Keyboard or piano buying guide
by Gina Granier
When a student is just beginning, it is not necessary to make a large investment in a new instrument—unless you know you would like the look of a nice piano in your home no matter what. Otherwise, all you need to look for right now is a keyboard with a few basic features until you decide you might like an upgrade some time in the future. You can also rent a piano to begin lessons, or wait until we have had a few lessons under our belt before purchasing your own instrument.
If you are interested in a nicer investment (a quality piece-of-furniture piano) I can advise you on what to look for in that case. But keep in mind that it will require professional movers and a tuner, and that pianos do require ongoing upkeep. I am not discouraging the purchase of a piano, but you should know the pros and cons: A piano is nice to have when guests are over, the sound will likely be much better than a keyboard, and it will feel far more majestic to play. But it takes some work to purchase and maintain, and a keyboard will serve the same function with virtually no upkeep and at a much lower price. I like to be realistic, and keyboards are a way to keep learning the piano accessible to everyone. Also, keyboards now come with so many incredible functions! I've become a technology buff, and am happy to show you all kinds of cool things you can do with your keyboard to escalate your playing, recording, etc. There are apps that let you plug your phone or iPad right into the keyboard. Students love these, and practice time increases so much. The FAQ page has more info if you are ready to "plug in" your keyboard with some of these terrific programs.
A quality keyboard will be quite heavy, but not too heavy for one adult to move and load in a car. My weighted keyboard easily slides into the backseat of my sedan, so getting it home (or to and from gigs!) shouldn't be a problem.
ESSENTIAL FEATURES FOR A KEYBOARD:
1. Full-size keys. The keyboard or piano does not need to have the entire 88 keys if size is a consideration, but the keys it does have need to be full-size (like those of an acoustic piano). Ask for or look for the words 'full-sized keys' on the list of features.
2. Weighted keys. This is the most important feature because motor memory plays such an important role in learning piano. Weighted keys mean that the keys will be touch-sensitive like a real piano, an important consideration when switching back and forth from keyboard to piano, and when learning to play without looking at your hands. This also means that the volume will increase the harder you hit each key, allowing for dynamics in the music. This enables the keyboard to be played as it was intended, as a percussion instrument. Ask or look for the words 'weighted keys'. Some keyboards have touch-sensitive keys that are NOT weighted. I do not recommend these, but we can make it work.
3. Accessories. You absolutely must have a stand for the keyboard and a bench. The absolute best option is a keyboard with a built-in "cabinet"-style stand. Sometimes you put these together yourself, but it is SO WORTH IT. This makes one of the biggest differences in the feel of the keyboard. The bench can be adjustable, or we can use a footstool to help the feet reach the floor (to maintain posture). Eventually we will also need a pedal, but the imperatives are the keyboard, stand, and bench. If buying a keyboard, you may also want to consider headphones so that you will have more flexibility about when/where you can practice.
WHERE TO SHOP:
Always look online, even on Craigslist, Offer Up, ebay, etc. Sometimes you can find someone giving their piano away "to a good home" when they don't have space for it any more, or selling their used keyboard when little Jimmy decided to play electric guitar instead. I scan these sites from time to time and can notify you if I see something good (just tell me what you're looking for.) If you buy a used piano, you need to have a tuner check it out; some pianos are damaged beyond reasonable repair.
I have heard that Costco has nice weighted keyboards at a good price. Guitar Center or any music store will have a good selection of quality keyboards, and usually a knowledgeable staff. Piano stores will have nice brand-new and used instruments, and will likely have partnerships with movers and tuners so everything can be taken care of in one place. Feel free to try out the instruments in the store, and ask a lot of questions. I've gotten great deals on keyboards during sales at these brick-and-mortar stores.
Also, you can rent a piano for a very reasonable price, and delivery and tuning are usually included in the rental fee. I have not tried this myself in San Diego, but know there are many options out there (just search for piano rentals in San Diego). This option has been recommended to me, and I trust that it is a good route if you're looking for an actual piano with little commitment.
MORE SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS (WHAT I LIKE):
A great starter keyboard with all the features is Casio CDP-130. This is a bare-bones model, but it feels just like a real piano. I have two in my studio and one at home. (I found it on sale for $299 plus another $100 for the stand.) I use it for gigs because it's so much easier to lug around than my highly-recommended Casio Privia (which admittedly has a much richer sound, and is more than 3x the price). The less expensive keyboards will have lower sound quality, but that can easily be remedied by using headphones or even an amp. It is perfect for a starter piano, and very easy to sell if you decide to trade up. Contact me for help if you need it. : ) You likely will NOT find a brand-new keyboard with all of the necessary features (weighted keys, etc.) for less than $300 or $400, so if you need to spend less, look for a used instrument. For a nice keyboard with decent sound quality and volume (without needing an amp), expect to spend $500- $1000.
Whatever you buy, make sure to get the stand with it so it holds steady. You will also want the pedal with it eventually, but don't worry about that right away. The Casio CDP and Casio Privia both come with a built-in stand as an option, so definitely order that--it makes all the difference. I love the feel of the low, mid and high-range Casios, specifically the weighted, hammer-action keys like that of a real piano. In my opinion Casio feels most real. The Yamahas I've tried don't have the same real feel, but they do have a nicer sound. That's not true across the board, just in general. Most people will probably not notice a difference, so don't fret about the details too much. I can give you a more specific recommendation if you get in touch and let me know what you're looking for.
I hope this helps!