Last Updated on September 18, 2020 by Ryan Harrell
For this week’s query, we’re jumping off one of our earlier articles and sharing our pick of the best digital piano for a beginner. Unlike the other list, this focuses exclusively on beginners and their specific needs (low budget, ease of use, learning capabilities).
It used to be that serious pianists would regard digital pianos (and the people who learned to play on them) with disdain.
An acoustic piano is a real piano. You can’t get the same experience pushing buttons on a computer.
While I’ll be the first one to admit that the sheer richness of a gorgeous Steinway grand piano is nearly impossible to replicate, digital pianos are increasingly closing the gap. The best digital pianos today do a wonderful approximation of acoustic pianos that cost several times more.
So much so that if you tell a seasoned pianist that you’re learning your chops on a Yamaha or a Kawai, you’ll get a nod of approval, not a shake of disdain.
However, vast differences remain between offerings in the “digital piano” category. The products at the very top of the table cost nearly the same as a used acoustic grand piano (and perform nearly the same).
Meanwhile, the bottom end of the market is dominated by cheap, plasticky keyboards that will make you hate piano before you even learn how to play it.
So as a beginner, you have to be careful about what you pick. You can’t afford to splurge, of course, but if you’re not careful, you can end up with a crappy keyboard that’s a pain to play. Nothing will kill your enthusiasm faster than trying to play Chopin on a keyboard that feels like a child’s play toy.
Which is why I put this article together. Below, I’ll share my pick of the best digital piano for a beginner. I’ll discuss specific tips to keep in mind when evaluating your options. I’ll then share some of my favorite instruments in this category.
As a beginner, it goes without saying that your needs are very different from a pro user’s. You want reasonable quality, not concert-ready performance. And you need it at a price point that won’t leave a knot in your heart.
Based on these factors, here are a few essential tips for buying the best digital piano for a beginner:
1. Don’t confuse digital pianos with other keyboard-like instruments
The number one question I get from beginners buying their first digital piano is this:
What’s the difference between a digital piano, a MIDI keyboard, and a synthesizer?
This misconception stems from the fact that outwardly, all these instrument-types look the same. They all have that familiar set of black-white keys. They all purportedly let you make music. And they all are sold by the same few manufacturers – Yamaha, Akai, Roland, etc.
The differences between them, however, couldn’t be more vast:
- MIDI keyboards don’t have any onboard sound. Instead, they are just an interface to control a software instrument (on a computer). If you want to make music with a MIDI keyboard, you’ll need to connect it to a computer via a USB or MIDI cable (hence the name), start a software instrument, and connect the computer to speakers.
- Synthesizers combine a MIDI keyboard with an onboard computer. This onboard computer is capable of synthesizing (i.e. creating) sound – just like a software instrument on your laptop. A synthesizer can be technically programmed to play any sound – a guitar, an organ, and even a digital piano. Synthesizers usually have built-in speakers.
- Digital pianos are keyboards with built-in speakers that play piano sounds. You don’t need to connect it to a computer or synthesize sounds to play this instrument. While technically you can use it to control a software instrument (a la MIDI keyboards), that’s not the original purpose. Nor do digital pianos have sound synthesis capabilities (though some will offer a few selection of onboard sounds apart from piano – such as organs and xylophones).
A digital piano is meant for people who want to play the piano.
If you want to control a computer, use a MIDI keyboard. And if you want to create your own sound without a computer, consider a synthesizer.
But if you want to play Chopin and practice your 5th symphonies, you need a digital piano.
2. Buy the best keys you can afford
Once you get past the piano vs synth vs keyboard issue, you’ll find another question:
What kind of keys should you buy?
This is a mighty important question. After all, the keys are the raison d’etre of buying a digital piano in the first place. Cheap keys will kill your enjoyment of the instrument altogether.
Most digital pianos have semi-weighted or fully-weighted keys. This means that the keys have built-in weights to mimic the heft and resistance of acoustic piano keys.
For most beginners, I recommend semi-weighted keys. Yes, fully-weighted keys feel better, but they also have far too much resistance for inexperienced players. You don’t really have the finger strength to play them effectively.
Beyond this, every manufacturer has its own nomenclature for keyboard action technology (i.e. how the piano keys “strike” the sound surface). Yamaha, for instance, has three classifications for its key action:
- Graded Hammer Standard (GHS): The first key action to mimic acoustic piano keys. This is the technology most modern digital piano keys are based off. It’s still popular, especially in Yamaha’s entry-level and mid-range pianos.
- Graded Hammer or Graded Hammer Effect (GHE): An improvement over the GHS with better sensors. The most notable difference is in speed of note repetition (faster = better).
- Graded Hammer Effect 3 (GH3): The top tier of Yamaha’s keys. This action-type is found mostly on high-end keyboards. It features even better sensors, faster note repetition, and a lighter playing style.
In general, GH3 > GHE > GHS.
Other manufacturers will have their own classification and nomenclature.
Your goal, in general, should be to get the best quality keys you can afford to buy. If you have a budget of $500 and you find two keyboards, one with great keys and another with great features, always pick the one with better keys.
Trust me, you will regret buying poor quality keys far, far more than skipping on a few features.
3. Understand the sound source
An acoustic piano produces sound when a wooden hammer strikes a piano string.
Of course, you can’t have hammers and strings in a digital piano (it is digital, after all), so how do you produce sound?
Easy: an onboard computer with a sample of recorded sounds.
Digital pianos have recorded samples of all the sounds made by acoustic piano keys at varying velocity levels. When you press the C3 key on a digital piano, the computer finds the C3 key sample in its memory and plays it immediately. The onboard computer figures out how hard/fast you struck the key and modifies the sound accordingly.
(This is an oversimplification but you get the idea.)
Since you’re essentially playing recorded samples, the quality of the recording and the source of the samples has a huge impact on sound quality.
Simply put, if the recorded samples are from a cheap, beaten down piano, recorded in a basement with a broken microphone, you’re going to get crappy sound.
Which is why the best digital pianos on the market – the Casio Celvianos and Yamaha Arius’ of the world – use samples recorded from the world’s top acoustic pianos in tightly controlled studio settings.
Yamaha’s mid-range and up pianos, for instance, use samples from the famous Yamaha CFIII concert piano (which costs over $100,000).
Whenever you’re evaluating digital pianos, look at their sound engine. What instrument is the source of their samples? Are they recorded from the best possible keyboard in the company’s lineup?
Once again, strive to get the best sound engine/sample source you can afford. Along with the keyboard, this will have a big impact on your playing experience.
4. Get 88 keys (unless you have a space crunch)
How many keys should you get in your digital piano?
Simple: the same as any acoustic piano.
You’ll use your digital piano to play pieces that were originally written for acoustic pianos. This means that sometimes you’ll need to access bass notes in the lowest octave. And sometimes you’ll need to hit those high notes at the top of the range.
If you have 49 or even 61 keys, you can’t do that. At least not without some complicated fiddling with the octave up/down button.
So unless you have a space crunch, replicate the acoustic piano experience: get 88 keys. Skip all the 61-key and 76-key variants. They’re great for smaller spaces but not for an authentic experience.
5. Skip all fancy features
In the “must have” feature list for digital pianos, you get quality keys.
In the “good to have” list, you have sound engine, 88 keys, and learning tools (at least for beginner pianos).
Finally, in the “nice to have – but not necessary” list you have all the features marketers like to trumpet on sales pages: 256-note polyphony, hundreds of built-in sounds, etc.
The first of these oft-marketed fancy features is 256-note polyphony. On paper, it sounds great (which is why it is marketed so heavily) – you can play 256-notes at the same time!
But unless you’re a centipede, you’re not going to ever have a situation where you need to have 256-sounds playing simultaneously.
The most you truly need is 128-note polyphony. And even entry-level digital pianos offer that.
The next: built-in sounds.
This is another “good on paper” feature. Who wouldn’t want a digital piano that can play organ, xylophone, clavichord and harpsichord sounds?
Except that most of these built-in sounds are usually cheap (a general rule: the higher the number of built-in sounds, the worse they sound). Moreover, outside of novelty situations, you’ll almost never want to play a harpsichord.
If you’re getting these features without paying extra, go ahead and get them.
But if you’re being charged a premium because of these features, choose something else.
6. Make learning aids a priority
This article is on the best digital piano for a beginner. It stands to reason that this audience also needs good learning aids.
While I always recommend that you find a good piano teacher, you can also learn a great deal from the built-in learning features in many low-end pianos. Casio ‘s entry level keyword are particularly good from this perspective, offering both interactive and passive lessons.
These aren’t necessary, but they can accelerate your learning. They can also make it easier to practice and help you pick up better playing habits.
Between two equal digital pianos at the same price tag, always pick the one with better learning features, especially if you’re a beginner.
On that note, let’s answer the original question: what’s the best digital piano for a beginner?
Here’s my pick of the best digital pianos for beginners, sorted into different categories:
Best Overall: Yamaha P71
Yamaha is a brand name I and countless musicians implicitly trust when it comes to digital pianos. You can even say that Yamaha created this product category, being the first company to pioneer digital pianos.
Because of their pedigree, it’s hard to go wrong with a Yamaha keyboard as your first piano. As this affordable but powerful P71 shows, most of Yamaha’s entry-level offerings do a great job of marrying price and performance.
For beginners looking to seriously start making music, the P71 is a fantastic choice.
This keyboard is quite portable despite its small size. The form factor is slim with a depth of just 12 inches. You can carry it around easily, which makes it great for home use. You can also easily keep it out of reach when not in use since it weighs so little – just 25lbs.
A side effect of the low weight is that the quality of materials in use isn’t particularly high. The keyboard is made of plastic which makes it light but also fragile.
However, the keys are fully-weighted which offers a professional-like playing experience.
The P71 has great sound performance. The tones are great and give the piano a great overall sound. It has a reverb effect, which is great, but we’d have wanted more options.
The dual mode allows you to play up to 2 instrument sounds at the same time.
It is easy to play, unlike some other complicated pianos on this list. Just switch it on and start jamming – no instructions necessary.
What We Don’t Like
Although it has many features we find appealing, we have to say we were disappointed by the lack of an LCD screen. This feature is too useful to not to be included, especially since some modern digital pianos offer it at a lower price point.
The P71 piano is recommended for beginners and intermediate players
Buy from: Amazon
Best Entry-Level Digital Piano: Alesis Melody 61 MKII
How cheap can you really get when it comes to digital pianos?
As the Alesis Melody 61 shows, plenty!
This is one of the cheapest digital pianos on the market. And while it has tons of flaws, none of them are so bad that I won’t recommend it to absolute beginners. Especially given this throwaway price tag.
Bottomline: if you’re on a very tight budget, the Melody 61 MK3 is for you.
This digital keyboard comes with a very modern, yet stylish look (your children will love it). It has a professional feel to it despite being for beginners. With the 61 keys that come with it, beginners can easily master the keyboard.
During testing, we also observed that it is very easy to detach from the stand. It can be carried around as it is quite portable – another plus if you’re buying it for your children.
It comes with 300 instrument voices and 300 auto-accompaniment rhythms. This makes it great for kids since they can hear their favorite tunes with just the press of a button.
It comes with dual keyboards and a split keyboard. Each of these features makes it easy to play the instrument.
With the dual keyboard, you can play 2 instruments sounds at the same time.
Of course, the 61 keys is a letdown. I would have preferred it much more with 88 keys. But given its focus on children, the lack of two octaves is acceptable.
What we don’t like
The lack of 88 keys and the plasticky quality of the keys.
This keyboard is recommended for parents that want to introduce their kids to the piano. It is easy to play and comes with fun features that will attract the kids to the instrument.
Buy from: Amazon
Best Performance: Yamaha DGX660
Including the DGX660 in this list of the best digital piano for a beginner is cheating a bit. This is a beast of a machine that’s often more at home in mid-range and even professional roundups.
But I understand that there are some beginners out there with the budget for a truly serious experience. And if that’s you, you would fall in love with the DGX660. It’s not just the best beginner digital piano; it’s the best mid-range, intermediate piano as well.
The size and the weight of this digital piano do not make it very portable. Aside from the size, it comes with accessories like a matching stand, and it is quite easy to install. It comes in black and white hues.
It comes with an LCD screen that we observed made it easier to use the keyboard. The screen display lessons and other things that make it great for beginners.
The weighted keys make it easy to use this piano. Weighted keys are great for beginners as it helps them when they graduate to using similar keys on professional pianos.
The sound from the keyboard is quite clear and sound convincing. It comes with 10 different piano sounds and a plethora of other instruments sounds.
It gives a realistic piano experience and has many useful features. One particular feature that we like is the ability to use a microphone to amplify your voice.
What We Don’t Like
For beginners, the amount of features that this piano comes with can be intimidating. It is also relatively heavy.
This instrument is overall impressive and is undoubtedly one of the best digital pianos at this price. We recommend it for anyone who can afford it.
Buy from: Amazon
Best for Portability: Roland GO:Keys 61-key
Need a digital piano that doesn’t hog the entire desk? Or need something that isn’t sold in those dreary black colors?
Then the GO-61K is for you.
Although it has 61 keys, this keyboard finds its place on my list because of its compact form factor, great design, loud speakers, and robust Roland performance. The keys feel great and the weight, at under 12lbs, is a revelation.
Throw in features like Bluetooth connectivity and you have a digital piano that’s perfect for those who prize portability.
This digital keyboard is designed in an intuitive way that makes it easy for beginners to handle it with ease.
It weighs a mere 4 Kg. Therefore, it is quite portable and can be carried on the go without any hassles.
It can be operated via AC, or you can plug in AA batteries to make music whenever you want to.
The piano comes with Bluetooth options. You can easily stream music from the piano to selected entertainment systems.
It comes with many features that improve the overall ease of use and performance. It comes with more than 500 sounds pre-installed in the keyboard. They are drawn from Juno’s very own Juno DS from experienced synthesizers.
The sounds are very realistic and enjoyable to hear.
To ease new players into playing the keyboard, there is the Loop mix which creates a loop of sounds you can add sounds to for your entertainment and education.
With this feature, it is very easy to start making music.
The speakers are loud and sound impressive.
We also enjoy the fact that it comes with a 3-month free subscription to the piano learning app Skoove.
This digital piano is recommended for everyone who wants to have fun with an uncomplicated piano, but the friendly features make it especially great for beginners. We especially like the Bluetooth connectivity.
Buy from: Amazon
Best Education Features: Alesis Recital Pro
As its name implies, the Alesis Recital is meant primarily for beginners starting their digital piano education.
Consequently, it prioritizes education over everything else. You get a fantastic learning mode built-in, plus even more lessons and modes online. Throw in robust all-around performance and decent key quality and you have a digital piano that’s perfect for learners of all shape and form.
This digital piano comes with 88 full sized keys. The keys are sensitive and are fully weighted. This means they are heavy and leave a satisfying tingle in the fingers when pressed down. They feel quite nice, and beginners will love them.
A design we found intriguing is that when you increase the force on the keys, the piano ejects a louder volume. The harder you press, the louder it sounds.
The keys are sensitive to touch, and the sensitivity can be adjusted using the different sensitivity levels.
The keyboard can be powered by the AC adapter or 6 D-cell batteries.
You have 12 pre-installed voices in this piano. Furthermore, there are 3 effects: modulation, reverb, and chorus.
With the 128-note polyphony, it is a very feature rich digital piano.
Some of the extra features that come with this piano are :
- Lesson mode
- Split mode
What We Don’t Like
Although it ticks many boxes, sound quality from this keyboard is a tad disappointing.
Beginners who do not want to spend a lot of money but still want to enjoy great features.
Buy from: Amazon
Best Compact Digital Piano: Casio CTK-240
Need a digital piano but struggling with a space crunch? Want to play anywhere without lugging around heavy power adapters? Want a “just play” experience without struggling with intimidating 88 keys?
Then the Casio CTK-240 is for you.
Normally, I would never recommend 49 keys to anyone. But I understand there are some of you who have a space crunch (hello, dorm room) or need something that’s absolutely portable. Which is why the CTK-240 finds a spot on my list.
This digital piano is a strong contender for the best designed keyboard for beginners. The 49 full size keys are of great quality and are easy to use. They feel great and are quite responsive. They are smooth to touch and do not feel cheap.
As a beginner digital piano, it comes with loads of features to make learning easier.
It comes with a lesson system that beginners will find super helpful. It teaches beginners how to play the keyboard. The lights installed at the bottom of the keys light up whenever you use them in this mode.
The dance music mode of the keyboard is another performance feature that we like about this piano.
It can be connected to your IOS device via the audio import. It comes with 48 note polyphony, which although isn’t a lot, is adequate for beginners.
What We Don’t Like
It is light on features that will interest anyone other than a beginner.
Buy from: Amazon
Over to You
Choosing the best digital piano for a beginner isn’t easy. For starters, as a beginner you often know too little about these instruments to make a meaningful decision. Second, while the mid-range and high-end of the market has a few brands and models, the lower-end, beginner-focused market is crowded with competitors.
Hopefully, this article made it easier for you to find a digital piano that fits your needs.
For more recommendations and advice, don’t hesitate to reach out to me here.