Learning an Instrument
August 25, 2009 12:36 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to pick up an instrument. What would you recommend that doesn't cost too much to buy and maintain, is fairly easy to learn, can be self-taught (i.e. with online resources/videos), and works well as a solo instrument?

I really enjoy music, but the only instrument I know how to play is the trumpet, and that was almost a decade ago. I want to pick up something new, but I don't have a ton of money and don't have hours a day to devote to learning. I have a midi keyboard that I suppose I could use to learn the piano, but I don't really know of any good software packages to learn (I tried Garageband 09, but it was a very basic introduction).

I'm thinking acoustic guitar, but I thought I'd check to see if I'm not overlooking anything else out there.

Also, please suggest ways to get the best deal on the instrument (for instance, if I'm looking for an acoustic guitar, should I go the Craigslist route or the music shop?).

posted by sciencemandan to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, also links to resources for learning your suggested instrument would be greatly appreciated!
posted by sciencemandan at 12:39 PM on August 25, 2009

what kind of solo instrumenting do you want to do? accompaniment to your singing? Performance? Guitar is really a great instrument to self-teach because you can learn by watching people play your fave songs on the youtube and copy their movements.
posted by Think_Long at 12:44 PM on August 25, 2009

The ukulele seems to be a popular instrument to pick up these days. You can self-teach, do solos, it only has four strings, and it's more portable than a guitar.
posted by aniola at 12:46 PM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Harmonica? Good harp players are always welcome. Plus if you find a campfire, you're good to go.
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 12:49 PM on August 25, 2009

I suggest an acoustic guitar, it's self contained, is quiet when practicing. There are lots on my local craigslist from $90 - $140 and there are masses of tutors on YouTube.
But in my experience, not easy to play well!

Maybe a b flat clarinet, my favorite instrument? It's also self contained and quiet. Once you get the hang of blowing the reed, you can play quite a respectable tune without too much trouble.
posted by lungtaworld at 12:52 PM on August 25, 2009

posted by Sassyfras at 12:53 PM on August 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

My wife got me a guitar for Christmas a few years ago, and I've enjoyed it tremendously. Read that thread for some good pointers. My guitar cost $100, and was fine to learn on.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:06 PM on August 25, 2009

Oh, and I, too, played trumpet decades ago. The musical training did help, actually, not so much in reading music, but more in knowing about pitch and tuning and scales and beats and such.
posted by MrMoonPie at 1:16 PM on August 25, 2009

There are enough amateur guitarists that it's pretty hard not to learn the damn thing. Contrast that with a couple friends of mine who picked up banjos and have barely used them because instructors and music are less readily available.
posted by valadil at 1:31 PM on August 25, 2009

Seconding the ukulele. The eBay vendor musicguymic has a really good reputation at places like Ukulele Underground. For $37 you can't go wrong.
posted by paulg at 1:33 PM on August 25, 2009 [3 favorites]

Since you already have a keyboard, you might want to take a look at some piano videos and save yourself the cost of another instrument. Twenty minutes a day watching, twenty practicing will at least get you back into music mode. Personally, I find the keyboard's linear-ness (what's the word I'm looking for?) makes it easier to learn than guitar, but that might be just me, since I've proven myself a guitar idiot for years now. There's tons of online resources for music, I doubt you need an actual software package.
posted by sageleaf at 1:41 PM on August 25, 2009

Musician's friend has a Rogue acoustic made by robots that has a decent action and is darn cheap.

That said, I really like my ukuleles. Easy to start playing in a hurry, and they're so cheap and unthreatening that I play more as a result and take one with me to the kids' swim lessons, etc.
posted by mecran01 at 1:49 PM on August 25, 2009

Thirding the uke, if you like the sound of them. And seconding musicguymic--I just bought a kala kiwi uke from him that is gorgeous and arrived in about four days (from Hawaii!!).

It's a really fun, relatively easy instrument.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 1:50 PM on August 25, 2009

Oh, also see this thread.
posted by mecran01 at 1:50 PM on August 25, 2009

I feel like a guitar is kind of cliche. Maybe a mandolin? It's unique, but not so much where you won't be able to find teachers or music. They're pretty cheap too. I have a friend who learned as she's really good at it, after about a year. She even accompanied our school's choir on a song. The chords are also easier to learn than a guitar because there are only four strings.
posted by kylej at 2:01 PM on August 25, 2009

Electric guitar is easier than acoustic guitar. You'll need extra equipment, of course, but the main thing is an amp, and you'll only need a small practice amp.

I assume you've already Googled and found the previous similar threads... (Those links are in addition to mecran01's.)
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:02 PM on August 25, 2009

Thirding a ukulele from musicguymic; not merely does he do a superb set-up job on his instruments (even the cheapo Makala ones) but he's very fair to work with - sent me the wrong model, and rather than asking me to ship it back from Canada to Hawaii, he told me to keep the old one when he sent me the new one.

Ukes have nice soft strings and are portable. I'd previously gone on record as disliking them, but having the instrument setup properly makes a huge difference - I'd previously had crappy ones. The thing is, the basic chord shapes are the same on a uke as a guitar; sure, a D on a guitar is a G on a uke, but the skills are transportable.

Pineapple Pete's Uke School will get you started, online and free.
posted by scruss at 2:36 PM on August 25, 2009

sciencemandan: Garageband 09

Does that mean you're stuck with Mac OSX, or do you have a windows or GNU/Linux machine?
posted by koeselitz at 3:31 PM on August 25, 2009

Ukulele. Without question. Get a Fluke with a flat bottom, so you don't even need a stand for it; you can just rest it on the ground. Don't even bother springing for the rosewood fretboard or anything -- the cheapest model Fluke will do.
posted by davejay at 4:36 PM on August 25, 2009

Nthing uke - they're a lot of fun and someday I'm going to buy something a little nicer than a $25 Mahalo with bad intonation and cheap tuners. But they're easy to fret, non-threatening, and absolutely encourage picking up and fiddling with in idle moments.

I wouldn't recommend mandolin if you've never played a stringed instrument before. The double courses of strings under high tension are hard to get used to (or are for me whenever I pick up my mando after a few months away from it).

I'm biased, but I'm going to throw it out there: clawhammer banjo. Easy to learn & play, tons of material online (Patrick Costello rocks), and it sounds great unaccompanied.
posted by usonian at 5:01 PM on August 25, 2009

Two turntables and a mixer.
posted by box at 5:21 PM on August 25, 2009

Keyboard/piano could be really good; on the downside, it's not portable, but it can be really fun to show up someplace that has a piano, sit down, and play something really cool and surprise people.

Acoustic guitar, on the other hand, is good because it's fairly easy to learn and fairly hard to master. You won't be Segovia overnight, but learn a dozen chords or so and you'll be able to play lots and lots of recognizable pop and rock songs inside of a month, which could make you a blast at parties once you teach yourself to sing and play at the same time (or just play and get someone else to sing lead). Of course, you could also end up as "that guy with the acoustic guitar," so it kind of depends on your personality.

For what it's worth, I play a decent piano and a pretty terrible acoustic guitar. The piano is generally more impressive to people, but just grabbing an acoustic guitar and mangling the intro to "Ziggy Stardust" is a better stress reliever.
posted by infinitywaltz at 6:59 PM on August 25, 2009

An alto recorder?
posted by oceano at 7:38 PM on August 25, 2009

Clawhammer banjo. Easier to learn than guitar, in my opinion, less typical, in my opinion, and quieter than three-finger "guitar-style" banjo.

Tons of awesome free, awesome, and rich sources of information on how to play (less BS like all of the terrible tab sites on the internet), and you'll learn and love new kinds of music in the process of learning the instrument.

Of course, I'm biased, but out of guitar, uke, and banjo, I pick up my banjo more and love practicing it more than the others nowadays.
posted by tmcw at 7:42 PM on August 25, 2009

I bought a ukulele a few weeks ago and speaking as someone with no muscial background whatsoever, I'm really enjoying learning how to play it. I wouldn't say it's easy but it really isn't hard to make pleasant noises come out of it. I'm learning online, mostly from youtube tutorials and there really is plenty of stuff out there to learn from. Uke solos (no singing) are a bit trickier, but once you're comfortable with reading tab things get easier.

Ukes come in four sizes - soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. Forget about baritone. I've gone for a soprano, but a concert would be a nice place to start.

After choosing a size you'll need to decide whether you want a solid-wood or laminate-wood model. Laminates are cheapest but buying a 'solid-top' (laminate back and sides, solid soundboard) would be a good compromise.

Then you'll want to settle on a brand and seller. As others have mentioned, MGM (musicguymic) on eBay has a solid reputation and will make sure that even a cheap instrument can reach its potential. Ask around the uke forums (UU, Cosmos etc) about brands. You'll be fine with Lanikai, Makala, Kala, Ohana, and a host of others).

Finally, buy yourself an electronic clip-on tuner. I have an ENO ET-3000+ and it's terrific. $20.

See also.
posted by SebastianKnight at 2:28 AM on August 26, 2009

the guitar is only a cliche because it is such a good instrument. if you want to be the eclectic guy with the strange instrument (not that there's anything wrong with that), then yes, get a ukelele or a mandolin or a didgeridoo or whatever.

if, on the other hand, you just want to have an instrument which is easy to learn (and has a functionally infinite number of free learning resources), an instrument which everyone recognizes and enjoys the sound of, an instrument that it relatively easy to carry and acceptable to play in public, and an instrument that strangers will happily teach you new songs on all the time... Well then, you should probably get an acoustic guitar.

there was nothing in the original post about wanting a unique instrument.
posted by 256 at 7:25 AM on August 26, 2009


A set of drum sticks is cheap, portable, and can be used anywhere. You can go cheap or expensive, can play along with anything, anywhere, not even needing equipment. This will also give you an excuse to buy rock band with the drum kit.

Ukulele and guitar are good suggestions, bass guitar is a good choice too, as is making your own Diddley Bow.
posted by enfa at 11:06 AM on August 26, 2009

Is bass guitar worth looking into if you're not interested in joining a band?
posted by SebastianKnight at 11:22 AM on August 26, 2009

I'm going to go with the other cliche and recommend a recorder-- an alto recorder if you want something standard, a tenor or bass recorder if you'd like something slightly more exotic. It's not an ideal solo instrument, but it's definitely cheap and easy and can be self-taught with books. There are recorder ensembles in any college town, the recorder repertoire is fantastic (lots of early music), and collectively they produce an exquisite and haunting sound.
posted by ms.codex at 6:45 PM on August 27, 2009

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