The Ultimate Worship Keyboard or Digital Piano

worship keyboard

In January of 2011, I wrote a blog called “Finding the Ultimate Worship Keyboard” hoping that my experience as both a worship leader and a professional piano consultant would help other Music Ministers better navigate the confusing waters of piano (and keyboard) retail.  To my surprise, that blog quickly exploded into the most read – and one of the most commented upon – blogs in Gist history.  Now, over six years later, new technologies and considerations have given me reason to revisit this topic and (perhaps) expand upon it.  As always, it is my sincere hope that my experiences will help you find the worship tool that best fits your needs and those of your ministry.  I am sure some folks will disagree with my conclusions, but (God willing) the meat of these discussions will nourish all of us!  Thank you for reading and God bless!

music minister playing a worship keyboardFinding the Ultimate Worship Keyboard or Digital Piano in 2017 and Beyond

As many in the medical field can tell you, the Internet is both a blessing and a curse.  Nowadays, anybody with a website and enough free time can present themselves as an “expert.”  This is particularly problematic when it comes to keyboards and digital pianos.  I’ve read woefully inaccurate and misleading blogs.  I’ve even read blogs by very well-meaning piano retailers who have never led a worship service in their lives.  There’s a TON of static out there, but very few blogs seem to address the specific concerns church pianists have when selecting a worship instrument.  …and, as a result, countless churches end up with the wrong piano.  Here are the top 5 (most common) problems I see:

  1. They are too complicated.  Flashy LED lights and exciting “wow” features often sell expensive workstations (like the Korg Triton, the Roland Fantom and the Yamaha Motif) to too complicated keyboardworship leaders who will never actually learn to USE the features they are paying for.  Workstation keyboards are designed to function in a music production environment.  They are not designed for “real-time” performance.  If you’re not sampling your own sounds or creating audio landscapes for feature films then you don’t need to spend the money on a workstation.  Besides, if your worship leader is sick, how successful will your “backup” pianist be?  My recommendation?  Keep it simple.  There is really no reason for your keyboard to have a television screen built into it.  Focus on features that lead people to worship and avoid “extras” that drive up the price and the learning curve.
  2. They don’t sound good.  The most expensive part of a digital keyboard or piano isn’t the “bells and whistles” features; it’s the quality of its sound chip and action.  I could write a costco pianowhole blog on this topic, but suffice to say that cheap options (under $1200 US) won’t deliver the warmth, depth and clarity of a true musical instrument.  …and when you’re trying to bring people into the heart of worship, the last thing you want is a poor-quality instrument distracting folks from The Message.  Remember, “Good Stewardship” isn’t about buying cheap, inadequate equipment.  It’s about getting the best possible value on tools that will further your ministry.  Avoid any instrument that you’d find at a warehouse store or that you’d have to connect to your PA system via the headphones port.  In my experience, “going cheap” with instruments like the Yamaha DGX series, the “Arius (YDP)” home series or the Casio Privia line always leads to unforeseen troubles later.
  3. They don’t have onboard speakers. There is nothing more frustrating than coming in on keyboard with no speakersa weekday to practice with your choir or children’s group only to discover your practice instrument doesn’t have speakers and you don’t know how to operate the PA system.  If your keyboard or digital piano doesn’t have its own built-in speakers, you are forced to depend on others when and wherever you want to use it.  What if you have an outdoor VBS event?  What if you want to have a special service at a city park or local charity?  Even a basic set of built-in speakers gives you a host of options that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
  4. They are cheaply made and won’t last long. Worship instruments should be rugged.  If yours is made of plastic or unreinforced particleboard, how long can you realistically expect it to last?  How long do those touch-screens on your smart phone or tablet last?  How problematic is obsolescence to your work?  If you can’t afford the right tool now, wait until you can.  $500 is too much money to waste.
  5. They have too many “Danger Buttons.” Undoubtedly, this is the greatest nightmare any church pianist can have.  You know – the one where you accidentally engage an danger buttons on keyboardsautomatic rhythm right in the middle of the service and you can’t figure out how to turn it off while the whole congregation scowls at you in disapproval?  Buttons like the auto-rhythm start, song start and that annoying button that mysteriously turns your left-hand into chord sounds are not only useless in a worship service, they are downright dangerous.  Accidentally engage one of those buttons and you can disrupt an entire service.  …and who – in the heat of the moment – wants to find themselves frantically looking for a “reset” button to terminate the disruption?

These five complaints are by no means the ONLY objections I have with many digital worship instruments, but they are the most common and you should consider them carefully when selecting a new digital piano or keyboard.

How does your worship instrument stack up?  Most likely, unless you’re pretty “tech savvy” or so just so used to your old keyboard that you haven’t given it much thought, you’re probably not entirely happy with your primary worship tool.  It might be time for you to replace that old instrument with something that will better serve your ministry.

Here are some “must have” features in a modern worship keyboard or digital piano:

  1. “Behavior Modeled” Grand Piano Sound. Most modern keyboards or digital pianos use a technology called “representative sampling” (sometimes called “wave synthesis,” “harmonic imaging,” or “multiaural sampling”).  The core of this technology came about in the 80s when we started using recordings of acoustic pianos as the basis for digital piano sound.  Nowadays, the better (sampled) digital pianos spend more money on their piano recording so they can have more samples (or “snapshots”) of the grand piano sound.  As you play, the keyboard processor jumps you from sample to sample – simulating a grand piano’s reaction to your playing style.  …and – just like a movie – the more samples, the smoother those transitions.  Sadly, this technology is very limiting.  At most, it can offer about 128 volume (or dynamic) levels per key – giving you a more mechanical piano sound with very limited voicing and dynamic range.  Also, many less expensive digital pianos/keyboards save money by just sampling parts of the piano tone (like the main tone) and using computer after-affects to add things like “sympathetic resonance” (which gives depth and warmth to an acoustic piano) and decay (the way the sound diminishes as you hold the key down).  Behavior modeling, however, uses a piano modelingrelatively new technology to mimic not only the sound, but the behavior of an acoustic piano.   Instead of a mere 128 volume levels per key, you can now have over 16,000!  You can also enjoy an immersive experience that changes based on subtle changes to your playing technique.  Finally, a modeled keyboard or digital piano will offer organic decays and a natural 3D sound projection option that will give you a truly authentic grand piano experience.  …and, since it’s an algorithm (an equation that describes a piano’s behavior), it’s fully customizable.  You can customize the instrument for ANY sanctuary – whether you have a marble floor and high ceilings or carpet and padded seats.  You’re no longer stuck with the few piano sounds that come with the piano.
  2. Hybrid-Type Gravity Hammer Action.  The word “hybrid” can mean many things, but in this context, I am referring to the perfect compromise between traditional wood keys gravity hammer action(which – especially in Kentucky – are NOT maintenance-free) and resin keys (which just don’t FEEL like an acoustic piano).  I am NOT talking about the misguided and overly expensive idea that one should put all-wood, acoustic piano actions inside of digital pianos.  Not only are they pricey, but they are certainly NOT maintenance free… and who would you call to work on them?  A piano tuner?  A digital repair guy?    Stick to a simple, counterweight design that will give you a gravity action feel WITHOUT the inconsistency or built-in deterioration of a spring-loaded “weighted key” keyboard.
  3. Longevity.  Your worship instrument is (arguably) the most important tool you have.  Make sure it’s built to last.  If you are looking at a digital piano, make sure the legs are metal reinforced cabinet with front legssolid, the cabinets are metal-reinforced, the action is springless and the electronics do not rely on built-in touch screens.  If you are looking at a portable stage keyboard, look for a metal cabinet with plastic, shock-absorbing corners, a springless action, and rugged electronics that do not rely on built-in touch screens.  You should also make sure that the instrument you are considering is updatable.  The ability to update it with a USB flash drive or via a wireless technology maximizes the value of your keyboard or digital piano by not only extending its life but by giving you the ability to incorporate new technologies as they appear.
  4. Easy Layout. Since my original blog, I’ve come to rethink this one.  Yes, too many buttons (or too few) can make any keyboard or digital piano difficult to use.  This is especially true easy keyboard layoutwhen you consider substitute players.  YOU might be intimately familiar with your keyboard, but what if you’re ill and need someone to sub for you.  Will your backup need a college-level crash course to operate the piano?  …and yes, you should try to avoid instruments with automatic drum rhythms or flashy features, but “easy layout” can mean so much more than just that.  Simply put, you want an instrument that is easy to use.  Look for one that can layer sounds easily, intuitively transpose, quickly record and change instruments without a ton of button pushing.  Ideally, look for an instrument that can save your most common sounds and settings to pre-set “registrations” for instant recall.  You’ll be amazed at how much simpler a worship service can be when you’re not pressing the buttons as much as you’re pressing the keys.
  5. Connectivity.  While still important for keyboard updates, recording and simple audio playback, USB is no longer the most critical 3rd party connectivity feature to look for.  Nowadays, everything (including your tablet, smart phone and notebook) connects via a Bluetooth on Roland Digital Pianosstandard technology we lovingly call Bluetooth.  Bluetooth allows you to do some amazing things on a digital piano or keyboard.  You can stream audio services (like Pandora, Spotify, iTunes, etc.) through your piano and play along with them.  You can control your piano with a tablet (giving you color touchscreen control without the built-in obsolescence).  You can even convert your cumbersome hymnals, books and music sheets into digital sheet music and turn the pages with your pedals (wirelessly!).  I wouldn’t even consider a piano or digital piano that doesn’t have Bluetooth MIDI and Bluetooth AUDIO built-in.
  6. Worship Sounds. Most instruments today come with hundreds of sounds.  Make sure that you get the best (modeled) piano sound you can find, an excellent FM Rhodes or contemporary keyboard sound, a rich piano and strings mix, a warm piano and pad mix (great for Christmas), at least a couple decent organ sounds and a realistic nylon (acoustic) guitar.  You will no doubt discover other sounds that appeal to you, but these are the critical “every day” sounds you should look for.
  7. Necessary Accessories. If you’re considering a stage keyboard, you’ll want to make sure you have a sturdy, “wobble-free” stand.  I recommend a Z-Style adjustable stand if you keyboard bag with wheelsprefer to stand while playing or (if offered) use the custom stand made by the manufacturer… as long as it is metal-reinforced.  I would also recommend a luggage-style bag with padding, reinforced corners and wheels for easy transport.  If you’re considering a digital piano, make sure you get a lamp and a padded bench with music storage.  You might also consider a custom fallboard lock to keep curious fingers away from your piano.  Whichever instrument you get, don’t forget to pick up a USB flash drive and a good tablet or smart phone.  With the right apps, those tools will greatly enhance your ministry.
  8. Training.  You can buy a digital piano or keyboard just about anywhere.  …but how are you going to learn it?  How do you know you’ll get the most out of your instrument if you don’t have someplace to call for help?  Find a company who can give you the support you need.  This training should be FREE and enthusiastically conducted (in person or online) by someone who really knows the instrument.keyboard speakers built in
  9. Onboard Speakers. I covered this one pretty well above, but look for an instrument that you can play anywhere any time you want.  With built-in speakers, you don’t have to mess with a PA system or a portable amp every time you want to use the keyboard.  Save yourself time and frustration with an instrument that has built-in speakers.

After you have considered 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 keep in mind that it will perform differently in your worship space than it does in the store.  You will likely have to adjust the tone to match your unique setup.

With these criteria in mind, I have two recommendations for you.  If you’re looking for a portable stage piano, allow me to introduce you to the Roland FP-90.

Here are just some of the incredible live worship features available on the FP-90:

  • A truly organic modeled piano sound that can be customized to fit your worship space.
  • Switchable built-in speakers with “Acoustic Projection” 3D sound.
  • A hybrid wood/resin gravity hammer action with NO SPRINGS.
  • A rugged metal cabinet with plastic “shock absorbing” edges.
  • A simple layout with intuitive buttons.
  • A powerful Registration feature that you can advance with the touch of a pedal!
  • Easy Export options that allow you to share your registration sets via email!
  • USB, Bluetooth MIDI, Bluetooth Audio and Bluetooth Page Turn built-in!
  • Over 300 instruments (including all the basic worship sounds).
  • Two sturdy stand options and (optional) luggage-style bag.
  • FREE video training, telephone training (Gist) and Roland Concierge service.
  • Vocal input with separate volume controls for microphone.
  • Voice layering feature.
  • FREE Piano Partner 2 Control App for (Android or iOS) tablet or smart phone.

See how this keyboard performs in a choral setting using one of the contemporary keyboard sounds.  Note:  The sound in this video is coming directly from the keyboard’s speakers.  There is no external amplification.

Like what you see?  Click here for pricing and more information.


If you’re looking for a console-style digital piano, I’d like to introduce you to the Roland HP-605.

Here are my favorite live worship features available on the HP-605:

  • A truly organic modeled piano sound that can be customized to fit your worship space.
  • A rich, 6-speaker “Acoustic Projection” 3D sound system.
  • A hybrid wood/resin gravity hammer action with NO SPRINGS.
  • A rugged, metal-reinforced cabinet with front legs.
  • A simple layout with intuitive buttons.
  • A powerful Registration feature that you can advance with the touch of a pedal!
  • Easy Export options that allow you to share your registration sets via email!
  • USB, Bluetooth MIDI, Bluetooth Audio and Bluetooth Page Turn built-in!
  • Over 300 instruments (including all the basic worship sounds).
  • Duet-size piano bench with padded top and music storage.
  • FREE video training, telephone training (Gist) and Roland Concierge service.
  • FREE Piano Partner 2 Control App for (Android or iOS) tablet or smart phone.
  • 10-Year Parts and Labor Warranty (ON SITE)!

Like what you see?  Click here for pricing and more information.


Stop in today and experience the Roland FP-90 or the HP-605 for yourself.  You’ll see why – after carrying Clavinova, Kawai, Suzuki, Korg, Casio, Samick and many other brands – Roland is the brand I consistently recommend for churches.  If you want to get THE best performance, longevity and live worship features for your limited budget, you’ll want to consider these instruments for your ministry.

Looking for an acoustic piano for your church?  Stay tuned!  Part 2 is COMING SOON!

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20 thoughts on “The Ultimate Worship Keyboard or Digital Piano

  1. Kenny

    Hey James. I appreciate your input on the Roland FP90. I really like it. However, I could really use a little more portability…less weight. Any recommendations?

  2. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Kenny! Thanks for a great question! You might check out the Roland FP-50. It’s less expensive, smaller and quite a bit lighter. It’s not as up-to-date as the FP-90, but it’s a great second choice. Good luck!

  3. James Harding Post author

    Hi, BG. Did you get a chance to read the blog? The Alesis QS8.1 and the Yamaha MOXF8 meet almost none of the criteria I mentioned in the blog. I definitely wouldn’t recommend them for anyone who wasn’t already an Alesis or Yamaha MOX guru. …and even then, I’d probably argue for better value options. Sorry, BG. I’m not a fan. Best of luck!

  4. BG

    Hi, James. That is my setup and it works great for us. I was curious what your thoughts were… and now I know. Thanks.

  5. Grayson

    James,

    I was looking at used prices and found these. Any thoughts?

    Casio PX-5S                   725.00 
    Korg SV-1 73               1,212.99 
    Korg SV-1 88               1,428.99 
    Korg Triton Pro 88                   800.00 
    Kurzweil SP4-7                   499.99 
    Roland FP-50                   719.20 
    Roland FP-80                   899.99 
    Roland FP-90               1,115.99 
    Roland RD-300NX                    700.00 
    Roland RD-700GX                    999.99 
    Roland RD-700NX               1,299.99 
    Roland RD-800               1,455.00 
    Yamaha CP33                   574.99 
    Yamaha CP4               1,239.99 
    Yamaha CP40               1,025.00 

  6. James Harding Post author

    Sure thing. As I said in the article, there are always exceptions – people who are so comfortable with their current setup that they would never consider changing it. Most churches today, however, have multiple pianists/keyboardists and need an instrument with a much broader appeal. If your setup works for you, that’s great! I just don’t think it would work as well for others. Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Grayson

    We’re looking to buy a new keyboard for church and I could use some recommendations. We play Chris Tomlin, Hillsong, Citizens, Sovereign Grace, etc.

    From what I can tell, we’d need a good piano sound and a good pad sound to replicate these artists?

    Any help would be appreciated!

  8. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Grayson! Thanks for your question. I’ve certainly played a bunch of Chris Tomlin, Vineyard and Hillsong stuff in my day. I hear you! Hahaha. I would take a good long look at the Roland FP-90. It has a TON of great pad sounds and a behavior modeled piano sound that can be customized for your sanctuary. It’s the best sounding keyboard I’ve played. I think you’ll love it! Good luck!

  9. Grayson

    Thanks for the response. I should have bought the used FP-90,..it’s gone now! Are there any cheaper alternatives that you’d recommend?

  10. Grayson

    Thanks. I saw that you also previously recommended FP-50. What are the main differences between FP-50, FP-60. and FP-90?

    Also, what are your thoughts on the Roland RD series?

  11. James Harding Post author

    The FP-50 is discontinued and has now been replaced with the FP-60. The FP-80 has been replaced by the FP-90. The 90 has all the features we discussed here, but the 60 has last year’s sound chip and action. The 90 is really where the best sound and touch is when it comes to the “under $2k” price point. …but I know every penny counts. The RD keyboards are nice. I have one… but I wish I had an FP instead. I’d use the keyboard more if I didn’t have to setup an amp or PA system with it every time I want to use it (The RDs do not have onboard speakers). Food for thought!

  12. Grayson

    Thanks, James. I’m looking at the FP-50. Does it meet your 9 criteria? So the difference between the FP-50 and FP-90 is that the sound and touch is slightly inferior?

  13. Grayson

    Also, regarding #6 worship sounds. I notice a lot of modern worship uses a synth with laptop. What will the FP-50 not be able to produce that would require that?

  14. James Harding Post author

    The FP-50 meets seven of the criteria. It doesn’t have a behavior modeled sound nor does it have the hybrid action… but if you are ok with the sound and touch of the FP-50 (and if you can still find one now that they are discontinued) you can get a very nice keyboard for very little money. It’s not my favorite choice, but it works pretty well. Best of luck!

  15. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Grayson! This is a great question and it begins to highlight the problems I see in many churches. YOU can learn how to control synth sounds from your laptop with the keyboard but how is your sub going to navigate that setup when you’re sick or on vacation? How does your sub get help when you’re not there? Who does (s)he call? Why not just get a keyboard with great sounds in the first place? As far as worship sounds go, I think the FP-50 has a nice variety of tones that will accomplish anything you’d want to do with software. I always advise worship leaders to keep their setup simple.

  16. Brandi

    Thank you for this article! I am looking for a keyboard for our church, and then also one for my own personal/business use (I teach private music lessons). I was looking into the Yamaha Dgx 660, but you mentioned it being cheap and running into troubles in the future? What are these troubles, and what are your thoughts on this keyboard for personal use? Thanks!

  17. James Harding Post author

    Hi, Brandi, and thanks for your question! Aside from the performance issues I have with the Yamaha DGX pianos (I don’t find their “weighted key” action to be very piano-like, nor do I find the lack of resonance in their piano sounds to be particularly expressive), I have noticed that their frail cabinets do not hold up well institutional environments. Remember, these keyboards were designed for fun at home. They were not designed to be performance (or even practice) pianos. I’ve seen everything from broken headphone ports to shattered legs, broken AC adapters and countless problems with that big screen in the middle. I wouldn’t use a DGX as my church piano. You’d be better off waiting until you can raise the money for a Roland HP-605 or something like it. As for your personal piano, have you explored the new FP-60? It is a really nice option for the home and it’s pretty affordable too (compared to the console models). Otherwise, you might consider the RP-102. It’s pretty affordable for home use as well. Best of luck to you!

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