If the piano can’t do it, I can’t teach it.
This is a direct quote from a piano professor at Willamette University. The professor is absolutely right: If a piano isn’t capable of, say, dynamics, how would you practice dynamics? If the keys aren’t weighted, how do you develop the muscles in your hand? A good starter piano will have at least three essentials: 88 keys, weighted action, and touch sensitivity (for a refresher on those terms, see our post, How to Shop for Pianos). It will sound and feel good to you (or your student), which in turn encourages regular practice. Don’t get me wrong – electronic keyboards have their place. They can get you started on your musical journey, and they’re a lot of fun to play with. However, because they lack those essentials of a good starter piano, they can also become incredibly frustrating. If you’re in the market for a good keyboard, we’ve updated our list in our old post, How to Choose a Piano or Keyboard for the Beginning Student. For that reason, we’re focusing on acoustic and digital pianos here. To help you choose the best starter piano for your family, we had veteran piano teacher and blog writer Emily Strenger (a.k.a. me!) go out and test dozens of current models. Everything listed here has our stamp of approval, and we’ve done our best to provide the most up-to-date price ranges.
Good to know…
Many companies have “lines” or “series” of piano models. For example, the Casio Privia series of digital pianos actually includes several different models, all under the code “PX.” When we talk about our piano picks, most are specific models in a larger series – but you might like other members of that series!
We all have different tastes when it comes to a piano’s sound and feel! While I tried to be as objective as possible, thinking in terms of what I’d want my students to play on, I do have a bias. Try out as many pianos as possible to figure out what you like!
Best Acoustic Starter Pianos
There are a lot of acoustic brands to choose from, which can make shopping for one intimidating! After trying out several different brands at local stores, I can say that Kawai and Yamaha outperformed and outpriced the others by far. Here’s a little look at the differences between these two Japanese brands:
Yamaha Vs. Kawai
Yamaha pianos use wood for most of their parts. These pianos tend to have bright, clear sounds and are loved by players of jazz, modern, and pop music. Kawai pianos contain mostly carbon fiber parts instead of wood. The benefit of this? Less maintenance! Carbon fiber helps the piano hold its tuning better, since unlike wood, it isn’t affected by humidity. Kawai pianos have a more nuanced, “warm” or “mellow” sound, so they’re often preferred by Classical musicians. Without further ado, here are some of our favorite acoustic starter pianos! Ask your local piano dealer if they have these in stock, or keep an eye out for used listings.
I, personally, loved the sound and touch of this piano! It’s a bit more mellow than the Yamahas, and the keys are a nice middle ground between “loose” and “firm.” Part of Kawai’s Institutional series, it’s shorter than the popular K300, so it’s great for smaller spaces. New: $5,900 Used: $1,000-3,000
Yamaha U1 New: $11,400 We use this model at our Portland Academy for live lessons. This piano is a workhorse that offers excellent sound, touch response, and can last for many years! If you’re more budget-conscious, look for a well-maintained used model. Used: about $3,000-$5,000 New: $11,400 Yamaha b Series New: Starts at $4,800 Yamaha’s most affordable line of upright pianos, as well as the lowest price point on our list. The b3 was my personal favorite for feel and sound. A decent starter piano, though its loud-soft range might be a bit limited (which can be frustrating to a student). Used: about $3,000 – $5,000 New: Starts at $4,800 Kawai K300 48” upright New: $6,500 Features like an adjustable bench and a soft-close lid make the K300 an excellent choice for families with multiple pianists! Used: $1,500-$4,000 New: $6,500
Best Digital Starter Pianos
If space is an issue, or you need to be able to practice with headphones, a digital piano is the way to go! They range from under $200 USD to a few thousand. Their shelf lives can range as much as their prices, with the higher-end models lasting longer. (My Clavinova, a higher-end Yamaha model, is over 10 years old, survived a cross-country move in a Jeep, and still works perfectly!) Here are our picks from the digital realm. All have those three essentials of a good starter piano, as well as a pleasant sound and feel.
Our old pick is still a good one! The Arius has pretty much everything you want in a starter piano: 88 weighted keys, a sturdy built-in cabinet, and music stand. The sound is quite nice too – not too “electronic” sounding, and the keys don’t make that annoying “plastic” sound when played. I tried the YDP-144 and found it very responsive. New: $1,100-$2,800 Used: from about $600
Kawai CN29 New: $2,399 A perfect starter piano that’s no-frills, straightforward, and easy to use. Comes with a fitted cabinet (including all three pedals), music rest, and is often sold with matching bench in stores (for online purchase, check the specs!). It has a nice, weighty feel to the keys and a good sound sample, making it feel pretty close to the “real” thing. *Unfortunately, we could not find this piano on Amazon in order to provide a link. However, Kawai’s website can help you locate a dealer in your area! Used: from $650 New: $2,399 Casio Privia PX-160 New: $799 (MSRP; often less online) This one takes the award for “biggest surprise!” I honestly did not expect to find this quality below the 1K mark. The keys have a good amount of weight to them without being too heavy – perfect for developing fine motor skills. It responds well to different touches and has a nice range between “loud” and “soft.” However, this is JUST the keyboard part of the instrument, so you’ll have to buy a stand, bench, and other accessories separately. Used: from $150 New: $799 (MSRP; often less online)
So what’s on your piano wishlist? Should it be black and shiny, or would you prefer a more natural, rustic wood? Do you secretly dream of having a grand piano in your living room? (I know I do!) No matter what your preferences, a good starter piano will carry you through years of your musical journey. Remember, many piano dealers have rental and trade-in programs too! You can rent or buy a decent starter, then upgrade to a higher quality instrument when the time is right. We’ll talk about upgrading your instrument in a future post. Next time, it’s the 5 Best Digital Pianos Under $1000! (Spoiler alert: the Casio PX-160 is on that list!)