One hand, no mouth
June 21, 2012 7:24 PM   Subscribe

What one-handed instruments can I play and sing along with?

For better or worse, I have recently found myself with a lot more time alone. Over the years I have been a dabbler with various musical instruments, but have never committed to one. I decided that it might be a good use of my time to pick an instrument and work on it for the rest of the summer.

The complicating factor is that I have a disability such that I have three fingers on my left hand and zero on the right (like so), and my right arm is significantly shorter than the left. I have normal strength and dexterity, and relatively good dexterity in my legs and feet.

I have had success with some instruments in the past (trombone, trumpet, harmonica), but I really want to play something that I can rock out and sing along with. At this point I'm mostly looking for something that I can play rock/pop songs with, and which I can sing along with. I'll be doing this alone for now, but wouldn't rule out playing with others in the future. I don't want to use any adaptive equipment for now.

I have experimented with a number of instruments in the past, but before I commit to anything, I thought I'd solicit some advice from the hivemind. Here are instruments I've tried before, to give you a sense of my capabilities:
  • Trombone. Played for years. Easy for me, fun, but can't sing along.
  • Trumpet. Worked pretty well, but a little difficult to balance on my shoulder while playing.
  • Harmonica/melodica. These are fun too! But again, no singing.
  • Theremin. Reasonably accessible, although the fact that my right arm is shorter than my left makes it difficult to control the volume. Not really a fun-time jam instrument, though. Also, it's pretty much impossible to find instructors if I really want to get better.
  • Thumb pianos. I've played with some very small, toy ones. I think they're fun, but seem limited.
  • Keyboard. Works pretty well. I can hit 4 keys at a time with reasonable speed and accuracy, but obviously two-handed playing is out of the question.
  • Ukulele. This would be great, but practically I haven't been able to make it work well. I could fret with my left hand, and possibly strum with my right arm, but the angles just don't work out very well.
  • iPad. There are a lot of great music apps for the iPad. But I sit and stare at glowing rectangles all day, and really like interacting with some kind of physical device.
Thanks for your help!
posted by shaun to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (29 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Bowed Psaltery? See how this guy uses a tripod as a stand.
posted by Wossname at 7:32 PM on June 21, 2012

How might you be at holding a drumstick? Consider that not all drummers use both hands. I'll confess to knowing very little of the mechanics of drumming and stick-holding, but also know my share of drummers, and know that some manage to do quite well, even with what would be considered idiosyncratic styles and techniques.
posted by vivid postcard at 7:33 PM on June 21, 2012

Rhythm bones! Most clips on youtube show people playing two sets at a time, but they sound great one-handed as well. It's not a melodic instrument, but they definitely rock!
posted by usonian at 7:41 PM on June 21, 2012

Drums/percussion, as vivid postcard beat me to saying.

Concertina? If you can find a way to comfortably hold it with your right arm and mash the buttons with your left hand. I have seen people with one arm play the concertina with success, so it should be quite possible for you. Of course it isn't the most rock of instruments, but then, PIRATES.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:42 PM on June 21, 2012

Pedal steel or lap steel guitar?
posted by gregglind at 7:42 PM on June 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

I should also have said, you might have to adapt the traditional grip a little bit with your right hand, but I think it would work.
posted by usonian at 7:44 PM on June 21, 2012

Made me think of this video I saw of a guy with one hand playing guitar. He has some kind of adaptive device that allows him to hold a pick with his non-hand arm. If you used open tunings you could play a lot with three fingers on your fretting hand.
posted by smokingmonkey at 8:03 PM on June 21, 2012

Keyboard. Works pretty well. I can hit 4 keys at a time with reasonable speed and accuracy, but obviously two-handed playing is out of the question.

If you get a keyboard with a record function, you could record one hand, play it back, and play the other hand's part over it live. While that might be a little unorthodox if you end up playing in a group, I think people would be pretty understanding given the circumstances.
posted by John Cohen at 8:04 PM on June 21, 2012

A hammered dulcimer might work.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:23 PM on June 21, 2012

A tabor drum?
posted by nicebookrack at 8:23 PM on June 21, 2012

An accordion might work. Strap it on, and you can play the chord buttons and move the bellows with your left hand. Instead of playing melody with your right, you'll sing!
posted by ceiba at 8:28 PM on June 21, 2012

Glass Harmonicas are awesome and can definitely be played with one finger, especially if you get one that rotates a spindle of glasses via foot pedal.
posted by rhizome at 8:44 PM on June 21, 2012

Whoops, glass harmonicas are apparently pricey to buy, but maybe there's a university or something with one nearby?

Also, maybe a theremin. I'm sure you could use both arms, since it operates by proximity.

Lastly, BioMuse and similar body-sensor electronic instrument interfaces could at least get you some tappability over and above screen poking on an iPad.
posted by rhizome at 8:55 PM on June 21, 2012

Thinking outside the box a bit: how about an organ-style pedalboard?
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:24 PM on June 21, 2012

I would definitely go with keyboard, given your criteria. For singing along with, all you really need are triads anyhow.
posted by threeants at 9:26 PM on June 21, 2012

posted by Madamina at 9:29 PM on June 21, 2012

Marimba or xylophone!
posted by vespabelle at 10:00 PM on June 21, 2012

Thinking outside the box a bit: how about an organ-style pedalboard?

Moog makes a great one, the Taurus. It's an analog synth with a foot pedal board. You could then play 2 instruments and sing.

I would definitely recommend electronic instruments that are tactile- like an analog synth with knobs you can control while playing or while it plays itself (sequenced).

Have you heard Reggie Watts? He builds up amazing songs with looper pedals, you can instantly multitrack huge compositions if you're good at it. He mainly uses his voice and lately, a keyboard.

Have you heard of Cold Cave? Wesley is a pretty successful electronic musician (darkwave) who lacks a hand.
posted by tremspeed at 10:11 PM on June 21, 2012

Kirg Wavedrum or Wavedrum Mini.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:43 PM on June 21, 2012

A harp? One of the smaller Irish-style ones might be fun to try, and definitely a good skill to develop for string-plucking.

I know you said you're mainly interested in rock/pop, and clearly want to learn an instrument as a complex skill, but if you were interested in Indian music and concentrating on your voice, a tambura/tanpura is great for (drone) accompaniment.
posted by iotic at 11:43 PM on June 21, 2012

Have you heard Reggie Watts? He builds up amazing songs with looper pedals, you can instantly multitrack huge compositions if you're good at it.

Reggie Watts' loop pedal of choice is the Line 6 DL4 delay modeler. You can combine this with an Alesis AirFX effects processor or the Alesis AirSynth, both of can see where your appendages are relative to the device. The AirFX and AirSynth have both been discontinued by Alesis, but you can get either of them on eBay for less than $250. Another device in that vein is the Korg Kaossilator.

With those three tools, maybe hooked into a recording device, if you feel like it, you could do some very interesting things. If you're not opposed to running some of these devices with a laptop off in the background running loops in Ableton Live, you can improvise entire shows with the above loopers, effects processors, and Ableton paired with a Roland FC-300 or the M-Audio equivalent.

Good luck and keep us posted. I'd love to hear what you create.
posted by phoebus at 1:27 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

A proper glass harmonica may be expensive to buy, but that shouldn't stop you from buying up thrift store glasses and tuning up your own.
posted by knile at 2:01 AM on June 22, 2012

Thanks for all the awesome suggestions, folks.

One reason I posted this question was to gather a set of creative ideas to try out in the future. And you have not disappointed. For now, I will probably double down on my keyboard skills. However, I also got hooked and watching Kaossiilator videos and ordered one almost immediately. Even though it's basically a touch screen and a knob, I love the size (easy to use with one hand) and the combination of simple input and looping capability.

Please keep the suggestions coming. See you all in MeFi Music.
posted by shaun at 5:05 AM on June 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

As for adaptive guitar, the greatest player of all time, Django Reinhardt had only three fingers on his fretting hand.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:08 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a cheap theremin with only the pitch antenna (no volume) and I've thought about trying it with a guitar volume pedal. Maybe that would work for you?
posted by beyond_pink at 6:19 AM on June 22, 2012

A guitar setup specifically for tapping (low action, with an open string mute) could be interesting and easy to acquire. Or on the higher end, something like a Chapman Stick or a Harpeji.

A slide guitar could also work (especially if combine with a ebow or similar device). For a high end example, the Moog lap steel.

A chording hex layout midi keyboard might also be interesting (though less "physical").

Maybe a hang drum or it's more accessible cousin, the Hank drum.
posted by alikins at 9:53 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Electric bass guitar is pretty easy to play with just the fretting hand.
posted by The World Famous at 10:00 AM on June 22, 2012

You could try playing guitar by tapping rather than picking, like this guy.
posted by epimorph at 10:01 AM on June 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have you considered using your keyboard as a MIDI trigger? A copy of Ableton Live and a keyboard (or drums/triggers like the Alesis MPD or Korg Nano series) and you can create some fairly complex music. My current time-sink is Nanostudio (Free! Cross-Platform! MIDI-capable!) and an MPD24 "tuned" like a cello, or loaded up with pre-sliced waveforms.
posted by lekvar at 12:59 PM on June 22, 2012

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