The Great Piano Debate

by Brian Nelson

Acoustic or Digital? Gluten or gluten-free?

You need a piano. Probably sooner rather than later. You’ve found the right piano teacher, so the only thing left is finding a piano. Maybe you’re already cruising Facebook or Nextdoor looking for a bargain.

If you’re in a rush, here’s my 25 words or less version of this post, especially if it’s for a young family member: Buy a Casio PX-160 digital piano from Amazon for $350. Spend a bit more, get a stand, pedals and a bench, and you’re golden.

Discussions abound about whether a child should have an acoustic piano or a digital piano when they begin taking lessons. Both sides have their rationale for which is better. I’m asked to weigh in on this regularly, so my opinion is based on not only being a piano teacher and a gigging musician, but also a parent with two kids I’m always trying to lure into music.

I’ve played on hundreds of pianos in my life. 90% of those pianos I would walk away from in a heartbeat. The next 5% I could probably deal with at a gig, which leaves only 5%, which are truly playable, with a decent touch and not a lot of wear. And in that batch, I include digital pianos.

But let’s look at a scenario here that’s played out more often than not. Little Johnny’s parents want him to take piano lessons. Nobody in the family plays piano, and there is no piano in the home. But wait…Aunt Clara has a piano she had when she was a little girl, and she’s happy to pass it down to Johnny. It’s somewhere in her basement, probably behind the ping-pong table, near that little puddle on the floor. So, Johnny’s parents hire piano movers to fish out this very short piano (short in height, often called a “spinet”) out of the basement, onto the truck and into Johnny’s house. On the way to the truck, little pieces of wood chips are falling from the rear of the piano. Piano parts? A nest of some kind? Don’t know, we’ll find out later.

So, into Johnny’s house the piano is moved. And anyone can see, except Johnny’s parents, that this not a piano, but a trainwreck. Forget about what this piano may sound like, the piano stinks, indicating there’s major water/humidity damage. That’s the kiss of death to a piano, especially one that’s been in someone’s basement for decades. But, it’s Aunt Clara’s, right? The one she grew up with. There’s a lot of sentimental value wrapped up in this instrument. Does it matter that it smells? Does it matter that it hasn’t been tuned for 30 years? Does it matter that many of the keys are sticking (indicating the keys and/or the fittings have swollen due to age/moisture/ un-use)? No, no, and no, because this piano is a heirloom. And perhaps a former nest.

So, poor Johnny’s first experience of playing piano is not a positive one. He’s literally faced with playing a piece of junk. It’s like a warped violin with missing strings. A clarinet with broken keys. A phone with no 7. How is Johnny, who, by the way, actually has some musical talent, going to make music on this instrument?

Mary has a digital keyboard. Dad bought it as an open box special at Best Buy for $75. It has more buttons than it has keys. There’s a piano sound somewhere in there if you can find it. Mary’s keyboard doesn’t have a stand, so she plays the keyboard on a coffee table or in her lap. Mary has some talent too, but this kind of setup will stymie any progress she’ll make.

You might think these are rare examples, but they’re all too common. As a performer, I’ve booked gigs where the host told me they had a great, tuned instrument, only to find an Aunt Clara special. And on one instance, arrived to see that the piano was a little pink toy keyboard with My Little Pony stickers on it.

So, how to you know? The answer is, you don’t know. Why do you think people break out in a sweat when they have to shop for a new car on a dealer’s lot? You can buy a car based on what you read in Consumer Reports, but you won’t find piano reviews.

If you want to know more about a specific keyboard or read about a digital piano/keyboard throwdown, you can check out Keyboard.com. They have reviews about keyboards all the time. But, sometimes the reviews lag behind what you’ll see at the music store, or on Amazon. Models change often. Some stores have their own brands. So, more confusion prevails.

Let’s go back to acoustic pianos. I mentioned the Aunt Clara’s out there, so are there any good used acoustic pianos out there? We’ll there are, and you’ll have a dickens of a time trying to find one and buy one off of Craigslist. I know that for a fact, because I looked for nine months before I bought my grand.

I was raised playing an Everett upright. Everett’s a grand old name from the golden age of piano builders. It lasted me for 30 years, and it was a lot easier to move from place to place than a grand piano. But, there came a time when I needed a grand piano to practice on. I found a 1935 Baldwin SD, a seven-foot long piano that is considered a small concert grand. Your probably wondering about Steinways. Even on the used market, Steinway command a premium price. But as talented as Johnny may be, you’re not going to buy him a Steinway to start off. Johnny may like piano today, but tomorrow he may like…elephants.

It hurts to say that there are some junky Steinways out there, and that’s due to misuse or non-use. The case may look OK, but the piano hasn’t been tuned and has severely dropped its pitch, which is another death knell for a piano.

Let’s go back to the car scenario: You’re looking for a good used car. Are you an auto mechanic? We’ll, if you’re not, you’re out of luck. You could be getting a hot deal or a hot mess. And guess what, the dealership doesn’t know either, whether it was a trade-in or from an auction. They have a mechanics on staff who tighten up the loose screws and minimize leaks. It’s a crapshoot for them. That’s why people like buying from Carmax…you get 3 days to try the car, or take it to your mechanic. You can’t exactly do that with a piano.

So, after all of my disparaging remarks, let me tell you which pianos I do like. Since the early 80s, I have loved most Yamaha, Kawaii, Young Chang, Schimmel, uprights and grands. Me? I have a Young-Chang five-foot grand. Love it. What happened to the Baldwin? I sold it. A 7-foot piano is a bit hard for young people to play, it’s big and scary. When my kids were coming of piano age, they wouldn’t play it. Turned them off. Large pianos are typically harder to play, and when I considered future piano students, the last thing I wanted to do was drive them away. So, I bought the Young Chang. Plays well day in and day out. Stays in tune. I call it the Toyota Corrola of pianos.

Let’s move on to digital pianos. Electric and Digital pianos have a shorter history, so I’ll narrow it down to what’s available today and what you should be looking for. These manufacturers are all competing for your business, and similar models across brands have the same features, buttons, and uses. They may all have unique features that distinguish themselves from others, but if you’re looking for a piano to learn on, a piano to practice on, and something that sounds like a piano, what you want is a basic digital piano. The new lot of them are not as expensive as they used to be.

I mentioned the Casio PX-360 earlier. Why do I recommend a piano from a company known for $10 watches? Where have you been? The world of digital instruments has been passing you by, with each iteration improving on the last. So, while you’ve been whiling away in your non-piano life, some companies have been secretly building vast arsenals of musical instruments to take over the world. If you step outside the states, you’ll see keyboards by dozens of manufacturers, including Bentley, Suzuki and Hyundai (I’m not kidding).

Casio is no newcomer to the ranks–they have been making keyboards for over 30 years. But of late, they’ve come out with a line of digital pianos called “Privia” that have gotten the attention of casual users and pros alike.

Take the PX-350 that I have (the most recent iteration is the PX-360). 88 weighted keys like a real piano and weighs 26 pound. I honestly don’t know how they do it. After carting around a Hammond B-3 organ (~450 pounds) along with a Hohner Clavinet and Rhodes pianos (together weighing 200 pounds not counting my Leslie, SVT amp and 8/10″a speaker cab), the PX-350 is like down pillow from Ikea. It travels in a soft bag that fits nicely on the back seat of my Avalon. My keyboard stand and amp weigh more, but to have a complete setup under 100 pounds is astonishing to a guy that’s picked out baby names for his hernias.

Now that’s gear for a gigging musician. If that’s not your requirement, for about $100 more, you can buy a matching stand that will make nice with your furniture and decor. You can also buy a matching pedal unit that will give you the complete piano ergonomic experience.

More importantly, especially for a pianist like myself, my PX-350 has a great sound. It sounds like a “real” piano. To be fair, other brands sound just as good, but most cannot touch the price point of the Casio.

If you thought looking for a used acoustic piano was a daunting task, buying a digital piano is like a walk in the park. You can buy a brand new digital piano for a price lower than some used piano. Buy it on Amazon, choose the extended warranty to protect you from spilled drinks. There are other substantial benefits:

  • If you’re one of those interior-designy types that arrange their furniture periodically, the digital piano is easy to move around. Or change rooms. Or change floors. Or change homes. Or move into your RV. It’s a lot easier to move than an acoustic piano, and that’s why many meet their demise in a humid, moist basement.
  • Headphones: Digital pianos have headphone jacks, which means I won’t wake up the house during one of my 3 AM inspired moments.
  • Digital Outputs:  Newer digital pianos have USB jacks, which means you can use a cable to connect the keyboard to a Mac running GarageBand or other apps that allow you to have any number of current or historic instrument at your disposal. This is considered standard fare in almost all home and professional studios from New York to Hollywood.
  • Portability/Disposability: When it comes time to move on and you need to sell the instrument, this becomes a very easy affair…no trucks or piano movers necessary.

    While I own the Casio PX-350, you can do just fine with a PX-150 and be totally OK. Besides, all those bells and whistles? I never use them. The 100 extra sounds? Never use those either. I would have been fine with a PX-150 and saved a few bucks.

  • I’ve outlined some easy options here. Whatever you do, don’t make your battlefield a piano showroom or music store, or argue about the virtues
    of acoustic vs. digital. Go for an easier smackdown, like barbecue ribs. Wet rub or dry rub, it’s that simple.

    Well, simpler than trying to find your kid an elephant.

-Brian Nelson