Learning how to play the blues on the piano requires the right instrument, so I often get asked which is better to learn on – digital or acoustic?
In order to answer this question we first need to look at what each one offers. Here’s the ultimate guide to the pros and cons of buying a digital or acoustic piano when looking to learn how to play piano blues and boogie woogie…
Inexpensive to buy
Nowadays, buying a digital piano doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. Prices can start as little as £140, and this will easily get you everything you’d need to play piano blues. Take the Yamaha NP12 Piaggero for example. Touch sensitive keys, plenty of voices (although piano is all you need really), MIDI inputs, and plenty more.
Sure you can still spend hundreds and even thousands of pounds on a digital piano if you want to, but that all depends on what you need it for and how much money you’re happy to spend. As a beginner it would make more sense to start at the lower end of the market, like the NP12 or even the Yamaha P-45. At only £380 you get an exact replica of a real piano. With fully weighted 88 keys and a fantastic piano sound, you don’t need to look any further.
For the more experienced players who are happy and willing to spend more, digital pianos like the Yamaha Arius YDP-142 could be what you’re looking for. Technically, but not always gospel, the more money you spend on a digital piano, the greater the sound and quality. Of course, it’s a bit like golf – there’s no point in spending thousands of pounds on a set of golf clubs if you’re just starting out!
Lightweight and easy to transport
One of the biggest problems in the past was getting an acoustic piano not only from the shop, but into the house and up the stairs. Even if it was just being installed in the lower floor dining room, it still need lots of strong people to move it. However, a digital piano is very light and easy to transport – making the purchase very quick and easy.
Nowadays you only have to click a button on Amazon and your new digital piano will arrive the very next day, and will typically take just one person to carry to where you want it, open the box, set it on the stand and plug it in – and hey presto, you’re ready to go!
For those of you that perform on stage, in bars or clubs around the country, playing the piano has never been easier thanks to the digital age. Take it off the stand, pop it into your piano bag, stick it in the boot of your car, and off you go.
Better sound quality?
Now this can be a very touchy subject for many people, as this tends to come down to personal opinion. Which has the better sound quality – digital or acoustic piano?
Here’s my thoughts for what it’s worth…
If you were to compare the same priced digital piano to an acoustic, I personally feel that the digital offers the better sound.
Imagine buying the Yamaha P-45 for £380 and then try looking for an acoustic at the same price. You’re obviously going to come across a very old piano that’s seen better days. The strings have likely had it, along with the odd missing key. It will probably need a lick of paint as well before the wood rots completely.
So at the lower end of the pricing scale, the digital piano for me is a clear winner. You also get more features on a digital than you would on an acoustic. Of course, the acoustic only offers one sound – the piano lol! The digital on the other hand typically offers more than one piano sound – the concert grand, the mellow grand, the studio grand etc. A digital piano will usually also provide other sounds like strings, electric pianos, organs, vibraphone etc. But of course, this might not appeal to you and may not be important.
The digital piano also has a better recording facility, allowing you to just plug in a USB or a cable straight to your PC or laptop. The features that a digital piano offers nowadays is just incredible, which makes the digital difficult to turn down for the price.
Also, when it comes to the quality of the piano sound, I would argue that a digital piano is better than an acoustic – again, when you compare the price. For example, you could spend £500 on a digital that has literally sampled and recorded the sound of a concert grand piano probably worth close to £100k, and although it will not sound exactly like the grand piano it’s stolen the sound from, it is certainly pretty close.
In order to buy an acoustic piano that sounds as good as a concert grand, you kinda have to buy a concert grand! You see the problem…
For those of you that are looking to learn and play the blues and boogie woogie on a piano, you’ll definitely benefit from the sounds a digital piano has to offer. The old electric piano sound that the likes of Ray Charles often used to use on stage sound fantastic when playing the blues. A lot of digital pianos also come with backing rhythms which mean you can have a swing, jazz or boogie woogie rhythm beating along to your playing.
Overall I would say that a digital piano is the better option if you are after a great clean cut perfect piano sound. The counter argument however is that the raw sound of an acoustic is better, and who can argue with that nostalgic thought?
No tuning required
An acoustic piano would typically need tuning at least twice a year – although it’s recommended to go with four times in keeping with the seasons. I won’t bore you with the exact science behind why an acoustic piano needs tuning, but it basically comes down the strings loosening over time, as well as the ever changing temperature and humidity with each season throughout the year.
The cost to tune a piano as of 2017 is around £60 – and that’s just for the standard upright acoustic. A baby grand or grand piano will of course cost much more, and can run into hundreds of pounds. This could be an unwelcome expensive, especially when it’s needed between 2-4 times a year to keep your piano sound great.
Obviously this is not needed for a digital piano, but you do still need to take care as a spilled drink could destroy the whole piano instantly!
Silence is golden
If you have neighbours that don’t take too kindly to your late night marathon practices, or if you have other people in the house that you don’t want to disturb – headphones are a must.
Just plug your headphones into the piano and you’re good to go! You can play at any time of the day or night and you won’t disturb anyone.
There’s more to a digital piano
I mistake that’s often made when buying a digital piano is to forget that you might also need a stand and some headphones. So make sure when you’re buying a digital piano that you ask the person in the shop or check the website for further details as to what you need when setting it up at home.
Updates and technology
Buying a digital piano isn’t exactly like buying the latest iPhone, but they do update every few years with a newer model. This isn’t really a huge problem but just worth pointing out, as when you buy an acoustic piano it will last for many years – and it’s not to say that a digital won’t, but when a newer better model comes out a few years later you might decide to upgrade if you’re feeling left behind.
Authentic sound, touch and feel
There’s nothing like playing the real thing when it comes to acoustic pianos, and although I am a huge fan of digital pianos, I still can’t help sitting down in a shop somewhere to play an acoustic.
There is just something about an acoustic that feels right – whether it’s the touch of the keys, the sound coming straight from the strings hitting you in the face, or even the size of the piano compared with a digital.
Even the old piano sat in the corner of a pub somewhere, which is in desperate need of a tune, provides that kind of honky-tonk sound you just can’t replicate in a digital piano. Older pianos also have a sloppy feel to them which I just love when playing the blues or boogie woogie.
If you look at the high end price of an acoustic, like the concert grand, you just can’t compare a digital to this. Concert pianists all over the world will swear by a concert grand Steinway when performing, and although they cost as much as a house, only the best will do for the virtuoso’s.
You can’t beat the look of a real acoustic piano. Whether it’s an upright, baby grand, or even a full sized grand piano, you just can’t compare that to a digital piano. You could easily call the grand piano a ‘work of art’, and often you’ll find the rich sporting one of these in the corner of a room, unfortunately gathering dust and probably never played, but nonetheless still an amazing looking piece of furniture.
The sheer presence of a grand piano on stage has such a huge impact as well. So much so that digital pianos can now be bought as a grand digital piano, so you have the best of both worlds. Can you imagine turning up to a concert to watch a pianist play Chopin only to see them sat at a small digital piano? Even if it was the best sounding piano in the world, you would probably ask for your money back.
So not only do we all associate the piano with the sound, but we also expect an element of grandeur when it comes to classical performances.
Weight and size
The sheer size and weight of an acoustic piano makes it extremely difficult to transport and squeeze into your home. And if you’re thinking of getting one installed upstairs – then think again!
So if convenience is what you’re after, then an acoustic piano is probably not the best way to go.
Acoustic pianos are generally more expensive than digital, and you’d easily be looking at around £2,000 or more if you want a decent acoustic piano. Sure, you can opt for a second hand one that’s quite old for a few hundred pounds, but it will most likely not sound so good, and learning an old honky-tonk piano might not be very inspiring when you’re trying to play Beethoven.
As stated above, pianos need tuning between 2-4 times a year, so there is a continual cost each year that you have to expect when owning an acoustic piano. There is also typically extra delivery costs when you buy one and want the shop to install it for you. Whereas a digital piano just comes in a box which can easily be lifted by 1-2 people and set up in any room in the house you want within minutes.
If you spend a few thousand pounds on an acoustic piano, then you are sure to be happy with the sound. However, having to spend this kind of money is quite hard to swallow when you listen to how a digital sounds these days for a fraction of the cost.
Again, it’s all down to personal choice when it comes to the sound and feel of a piano, but if you were to play a £1,000 acoustic piano and then try out a digital of the same price, you will notice a huge difference.
My personal view is that you have to spend at least £3-4k on an acoustic piano to match the sound of a digital easily priced well below £1,000.
The professionals opinion
Above all else, some of what I say above is my own personal opinion and experience after playing on many different pianos over the years. I’ve owned acoustic uprights as well as an acoustic baby grand and a digital baby grand. I’ve owned many digital Yamaha pianos over the years, and I’ve recently fell in love with the Kawai ES7.
About 10 years ago I would have argued in favour of the acoustic, as I didn’t feel that the digital piano sound was quite up to scratch. However, technology has moved on a fair bit, and the quality of the sampling they use from real concert grand’s is just breathtaking. I would however say that the touch and feel is still not perfect, and I still prefer the presence that the acoustic provides, but whether you’re a beginner looking to start out on your journey to learn how to play piano blues and boogie woogie, or even if you’re an experienced player – a digital will provide you much more for your money than an acoustic will.