Whether you’ve mostly played digital pianos your whole life or mostly stick to the acoustic piano, you’ve probably heard of keyboards with weighted keys. And if you’re in the market for a new instrument, you’ve probably seen keyboards with weighted, semi-weighted, and unweighted keys. But what’s the difference? And why does it matter if a key is weighted, anyway? In this list, we’ll take a closer look at semi-weighted vs weighted keys.
1. Why Weight Keyboard Keys?
Before we jump into whether weighted keys are right for you, let’s look at what they actually are. If you’re used to playing acoustic piano, you know that it takes some amount of effort to press each key downward.
That’s because real acoustic pianos operate using hammer action. The keys of an acoustic piano are kind of like seesaws. When you push a key down, that action swings a hammer inside of the piano. That hammer hits a string, the string vibrates, and you hear a sound. The strings for the bass notes are heavier, so you need a bit more force to play the bass notes of the piano.
If you want to be able to play digital piano and acoustic piano, weighted keys can be useful because they mimic the feel of a real piano. This way, you can switch between instruments without feeling much of a difference in playability. Check out this helpful video for a brief introduction to weighted and unweighted keys,
2. Fully Weighted Graded Hammer Action
If you’re looking to purchase higher-end digital pianos, you’ve probably seen some keyboards with fully weighted keys and graded hammer action. This type of weight is designed to give you the most realistic feel so it’s almost like playing a traditional piano.
Playing hammer action keyboards is meant to mimic the experience of playing an acoustic piano. In addition to moving a counterweight, these keyboards are actually swinging hammers. This feature is important if you want a keyboard that feels almost just like an acoustic piano. The swinging hammers make it possible for you to practice and develop even difficult techniques.
The “graded” in “graded hammer action” indicates that the counterweights increase (causing more resistance) as you get closer to the bass side of the piano. That gradation is what makes these instruments sound play so much like the acoustic piano, even though there are no hammers or strings.
As you may have guessed, these are some of the most expensive weighted keyboards. They are often seen on the professional music scene. Check out this video if you want to see a good example of a keyboard with fully weighted graded hammer action.
If you don’t need to play a digital piano to feel exactly like playing acoustic piano, you can also find keyboards that are fully weighted without the hammer action. These are usually somewhat less expensive.
3. Fully Weighted (Not Graded)
You may sometimes see a digital piano with fully weighted keys (with or without hammer action) that are not graded. That simply means that when you press a key anywhere on the keyboard, the resistance will be the same.
If you often play piano acoustically, the difference is pretty noticeable. But if you primarily play music on keyboards, it might not be an issue.
You also sometimes see instruments between graded and not graded. These ones are fully weighted, but they are “graded” in groups.
That means one group of keys has a certain weight, the next group over has a certain weight, etc. If you’re reading about these various types of keyboards and realizing you’re not sure what to get, this video talks you through things to think about before making a purchase.
4. Who Should Use Weighted Keys?
Now you know that fully weighted keys offer the best chance for you to use the same playing technique you’d use on an acoustic piano. But a fully weighted keyboard (with or without hammer action) is generally more expensive than other keyboard types.
Whether or not you should invest in a fully-weighted digital piano comes down to one central question: how important is it that you be able to play on an acoustic piano?
If you want to develop the best technique possible, fully weighted hammer action digital pianos are the best way to go. Since the resistance mimics that of a grand piano, you’ll be able to develop great technique.
It’s also wise to invest in one of these pianos if you’re taking formal lessons. These lessons usually have tests where you play an acoustic piano. In order to practice that, it’s a good idea to get as close to the real thing as possible.
Of course, not everyone can spring for one of these keyboards. There’s nothing wrong with learning on a semi-weighted or unweighted keyboard. If you switch to an actual piano in the future, there might be a learning curve.
Essentially, these types of keyboards are ideal if you need to preserve the feel of a traditional piano as much as possible. For instance, if you usually perform on an acoustic piano but need something suitable for outdoor gigs, a fully-weighted keyboard is ideal.
That said if you’re not 100% sure which digital piano you want to buy, do your best to try out many different types. Soon, you’ll get a feel for the different types.
5. What Are Semi-Weighted Keys?
Now we come to semi-weighted keyboards. As you can probably tell from the name, playing a semi-weighted keyboard has a bit of a lighter feel when compared to a fully weighted hammer-action keyboard.
You might assume that these keys also have a weight attached, just less weight than a fully-weighted keyboard. And while some do, the vast majority of them operate via a spring mechanism.
That spring mechanism is called “synth action,” as it’s the same type of action used on a synthesizer keyboard. This type of action has a light feel and is extremely fast, making it fun and easy to use the synth or keyboard to mimic the sounds of other instruments.
Semi-weighted keys are not only found on synths, though. Because they’re less expensive than hammer action or fully weighted keys, they are ideal for making mid-priced digital pianos that feel more realistic than unweighted keys but are less expensive than fully weighted keys. Keys made this way make it easier to perform glissandos (where you glide from note to note) and some other techniques.
They also are good for playing notes very rapidly in sequence, as the keys “bounce” back faster than those of an acoustic piano.
That said, it can be hard to adjust when going from semi-weighted keys to fully-weighted keys, or to an acoustic piano. If you’d like to look closely at semi-weighted keys and how they differ from fully-weighted keys, this video offers a useful breakdown.
Semi-weighted keyboards can be played with a much lighter touch than a hammer-action or fully weighted keyboard. That means that transitioning from playing this type of keyboard to playing an actual piano is a significant learning curve. Depending on your musical goals, this might or might not be an issue.
6. Who Should Use Semi-Weighted Keys?
You now know that playing a semi-weighted digital piano or keyboard is a lot different from playing acoustic pianos. And since fully-weighted digital pianos are more expensive and feel more like acoustic pianos, you might think they are best in all cases. However, that isn’t the case.
One very important advantage of semi-weighted keyboards is that a semi-weighted keyboard is much, much lighter than a fully weighted keyboard. For comparison’s sake, the Roland FP-30 (a fully-weighted keyboard) and the Alesis Recital (a semi-weighted keyboard) are the same sizes. But the Roland weighs 40 pounds, while the Alesis weighs 16!
So as you can tell, if you’re a gigging musician or even if you just play at an open mic every now and then, a semi-weighted digital piano is a lot easier to take along.
If you’re on a budget, a semi-weighted keyboard is also a good option. These keyboards play more like a traditional piano than an unweighted keyboard, but they are significantly less expensive than a fully-weighted hammer-action keyboard.
And lastly, in some genres, the semi-weighted digital piano may actually be preferable. A semi-weighted keyboard might be the best choice if you intend to play more synth or organ-like music than piano. As a side note, if you want to learn to play synth music on a keyboard, this video will get you off to a good start.
7. Are Some Keys Not Weighted At All?
Now that we’ve covered fully weighted keys and semi-weighted keys, it’s important to note that there’s also such a thing as an unweighted keyboard. This type has completely unweighted keys, so playing one does not feel a whole lot like playing an actual piano.
Many lower-end keyboards are unweighted. They aren’t great for building finger strength, and if you intend to play acoustic piano in the long run, it’s a good idea to eventually get a keyboard that plays more like a piano. If you’re working with a limited budget or if you aren’t totally sure you want to commit to learning piano, an unweighted keyboard makes sense.
You can still learn piano on a keyboard without a graded weighting system or hammer action. You can even successfully learn on an unweighted keyboard. However, regardless of the type you choose, there is one absolutely crucial thing to look for: touch sensitivity.
If you’re playing a traditional piano, a note will sound different depending on how hard you hit the key. Playing with force creates a louder sound while playing softly creates a quieter sound. It’s the dynamics of playing that really make piano music emotive. A touch-sensitive keyboard helps to replicate the sensitivity of an actual piano. Most teachers will tell you that touch sensitivity is a must.
Thankfully, almost any electric keyboard will come equipped with touch sensitivity. In many cases, you can even adjust the sensitivity of the keys. If you’d like to hear a touch-sensitive keyboard in action, this demo lets you hear what this important feature sounds like.
8. Is There an Advantage to Having Multiple Keyboard Types?
Now that you’re familiar with semi-weighted vs weighted keys, you’ve seen that each type has its own benefits. And depending on your goals and the different genres you play, there might be an advantage to owning (or at least learning to play on) all different types of keyboards and pianos.
If your primary goal is playing the acoustic piano well, there likely isn’t a need for you to practice on semi-weighted or unweighted digital keyboards. Of course, if you don’t have an acoustic piano, choosing a fully weighted hammer-action keyboard is a good idea.
If you want to learn different styles of music including traditional piano, synth music, and/or organ music, it’s a good idea to have (or at least practice on) both fully weighted keys and semi-weighted keys. It’s common for many people to have both a weighted digital piano and a synthesizer with a (usually semi-weighted) keyboard.
And lastly, if you just want to be the most versatile musician you can be, having at least some experience with all types of keys will only help you. And if you’ve just begun your journey toward being a great musician, check out this guide to finding and correcting common beginner mistakes.
Final Thoughts – semi-weighted vs weighted keys
Hopefully, you now get the difference between semi-weighted and weighted keys. And whether you’re planning on buying an instrument for performance or just need a keyboard that mimics the feel of the pianos you already play, you’ll be well-equipped to make that decision.
But what do you think? Did you enjoy the list? Please let us know in the comments. Don’t forget to like and share if you learned something new!