Choosing an electronic keyboard

Many people starting piano lessons already have a traditional piano they’ve acquired from a friend or neighbor, or maybe they have one that has been passed down in their family. However, at least half of my students do their practice at home on some sort of electronic keyboard. Some beginning students have yet to purchase a keyboard and are looking for some guidance. I have done some research to get a feel for what is currently out in the marketplace and offer here a few comments and/or suggestions.

Please note that my personal and teaching instrument is an acoustic baby grand piano, and I have not personally had access to all of the following keyboards. With brick-and-mortar music stores (like many other smaller markets) competing with online resources, it is harder for them to keep a large inventory of digital pianos in stock for trial by customers. However, in our area we are fortunate to have a few piano stores with both acoustic and digital options. Stop by Carnes Piano on Stevens Creek Blvd. in San Jose, or Yamaha on S. Winchester Blvd just down the road. Colton Piano Gallery is also on Stevens Creek Blvd. near Santana Row and appears to have some higher-end electronic models which may be interesting to check out. (Naturally, all these retailers have a large collection of acoustic upright, baby grand and grand pianos to try out and consider as well.)

What follows is certainly not an exhaustive list of the available digital or electronic keyboards out there. I am including the following models and links to give a basic overview of some of the price points you may encounter when shopping and to offer some commentary on some of the features and value you may find in the range of instruments. For convenience, most of these links will take to you to Amazon.com, but many more retailers exist. I urge you to check them out and compare prices, shipping fees, and purchasing terms as well.

For regular piano lessons you are paying for, please refrain from jumping on a $75 bargain from a big-box store, for example, simply because of the price. After a short while of lessons you may already be looking to upgrade! Please remember to look for the all-important weighted or at least touch-sensitive, full-sized keys for your main instrument, and recall that 61 keys is a true minimum for beginning lessons. Eight-eight (88) keys is ideal, of course, but there are a few at the 76-key size that are definitely good quality keyboards you can enjoy.

You can get starting with lessons by purchasing a very basic, beginning keyboard such as the EZ-200 by Yamaha. It does offer the minimum requirement of touch-sensitive, full-sized keys at a bargain price. Please note that the pedal is sold separately, as it is with most keyboards.

Just a little bit more cash can get you the Yamaha YPG-235, which will benefit you with an expanse to 76 keys plus USB compatibility. In the neighborhood of $250, this gives you a good amount to work with as you get started with piano lessons.

If you want to invest in a great approximation of a true, acoustic piano sound, the Yamaha P85 should take you the distance. You’ll notice from the start it is designed not to appeal to those looking for a zillion gimmicky features (although it does have its share), but to serve as a true substitute for a traditional piano. It has the full 88 keys you or your child will be longing for, eventually, plus a highly-touted quality piano sound that can rival an acoustic instrument. I’ve played this keyboard and was very pleased with it.

Note that it must be purchased with a specific, separate stand (~$100) and of course you’ll need to get a pedal ($20-100) but even with all that, you are looking at a solid set-up that has the advantage of never needing tuning, the option to use headphones to allow for off-hours practice, and of course no need to hire piano movers should the situation arise.

Yamaha also makes an upgraded version of this digital piano, the P95B, which is similar but offers a few notable advantages: improved speaker quality, a matte finish on the black keys, and what I would most value, an upgrade to a four-velocity layer per note. This means that there are four separate recording options programmed into the keyboard per note to allow for variance of tone depending on how hard the key is struck. I’ve also been able to play a few songs on this keyboard and it would certainly be a contender for my purchase if I was in the market.

Other than the Yamaha brand, which seems to offer the keyboards I’m seeing with the best feedback and reviews as far as sound quality, Casio also makes a variety of keyboards. You are likely to find them at lower price points and loaded with features.

Right up there at the approximate price point of the Yamaha P85, you’ll find the Casio Privia PX-130. This is a well-reviewed digital keyboard that offers the advantage of touting 128-note polyphony. For beginning and intermediate players, the commonly found 64-note polyphony should be plenty, but this is a plus for Casio. Reviews mention some slight critique on learning the many functions that the keyboard can allow, as it is designed to have a more minimal look with fewer buttons, and it does have the lesser-grade plastic exterior, but for traditional piano students, this Casio seems like a very good choice outside the Yamaha line and reportedly provides a very high-quality sound.

Korg is also well-known in the keyboard world, although they tend to have higher-end instruments, often with many electronic functions that are outside of my review. The Korg SP-250 is listed as a quality digital piano with excellent hammer-action (the “feel” of the keys, as far as imitating the feel of an acoustic piano), double headphone outputs, a two-velocity layer per note for quality sound, support of a half-damper pedal action, and an overall top-notch traditional piano sound. Reviewers recommend skipping the mediocre built-in speakers, however, and adding your own external amplifier, or enjoy the results via headphone for best sound. This Korg is not considered portable but feels very sturdy at 42 pounds.

Of course, if you have money to burn and want it all (in a digital piano) start checking out some of the Roland beauties like this one!

A couple quick side notes to remember when purchasing a keyboard:

1. If ordering online sure to check what comes “in the box” before you complete your order! There are many reviewers disappointed when a pedal, stand or (commonly!) an AC-adaptor is actually sold separately from the actual keyboard. Many DO come with these times, but check carefully ahead of time. Don’t be disappointed when the keyboard finally arrives and you can’t plug it in.

2. Be sure to fully understand the return policy of any retailer so you can be informed if you will get a chance to play and evaluate the keyboard before deciding to keep it permanently.

3. Please select a stand and a seat for your keyboard that will be ergonomic and supportive for you or your child. Remember, feet should touch the floor and arms should make close to a right-angle at the elbow when resting on the piano keys. Wrists should be flat when playing. Dining room tables usually aren’t the best choice for a permanent location for your instrument!

Finally, your own experience with your keyboard can help me add to and edit these guidelines and recommendations, to the benefit of other students. Please share your thoughts on what you like and don’t like about your keyboard.

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