14 Great Keyboards for Learning to Play

HOW MANY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS HAVE YOU ALREADY GIVEN UP ON? WAS “LEARN TO PLAY KEYBOARD” one of them?
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By Owen O'Malley

HOW MANY NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS HAVE YOU ALREADY GIVEN UP ON? WAS “LEARN TO PLAY KEYBOARD” one of them? You’ll get no judgments from us—only sympathy, encouragement, and the following buyers’ guide for prospective (and erstwhile) piano and keyboard students. Whether you have an instructor or study and practice on your own, buying a keyboard for the purpose of learning and practice is a lot different from buying one to play gigs in a band. To help, here are the educational features we deem most essential, followed by 14 exemplary models that have some or most of them.

***Our video of these keyboards and more from Winter NAMM 2012.

Feature

1. FULL-SIZED KEYS

What It Does

Keys are the same physical dimensions as those on an acoustic piano.

Benefit

Learning with full-sized keys makes it easier translate your technique to acoustic pianos.

Feature

2. WEIGHTED ACTION

What It Does

Simulates the physical feel and action of the mechanical keys on an acoustic piano.

Benefit

Helps you build finger strength and dexterity.

Feature

3. TRIPLE PEDALS

What It Does

Offers damper, sostenuto, and soft pedals like on a real piano, via built-in, included, or optional pedal.

Benefit

A lot of traditional music written for piano calls for more than just the sustain pedal.

Feature

4. DUET MODE

What It Does

Splits the keyboard in the middle with identical note ranges on either side.

Benefit

Lets student and teacher sit side by side and play the same part in the same range, as opposed to octaves apart.

Feature

5. AUDIO INPUT

What It Does

Usually 1/8" stereo mini or stereo RCA. Routes audio from an external source through your keyboard’s speakers or headphone output.

Benefit

Play along with songs from your iPod or other device; great for learning or practicing along with your favorite music without having to convert it to another format.

Feature

6. AUTO-ACCOMPANIMENT

What It Does

A “virtual backup band” with a variety of musical styles that responds to your left-hand chord changes. Add realtime variations for intros, verses, fills, etc., and you have an “arranger keyboard.”

Benefit

You can learn timing with a metronome, but auto accompaniment lets you learn feel. And it’s a lot more fun. A great way to practice improvising and coming up with musical ideas, especially since the virtual band never needs a break.

Feature

7. INTERACTIVE FULL SONGS

What It Does

Goes beyond both auto-accompaniment and mere demo song/MIDI file playback to let you play interactively with fully arranged songs.

Benefit

Most beginning students want to play music they already know and love. Song mode offers this, and often implies some combination of features 8–11.

Feature

8. WAIT MODE
(a.k.a. auto-stop or “your tempo”)

What It Does

Accompaniment or song playback will stop if you hit wrong notes then start again when you find the right ones.

Benefit

Allows you to learn songs at your own pace, and keeps you from getting discouraged or feeling overwhelmed.

Feature

9. CHORD DISPLAY

What It Does

Displays the left-hand chord, either on a staff , as a chord symbol (e.g., Em7), or both.

Benefit

A simple, interactive way to begin associating chord fingerings with their names, symbols, and appearance on the staff .

Feature

10. PART MUTING OR MIXING

What It Does

Mutes elements of a song being played back, either by instrument (drums, bass, etc.) or by left- and right-hand parts.

Benefit

When you’ve learned a part, lets you “sit in” in the band for the virtual player you’ve muted.

Feature

11. LIGHT-UP KEYS

What It Does

In conjunction with song playback or chord display, keys light up to guide your fingers to correct notes.

Benefit

Helps you associate notes on a staff , chords, and what you’re hearing to shapes on the keyboard.

Feature

12. SONG RECORDER

What It Does

Records your playing as MIDI, audio, or both Some models offer multitrack recording.

Benefit

The best way to evaluate your progress is to listen to what you’ve played. Also good for aspiring songwriters.

Alesis Cadenza
Features: 1 2 5 12

This streamlined digital piano focuses on conjuring a real piano experience at a student-friendly price. To that end, its 88 keys are full-sized and hammeraction, and the available sounds pared down to eight. There are still some electronic-instrument extras that the piano student will value—two-track recorder, auxiliary audio input, and built-in metronome—but the Cadenza is for students who want their dollars to go toward an instrument that plays more like its acoustic counterpart.
$699 list | $499 street | alesis.com

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Casio Celviano AP-620
Features: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 12

The flagship of the Celviano line is a best-of-both-worlds digital piano. It not only looks, but plays and sounds, a lot like an acoustic piano thanks to its four-layer stereo multisamples, 88 weighted keys with ivory-like texture, and triple pedal. It offers many of the features we’ve highlighted like duet mode, song mode with an expandable library (via SD memory card), a 16-track recorder, and auto-accompaniment. The price even includes a matching bench.
$1,799 list | $1,399 street | casio.com

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Casio LK-280
Features: 1 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

The keys on the LK-280 may not be weighted, but they are full-sized, meaning small hands can practice stretching for octaves that are the same distance as on an acoustic piano. LK stands for “Lighted Keys.” The integrated Step Up Lesson System uses familiar, built-in songs so you can learn at your own pace. The methodical, guided lessons focus on one phrase and one hand at a time, and offer feedback via a letter grading system. Notes, chord names, and fingerings are displayed on the LCD screen. There’s a lot of learning potential here for very little money.
$299 list | $199 street | casio.com

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Casio Privia PX-130
Features: 1 2 3 4 10 12

The top seller in the Privia digital piano line offers an 88-key scaled hammer action (also called a graded action—lower notes offer more resistance than higher ones, as on a real piano) and an optional triple pedal. The core acoustic piano sounds are also upgraded from the LK series. Unlike the LK-280, there’s no Lesson System, but an integrated library of 60 play-along songs offers left- and right-hand part muting and, of course, adjustable tempo. The duet mode makes it a great choice for private instructors; that it carries an attractive street price makes it a smart buy for schools and learning centers that offer group instruction.
$799 list | $499 street | casio.com

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Korg MicroArranger
Features: 5 6 7 9 10 12

The mini-keys may be far from piano-authentic, but for $499, this junior arranger workstation has a lot to offer the composition student. Deep editing screens let you customize the over 300 auto-accompaniment styles. Dual sequencers let you capture everything in one go, or record up to 16 tracks one at a time. The bevy of buttons may be daunting to some, but if you need interactive fun and a certain amount of instant gratification to stay motivated—and with a minimum physical and financial footprint—you’ve found your keyboard.
$749 list | $499 street | korg.com

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Korg SP-250
Features: 1 2

Like the Alesis Cadenza, the Korg SP-250 foregoes features like auto-accompaniment and integrated lessons in favor of providing an uncannily piano-like action (the RH3, Korg’s best) and impressive, stereosampled grand piano sounds. The included damper supports half-pedaling for added realism. There’s no duet mode, but dual headphone jacks let student and teacher practice together. For historical accuracy in classical music, you can switch between equal (standard), Kirnberger, and Werckmeister tuning temperaments—an option only practical in the digital world.
$1,199 list | $699 street | korg.com

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Kurzweil MP-10EP
Features: 1 2 3 5 12

The MP-10EP comes close to the experience of playing a real acoustic upright at an attractive price, not to mention a more compact size than Kurzweil’s CUP-2—though it offers the same complement of grand pianos, vintage keys, synths, and orchestral sounds that both models culled from the PC3 professional workstation. An onboard recorder can store up to nine distinct performances, and the streamlined interface means you’ll be spending more time playing than figuring out how to access functions. In lieu of full auto-accompaniment, there are a variety of rhythm tracks with which to play along. It’s an excellent choice for music labs or as an acoustic piano alternative for small spaces.
$2,295 list | $1,499 street | kurzweil.com

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Roland BK-5
Features: 5 6 7 9 10 12

The BK-5 adds a 61-key, velocity-sensitive keyboard to the previously released BK-7m Backing Module. The display can extract chord names from Standard MIDI Files as they play—a great way to learn chord changes for any of your favorite songs that are available in this format. An impressive array of accompaniment styles and the ability to record audio to an attached USB stick make the BK-5 an attractive choice for the intermediate student looking to polish their performance and improvisational chops.
$1,199 list | $TBD street | rolandus.com

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Roland F-120
Features: 1 2 3 4 5 12

Piano students who want a serious instrument without spending all their funds should look into the new F-120. The mega-sampled “SuperNatural” piano sound we’ve praised in reviews of stage keyboards like the RD-700NX and Jupiter-80 comes standard. The “Ivory Feel” keyboard duplicates not just the weight and action of a real piano’s keys, but their tactile quality. Twin Piano splits the keyboard into mirrored ranges, and the built-in music library includes a number of classical études and better-known masterpieces. This makes the F-120 a natural choice for the classical student.
$1,799 list | $TBD street | www.rolandus.com

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Roland RP-301R
Features: 1 2 3 5 6 12

Many auto-accompaniment modes turn your left hand into the band director, leaving only your right hand for piano duties. Some arrangers, though, scan the entire keyboard and make intelligent decisions about your chord intentions. So does the RP-301R, even though it’s more digital piano than arranger. This lets you play more pianistically while still taking advantage of the RP’s expandable library of accompaniment styles. The progressive hammer action weighted keyboard is borrowed from Roland’s top-of-the-line digital pianos, as is the SuperNATURAL piano sound.
$2,499 list | $TBD street | rolandus.com

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Williams Overture
Features: 1 2 3 4 5 10 12

The Guitar Center-owned Williams brand is underrated, offering serious bang-for-buck in an acoustic piano alternative with full-console cabinetry. You can layer sounds or use duet mode, and 58 internal practice songs have facility for learning the left- and right-hand parts separately. It also does double duty as a sound module, because you can access 128 General MIDI sounds and eight drum kits over MIDI or USB from your computer. A two-track song recorder that retains data with the power off rounds out the package.
$899.99 list | $599.99 street | williamspianos.com

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Yamaha EZ-220
Features: 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

The EZ-220—along with many Yamaha portable keyboards and digital pianos—features the Yamaha Education Suite (Y.E.S.), a collection of lessons that help you master basics like timing and sight reading. In conjunction with these, the EZ-220 displays chord names, a musical staff , and a fingering diagram. You even get a chord dictionary for looking up voicings and their fingerings. Various lesson modes help you keep track of your progress by grading your performance. The EZ-220 also features light-up keys. Between all this and the price, it’s a great choice for the absolute novice.
$299 list | $160 street | yamaha.com

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Yamaha DGX-640
Features: 1 2 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 12

The DGX-640 packs Y.E.S. features into an instrument that plays more like a real piano. Its 88 weighted keys are graded (again, the bass notes offer slightly more resistance than the treble) yet at 45 pounds, the keyboard is still portable enough to tote to lessons or around campus. There’s also “Performance Assistant Technology,” which works a bit like auto-correct on your smartphone: Load a song file and mash near the right notes and the DGX-640 will play the correct note for you.
$1,299 list | $799 street | yamaha.com

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Yamaha Arius YDP-V240
Features: 1 2 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 12

The Arius YDP-V240 is a premium hybrid of digital piano and arranger keyboard. The advanced sound engine, graded-action weighted keys, and appearance all get close to the experience of playing an acoustic upright, while still offering digital advantages. You get the Y.E.S., an expandable database of musical styles, and a five-track MIDI recorder. At its approachable but non-impulse price, we’d recommend it to music educators, committed adult students, or intermediate-and-up musicians who play for enjoyment and entertain guests at home.
$2,699 list | $1,899 street | yamaha.com

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