No matter the instrument, the first step to becoming a musician is purchasing an instrument. Although I do recommend an acoustic piano, sometimes space, volume or budgets are big issues. Digital pianos and keyboards are fine for beginning piano students. Hopefully this guide will help families decide on the best instrument for their young musicians.
If you’re short on time or just feeling overwhelmed, then I recommend students purchase the Yamaha YDP103 Arius Series Digital Piano or the Casio CTK-3200 Keyboard, which comes with a stand and pedal already included.
Part 1: Digital Piano and Keyboard Basics
What is a digital piano?
A digital piano is the modern, electronic version of an acoustic piano. Acoustic pianos are what most people think of when they think of pianos. Acoustic pianos have to be tuned and maintained regularly, very much like a car. A digital piano is something that you can just plug up and forget about.
Just like a regular piano, digital pianos have eighty-eight keys. And most have two or three pedals already included so there is nothing extra to purchase. And all are touch-sensitive, meaning you can play soft and loud.
Some Advantages of a Digital Piano
- One main perk is that digital pianos are often more affordable than acoustic pianos.
- They are much lighter than an acoustic piano, so moving it is easier.
- Digital pianos do not have to be tuned twice a year like acoustic pianos. In fact, they never have to be tuned!
- Students can practice with headphones. This is especially important if you live in an apartment or townhouse.
- Pianists can control the volume.
- Little to no maintenance.
- They have the ability to record a student’s performance.
- Digital pianos can be connected to your computer and used with various software.
Some Disadvantages of a Digital Piano
- One big issue is that digital pianos do not sound like acoustic pianos. Though the sounds of digital pianos have improved rapidly, there is still some improvement necessary to make these sound like a real piano.
- Like many electronics, they can randomly stop working and you either have to send in the piano for repair (time consuming) or purchase a new one.
- They don’t feel like a real piano.
- It is difficult to play advanced pieces on a digital piano.
Digital pianos come in many different styles. These include grand or mini grand styles.
What is a Piano Keyboard?
A piano keyboard is a smaller and more portable piano. Though there are some full-sized keyboards more often than not, they have 76, 61, or even fewer keys. Some keyboards allow for dynamics, which means you can play variations of soft and loud by pressing lightly or forcefully on the keys, while others do not allow for any kind of volume change no matter how hard or soft you press the keys. Keyboards often do not come with pedals, though these can be purchased separately. Music stands, keyboard stands, and benches may also need to purchased separately.
Many parents buy their beginning students a keyboard since it is much less expensive than a digital piano.
What is a Full-Sized Keyboard?
A full-sized keyboard or digital piano has eighty-eight keys, just like a regular piano. If you purchase a keyboard with a lower amount of keys, eventually you will have to upgrade to something larger.
What is a Weighted Keyboard?
This is a very important term. When purchasing a keyboard it is very important to find something that is weighted or touch-sensitive. Meaning it can play soft, loud, or in-between. Even beginners learn dynamics so it is absolutely essential to have a weighted instrument if you choose to purchase a keyboard. 99% of all digital pianos are weighted to some degree.
What is a Clavinova?
A Clavinova is line of pianos produced by Yamaha (a big name in music). It is a premium line which means it will be more expensive than other digital pianos. With the Clavinova, Yamaha strives to match the qualities of an acoustic piano while having the technological capabilities that make having a digital piano worthwhile.
What is a Stage Piano?
A stage piano is a digital piano that is used for performances or in a recording session. It is geared towards touring musicians and not regular pianists.
What is an Electric Piano?
Technically, it is the predecessor to the digital piano and was very popular during the seventies and eighties. Many people say “electric piano” when they mean “digital piano”.
Part 2: How Many Keys?
Since this is a question I get asked often…
- A standard piano has eighty-eight keys.
- There is no standard for piano keyboards as there are many different variations.
- Some have 49. These are basically toys.
- Some have 61. Better.
- Some have 76. Even better.
- Some have 88. The best.
- Grand pianos have 88 keys.
- Full-sized always means 88 keys.
Part 3: Which One Should You Buy?
There are many different answers as this is a very personal question. There are, however, some basic requirements needed for a piano student to be successful. There are also many things a student does not need.
Digital Versus Keyboard
Digital pianos are always full-sized pianos. They come with a sturdy stand and pedals. They are easier to move since they are lighter than acoustic pianos but are not as portables as a keyboard.
Keyboards normally have less than eighty-keys. Sometimes they come with a bench, stand, and pedal and sometimes they don’t. Keyboards are very easy to move.
I normally recommend digital pianos since you can purchased a full-sized one for not much more than a smaller keyboard. Digital pianos have a nicer sound, nicer action, and more accurately reflect playing on a piano. If you’re unsure of whether your child will stick with piano, I find that students who begin with a piano or full-sized keyboard often are the ones who take lessons long-term.
How To Buy a Keyboard
Number of Keys
This is very important. I recommend families purchase something with eighty-eight keys because the student won’t run into problems later on when they are trying to practice a song only to find out they they are missing the necessary keys. Of course these are more expensive than keyboards with less keys. The minimum number of keys needed is 61. Anything less is a toy and your student will not be able to practice or progress.
Minimum Number of Keys: 61 keys please.
Most young piano students will not need fancy features such as usb ports, midi ports, external speakers, midi capability, polphony, the ability to make gun shot noises, ect. If these words mean nothing to you, great! Because you don’t need those features. A beginning piano student will just need something that turns on to the piano sound and then turn off. Don’t let some salesperson say otherwise. This is, of course, assuming you actually purchase your instrument from an actual store.
Minimum Advanced Features: None. Gibberish, Bells & Whistles = Not Needed.
Another fancy way of saying weighted keys or the ability to play soft and loud by pressing the keys lightly or hard. All levels of pianists need this. If the description does mention this, then do not buy it. If it says something about a switch or multiple levels of volume, then keep searching.
Piano Keys: Touch-sensitive is required.
Some keyboards are just that, keyboards. Others include a complete package that includes:
- A keyboard stand – This is where you place the keyboard when a student is practicing.
- A bench – This is where the student sits during practice.
- A music stand – This is what holds the student’s music during practice.
- A pedal – This is always the sustain pedal (makes the notes longer and sounds really cool) and beginner pieces sometimes uses this.
If you buy a keyboard without these three things you will need to figure logistics concerning where the keyboard will be placed, what the student will use for a seat, and where the music will be placed.
How To Buy a Digital Piano
Number of Keys
Most digital pianos have eighty-eight keys, so this won’t matter. Though, it doesn’t hurt to double check.
The Keyboard Stand
Some stands look very nice, others look very cheap. If the digital piano will be somewhere out of sight, such as a playroom, then it probably won’t matter if the stand if a different color from the piano or just looks very cheap. If your digital piano will be in the living room, then you would probably want something nicer.
Again, the minimum advanced features is none.
Minimum Advanced Features: None. Gibberish, Bells & Whistles = Not Needed.
If you’re lucking enough to purchase your digital piano in person, I definitely recommend playing it to see if you like the sound or touch of the instrument. Though this may be important to more advanced players I still suggest for beginners.
Part 4: Price
Price is often an important factor when deciding what instrument to purchase. Families should be wary of just choosing the cheapest instrument, because often a student will not be successful. If you have the budget (and the budget to maintain the piano), then I recommend purchasing an acoustic piano. Otherwise, a good keyboard and digital piano will be adequate.
How Much Are Piano Keyboards?
Keyboards can cost as little as $100. I wouldn’t advise going below $100 because the instrument would not be satisfactory. More expensive keyboards can cost $500 and up, but have many have a lot of features that young pianists do not need.
How Much Are Digital Pianos?
Digital pianos start at about $500 for basic models and then go up from there, costing several thousand dollars. Pretty much any digital piano would be an acceptable instrument to practice on.
Part 5: Where To Buy
There are several great places that I recommend for purchasing an instrument. Some are national chains, local shops, or online stores. The advantage to buying something at a store is that you can actually see the product before purchasing. And if you go to a local shop, you can often see or even play on the instrument. Shopping online doesn’t allow you to see or feel the instrument beforehand, though you can often get a better price.
Where to Buy A Digital Piano
Best Buy has a small selection of digital pianos which are sometimes on display. They also have a financing option if you use your Best Buy Card.
If you go at the right time, Costco has great deals on digital and even acoustic pianos. Shopping here does require a membership.
Amazon has a large selection of digital with very detailed descriptions and often free shipping. There is also financing available if you purchase with your Amazon Card.
Music and Arts
This is a local music store that is pretty big where I live and they definitely have great price of digital pianos. Definitely check to see if there is one near you or perhaps another local music store. Most Music and Arts stores have one or two digital pianos on display and prospective students can play on them before purchasing.
Where to Buy a Piano Keyboard
Again, Amazon has a wide selection including 88 key keyboards at affordable prices.
I personally find Target to be a great place to purchase a keyboard. There are also several in stock and each time I’ve checked they have had keyboards that are touch-sensitive.
Music and Arts Store
Their keyboards tend to be a bit more expensive, more bells and whistles, but not to terribly overpriced. There are usually a few on display so you should be able to test the keyboard you want before purchasing it.
Part 6: The End
I hope this guide has been helpful for families interested in purchasing a keyboard or digital piano. It’s definitely overwhelming if you don’t have a piano background. I plan to add some more in-depth reviews about particular products so hopefully that will be even more of a help.
As I said before, the two products that I usually recommend to families that need help choosing an instrument are the Yamaha YDP103 Arius Series Digital Piano or the Casio CTK-3200 Keyboard. Both have great reviews and are good for beginning students.