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What are the differences in weighted keyboards?

by / Thursday, 23 April 2015 / Published in Recommendations, Tech

If you’re in the market to a purchase a new keyboard, it’s beneficial to understand the difference between weighted and non-weighted keyboards. Perhaps you’ve heard me talking about it, or you’ve seen it as a feature in keyboards specs.

If you’re purchasing an acoustic piano, you won’t have to worry about weighted keys because they already have them! Acoustic pianos have what is called true “graded-hammer action.” The higher you move up on the piano (treble), the lighter the weight of the keys. Conversely, the lower you go (bass), the keys have a heavier feel. This is so you can have full control over expression and dynamics.

However, with weighted electronic keyboards, the key weight is simulated to match the action of a real piano. The weight of the keys is going to be different depending on what keyboard you purchase.

FREE PDF: What is Keyboard 'Action?'
Confused by the term “action?”  Click here to download our PDF on “How a Piano Works.” (Courtesy of Piano Technician’s Guild at ptn.org). 

Here is a rundown of the different types of weighted keyboards.

Non-Weighted or “Lighted” Keys

A good example of a non-weighted keyboard is an organ. The keys are very light, giving you the ability to easily perform glissando swells. Synthesizers often come with non-weighted keys as well, however, most 88-key flagship models (usually called “workstations) are offered with weighted keys. The majority of personal keyboards have non-weighted keys. These keyboards are what you typically find at Best Buy, Target, Walmart and the like. They are smaller (typically 61 keys) and usually come with a huge sound bank of various tones, from horns and flutes to organs and synth tones.

The Yamaha EZ-220 non-weighted personal keyboard

Semi-Weighted Keys

Many keyboards and synthesizers have at least semi-weighted keys. They have spring action and offer a small amount of resistance to emulate a weighted keyboard. However, please note that this is not the same as a true, weighted keyboard and will not feel like an acoustic piano.

The M-Audio Keystation, semi-weighted 88ES keyboard controller (click on image for full pic)

Hammer-Action Keys

Now we’re starting to replicate more of a real acoustic piano feel. Whereas non-weighted and semi-weighted keys are spring loaded, hammer-action keyboards actually have internal hammers attached to the lever system. I personally love the hammer-action feel, especially for runs and arpeggios. Some models actually have a subtle clicking sound to truly give the feeling that you’re playing a real acoustic piano.

The Williams Allegro 2 is an example of a keyboard with hammer-action feel (click on image for full pic)

Graded Hammer-Action Keys

Graded-hammer action is the best option available for weighted keys. Like an acoustic piano, they have a heavier touch on the lower notes and a lighter feel on the higher notes. Each keyboard company has it’s own “version” of graded-hammer action. For instance, Casio offers the Tri-Sensor, scaled hammer technology, with three different sensors that offers amazing accuracy in simulating the expression and feel of a real piano.

The Yamaha DGX-630 is an example of a keyboard that has graded-hammer action

All Keyboards Are Not Created Equal!

Just like any product, all keyboard actions are different. Remember, just because one brand of keyboard touts hammer-action, doesn’t mean that it’s going to have the same feel as another brand/model with hammer-action. For instance, the Korg SP170 describes the keyboard as having “natural weighted hammer action,” however personally, it’s lacking in feel compared to say, the Casio Priva PX-150. Ultimately, it’s going to come down to what feels best for you.

What Do I Recommend?

I recommend hammer-action and graded-hammer, particularly for piano players. It gives you ability to create the most expression and also, helps to strengthen the fingers for beginner students. This is important. The major drawback with non-weighted keyboards is that once the student plays a piano with hammer-action feel, their fingers have trouble playing because they are used to practicing on a keyboard that has minimal friction. It’s important that beginner students strengthen their fingers, particularly the 4th and 5th fingers of the left hand.

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The Differences Between an Acoustic Piano and a Digital Piano

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