I am asked regularly to recommend keyboard/piano for my students. While the biggest purchase decision is based on your budget, I am listing here key factors that should help make your purchase decision.
Here is a simplified explanation of main features you should consider when making your purchase decision:
1. Number of keys: The keyboards and pianos that I recommend you consider should be between 61-88 keys.
Most portable keyboards are full-size 61-keys and they are perfect for beginners. They are not only small, they are portable enough to move around the house. In my experience, my students outgrow 61-keys keyboard/piano in about a year.
Therefore, if you feel you're not sure whether your child will stick with piano lessons for a year, purchase a 61-keys touch sensitive keyboard.
A 76-keys keyboard/piano is more suitable for a intermediate level student. Not only are these keyboard/pianos bigger, they have much better sound and key feel. Another reason why this is more appropriate for intermediate students is because they are able to play more complex musical pieces that require a wider keyboard range than 61-keys.
Full size keyboard on a grand piano is 88-keys. Therefore, most 88-keys instruments are more sophisticated and better sounding pianos rather than keyboards. They sound incredible and this is a more long-term purchase as they are more expensive. This is recommended for students who are at least intermediate level or have sustained interest in playing piano.
2. Brand: If you’re considering 61-keys keyboard, I would stick with Casio or Yamaha. These two brands make good portable keyboards. If you’re considering 77-Keys and higher, Yamaha has consistently made very high quality electronic pianos in this range.
3. Touch sensitivity: Not all portable 61-keys keyboard are touch sensitive. Touch sensitive means that the harder or softer you press down the key, the louder or softer the sound will be. On the other hand, a "non-touch" sensitive keyboard would have the same amount of loudness no matter how hard you pressed it down.
This is an important feature and is recommended for all level students. So be careful when looking at portable keyboards that are incredibly cheap. If the features do not clearly state “Touch Response or Touch Sensitive” then it is probably not.
4. Key types: There are three main types of keys on a keyboard/piano. Most portable and lower priced keyboards and even pianos have thin plastic keys. These are furthest from the real-feel of a piano.
The second type keys are called weighted keys. These have a more piano like feel, they are harder to press compared to plastic keys. Students who use these types of keyboards/pianos develop better control over their dynamics.
The final type keys are graded hammer action keys are designed to play and feel like the keys on an acoustic piano. Which means the bass keys are a bit heavier while the highest keys are a bit lighter to the touch. This is available on more expensive keyboards and pianos. This allows students to express more balanced dynamics. Students playing on graded hammer action keys would play better and sound better.
5. Price: The price range for 61-keys touch sensitive keyboard range from $120 ~ $199. The 77-keys keyboards/electric pianos range from $150 ~$600+ while 88-keys keyboards/electric pianos cost $600 plus.
6. Additional features: While most other piano teachers would not even mention this, I feel this is an extremely important element in helping your child develop more interest in music and explore their creativity.
Additional features on modern keyboards/pianos include hundreds of additional tones (sounds) in addition to piano sound. There are also rhythm section and song banks with hundreds of styles and dozens of songs. The rhythm feature alone is a valuable tool to help students learn to play song with a steady rhythmic beat.
While these features may not seem directly related to your child learning to play the piano, it certainly motivates them to explore the instrument more and experiment. While it could be distracting at times, this is how I learned to play and compose music at an early age. Strangely, most portable cheaper keyboards have tons of such features while more expensive pianos have less of these.
7. Where to buy: One good place to do research is to visit your local music store. Guitar Center has many locations in major cities. They usually have a wide variety of keyboards/electric pianos on display. You can test them out and ask questions when you visit the store. Online there are several stores like Musiciansfriend.com and Sweetwater.com that offer a great variety at exceptional prices. I would stay away from Walmart, Best Buy etc when buying musical instruments.