Buying Guide: Piano or Digital Keyboard?

Always Buy a Real Piano

A real piano is the right answer here. But now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about what you’ll actually buy.

Sometimes it seems like a real piano is more a piece of furniture than a musical instrument. I think people like to have pianos in their homes just because it proves an interest in humanities to visitors. Or perhaps they think that they’ll eventually get around to learning the thing one day. Or the woodwork and craftsmanship on the piano is so nice and the framed picture of the family, the lace doily and the green lamp all fit so nicely on top of it…meaning that it actually IS a piece of furniture.

Buying a real piano because it looks better than a keyboard is a very valid reason to buy a piano, especially if you have the money. Clavinovas and other digital pianos all have a very “techie” look to them, with all the lights and buttons and fake wood paneling. Keyboards and stage pianos are even worse, as they are usually set up on a keyboard stand (an ugly thing) and never hide their cords.

Surely, then if you are going to be placing the instrument in a prominent place in your home and you are concerned about the interior design, don’t buy something you need to plug it (an electric keyboard). Buy a big, beautiful, acoustic piano.

Don’t Buy a Real Piano

The problem with acoustic pianos, though, is that, like anything organic, their individual parts are decomposing. That’s probably a weird way to say it, but things made of wood and leather and even metal are materials that break down naturally, even when treated, and the parts of a piano are no different. If you left the piano for 1,000 years, perhaps, and came back to it, you might find that it would have just broken down into its individual parts altogether. You might only recognize it by the black and white keys laying in the rubble.

To be a responsible piano owner, you’ll need to keep up with the maintenance of the materials in the instrument. That means hiring a piano tuner once every 6-12 months for as long as you maintain the instrument. You could use a piano humidifier to keep the sound board from cracking. And once you, for whatever reason, stop maintaining the instrument – it’ll go into disrepair. It can be difficult to bring a piano back from disrepair.

I make owning a piano sound like a drag!

In the defense of real pianos, there is nothing that sounds or feels as nice as a real, maintained piano. There are so many nuances in the response of a real piano that could never be replicated on electronic instruments. What a perfect instrument! I wish I always played on real pianos!

But I hardly ever play a real piano these days. Strange, isn’t it? Recording sessions, theatre pits, jazz gigs, private parties, cruise ships, private homes – these places, more and more, are becoming filled with electronic replicas of pianos (aka keyboards). I play on these machines so much that I hardly feel right telling people I play piano!

And I’ll be honest, we’re not fooling anyone. Even the most untrained ear can hear the difference in sound between a real piano and a keyboard if they are compared. Its harder to tell on recordings because a piano and a keyboard recordings sound much the same now. Live, though, the projection of a real piano is impossible to reproduce with amplifiers and speakers. Electronic instruments don’t create the same space as acoustic instruments, and its always obvious which space you are in.

Buy a Digital Piano

Nevertheless, there are obvious benefits to buying an electric keyboard instead of a piano, and you can tell that there are benefits because all of the places I just mentioned (ships, theaters, etc.) have all switched. A keyboard never needs to be tuned. There is never need for a humidifier. There’s no sound board to crack.

Most importantly, an electric keyboard is a fraction of the initial cost of a real piano, and none of the maintenance cost. Keyboards are so cheap in comparison, in fact, that they are almost disposable. If the keyboard breaks you just throw it away, or sell it on eBay, and buy a new one. Unless your sentimental or totally broke, nobody fixes keyboards.

Another reason, despite what I said above, is that electronic keyboards are coming closer and closer to closing the perception gap between them and pianos. I mean that keyboards are sounding more and more realistic. There’s still the projection problem, and the interior design problems, but sound-wise the two are becoming less distinguishable.

Also, the feel of a keyboard is getting better, especially among Yamaha and Kawai (companies that, interestingly, also make acoustic pianos). And if it feels like a piano…and sounds like a piano…I guess people can forgive it if it doesn’t look like a piano.

On a side note – to get past this design issue of electric pianos, there are companies now, like Slam Grand, that make empty piano shells that you can fit a keyboard into. (These are especially popular in piano bars and cruise ships. This is not to be confused with fancy new player pianos like those that are in Nordstroms, country clubs and your rich uncles house. Those are real, acoustic pianos with added parts and computer chips making them able to play themselves.)

What Manufacturer and Model Should You Buy?

Ok, now on to what to actually buy.

Regard acoustic pianos…Yamaha makes good, cheap, pretty acoustic pianos. They aren’t exactly hand-made, but they are pretty good. I never cared much for Kawais. There are a lot of premium piano manufacturers – I always considered Bosendorfer was the big daddy – but if you want a really nice piano, get a Steinway. That’s my advice, at least.

With electronic keyboards, there’s a lot to choose from. You didn’t think it’d be easy, did you?

Let me specify here that I’m not talking about synthesizers. The difference is that synthesizers often have thousands of sounds and all kinds of fancy buttons and knobs. Synths do a lot of things well, but one thing they consistently do poorly on is PIANO. Piano patches on synths always suck. I never met one I liked.

I’m talking exclusively about piano replacements here. They go by various names – digital pianos, stage pianos, Clavinovas, or sometimes just “keyboard”. You can tell its a piano replacement because it’ll have 88 weighted keys and only have a dozen or so sounds. Don’t buy anything that has lots of bells and whistles (sounds, knobs, dials, buttons) unless it costs a fortune. Usually I’ve found that if a manufacturer has put all those bells and whistles in, and is still selling it for a reasonable price, it has cut corners on everything. For example, you could have 200 sounds…and they all sound like crap. Or maybe they gave you 4 extra knobs, but put in a cheap set of keys to keep the price down. If I went into a music shop and I saw a digital piano that cost $2,000 and it had one button that said “Piano” – I would buy that first. I wish they manufacturers would stop spending their R & D on a better vibraphone patch for their digital pianos. Dude, I’m not using the vibraphone sound, ok? Spend my money on JUST the piano sound and the set of keys.

I like Yamaha digital pianos the most. I have a Yamaha P-120 and I think its perfect. The piano patch is realistic and the keys feel reasonably enough like a piano. Don’t buy the Motif if you’re looking for a piano. Buy the CS 300 if you have the money. Buy the P-140 if you don’t. Stay away from Roland, I never liked their piano patches, and they don’t specialize in piano sounds like Yamaha and Kawai do.

Clavinovas are cool too, they sound and feel nice. They aren’t portable and there’s the interior design issue, but they are an ok replacement.

As a blanket advice to anyone buying any instrument at all – buy the absolute best instrument you can afford.

Note to Parents of Future Pianists

One more thing – if you are a parent thinking about getting your kid into piano lessons and you are wondering what you need to buy, hear me on this. At the absolute minimum, you need to get your kid 88 weighted keys. Do not, pleeeease, do not buy your child a Yamaha PSR series keyboard or anything like that with less than 88 keys and unweighted keys. Please! You might as well skip the lessons altogether. Your child’s hands need to gain the strength to play on weighted keys, and they need to know what it looks like to see 88 keys in their peripheral vision, they need to memorize the exact dimensions of an 88-key keyboard, so they are able to find middle C is with their eyes closed, so they they have a map in their head of exactly where every key is on the piano from the very top C to the very bottom A. They need to start generating this mental map of every detail of the piano at the absolute beginning of their lessons. It is very important. If you start on 61 unweighted keys and move to 88 weighted keys, you’ll make their brain start all over again.

Also – as I said above, buy the absolute best instrument you can afford.

Published by

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn

David J. Hahn (@davidjhahn) is the co-founder of and a former Broadway conductor. He grew up near Chicago, lived in New York City, and settled in California. In 2012, he left the music business to found California Surfcraft, a San Francisco-based start-up that makes high-performance surf gear out of fiberglass-reinforced cork. He is the inventor of the Bodypo®, a sustainable alternative to the traditional bodyboard. He is a cancer survivor, an advocate for unlikely career paths, and, beginning in spring of 2015, a father.