Five Things You Need To Know When Buying A Digital Piano or Keyboard

With so many different options and brands to choose from, buying a new keyboard or digital piano can be a scary process. Find out exactly what you should be looking for in a keyboard with these helpful tips!

For years now, people have been coming up to me with a look of crazed confusion, dread and desperation on their faces. Did they just witness a murder? No, worse. These poor victims are falling prey to an age old problem. In a world cluttered with Yamahas and Casios, it can be nearly impossible to figure out which digital piano or keyboard will work best for you. That is why I have crafted a special gift just for you, confused piano purchaser. I give you the five most important keyboard features to “check off your list” while out shopping for a new digital piano or keyboard. If you’re planning on using your keyboard to play all types of non-classical styles, here are a few points you’re going to want to keep in mind:

Almost every modern acoustic piano has 52 white keys and 36 black keys for a grand total (pun intended) of 88 keys. If at all possible, I suggest trying to get a full sized keyboard. When playing in the styles I teach, even though you will not be reading notes way above or below the middle staff, you will be playing much higher and lower on your piano than most beginning students who take classical lessons. For the small increase in price, the extra notes are well worth it. At a very minimum, don’t buy a keyboard with less than five full octaves. It will likely end up in your closet in lieu of a larger keyboard.

(Don’t do what this person did!)

One of the most fun things you will gain by learning to play the piano is the ability to sit down at any piano or keyboard and enjoy playing it. For this reason, you want to make sure the keys on your new digital piano or keyboard are standard size. If your keys are standard size, you should have no trouble sitting down at any keyboard or piano and playing a tune. Beware of the very inexpensive “toy like” keyboards. They usually have narrower keys than a piano. A standard piano key will be approximately 23 mm wide. I say “approximately” because every key on a piano is not exactly the same width (another topic for another article…). If it is around 23 mm you are good to go. If it is significantly narrower, move on to a better keyboard.

Another difference between traditional and digital pianos is the way it feels when you physically press down on the key. In a traditional piano, your key is attached to a lever which then causes a felt-covered hammer to strike the strings inside the piano. Again, in order to ensure you can play on any piano, you want the key press to feel similar on your digital piano even though there are no hammers or strings inside a digital instrument. To imitate the feel of an acoustic piano, manufacturers use some variation of what is known as weighted action. It basically makes the keys feel more like the keys on a traditional piano. A digital piano or keyboard will typically either have weighted action or not. Without weighted action, the keys on the keyboard will feel more like an organ. Try to find a digital piano or keyboard with weighted action keys. It’s easy to move to an organ when you’re used to weighted action keys. Not so much in reverse …

When shopping for a digital piano or keyboard, you will be overloaded with a plethora of “bells and whistles” in the form of buttons, lights and often, hundreds of different instrument sounds. In my experience, the vast majority of those “extras” will go unused throughout the life of the instrument. You will likely play your instrument on an acoustic piano setting about 95% of the time. The other 5% you will use 4-5 other commonly used tones I have listed below. In the real world, you just don’t use a piano with something like a tuba sound very often.

  • Acoustic Piano
  • Electronic Piano (AKA a “Fender Rhodes” sound)
  • Jazz Organ (AKA Hammond B-3 sound)
  • Acoustic “Nylon String” guitar
  • Acoustic Bass
  • Electric Bass

If you do want to spend money on keyboard “extras,” here are a few features you can find on many digital pianos and keyboards which are actually very useful.

One, a built-in metronome can be very handy rather than having to keep a separate metronome around. Two, the ability to “split” the keyboard into two halves, each with their own sound. This is a great feature because it lets you play a bass line with your left hand while playing chords and/or a melody in your right-hand with different sounds. You see a lot of solo piano players using this feature when out playing gigs and accompanying themselves singing.

The last really important thing to look for when searching for a digital piano or keyboard is to make sure it comes with a pedal. At a minimum, you need a pedal called a sustain pedal. If it is a digital piano as opposed to a smaller keyboard, it will likely also have a second or third pedal. Just make sure you get the sustain pedal because it’s impossible to play in modern styles without one. So there you have it! Those are the five minimum things I suggest for anyone looking to purchase a new digital piano or keyboard. These days, the technology behind digital pianos and keyboards has gotten so good that, in many cases, digital pianos are a better, more practical option rather than shelling out top dollar on a concert acoustic grand. Keyboards and electric pianos typically take up less space, never go out of tune and in almost all cases, can be used with headphones so you will not drive others crazy while you’re practicing. Most importantly, have fun and good luck on your future piano related purchases! Tell us about your favorite keyboard in the comments below!

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