Look, keyboards sometimes get a bad rap. The very idea of playing a portable keyboard gives off weird eighties vibes and a Flock of Seagulls-style performer tearing up the keys while bouncing around on stage. But keyboards are so much more than the gateway gadget to a vibey, synth-pop song.
The best keyboards are versatile partners for songwriters and performers alike, allowing artists to compose tracks, set beats and create an aural ambiance all in one portable package. Ever try writing music in your van or hotel room on a grand piano? It’s just not practical.
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A portable keyboard takes all of the features of a full-sized, acoustic piano and transposes them into a carry-sized digital format. Whereas traditional pianos generate sound from a hammer striking a set of strings, keyboards need to be plugged in (or fitted with batteries) to electronically create sound that comes out of a set of speakers.
A classic piano has 88 keys that are made from wood or ivory, and each key is weighted, meaning you have to really press down with a bit of force to generate a sound. While full-sized keyboards also have 88 keys, the keys are made from plastic and are typically thinner and lighter. Keyboard keys also come in both weighted, semi-weighted and non-weighted versions. Portable keyboards sometimes come in a fewer number of keys, making the unit more compact and easy to take with you on the go.
Perhaps the most popular feature of a keyboard is its ability to replicate a number of different tones. An acoustic piano will ever only generate one tone — a piano tone. But the best digital keyboards can mimic the sound of an organ, flute, harp, strings and more. If you’re going for a lush arrangement or want to change up the mood of a song, the best keyboards also let you add effects, background rhythms, drum beats and more.
And if you’re a performer, rather than being seated behind a piano, keyboards give you the option of playing the instrument standing up, so you have more freedom to move around while you rock out.
Keyboards are also great if you’re just starting out and don’t want to commit to buying a full-sized piano, or if you’re on a budget and can’t justify the piano’s price point. If you don’t have a lot of space in your house or studio, a keyboard is also a great piano alternative.
We’ve rounded up some decent beginner keyboards that contain everything you need to get started, whether you’re creating melodies, performing in concert or just starting out with the keys for the very first time.
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1. Alesis Recital 88 Key Beginner Digital Piano
A great digital piano for beginners, this portable keyboard features 88 full-sized keys, built-in 20W speakers and outputs for your headphones or to connect to external speakers. Plug in the headphones when you’re practicing and don’t want to disturb the room, or use the bright speakers to project your track across the room.
Choose from five different instrument styles (Acoustic Piano, Electric Piano, Organ, Synth, and Bass) and play them individually or layer two at once using “layer mode.” Alesis’ “split mode,” meantime, lets you assign different voices to your left and right hands. The keys are semi-weighted, so they won’t be as heavy as a regular piano.
What we like: connect the keyboard to your computer using the on-board MIDI output. Keep your keyboard powered on with the included adapter, or take your performance to go using 6 D cell batteries.
PROS: This bundle includes two months of free unlimited live classes from TakeLessons and a three-month subscription to Skoove online piano classes.
CONS: Keys are only semi-weighted so it won’t have same realistic feels as fully weighted keys. Pedal sold separately.
2. Casio CTK-3500 EPA 61-Key Premium Keyboard
With 61 keys, 400 tones and 150 pre-set rhythm patterns, there’s a lot you can do with this portable piano. At under 20 pounds, there are a lot of places you can take this too.
In addition to different instruments and beats, use the on-board effects and filters to modulate your sound, add a bass line or synth.
Users say the full-size keys are smooth, not sticky, and easy to play. While they aren’t fully weighted, they are still touch-sensitive, meaning they’ll respond to different dynamics and playing styles. Listen to your playing via the built-in speakers, or connect headphones to keep the sound isolated.
Power up using the included AC adapter or with batteries. Casio is one of the best-known names in keyboards, and users say this model delivers reliable, versatile sound in a rugged and portable package.
This set comes with the keyboard, keyboard stand, a pair of Samson HP30 headphones, power supply, USB cable and instructional book.
PROS: The built-in screen has an easy-to-read menu that shows you what features you’re currently using; connect the display to e-learning software and learn to play the keys while following along on screen.
CONS: Some users say the tone is more muted than they thought and could be brighter.
3. Casio SA-46 -Key Portable Keyboard
A mini keyboard for kids and adults alike, this Casio set boasts 32 mini keys, 100 different tones (piano, organ, flute, etc.) and 50 different rhythms. It’s not going to be your concerto go-to, but for a casual beginner’s set or a fun party starter, it’ll more than do the trick.
Some musicians say they love this for songwriting on the go, with just enough keys to get a melody down. The keyboard measures just over 18 inches in length and weighs less than two pounds, making it super portable.
PROS: Cool, retro design. Super lightweight and easy to carry.
CONS: Keys are smaller so aren’t as easy to play. Doesn’t contain full spectrum of notes and sound won’t be as lush.