Digital pianos and keyboards are cheaper and more portable than their acoustic counterparts, but knowing what to buy isn’t always easy, and the sheer volume of different options can be intimidating to say the least.
To try and make this process a little easier I have compiled a list of what to be aware of when buying a keyboard or digital piano.
This is really aimed at students, or parents, who are new to this stuff, so if you’re looking at getting a top of the range hammer-action keyboard with the latest functionality, then there will most likely be other articles out there of more use to you.
This has turned into a lengthier article than expected, so, if you haven’t got the time, scroll to the bottom and there is a quick buyer’s checklist.
Length: 54-keys / 61-keys / 77-keys / 88-keys
First of all let’s start with what size keyboard to get. They are measured by how many keys they have – 88 keys is full length, 77 keys is the next size down, then there’s 61 keys, and finally 54 keys, which is generally the smallest size you can get.
As you might expect, the smaller sizes cost less, they’re smaller, and they are more portable, which is why it’s a popular option for beginners and children.
However, there are some obvious downsides: the main one being that, as you start to improve, there will come a time when some of the pieces you are playing will require more keys than you have.
For example, there are some pieces in the ABRSM grade 1 piano that require a keyboard with more than 54 keys, so a keyboard that small could become obsolete fairly quickly. Although on the other hand you could probably get through grade 8 with a 77-key keyboard, as you won’t find too many pieces that require the extreme low or high end of the keyboard.
So, there is no hard-and-fast rule as to how many keys you should get, but do be aware that the better you get at playing then the more keys you will want and need.
This is quite an important one. When a keyboard is ‘velocity sensitive’ it means that it responds to how hard you play the key, allowing you to play at different dynamics (soft, loud and everywhere in between).
Whatever piece of music you’re playing, it is going to be improved by using a bit of ‘touch’ and dynamic range, so I would certainly suggest that you opt for a velocity sensitive keyboard.
Again, to use the piano grades as an example, the ability to alter between ‘loud’ and ‘soft’ playing is introduced at the very start of the process, in the ‘prep test’ (the test which precedes grade 1).
The ‘action’: weighted / semi-weighted / non-weighted
This is an element of pianos and keyboards that, if you haven’t played before, may be unfamiliar to you: the feeling and weight of the keys when they are pushed down.
Most keyboards at the cheaper end of the spectrum will not be weighted, meaning that the keys can be played with the lightest of touches. It is very hard to get a good feel on these keyboards, and they can become increasingly frustrating as you play notes without meaning to.
However, you can still get some fairly decent keyboards that aren’t weighted, and to get something that is fully weighted is often £300+, so it will probably come down to your budget as to what you should get.
You can find some semi-weighted keyboards that aren’t too dear, so if your budget allows for it then this would certainly be preferable to something non-weighted.
Extras: Stands, Stools and Pedals
If you’re buying a separate stand and/or stool, then make sure they are adjustable. As a teacher I have had numerous times when I have gone to a student’s home to give them their first piano lesson and the keyboard’s been up by their ears. Which, whilst it’s adorable, isn’t particularly easy for them to actually play anything. Ideally, the keyboard shouldn’t be far off elbow level.
A sustain pedal allows notes to continue sounding after the player has taken their fingers of the keys, and it has various uses in piano music. It is used fairly frequently from grade 2 and beyond, so it is a good idea to have one, or at least a keyboard that can have one plugged into it.
Sticking with the better-known brands is certainly a safer option; they’ve built a reputation through consistently making quality products, and if there is a problem with one of their products then they will most likely have a fairly reliable process through which you can get a replacement or refund.
These are some companies that have a good selection of low to mid range keyboards:
In Particular Casio and Yamaha have a wide range of beginner and intermediate level keyboards and digital pianos, so they’re a good place to start.
This list is by no means exhaustive, so there will be other good keyboards out there, just be aware that there are poor-quality products available.
Where to Buy: Online or in store
Online is cheap, there’s no two ways around it. You will all know the main offenders, and they’re not a bad option really, if you know what you’re after.
There are, however, certainly big benefits to buying in store: mainly, the wisdom and advice of the members of staff, and the ability to try before you buy.
If you’re based anywhere near Music Rox, in South East London, then there are a few options for piano and keyboard showrooms. Head into the city and you will be spoilt for choice.
How many keys? The better you are, the more you will need. If possible get 61-keys or (ideally) more
Velocity Sensitive? Yes! You want to be able to play different dynamics (‘soft’, ‘loud’ etc.)
Weighted Keys? Yes, if it’s in your budget. It’s not essential for learning to play, so non-weighted can still be ok for a beginner.
Stand and Stool? Make them adjustable, if possible, so that whoever is playing has the keys at near enough elbow height.
Sustain Pedal? Yes, or the possibility of plugging one in. These are used frequently from Grade 2 level and beyond
Stick with the Brands? They’re a safer bet, and still competitively priced. (Suggest brands are list above)
Where to Buy? Online is generally cheaper, but in store you will probably be better informed and you can try before you buy.
Hopefully this has been of some help. If you still have queries, or you have bought the keyboard and are now looking for someone to teach you, then all questions are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org