In Part One, I discussed how your musical goals, the styles you want to play, and your playing level are all relevant in your choice of an instrument. Today, I’ll run through the basic options and offer my recommendations.
An acoustic piano is the #1 choice for nearly every piano student if affordability, ease of moving, and the ability to play with headphones are not major issues. Decent to good-quality used pianos can be purchased for not much more than a new high-end digital piano, and sometimes for less. Check out the Piano Buyer Guide.
Update Winter 2017: For both its sound and action, I currently recommend the Kawai ES8 as the best stand-alone digital home piano for under $2,000. (I continue to recommend the Kawai MP7 as the best digital stage piano.) Portland residents can try and purchase both instruments at Portland Piano Company in downtown Portland.
The weighted-action digital piano is a usually cheaper, easier to move, and somewhat more versatile option that works fine for many beginning and intermediate students. That said, digital pianos lack the voice, feel and resonance of an acoustic piano. A digital piano has fewer sounds than a synthesizer, and they are mostly typical keyboard sounds such as organ, harpsichord, piano and electric piano. These sounds, though, are often of a much higher quality than a synthesizer’s. The typical digital piano has 76 or 88 keys, which is critical for learning intermediate (and higher) piano music. Many come with pedals and a bench. Check out the Digital Piano Review Guide.
Synthesizer / Electronic Keyboard
A typical synthesizer has many more options than a digital piano, possibly including a sequencer so that you can record yourself playing, many more sounds, and rhythm tracks. Most five-octave (61 key) electronic keyboards do not have weighted-action keys, meaning they do not feel like a piano when you play them. As I mentioned in Part One, this is ultimately more of a liability for most piano students over the long haul. Nevertheless, some beginners can get by with such a keyboard. Just be sure it has full-size keys, touch sensitivity (which allows you to control the volume with your fingers) and a decent piano sound. Soon, though, you will want to move up to a digital or acoustic piano or you will never learn the finger technique that is necessary for becoming a good all-around player.
- Acoustic Piano. All else being equal, go with an acoustic piano. A piano is a wonderful instrument, and can also be a beautiful piece of furniture for your home, unlike a piece of technology with blinking lights. It is typically easy to rent a piano or to purchase one with a rent-to-own program.
- Digital Piano. A digital piano with 76 or 88 keys is the next best choice. Be sure it has pedals and comes with an adjustable bench. Don’t worry about getting all the bells and whistles. If your main goal is to play piano – rather than being a composer or player of electronic music – you will likely never use them.
- A Smaller, Non-Weighted-Action Synthesizer. No matter how many sounds and other cool options it has, this is the last choice for students of any age or playing level. That said, a synthesizer can be a very fun second instrument, if you can afford to own two, and is extremely useful for aspiring composers and arrangers.
If this is your first time buying a keyboard instrument, ask a teacher or someone with extensive playing experience for their objective opinion on specific instruments. It is easier for someone with playing experience to make a judgment about the feel of a keyboard, the quality of a sampled piano sound, and many other important factors.
Happy purchasing, and happy playing!