I’ve been asked many times for advice when buying a piano – specifically a digital one so I put together this quick-n-dirty guide. Since my students all take lessons with me on a full-sized, acoustic piano I’m going to approach it from that angle mainly but I will bring up some other factors that are helpful to consider.

88 Keys!

You want a keyboard with 88 keys on it. Why? Because smaller keyboards, while awfully convenient with regards to a smaller scale and lighter weight, can make it very hard to transition back and forth from a full sized to a smaller keyboard. Playing piano is both a visual and a muscular activity and if a student gets used to a smaller keyboard size it can make it harder to adapt to a full sized model.

Weighted Action

Ever play on a super cheap Casio keyboard and noticed how thin and plastic-y (is that even a word?) the keys felt? This is because the keys didn’t have weighted action. On acoustic pianos there are tons of tiny (and not so tiny) parts that have to interact and move. Check out this graphic to see what I’m talking about.

Cited: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Broadwood_grand_square_action.svg

A digital keyboard is usually quite a bit more simplistic due to the electronics. Non-weighted keys give a much different type of action (i.e. how the key moves) can be quite distracting and even hinder proper playing technique if the student ever moves from a digital to an acoustic model. It’s well worth the extra cash!

Velocity Sensitive

Sounds complex but all this means is the harder you press down a key, the louder it sounds. Playing on a keyboard without velocity sensitivity can destroy a student’s touch and concept of dynamics because there will be none! Playing dynamics on an acoustic piano requires proper technique and touch so make sure what you’re buying has velocity sensitivity. If it’s not labeled, it’s easy to test! Just play soft then hard and see if the volume changes! The good news is most models that have both 88 keys and weighted action usually have velocity sensitivity as well.

Headphones Jack!

I practice a lot at night so having the ability to plug in and wail without disturbing others is a godsend! One helpful tip to parents however is to occasionally make your child practice without the headphones to ensure they’re actually practicing their assignments! 🙂 Also you always want to make sure the volume isn’t set too high when using headphones to prevent hearing damage/loss. I’d say about 99% of the digital pianos come with a headphone jack but it never hurts to check before sealing the deal. If you’re buying used bring a pair of your own headphones when you test out the piano to make sure it works properly!

Go With What You Know

Whenever possible go with a known brand. You get what you paid for, right? This is especially when you’re buying used since you’ll have a better idea of the kind of quality the brand offers as opposed to some off brand. Some well known brands are:

– Roland
– Korg
– Yamaha
– Kurzweil
– Studiologic

These are just a few of the brands but each provide decades of stable, professional and recognizable products and service. Avoid off brands as you can never be sure of the quality and customer service the company will provide. Buying a digital piano can be a hefty investment so you always want to make you’re getting the best investment for your dollar! A great tactic is to go play many models at your local music store. They usually don’t mind – so spend some time there. Get a feel for the set up, sounds, interface. See what you like and don’t like then see what kinds of deals you can find for the model(s) you liked online!

Beware the Controller!

When looking for a digital keyboard to buy you want to make sure you understand the difference between a controller (sometimes called MIDI controller) and a digital keyboard. It’s actually really simple: a controller has no built-in sounds. It’s simply an interface which when attached to a computer communicates with it and uses the sounds on the computer. Why is this important? Because without a computer the keyboard will be completely silent. Sometimes folks think controllers are a good option because the price tag is usually much lower but you really need a keyboard to make sound, right?

Other considerations:

There are some great keyboards out there that have amazing sounds and functionality! So aside from your budget what are some of your other concerns and needs? Will you be playing live gigs with this keyboard? Will you be using the keyboard to record audio and produce songs? (Yes there are keyboards that actually do that!) Will this keyboard basically be stationary in your home? Consider all of these factors when looking at what to buy. I own a Roland Fantom X-8 which is a great keyboard but it’s quite heavy. It’s listed at 65 lbs which doesn’t sound heavy but when you’re handling an odd shaped, expensive piece of gear that can quickly become very heavy. Then when you add in the hard case it’s even heavier! If you’re not going to be doing much gigging then maybe weight is less of an issue? If you’re not planning on producing songs on the keyboard then don’t worry about spending more cash for that feature. Don’t need 40,000 different sounds on your keyboard? Then don’t worry about buying them! You get the point – spend some time really figuring out what your goals and needs are now and what they might be in the near future.

Buying Used:

I always tell my students and parents to really do research when buying used and only buy from local people. Ebay is great and when buying new is pretty safe but that can change quickly when buying used products. It’s vital to always go over and play the piano first before buying it and you can’t always do that via Ebay. Even if you cannot actually play the piano (yet) just push down each key and make sure it works. Turn each knob and make sure that works as well. If someone doesn’t let you play the piano before buying it – walk away. There are so many folks on Craiglist.org and other online communities selling pianos that you can easily find other options. Always be careful when buying used and be picky. Finally avoid the scams. During a recent search, I saw $4,000 keyboards on sale for $50 on Ebay. If it’s too good to be true just skip it. You don’t want to be scammed out of your hard earned cash.

So that’s about it – hope it was helpful. If you have any specific questions that I didn’t address please contact me! I’m always happy to help!

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