Finding the Ultimate Worship Keyboard

[UPDATE] – It’s been YEARS since I wrote this blog.  Click here for the updated version.  Thanks for reading!

After four years of music ministry training in college and several years leading children, youth, or adults in worship at a variety of different churches, I have seen just about every worship keyboard out there.   …and, in all honesty, I didn’t like any of them. Arranger keyboards are hard to learn.

The commentaries were no help either.  Beyond “do your research, itemize your needs, and use a well-known local music store,” most articles I read had little meaningful advice.

To my dismay,  there were no good sources of information specifically geared towards worship leaders – so I had to learn the hard way.  Thankfully, I am a bit of an electronics geek and I also understand the importance of “good stewardship,” so I decided to pass my shopping experiences on to you.  I sincerely hope it helps you and your ministry.

While it’s true that you should select the keyboard that will do what you want it to – which creates a massive range of possibilities – it’s also true that most praise band keyboard players have similar needs.  …and similar complaints.  Here are a few of each –and, brace yourself, here are my recommendations.  I pray you find them meaningful.

 Common Complaints:

  1. Too Complicated:  Everyone knows the “Big 3.”  The Korg Triton, the Roland Fantom, and the Yamaha Motif are all very popular keyboards in churches around the World.  Sadly, however, very few worship leaders or praise band keyboardists are able to take full advantage of these expensive instruments because they are so complicated to use.  That is because they aren’t designed to be performance keyboards.  They’re workstations.  They are designed for in-depth sound manipulation and heavy-duty sequencing.  These keyboards are excellent for professional players who are writing music, sequencing orchestral pieces, and designing their own accompaniment tracks from scratch.  …but for a volunteer (or even many professional) musicians, these keyboards offer too many features.  The result is an overwhelmed player, an underused keyboard and a waste of $3000-$4000.
  2. Doesn’t Sound Good:  In an effort to save some money, many churches purchase very basic keyboards for worship (such as the Yamaha P or YDP series and almost anything by Casio).  These keyboards are on the opposite side of the spectrum from the Phantom and the Motif.  They just don’t sound very good.  They have a variety of features, but few of the professional tones or hookups necessary for today’s worship needs.  While it’s important to make sure that you’re not overspending (ie – buying keyboards with features that your worship team will never use or learn to understand), it’s just as important to make sure that you don’t purchase an instrument so basic that its poor sound and lack of versatility get in the way of The Message.  Thus, these keyboards – though often less than $1200 – also represent an unsatisfactory choice for most churches.
  3. Not very portable:  In today’s worship scene, praise teams are traveling more than ever.  It may be an off-site youth function.  It might be a special service at a sister church.  The reasons abound.  …but not many keyboards out there offer a lightweight chasse, onboard speakers, USB PC connectivity, adjustable stand, and a variety of ports to integrate with the local P.A. system.  Thus, worship leaders find themselves doing pretty amazing things to make their keyboards work for them. (I watched one band use 3 different audio adapters, 2 headphones cables, and some electrical tape just to hook their Yamaha P60 into their PA system!)  …but why bring all that extra equipment and stress into the equation?  Make sure the keyboard you select can be moved and integrated into professional P.A. systems with ease.
  4. Automatic Rhythms and pre-recorded tracks:  In smaller churches – and in bigger churches when the drummer is out ill – automatic rhythms are a tempting tool for worship.  The problem with “automatic” rhythms is that they are just that:  automatic.  Whether you are ready to move to the second verse yet or not, they are going on.  The same thing can be said for accompaniment tracks.  There is no room for expression or the freedom to improvise should the minister say “Let’s sing that chorus again!”  In their traditional form, automatic rhythms and pre-recorded tracks robotize the service.   …and they severely restrict your ministry.

Considering these things, I think it’s safe to say most worship keyboard players aren’t really happy with their instrument (save the select few who are “tech savvy” or just really comfortable with their old keyboard).

So, to avoid these pitfalls, here are some things to look for in your worship keyboard:

  1. Top-grade grand piano sound.  Customizability is the hallmark of good piano sound these days.  Your congregation wants something that sounds warm and rich through the church sound system.  “Crisp” or “tinny” sounding keyboards often sound very thin and unsatisfying through a P.A.  Find a keyboard with a satisfying piano sound that can be adapted for each worship space.
  2. 88 Full-Sized Gravity Hammer Action Keys.  “Weighted keys” are a thing of the past.  It’s not enough that the keyboard has some resistance.  It needs to have the right resistance.  Look for a spring-less gravity hammer action.  This is the most piano-like touch available and will last the longest with heavy use.  Also, make sure the keys are full-sized.  If you have a dollar bill, you can use it to measure the keys.  Piano keys should run from one end of the dollar bill to the end of the ink on the other end.
  3. At least 5 of the standard “worship sounds.”  You don’t need a trumpet or saxophone sound.  You need a strong piano with strings mix, a Warm Pad, a good Nylon (acoustic) Guitar, a healthy variety of organ sounds, and a contemporary electric piano or Rhodes sound at the minimum.  At some point, you can explore some vocal pads and a few other solo instruments depending on the music you’re playing and the instrumentation of your band.  …but these 5 are a must.
  4. Easy Layout.  Within reason, you should choose a keyboard with as few buttons as possible.  You still want to be able to make rapid tone changes, record, and layer instruments easily, but you probably don’t need automatic rhythms, internet connectivity or a ton of “flashy” features.
  5. USB.  Every worship keyboard today needs a USB interface.  You’ll use this to mix music or to make recordings.  Some keyboards even come with a USB flash drive port for audio and MIDI file play-a-long.  These can be really handy.
  6. Portability.  Your keyboard will have to be substantial enough to survive the “wings and dings” of travel …but it also has to be light enough to move from place to place easily.  A few companies even make luggage-style travel bags with wheels.  These can be very helpful.
  7. Adjustable Stand.  You want your keyboard to be stable and “wobble free”.  It also has to be at the proper height for your player (Some players prefer to stand.  Others prefer to sit.).  The right stand can make or break your keyboard player’s experience.
  8. Connectivity.  Aside from the USB port, your keyboard player needs to have the following options:  Switchable onboard speakers, ¼” stereo audio IN, ¼” stereo audio OUT, MIX IN (or iPod port) and options for damper and expression pedals.  This way, it can hook into just about any system out there.

After you have considered all of these things (and whatever other needs your specific congregation may have), you are ready to begin sampling instruments.  This absolutely cannot be done online.  It is critical that you see and play the instrument you’re considering before you bring it into your church.  Make sure it delivers the experience you are expecting.

…and if you can’t find a keyboard to match the above criteria, allow me to recommend my favorite:  the Roland FP-90.The Roland FP-7F

In addition to Roland’s cutting-edge PHA-50 Gravity Hammer Action with real hammers and ultra-authentic SuperNATURAL© Piano Modeling grand piano sound, the new Roland FP-90 has a couple of features that are totally unique to its genre.  One of the most unique features of the FP-90 is its wireless integration with FREE Bluetooth apps from the Apple or Google Play Store, including Piano Partner 2 and Anytune.  Enhance your piano’s capabilities with FREE Bluetooth apps – and, when the app gets an upgrade, so does your piano!The adjustable "Z-stand" is great for standing or seated play.

You can also take advantage of HUNDREDS of all-digital sounds and a ton of live performance “quick transition” features that help smooth out your worship service.

Add the On-Stage “Z Style” adjustable stand and the SKB KB88 keyboard luggage bag for a completely portable – and POWERFUL worship keyboard package.

Stop in and check it out today!  I think you’ll be impressed.   …especially when you discover our special Gist Piano Center House of Worship price.

God bless and I’ll see you soon!

-James Harding

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182 thoughts on “Finding the Ultimate Worship Keyboard

  1. Chris Oosthuizen

    Hi James,

    It is great to find specific advice for the church environment. We have a Technics piano that served us well. Is there a digital piano equivalent for the Roland FP80 that you could recommend? We specifically want the piano feel with the three pedals, ability to transpose, record and playback and ability to still use our existing library of pre-recorded songs when required.

    Any advice would be sincerely appreciated.

    Many thanks,
    Chris

  2. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Chris! Sorry for the delay. I was on vacation when you sent this message. Yes. I would definitely recommend a console-model Roland Piano for your church. The closest one right now to the FP-80 is the HP-605. It sounds incredible and it even has a few recent upgrades in sound and touch that make it perform BETTER than the FP-80! You can learn more about it here: http://www.gistpianocenter.com/pianos/roland/hp-605.php One thing to remember: Technics had a proprietary recording format as their default setting. Thus, if you recorded a song in this “.nx” format, it won’t play on anything but a technics. If, however, you saved the files as standard midi files (“.smf or .mid”), then they will play on the Roland. Ask your local dealer for help with this and you should be fine. Thanks for the message and best of luck to you! -James

  3. Julian Martinez

    Hello, I enjoyed this article very much. I was wondering what your thoughts are on the Nord Piano keyboards. it seems like it has all of the above on your list, but they are a bit pricy.

    Thanks,

    Julian Martinez

  4. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Julian, and thank you for your question. Nord has come up in this thread a few times and each time, I have had to say that I am not a huge fan. One of my clients recently returned his Nord in favor of a Roland because the center section of his Nord keyboard was actually out of tune (problem with the motherboard). This is a known issue with Nord, but I assume they are working on it. Also, I agree with you that they are way overpriced. When you compare the technology to Roland, you’re paying a ton more for “older” features (like representative sampling, “weighted keys (some models)” and MIDI ports. I just don’t understand the fascination. Is it because they are red? Seems like a silly reason to buy a piano in my mind. Hahaha. I am sure they sound good, but if it were my money, I’d just get a Roland.

  5. art

    Hello,
    What do you think of the Roland DS88 DUNO for church worship? Can you recommend a synthesizer/ keyboard that’s under $1500?

  6. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Art. Again, I don’t recommend synthesizers for worship. They are great for studio work, traveling musicians who don’t have their own rhythm section and synth enthusiasts who love all the gadgets. They contain too many “bells and whistles” for a worship keyboard and not enough initial quality. Of course, Roland makes a great synth, but the one you mentioned features an action that is now 3 generations old, a sound chip that is two generations old and a whole bunch of features that you will never use in worship. The new Roland FP-90 will have all the latest features, a MUCH simpler interface, built-in speakers and quick access to your favorite sounds. It’s going to cost around $2000 and that is the one I recommend. Best of luck to you!

  7. art

    Hi James, thanks so much for your reply! Unfortunately $2000 would be over our budget. Do you think the Roland RD300 NX can be a substitute to the FP-90?

  8. James Harding Post author

    Hi, art! Thanks for your message. I understand the budgetary concern, but it’s only about $500 over budget and it’s the one I recommend. I don’t like the RD-300NX nearly as well. I would wait until you can get the tool that does the job. Too many churches rush out and purchase what they can afford rather than what they need and that never gives them the best tools for worship. You can always spend less money, but you’re going to get a less adequate tool. Beyond that advice, all I can recommend is that you go try them and select the one you feel led to get. Best wishes!

  9. James Harding Post author

    The Roland RD-300nx is fine for some folks. It doesn’t have onboard speakers, it doesn’t have as intuitive of an interface and it doesn’t have as many features as the FP pianos I am recommending… so it might work for you if you are ok with all of that. Roland stage pianos are great performance instruments, but the RD series doesn’t meet the requirements I laid out in this article. In short… it’s up to you. Best wishes!

  10. Dana Tedeschi

    Hi James,
    Can I please get your thoughts on the Roland FP-90 as well as the Roland RD-800?
    I appreciate any help you can offer.

  11. Casey Layer

    James,
    Could you give me your thoughts on the Yamaha YDP-v240 vs what you would recommend in the Roland line?

  12. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Dana! Thank you for your question. Stay tuned! We have a new blog, a new video and more coming soon! I think you’ll be pleased!

  13. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Casey, and thank you for your question! I have carried the YDP-V240 and I will tell you that – especially in a worship setting – it is not something I would recommend. The cabinet is very cheaply made and the electronics are Yamaha’s most entry-level parts available. That means that you’re getting a piano that won’t provide the best sound and touch – nor will it give you the longevity your congregation would expect. Finally, I found the operating system to be very counter-intuitive. It’s EASY to accidentally bump a drum rhythm button in the middle of service… I’m not a fan.

    If you want a full cabinet piano, check out the Roland HP-504. It’s FAR superior to the V-240 at about the same price. …but if you really want my advice, spend a few dollars more and get the new HP-603. It has most of the features I recommended in this blog.

    Best of luck to you!

  14. Mary

    Hi James
    We are looking for an instrument for a small country church, previously we had an organ and an old upright piano (on loan from a congregation member). The organ has retired. The piano needs some work and people are missing the organ sound for some hymns. Budget is a concern and we cannot afford to replace an organ similar to what we had. Have been looking at the Yamaha Clavinova series CLP 575 and wonder what your opinion is on this?
    Thanks

  15. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Mary! Thanks for your question. I’ve seen a ton of churches replacing their old organs (and even old pianos!) with digitals. The trick is to get the right one. I’ve carried the Clavinovas before and I can tell you from personal experience that – though they are nice instruments – they can’t hold a candle to a Roland. For the same or less money, you could get a Roland HP-605. Here’s our video on that piano: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GYTUwxVxJs The Roland will have a MUCH better piano tone, a maintenance-free hybrid action, Bluetooth technology BUILT-IN and twice the warranty. Once you look into it, it’s a no-brainer. Check it out. You’ll be glad you did.

  16. Grace Carlson

    Recently, my worship pastor has had us experimenting with MainStage connected to a midi player, and controlling the sounds through the computer. For most of our songs, he already has the patches figured out on MainStage, so I am able to just select his preset patches for different songs and make it work. The current setup at the church is a midi player (Axiom 61) set next to the grand piano. Sometimes, I’ll have an underlying worship pad sound playing while I play on the grand piano (I’m primarily a pianist so always favor going to the piano for a nice acoustic sound). Sometimes, with different string and pad setups, I’ll play the keyboard with my left hand and piano with my right. It’s complicated but working okay. We used to have a really nice Roland that we used, where I could assign and control up to 4 sounds, but my worship pastor has been pushing us to expand out of the Roland limitations for some more of the unique midi sounds that are used in specific songs that fall outside of the usual piano, strings, pad, organ… I would like to find a keyboard that works well as a midi player AND a Roland-esque keyboard. Does such a thing exist? Do you have any suggestions? For instance on a song like this, where there are very “synth-y” sounds: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C9ujBoud26k

  17. James Harding Post author

    Wow, Grace, that is an extremely complicated setup! I hope you and your worship pastor never get sick or go on vacation! Someone coming to “fill in” for you would need a month-long training class for that one! Phew! Keep in mind that you can use any Roland piano (including the FP-90) as a MIDI controller using USB. I think that is a MUST for your basic piano sound (because – I don’t want to offend the music pastor here – NO sampled sound will be as rich and as nuanced as a modeled one) and you can patch other instruments in with it if you want. As for your backup synth? You might try a Roland JD-XA. It can do some REALLY interesting things with customized patches, etc. See what you think. Best of luck to you all!

  18. art

    what are your thoughts on the roland rd800?
    I heard this is being discontinued though and replacing with RD2000

  19. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Art! Thanks for the question. The RD-800 is amazing. Of course, I am still mad that I bought a 700NX and didn’t wait to get it. Hahaha. …but it is truly a great stage piano (as long as you are ok with the fact that it doesn’t have onboard speakers). That said, the RD-2000 has replaced it and it is FAR better. It has the new hybrid wood/resin action, the new piano modeling sound chip, upgraded instrument samples and a bunch more tucked inside. If you can swing it, I’d definitely go with the RD-2000. Thanks again and have a great weekend!

  20. art

    Thanks James for your reply. Well looks like RD800 is fastly disappearing from stores and i can’t seem to get one in my area. Now i got my eyes on the FP90 which would be an option to RD800. Now if you were to choose between the RD800 or FP-90 what would it be? I see the FP-90 is more keyboard player friendly but if i can have your input on the keyboard feel. I’m purchasing this for our church and what i need to just a keyboard with a close feel to an acoustic piano with a good number of pads for worship. Do you know if the number of pads on the RD800 is the same as the FP90? thanks in advance!

  21. James Harding Post author

    I would DEFINITELY recommend the FP-90 over the RD-800. The FP-90 has the same piano modeling technology and action as the new RD-2000… and I LOVE the way it performs. In fact, I am editing our FP-90 YouTube video now. I hope to have it up in a few days. I know the FP-90 has 16 different pad sounds and a ton of other great patches from the RD Series. I think you’d love it.

  22. James Harding Post author

    Hi again! You bet I will post it! I am about halfway done editing it together. It should go up Saturday night or Monday night (depending on how much time I have to complete it). Keep an eye out on Gist Piano Center’s YouTube Channel. Better yet, subscribe to our channel and it will notify YOU when the video posts! https://www.youtube.com/user/gistpianocenter Thanks again for all your great questions!

  23. Sam thomas

    So do you recommend the fp90 as an easily transportable and reliable stage piano? I had a few other options such as the roland rd2000- but thats over my price limit, kawai mp7- not eaisly transportbale and fp-80 – my current piano player in my church already uses. Nord – wayy lverpriced. Im trying to get a different piano for my church. You think Roland fp90 is the best choice here? Saw your video also

  24. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Sam! Sorry it took awhile to respond to you. For some reason, the blog message with your comment in it went to my junk mail. Hopefully, that won’t happen again. Yes. I LOVE the new FP-90. Did you see this video? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1M8Sf0ClTzc In fact, we filmed another video and I’m editing it right now. That video discusses why I specifically recommend the FP-90 to churches. Stay tuned… I’d say it’ll be out in a week or two. In any case, yes. Get the FP-90 for your church. It will be exactly what you need. Thanks for the comment and God bless! -James

  25. Sam thomas

    Hi, and yes I did watch the video, it explained and got most things outts the way.

    Youc an definitely connect to speakers right? Someone said it has 1/4 output and I need a stereo direct box to connect.

  26. James Harding Post author

    Yep! It has a right and left 1/4 inch output. I’d definitely recommend plugging them into a DI box (“Direct Input” box) and then connecting it to your PA system. Should work great!

  27. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Tom! Thanks for the question. Roland doesn’t include an XLR port on the FP series. That’s only on the RD series. However, you can use a Direct Input (DI) box with the FP and convert it. No worries!

  28. Mon

    I have a classis RD 500 I heard it had new and improved stronger hammer replacements. I am still looking to purchase a new/used keyboard because the rd500 is a beast to lug around and I do a lot of traveling. I am a church & quartet gospel keyboardist. I saw the FP 90’s presentation. It looks nice! I’m really not looking on investing that at this time. Does it give me everything and more that I have with my rd500? lol Is th Roland-rd300nx a good quality board? I need something fairly light and low maintenance! What do you recommend?

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