Help me choose a musical instrument to learn!
April 18, 2009 7:48 PM   Subscribe

Help me choose a musical instrument to learn!


I have some extra free time available in the next few months, and I'd like to learn a new musical instrument. I played piano years ago but it's not practical for me to take it up again. I know how to read music, though, and the basics of music theory. I'd like to take up a fun instrument as a casual hobby. Here's what I'm looking for:

- Relatively cheap - something I can get on ebay or craigslist (or a used music store) for under $100

- Fun to play

- Something with a relatively quick payoff. For instance, when learning to play piano it takes a lot of work to play anything impressive-sounding, whereas with the guitar you can learn many modern rock songs after just a few weeks. I don't need an ultra-easy instrument, I just dont want something that is going to take a year of practice before I can play anything cool.

I've thought about just taking up guitar or mandolin since they pretty much fit all my requirements, but I'm thinking about more obscure, quirky instruments as well. I just think it would be cool to suddenly tell my friends, "Yeah, I play the bagpipes now". But I don't know much about how hard it is to take up the bagpipes (I'm guessing that it's pretty hard).

Some of the more "obscure" instruments I've gathered the names of from previous askmefi posts: bagpipes, accordion, concertina, Jew's harp, tin whistle, ocarina...I'm just not sure which of these (if any) fits my requirements. Other suggestions wecme as well.

posted by btkuhn to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
May I introduce you to:

solo triangle
posted by found missing at 7:52 PM on April 18, 2009

Oops, I forgot: banjo.
posted by btkuhn at 7:52 PM on April 18, 2009

Autoharp! I acquired mine used, in good condition at a reputable local folk instrument shop, for just under $100.
posted by teamparka at 7:55 PM on April 18, 2009

If you don't want to do piano (the best instrument to learn music) then do guitar. As you say, it is easy to make early progress and this is actually important for most of us. Motivation is the key to progress and progress is often the key to motivation. You read music. Take the more difficult (not that much more) route of learning guitar on the cleff, not on that bastard the tab.
posted by caddis at 8:02 PM on April 18, 2009

Ukulele! The baritone ukulele is also known as a mini-guitar.
posted by torquemaniac at 8:07 PM on April 18, 2009

seconding autoharp, but there's quite a lot to go wrong, and a new set of strings is over $100.

You could probably pick up a playable Harmony banjo for about $100, but you'd need to get the fifth string tuner replaced. The old friction tuners were dire.

If you're a logical type, mandolins are tuned in a fairly straightforward way and are easy to play. They can be a bit harsh on your fingers, though.

Harmonica? Small, easy to carry, and not too difficult to get some basic licks down.
posted by scruss at 8:08 PM on April 18, 2009

Banjo = hard. At least in my experience! I practiced and practiced for months in order to play a little tune that no one seemed to recognize.

I've tried to compensate by mastering some accent percussion instruments like castanets. I think working with the recorder or ocarina would probably deliver the payoff you crave -- but you can't sing to it while you play!
posted by hermitosis at 8:17 PM on April 18, 2009

Guitar, ukulele, autoharp, mandolin... any of these instruments will give you flexibility. They all can be played two ways -- you can learn chords (which can be simple or complicated) which let you do simple campfire sing-a-long stuff pretty quickly, or you can learn more "classical" techniques and get into very complicated show-off playing with enough work. Banjos are a bit more work because they are rarely strummed and so require learning picking patterns.

Harmonicas might earn enemies in less-tolerant crowds unless you're really fantastic.

Bagpipes are impossible to practice unless you live in a private dwelling or have patient neighbors.

Really, guitar or mandolin will give you quick "bang for the buck" results but can also lead to years of challenge (Leo Kottke springs to mind as someone with MIND-BLOWING technique.) They also lend well to playing with groups of like or dissimilar instruments. Most importantly, they will teach you the basis of music theory, which is the gate which opens all the other instrumental doors. Get that under your belt, and every instrument you pick up is simply understanding the mechanics before you can do something halfway decent on it.

Autoharp is also good for all these things, but requires less of an initial learning curve to get good strumming going, because, well, all the chords are pre-created for you. Playing an autoharp as a lyrical instrument, however, is mindblowingly difficult, from what I can discern.

If you want to get into a rock band, learn the bass. I hear that's also the way to get into women's pants, but I don't lean that way.

All these have been pretty "popular" instruments. That's because most of the others (violins, 'cellos, clarinets, saxophones, etc) DO require a good amount of practice and training before you can play them well. The difference? Frets on the strings and more forgiving "little stuff" in the basic technique.
posted by hippybear at 8:29 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

DUDE! Harmonica for the win!
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:51 PM on April 18, 2009

Ukulele. No doubt.
posted by bink at 9:00 PM on April 18, 2009

Learn the ukulele.

I play about everything else, and none has brought as much gratification to me as the uke.

I wish I'd never picked up guitar years ago.

It's easy to play, sounds amazing (with the right ukulele), easy on the fingers, looks great, is really transportable, it has an original sound, and is inexpensive.

You can get an amazing sounding ukulele for $54 from Musician's Friend.

Feel free to MeMail for questions!
posted by bradly at 9:02 PM on April 18, 2009 [3 favorites]

Mandolin, mandolin, mandolin. And the best part is that it's a gateway instrument to the fiddle. No easy payoff there but a lifetime obsession. I've only horsed around on a $100 mandolin, but it's not hard to sound ok once you have a few basic chords under your belt.
posted by fiery.hogue at 9:03 PM on April 18, 2009

hermitosis: what style of banjo were you trying to play? Clawhammer is quite easy to pick up, but most of the fingerpicking styles are much more difficult. I'm not much good at any of them, and I've been banjo-ing fairly seriously for four or so years now.

Clawhammer banjo is nice because you can get technically proficient pretty quickly (it might have taken me a week and a half of consistent practice) but it doesn't get boring. There's actually quite a bit of room for nuance and style in clawhammer playing. Like any instrument, you have to play for a little while before you can start to really inject your own personality into the music, but you can get playing recognizable tunes very, very quickly.

There are lots of books of varying quality on how to play clawhammer banjo. Clawhammer Banjo for the Complete Ignoramus by Wayne Erbsen will get you playing very simple stuff within a couple hours, tops. My personal favorite book is Clawhammer Banjo by Miles Krassen (who is also a rabbi of some repute, apparently). His tabs are a little more sophisticated, but he gets the southern Appalachian style across much better. His is the book I learned out of (along with some instruction from my Dad). If you don't have anyone to show you the ropes, I'd also recommend any of Mike Seeger's instructional DVDs.

My other suggestions would be the pennywhistle and the jaw (or Jew's) harp. They're both dirt cheap, pocketable and easy to noodle around with. I don't play either of those very much, so I can't give a lot of information, but they're worth looking in to.
posted by Commander Rachek at 9:07 PM on April 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

posted by Taurid at 9:13 PM on April 18, 2009

Ukulele is what you want for sure.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:23 PM on April 18, 2009

Also, if it matters to you (and I know it matters to me), banjos are tough. As in "rugged." You could easily club a man to death with a banjo. Try doing that with a ukelele.
posted by Commander Rachek at 9:24 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm going to disagree with Commander Rachek, as someone who's spent years struggling to learn clawhammer solo (one of these days I'm going to get around to taking lessons . . . ). Meanwhile, I can easily pick up a guitar and play "Yellow Submarine" whenever I want, despite only knowing a handful of chords. I mean, banjos rock and all. But they're not exactly easy peasy.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:24 PM on April 18, 2009

Everybody plays the guitar. This makes guitars relatively cheap, and playing the guitar relatively unremarkable. Also the instrument has way too much phallus worship mystique built up around it.

I recommend the accordion, it is straightforward to play, especially if you have piano experience, it is self-accompanying, and there is no such thing as "swollen accordion player ego". Learn some tango music it's sexy.
posted by idiopath at 9:30 PM on April 18, 2009 [2 favorites]

You can play a recognizable tune on a mountain dulcimer very quickly. I started out playing just the melody string and simple chords, and I learned a song right away. They're not cheap, but you can occasionally find them used. The cheapest new dulcimers that I know of are this cardboard dulcimer, and the second cheapest is this wooden one. Also, if there is a dulcimer or folk group in your area, they may know of someone with a starter instrument for sale. Groups/clubs are also a great way to learn this instrument.
posted by rakaidan at 9:39 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

posted by JuiceBoxHero at 9:49 PM on April 18, 2009

I got a groovy black lacquer thirtyfour key mouth powered melodica at a thrift store for a song.
posted by hortense at 10:54 PM on April 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

The criteria you listed above are basically why the guitar is the most popular instrument on the planet. It has the best balance of sound and playability. It has the largest number of outside resources for teaching and learning. Perhaps it's lost some of it's cache by being too popular, but if you are honest in your intentions, that shouldn't bother you.

The ukulele has seen a recent surge in popularity in the U.S., and it is quite portable, but sometimes it feels more like a gimmick than an instrument to me. This is just my opinion of course, but the sound of the ukulele is very limited and almost "silly" in a way. It has probably the narrowest range of timbres of any instrument yet mentioned (mostly due to its small size).

The banjo (and to a lesser degree the mandolin) are "hard" in the sense that they only really sound good with a certain level of proficiency. This is especially true with something like the violin / fiddle, which is basically unlistenable without more than basic proficiency. None of these instruments can compare to the guitar in terms of its ideally shaped learning curve.

But with all that said, whatever instrument inspires you to pick it up and play it every day is going to deliver the greatest reward.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 11:39 PM on April 18, 2009

the musical saw?
posted by aielen at 12:17 AM on April 19, 2009

Have to say the guitar is a good bet. Mandolin's also a possibility, but you might find yourself limited in genres if you're not interested in bluegrass or folk music. Obviously there's people who play jazz, for instance, on the mandolin, but that won't be what you'll be starting out with. Ukulele, on the other hand, might not be a bad idea.

Wouldn't recommend the banjo if you're interested in an easy introduction.

Harmonica also a possibility. You probably want a diatonic, which is what people use for blues and rock. The alternative is a chromatic harmonica. You can look into this more if you want.

One thing I haven't seen mentioned here is the tin whistle. This is if you are interested in Irish tunes at all.
posted by Busoni at 1:29 AM on April 19, 2009

I'd like to nth the ukulele. If fits all your criteria very well. It's much easier to play than a guitar, both because of its size and because ukuleles tend to have nylon strings, whereas guitars tend to have steel ones (unless you get a flamenco guitar, or something). So unlike the guitar, you don't need much by way of finger strength and callouses to play the uke. I have one of these, and I definitely get a lot of curious looks whenever I bring it to a public place. Also, whenever I play it for my friends, they invariably get impressed by the richness of its sound, considering the size. It certainly doesn't have the range or the harmonic possibilities of a guitar, but in the hands of a good player, it can be quite impressive.
posted by epimorph at 3:58 AM on April 19, 2009

You can probably get a used acoustic guitar for under $100. There's a reason everyone plays it.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:20 AM on April 19, 2009

I'd recommend the ukulele too, but if you do fancy the bagpipes you don't actually need a set of bagpipes to learn. The normal way to learn is with a Chanter. These start really cheap, I had one I brought on a whim when I went into a shop with a friend as it cost the equivalent of about $10. Learning the fingering was really easy (I had learned the recorder as a kid) though the breathing was much more difficult. I could never play for more than a few minutes, without running out of breath—you need to keep up a constant pressure while blowing—but I'm sure there is a proper technique you could learn. I never took it seriously I would just pick it up occasionally and blow into it.
posted by tallus at 6:12 AM on April 19, 2009

> None of these instruments can compare to the guitar in terms of its ideally shaped learning curve.

Some of us don't have six fingers. Also the even fifths between string courses on a mandolin puts all the notes in very logical positions. On the guitar, that doesn't happen.

Wouldn't recommend saw or theremin. Both require pitch and micro-motor controls beyond most mere mortals.
posted by scruss at 7:44 AM on April 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Guitars are fairly ubiquitous for a reason.

Nobody appears to have mentioned percussive instruments. A good conga can provide hours of fun and has a very short learning curve (provided you can keep the beat).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:45 AM on April 19, 2009

Didgeridoo, mine was under $30 and you can make cool sounds pretty much right away. As an added bonus, it can cure snoring.
posted by Deep Dish at 2:18 PM on April 19, 2009

The Sax is fairly easy to get up to speed with if wind is your thing.
posted by singingfish at 3:08 PM on April 19, 2009

The Venezuelan Cuatro (not the Puerto Rican version) is tuned same as a ukulele but is more like the size of a baritone uke. It has a slightly different re-entrant string set-up makes for a better sound (less of that "thrummy" out-of-tune sound that baritones always seem to suffer from).

The uke is great because you can accompany yourself singing and it doesn't take any time to learn elaborate chord arrangements for old jazz tunes.
posted by bonobothegreat at 9:15 PM on April 19, 2009

FWIW - I built a Theremin and the learning curve is staggeringly steep. NTM the portability issues. It's great for parties, though.
posted by torquemaniac at 11:58 PM on April 19, 2009

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