The Great Piano Debate: Acoustic or Digital?

This is the most asked question I’ve received over the years: I want to by my kid a piano. Acoustic or Digital? Nothing will ramp up a discussion quicker than one about gluten or gluten-free?

Here’s the 25-word-or-less answer: Buy a Casio PX-160 digital piano from Amazon Prime for $350. Spend a bit more, get a stand and a bench, and you’re golden.

The discussion about whether a family should acquire an acoustic piano or a digital piano rises blood pressures, much like walking onto a used car lot.

Both sides have their rationale for which is better. Me, being the professional, I’m asked to weigh in on this regularly. And before darts are thrown at me, keep in mind I’m a pianist and a parent with two kids I’m always trying to lure into music.

I’ve played on dozens, no make that 100s of pianos in my life (maybe a thousand). 90% of those pianos I wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. The next 5% I could probably deal with, which leaves only 5%, which are truly playable, and tunable pianos, with a decent touch and not a lot of wear and tear. 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 wants to take piano lessons. Let me rephrase that… Little Johnny’s parents want him to take piano lessons. Nobody plays piano in the family. There’s 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 here basement, probably behind the ping-ping table, near that little puddle on the floor. You know where I’m going with this. So, Johnny’s parents hire piano movers to fish out this very short piano(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 spells 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 for30 years? Does it matter that it looks like 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. It doesn’t matter, it’s an heirloom. And 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 phone with no 7. A calendar with no June. How is Johnny, who, by the way, actually has some musical talent, going to make music on this instrument?

Now, let’s go to Mary. Mary has a digital keyboard. Dad bought it as an open box special at Best Buy for $75. The keyboard 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 practices with the keyboard either on a coffee table or in her lap on the couch. Mary has some talent too, but the obvious instrument issues will stymy 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, in no uncertain words, that they had a great, tuned instrument, only to find an Aunt Clara special. And on one instance, arrived to see that the “keyboard” was pink, and had 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 why don’t you find pianos or keyboards on it.

If you want to know more about a specific keyboard or read about a digital piano/keyboard show down, take a look at Keyboard.com. They have reviews about keyboards all the time. But, sometimes the reviews lag behind what you’ll see on the floor of the music store, or on Amazon. So, more confusion prevails.

Now, let’s talk about acoustic pianos. We heard about the Aunt Clara’s out there, aren’t 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 six months before I bought mine.

I was raised playing an Everett upright. Everett’s a grand old name from the golden age of piano builders. Lasted me for 30 years., and was a lot easier to move from place to place than a grand piano. But for me, I decided I needed a grand piano at home. So I found a 1935 Baldwin SD, a seven-foot long piano that is considered a small concert grand (the only one larger is a nine-foot piano, considered a large concert grand, or standard size concert grand). If you’re going to the Strathmore to hear Yuja Wang, she’ll be playing a large Steinway concert grand, because she’s a Steinway artist, which means wherever she plays, she gets a Steinway from the local Steinway piano bank. All major cities have something like this. This is part of her endorsement deal. Kind of like Michael Jordan and Nike, except Mike gets free sneakers…and $100 million.

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 mis-use or non-use. The case may look OK, but the piano hasn’t been tuned and has severely dropped its pitch, with is a death knell for a piano.

Let’s go back to the car scenario. The new car is way too expensive, so you look 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’s a trade-in or one they bought at an auction. It’s a crapshoot for them as well. But, they have a team of mechanics to back them up.

But, after all of the disparaging remarks, let me tell you what I like. Since the early 80s, I have loved most Yamaha, Kawaii, Young Chang, Schimmel, both uprights and grands. Me? I have a Young-Chang five-foot grand. Love it. What happened to the Baldwin? When my kids were coming of piano age, they couldn’t play the Baldwin. Turned them off. Large pianos are typically harder to play, and when I considered their piano future, and future piano students, the last thing I wanted to do was drive them away. Hence, the Young Chang. Plays well day in and day out. Stays in tune. I call it the Kia Rio of pianos.

So, here’s the $1,000 answer: I recommend digital pianos. I have a Casio PX-380. I has more bells and whistles than I’ll never need, and I use it strictly for the piano sound. It weighs 23 pounds. It fits in the back seat of my car. It’s got built-in speakers. Bring a stand and a seat, and I’m good to go. It has a headphone jack, so during the night, I can plug in, turn on, and groove without disturbing anyone.

You’re probably thinking “Casio? Are you serious? They make cheap $8.00 watches, don’t they? They make a piano now?” Well, while we figure out how to use the stopwatch and alarm functions on our plastic fashion, the minds at Casio have been making keyboards for years: pianos, synthesizers, samplers, digital arrangers, drum machines, “toy” pianos, and other instruments. And they still make a mean adding machine.

But, it’s not just Casio. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the big four of digital keyboards: Yamaha, Roland, Korg, and Nord. They’ve all been making great gear for decades. I chose the Casio because of the price, weight, touch response and feel of the keys. Yes, Casio makes the key tops feel like a grand piano with ivory tops. Many keyboardists stay with one brand because they’ve learned the operating functions that tend to be in common. Over the years, I’ve played most of the brands out there, and I have no particular favorite.

The big advantage of today’s keyboards, and I’m talking about all brands here, are that you can take the digital output, plug it into your MacBook Pro, and have an orchestra of 1,000 sounds. Great sounds. The instrument samples have gotten so good you’d need a sensitive ear to hear the difference. Furthermore, I have access to excellent software that can mimic drums and a bass so I can have an instant jazz trio.

That’s it, “in a nutshell”.

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