Digital pianos are outselling acoustic pianos by a staggering ratio of 6 to 1 today. …and – on one hand – that’s not terribly surprising giving the lower costs and extra learning tools associated with digital instruments. Unfortunately, a closer look at these numbers reveals that an overwhelming majority of digital pianos sold are woefully inadequate instruments. In fact, they are playing a big role in student attrition all over America and could be responsible – if not put in check – for the loss of an entire generation of potential music makers. I don’t say this lightly – neither do I post it here to scare you into purchasing an acoustic piano (Full disclosure – I own a digital piano myself.). No. I say this because I am passionate about making sure piano students have the best shot at success and because I want you to understand the critical differences between “good” digital pianos (expressive musical instruments that can motivate student success or inspire experienced players) and “bad” digital pianos (cheaply-made instruments that look like pianos, but do not provide the feedback and/or control necessary to delight players). As a pianist of over 35 years, a music education columnist and nationally-known piano expert, it is my hope that this guide will help you avoid a mistake that could cost you – or your loved ones – the opportunity to turn their musical dreams into reality.
What is a Digital Piano?
Before I begin to describe the features you – or your student – will find desirable on a digital piano, I must first describe what a digital piano is (and, by contrast, what a digital piano is not). Digital pianos are 88-key electronic musical instruments with key actions, pedals and sound technologies designed to authentically emulate a grand piano’s performance. They are judged by their authenticity (similarity to acoustic pianos), their technology (tools that aid in learning, enjoyment), and projected longevity (often indicated by long warranties and/or great global reputations).
Digital Pianos vs. Keyboards
Despite what you might see “on the box,” not everything with black and white keys, speakers and a power button is a digital piano. The most important (and expensive) part of a digital piano is its action (including the keys, mechanisms and methods by which the player’s intentions are communicated to the sound chip). Anyone can put a spring or weight under a thin piece of plastic and call their keyboards “weighted key” keyboards, but it takes a complex mechanism to recreate the behavior of a grand piano action and NOTHING available today for under $6oo can do it. Period. If you’re considering an electronic instrument for under $600, please save your money. Rent something. Do whatever you can, but do not start lessons on an inadequate action. You can’t play football without proper pads. You can’t learn to drive with a remote control car. Similarly, you can’t learn to play the piano on a keyboard. How do I know? Because 85% of the students who try quit in the first year (according to the NAMM Foundation for Music Education). Keyboards are “for fun” musical toys (similar to toddler xylophones and plastic trumpets) that do a great job building interest, but cannot serve the needs of even a beginning player.
What to Look For in a Digital Piano
The two most famous digital piano brands are Yamaha Clavinova and Roland. In fact, the digital piano industry is quite similar to the soda industry. Though there are a variety of brands (some good and some not), two dominant brands seem to appear in every major application. Imagine how surprised you’d be to find a restaurant that serves “Sam’s Cola” or “RC.” Yamaha and Roland each have excellent global reputations for quality and can be easily found on stages, on tv, in studios, etc.). That said, however, one should never select an instrument based solely upon its brand name. Instead, here are some criteria you should look for in a “good” digital piano:
- Authentic Piano Sound – Instrument sounds are cheap. Even keyboards have 100 of those. Remember. You’re buying a digital piano (not a digital sitar or gospel choir). Focus on the instrument with the best piano sound technology – like multi-channel sampling or (even better) behavior modeling. Make sure your piano mimic’s an acoustic piano’s physics with a feature called “overtones.” These added harmonics thicken up the piano sound and deliver a more expressive tone – more like a grand piano and less like a keyboard or music box. The more expressive and authentic the piano sound – the more you will want to play the piano.
Gravity Hammer Action – Most folks have heard the term “weighted key.” When discussing keyboards, this simply means the thin, plastic keys have added springs or weights to counteract finger force. A “Gravity Hammer Action,” however, correctly simulates the speed and feel of a grand piano using counterweights. When you press a key, the counterweight rises. When you let go, the counterweight (with gravity’s help) falls down – returning the key to its original position. For the sake of longevity and proper piano-playing technique, make sure your instrument has a “Gravity Hammer Action” with no key springs. This is a critical differentiator between keyboards and digital pianos.
- Properly Weighted and Graded Touch – The hammers in the bass section of a piano are bigger than in the treble. Thus, it takes slightly more force to push the bass keys down. Good quality digital pianos will mimic this “grading.” It’s also important that your digital piano be properly weighted with escapement (an acoustic piano term that describes a specific point in the travel of a piano key from “normal” to “fully depressed”). It’s not enough to have resistance – you have to have the right resistance. Ask your sales rep to demonstrate proper key weighting and escapement on the piano you’re considering. A proper touch builds proper playing technique.
- Headphones Jacks – Today’s families are busier than ever. It’s not uncommon for “piano time” to be delayed, disrupted or even cancelled due to home office events, phone calls, TV programs, etc. Make “piano time” a protected part of your daily routine with headphones. Now you can play privately – whenever you want – without disruption or delay. You won’t believe the difference!
- Audio or MIDI Recorder – Don’t worry. I am not suggesting you record an album with your home piano – though I wouldn’t dissuade you from trying either. I merely mention this because it’s extremely helpful for the learning process. Recording one hand and playing along with it is a tried and true way to work through difficult passages. Recording yourself also helps to build confidence and emotion as you learn to play. Finally, it’s a great way to learn duets!
- Interface Device – If I lost you there for a second, don’t worry. The “Interface Device” can be a USB flash drive (called a “jump drive” or “thumb drive” or “memory key”, etc), a WIFI connection or even a Bluetooth pairing. Plugging a USB flash drive into your piano is ideal for updates, recording or play-a-long. You can even store music you’ve recorded there for later printing or CD burning (on your home computer or notebook). WIFI connections allow you to interact with music learning and play-a-long apps. Bluetooth can do even more. Connect Bluetooth MIDI and use the latest music learning apps to speed up your study by up to 60% or play along with your favorite bands, tv themes and more with a host of “play at your own speed” apps that make the process easy and fun! You can even turn the pages of your digital music wirelessly with Bluetooth. You won’t BELIEVE how much more use you will get out of your piano… or how much more fun you’ll have!
Of course, there are always other features to consider – especially if you are purchasing for a church or school – but your best bet is to focus on core features (sound, touch, workmanship, recording, software, etc) that you will actually use. This will help you find the perfect instrument for your budget.
After the Sale Support
Whatever money you decide to spend, however, is wasted if you don’t get good “after the sale” support. The best manufacturers offer free firmware updates for their pianos that will help keep your piano compatible with the latest mobile devices. You’ll need help learning to use your piano. Make sure you work with a company that offers free training and support. Finally, you need a good warranty. The industry standard for “good” digital pianos is five years, but some manufacturers offer as much as ten! Get a good warranty from a reputable brand and you’ll know you’ve made a smart purchase.
Buy Nice or Buy Twice
Of course most people purchase a digital piano because it’s less expensive than a good acoustic piano and costs less to maintain (since digital pianos don’t require tuning). However, I have seen plenty of “piano horror stories” in my career and I can assure you that – the money you might save on that “Big Box” deal or Cyber Monday sale is money you’d gladly spend to get the help you NEED when you need it. All I ask is that you remember one thing:
Most people think they will buy a starter digital piano (or – even worse – a keyboard) and trade up. They almost never do. You know the old saying… “Buy nice or buy twice.” Buy the best digital piano you can afford now. I am not overstating when I say your family’s musical success depends upon it. Don’t be afraid. Beat the odds. Get a good digital piano and watch your whole family enjoy it for years to come! …and I’ll be here to answer your questions every step of the way.