I get asked on a regular basis for recommendations on what type of piano to buy for your student's piano lessons. I think there are some top-rated brands out there, but in general, there a few features that I recommend to find in a piano.
What to look for
When you are looking for a piano, there are two main types of pianos you can buy: electronic or traditional. These are some of the features to look for in each type of piano:
88 keys: A traditional piano has 88 keys. Anything with fewer keys will limit your student's song choices, especially once they start intermediate lessons.
Weighted keys: This is non-negotiable. Do not ever buy a piano that doesn't have weighted keys. Weighted keys mimic the weight of a traditional piano and are essential in building finger strength and preparing students for performance and practice on a traditional piano.
Brand: In general, brand does matter when it comes to electronic keyboards. I recommend these brands: Casio, Kawai, Yamaha, Baldwin, Williams.
Product reviews: Compare reviews online before deciding to make a purchase. I always recommend looking at pianos that have extremely high reviews, I refine my search on sites like guitarcenter.com, musiciansfriend.com and amazon.com to products that have 4 stars or more right away and don't even consider anything reviewed lower than that.
Dead or sticky keys: Do not buy a traditional piano with dead keys. Dead keys are keys that are depressed on the keyboard and cannot be played. There are several causes for dead keys, and they are all expensive to fix. Sticky keys tend to be a little more easy and less expensive to fix. I recently worked with a grand piano that had a sticky key because there was a jelly bean stuck under the key. Weird but easy fix.
Rusted strings: Do not buy a traditional piano with rusted strings either. Restringing a piano costs thousands of dollars and most often costs more than buying a brand new traditional piano
Cracked harp or cracked anything: The harp is the huge metal piece under the strings. If the structure of the piano is compromised, there is nothing you can do to fix it. The piano will not stay in tune and you will have wasted your money.
Thin felts: Look at the felt on the hammers of the piano. If the felt is thin, it can mess with the balance of the key and the hammer. This is not too expensive to replace, but if you don't want to spend anything extra on your new piano, look out for this.
Age: In general, stay away from pianos manufactured between 1900 and 1940. Piano manufacturers during this time did not make quality pianos. Most of the pianos from this era are junk.
Pedigrees: A bad piano is a bad piano. It doesn't matter if it's old or new. If someone wants to give you a full pedigree on their out-of-tune, rusty piano, run away. Get a piano that sounds good, not one that has a cool back story or a cool name brand.
Brand: When you are purchasing new, Steinway, Yamaha, Baldwin and Kawai are my favorite brands. When you are purchasing used, brand matters less. Much the same as the "antique" idea, a piano is a piano. It's either in good shape or it's not. The little piece of plastic with some company's name on it will not necessarily keep it from having rusted strings or a cracked harp.
Location: Find out where the piano was manufactured and where it has been. For Coloradans, I would only recommend buying pianos from arid climates--Colorado, Utah, Oklahoma, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho, Kansas and northern Texas. Wood breathes and it will expand and contract. Drastic climate changes and temperature changes cause wood to breathe a ton, and not always in a way that is conducive to the piano harp and strings.
Serial Number: Find the serial number (usually located on the inside lid of the piano or on the harp) and look it up on bluebookofpianos.com. You will find all the manufacturing information on a piano you are interested in on that site.
Pros and Cons
Electronic or traditional? An electronic keyboard and a traditional piano both have their own pros and cons.
Never have to tune: Unlike a traditional piano, an electronic keyboard does not need to be tuned.
Can use to record: Electronic keyboards are great for musicians looking to record. Electronic keyboards tend to have different types on input and output channels and are great for work with computers.
Always has perfect pitch: This is especially true for singers using a piano. The notes will always be the correct pitch for practice and aural skill work.
Aesthetics: An electronic keyboard doesn't have as "rich" a feel as a traditional piano. It doesn't make a great centerpiece to a living room.
Purchase Price: The initial price of an electronic keyboard can often be more expensive than a traditional piano.
Have to buy add-ons for it: This goes along with the initial purchase price. Most of the time, the advertised price of an electronic keyboard doesn't include the stand, the bench, the pedal, software updates, etc. There are a lot of add-ons to consider when purchasing an electronic keyboard.
Electrical issues: Granted, I have only ever seen one electrical piano with speaker issues and two pianos with input issues in my experience. However, the more pieces a product has, the more opportunities that product has to break.
Aesthetics: A traditional piano has a great feel to it and a great aesthetic to it. It can easily be incorporated into any room in a house and is often the centerpiece of many people's houses. Guess which type of pianos get played the most? The ones that are always visible.
Feel: A traditional piano is great for students to work on finger strength among other things. Most performances are done on traditional pianos, so students working on a traditional piano tend to not be thrown off by playing in different situations--from lessons to performances.
Purchase Price: There is a wide spectrum of prices for traditional pianos. I bought my favorite piano for $75 off Craigslist. My dream piano costs the same amount as a car. In general, however, it is easy to find an affordable traditional piano. Search for a spinet or an upright piano to find the most affordable pianos.
Age: An old piano tends to be just that--an old piano.
Tuning: Traditional pianos need to be tuned on a regular basis. Tunings cost about $100 and should be done about once a year.
Moving: If you are buying used, a traditional piano will have to be moved. There are several great piano movers out there. The cost of hiring a piano mover is about $100 if the piano is being moved locally.