500. Not only will this instrument have many different and extremely realistic sounds, the grand piano sound on the keyboard will often rival that of acoustic instruments, at least much more so than in years past.
Portability will become a huge concern for anyone who has aspirations of playing for money. Trust me, if you know you are truly interested in music you will eventually want to play out. When you gig you’ll need a keyboard, not an acoustic piano. A lot of keyboards will pay for themselves within a few gigs. If you’re a serious musician who currently has neither a piano nor a keyboard, it’s really a no-brainer. Get the keyboard.
Buying an upright acoustic piano
As a musician it somewhat pains me to say this, but there just aren’t a lot of compelling reasons to buy a mid-range acoustic piano. However I will give you two of the best reasons. First, even with modern keyboard technology, which is incredibly good and has made quantum leaps over the last 20 years, the sound still just isn’t the same.
All acoustic pianos have a certain vitality, a life-like quality to their sound that almost defies description. This is rooted in the fact that the entire instrument is involved in the production of sound, not just the strings and sound board. A solid upright piano like a Yamaha YUS7 will have an exciting, engaging sound that you just don’t get from a keyboard.
The second reason is that an acoustic piano, like grands when properly cared for, will largely hold its value. Keyboards’ values generally plummet quickly after purchase.
Buying a grand piano
Despite all the great benefits of buying an electronic keyboard, there still is no substitute for owning a high-end grand piano. If you can afford it and you can handle the responsibility of properly maintaining it, buying a 7 to 9 foot grand piano should absolutely be your first choice.
There simply is no comparison between playing a concert Bosendorfer versus even a top-end Roland keyboard. With all the modern sampling and advances in computation, electronic pianos still can’t touch an acoustic grand. For a musician, playing a fine instrument like a Steinway or even Yamaha C7 is almost like a drug.
However, expect to pay $50 thousand or more for a good grand piano. Going much cheaper is not recommended unless you really know what you’re doing. Trying to cut corners and spending $10 thousand on the kind of piano that should cost $50 thousand will more often than not turn out to be getting a cheap piano for an expensive price.