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Keyboards for adult beginners: what’s the best option?


By Scott Houston

Congratulations! You’ve taken the first, oftentimes most difficult step in your piano journey—deciding that you’re going to learn to play the piano. The second step to conquer? Finding a piano to best fit your needs so you can start playing. With countless pianos and keyboards just a Google search away, researching and identifying options can seem like a daunting task… that’s why I’ve done the hard work for you.

Keep reading below to find out how a piano makes sound across piano types, what characteristics you should look for when shopping, and my personal recommendations as an adult piano teacher for the past 25 years! Please remember recommendations are for adults who will be using the instrument as a fun new hobby and learning to play in their home.

How the piano works

The keys of a piano are where players (soon to be you!) have the most interaction with the instrument, but there’s so much more going on behind the scenes! Learning the basic structure of the piano and knowing how sound is actually made will help you make the best decision for your purchase. Use these key definitions as a guide: 
Keyboard: A set of keys that consists of the C Major Scale (just 12 musical notes), laid out and repeated in a specific pattern depending on the size of the piano. You’ll want to pay attention to the number of keys to make sure your keyboard suits your needs, should you decide to go this route. A standard 88-key piano has 52 white keys and 36 black keys (sharps or flats), producing a seven-octave range.  A smaller, 61-key piano has 36 white keys and 25 black keys, creating a five-octave range. An octave is simply the distance from one occurrence of a specific note to the next. These notes will have the same name but have a higher sound the further you move down the keyboard. Most modern music does not go above a five-octave range.

Piano action: When a key is pressed, a hammer rises to strike the appropriate strings, resulting in a vibration that we perceive as sound. When keys are pressed in a specific pattern, voila, we have music! The volume of the sound varies based on how hard the key is pressed. The actual mechanisms are far more complex than that, but as a beginner, or as long as you’re not planning on going into piano engineering—you won’t need to know much more!

Acoustic pianos

The piano action described above is what takes place on an acoustic piano, or one with physical strings. Strings inside of an acoustic piano hold a lot of tension (up to 18 tons!) making the keys feel heavy. Acoustic pianos can be grand or upright. Grand pianos have a horizontal frame and strings and can range from approximately five to ten feet! Upright pianos have a more compact, vertical frame, making them a more realistic option for smaller spaces.

Digital pianos

Acoustic pianos are a lovely investment, but usually not my first choice for beginners because they are heavy, expensive, and require regular maintenance.

While a baby grand piano or a beautiful upright might make a lovely addition to your living room, there are simply better options for most learners that won’t break the bank. Designed to emulate the look, feel, and sound of acoustic pianos without the traditional mechanics—digital pianos are my top recommendation for adult beginners. 

Digital pianos make sound using high-quality samples of notes stored within their system—which are made by recording the sounds of an acoustic with professional studio equipment. With indistinguishable sound, weighted keys to imitate the natural pressure of an acoustic, and a variety of shapes and sizes to choose from, digital pianos also offer volume control, built-in speakers, and a headphone output so you never have to worry about disturbing anyone with practicing.  

I recommend buying a digital piano with the full 88-key range, weighted action keys, built-in legs, and sustain pedal like the Korg B2SP Digital Piano Package so that you can keep your notes going longer once you get comfortable playing.

If you want something a little less expensive or don’t have the space for a standing piano, this Alesis Recital Pro 88-key Hammer-action Digital Piano is also a great option. It has a sustain pedal output, so you can buy one from Amazon or another retailer and start using it at your convenience! Please note that this digital piano does not have built-in legs, so you will need to plan ahead and know what you will put it on physically.

You might think that you will be able to simply plop it up on a desk, but more than likely you will want to be able to adjust the height with a stand to fit your comfort level. It’s best to purchase a keyboard stand from the same manufacturer—I love the Sweetwater brand because they make accessory recommendations right on the product webpage. 

 If you don’t like either of these options, I recommend browsing the entire Sweetwater Digital Piano library! They carry several different brands and make it really easy to refine your search based on what you’re looking for. Just make sure whatever you buy has 88 keys, weighted key action, and includes a sustain pedal or an output for one. 

Electronic keyboards

Unlike digital pianos, electronic keyboards are not designed to replicate the sound and feel of their acoustic relatives. There are no keyboards on this list because though most do offer acoustic piano notes, they are mainly known for offering a wide range of other instruments, voice, and synth sound effects that you simply won’t need when learning to play. 

It is also typical for portable keyboards to have narrow keys, and they are usually not weighted. If you can find a simple electronic keyboard with at least 60 full-width keys and weighted action, that should be enough to get you started, but I promise… the digital piano is so worth it! 

Want more piano advice about the instrument, reading music, mental and physical health advantages, how to find the right teacher, professional techniques, and more? Click the button below to download my Essential Guide to Learning Piano for Adults today!