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July 7, 2012 1:43 PM   Subscribe

I want to learn to play an instrument. What's the best way to go about this?

One of my biggest life regrets is not playing a musical instrument. It occurs to me that A) it's silly to have life regrets at the age of 31, and B) there is no reason I can't turn this regret into an accomplishment. But what's the best way to pick up this skill?

Relevant info:

I took piano lessons for a few years as a child. It didn't really stick, but I definitely still remember the basics. I could probably sit down at a piano and breeze through a kids' piano basics book in a long weekend if I put my mind to it. I do not currently have access to a piano.

I have tried to play the acoustic guitar a few times over the years, but the chords never stuck and I never was successfully able to play a song. This seems stupid to me, since, seriously, any teenage burnout can put together three chords and start a band. I don't own a guitar, but I have friends who'd probably lend me one.

The apartment I'll be living in between now and October came with a banjo! I've watched a few youtube videos on clawhammer technique, and I feel like I could get it down pat with more practice. Especially if I paid for a lesson or two. I enjoy bluegrass music, but honestly I have no great passion for learning the banjo in particular. It's just... here.

Ever since I was tiny I've wanted to learn the violin, though I understand that has a very long learning curve.

I'm curious about other instruments which might be easy and/or extremely fun to learn, like maybe the ukelele (is that whole ukelele thing over yet?).

I am somewhat rhythm-challenged. I am an OK singer. I don't think I have perfect pitch or anything, but I'm not tone deaf, either.

I mostly like rock, folk, and roots-oriented music.

I would be willing to spend a little bit of money to buy a simple instrument, or to take a few lessons. But not, like, a ton of money. I will be moving across the country in a few months, so I'm not too interested in buying anything large or expensive. I will be leaving this banjo behind when I go.

I have read other AskMes about learning to play music as an adult, but most of those people seem to already know what instrument they'll be learning.
posted by Sara C. to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Amanda Palmer explains why the ukulele is the best choice for you. The relevant information is that it's a limited information, which makes it relatively simple to learn. It seems like a good first step.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:47 PM on July 7, 2012

Information? Instrument. I don't know why I said information.
posted by Ragged Richard at 1:50 PM on July 7, 2012

Best answer: Whatever instrument you pick (and I recommend guitar), the key for me was to not worry about playing a whole song or anything right away, and just work on chord transitions, timing, musicality, etc. I think people get too hung up on Must Play Song All the Way Through and it ends up sounding like crap, but if you practice a transition over and over I can pretty much guarantee you'll get it and feel pretty awesome about yourself, which if you're picking this up in your thirties is really where you want to start with this stuff and is pretty much the point. Playing The Whole Song takes more time.

Also -- about the violin and learning curve -- not sure if this applies but when I was a kid I learned piano and was never that into or good at it, but one summer after high school I learned cello and was some kind of whiz kid. I kind of wish I stuck with it but playing cello by itself was a bit depressing at the time. Violin is different because it has more tones to it -- cello is pretty muc h the moody goth kid in the room without other instruments around it. So what I'm saying is you might be a whiz violin kid and not know it.

What I'm saying is -- just do it, play something. Playing something badly is better than not playing anything at all.
posted by sweetkid at 2:07 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Harmonica? I always wanted to learn to play the harmonica but haven't gotten around to it-- cheap, extremely portable, and my sense is that it's not too difficult to learn enough that playing it starts to be fun.
posted by geegollygosh at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2012

Best answer: I've been teaching myself banjo through The How and the Tao of Old Time Banjo, by Patrick Costello, who also has dozens of short instructional videos posted on his YouTube channel. I like the way he introduces technique in a way that gets you playing right away.

You can play chords on a banjo in the clawhammer style, much like you would with a guitar, and play more than just bluegrass or old-time music. I'm working up some renditions of classic 80's pop songs that you just wouldn't believe.

My motivation to stay engaged and practice has been greatly boosted by playing music with my wife on guitar. Her skills are somewhat (though not vastly) better than mine, so we learn new tunes at about the same pace, and neither of us minds when the other screws up. Seriously, finding someone with whom you can jam and learn a few songs is the best motivator, no matter what instrument you decide on.
posted by itstheclamsname at 2:24 PM on July 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think, regardless of the instrument, the best way to go about it is to play with other people. If you only ever play by yourself in your room, even if you plan to "one day" play with others, you can end up failing to challenge yourself, and eventually the instrument sorta fades out of your life. But if you have a monthly band practice where others are depending on you, that keeps you accountable -- you become very aware of your weak points, very motivated to fix them, plus, playing with other people is one of the greatest things about music-making in my opinion.

Lessons are great partly because of the above: they're sort of like being in a band where there's only one other member and that other member doesn't care about anything except helping you get better. I would strongly recommend taking lessons at least to help you avoid picking up bad habits as you get started (and periodically thereafter, to catch any bad habits forming as you explore new territory), and I would recommend against quitting lessons unless you have really specific plans to play with other people in a "real band" setting instead. (Of course this can just be you and one other friend playing Bob Dylan songs in your living room for fun -- the only requirement is that you take it seriously enough that you'll feel that determination to get better and do well.) But, really, in this economy I wouldn't think that music lessons would break the bank, especially if you go with someone putting up fliers and teaching in the park rather than a fancy music school with a permanent location and such.

As for instruments, given your apparent willingness to sing (some people are too shy) and your stated taste in music, I too recommend ukulele or guitar, or even sticking with the banjo if you can get excited about it (playing with others might help!). Harmonica could be a lot of fun but that IMHO is an instrument where you really need to be playing with others to get much satisfaction, especially in the early stages, and if you aren't that interested in blues specifically you won't feel much motivation.

Violin and other "classical" instruments can be very enjoyable but you will be dependent on lessons for your group-playing experiences for a long time -- it's much harder to put together a string quartet garage band than a folk garage band, for a variety of reasons, although if you have three friends who are up for it that sounds awesome too.
posted by No-sword at 2:30 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I read this New Yorker profile of Manny Ramirez, which was linked off of this AskMe looking for interesting New Yorker profiles. I'm not a huge baseball fan and I hardly know any of the players anymore but I did find it interesting, and found Ramirez interesting.

I'm not recommending you read it, just want to tell you something that he did, every day, for half an hour -- he swung at pitches that were the hardest pitches to hit, set up a pitch machine to throw him a pitch named a slider, and throw it low and away from him. He did this every day, on top of his other batting practice, and he did this when he was not only at the top of his game, but at the top of *the* game -- he was at that time perhaps the most talented player in pro ball.

He was an extraordinarily talented human being, reflexes and speed and vision out of this world, he was awesome, he did things that others could never do, no matter how much they practiced. Still, Ramirez practiced. All the time. Every day. (hint hint)
posted by dancestoblue at 2:50 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Okay, I'm a serial instrument learner. The only instruments which have stuck for me are banjo and ukulele. Guitar, with its colossal neck with too-many strings, has always been too much to remember.

Simple clawhammer banjo is not too hard; difficult clawhammer (like this) is basically the same technique, but with years of refinement. It doesn't sound a bit like bluegrass. I've never got anywhere with Pat Costello's stuff, as he gets right into chords, which really don't work so well on an instrument with so little sustain. [Also, he has a habit of getting right up into everyone's grill in online banjo forums about how everyone else is teaching it wrong but him. That put me off him a bit.]

I'd recommend ukulele. They're cheap; just over $100 will get you a really good player. They're small and portable. They have nice soft strings that you don't need weeks of pain to build up callouses. The chords are simple, and if you decide to take up guitar later, are portable (if transposed).

A good banjo that you'll want to play isn't cheap, either. While the $200 Epiphone MB-100 is far better than it should be, it has a low resale value if you want to upgrade or sell on. Decent banjos start around $600.

[There's actually one instrument I'd recommend way, way above banjo and uke if it were more widely available: the nylon string mandolin. Mandolins have the most logical tuning of any instrument, but the standard doubled steel strings shred your hands like you were playing a mandoline. Nylon-strung ones do exist, but are rare and expensive, alas.]
posted by scruss at 3:25 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would say find the performance or song that's inspiring you to do this and go with that instrument. That way you will already have the instinctive sense of what the instrument and song are supposed to sound like and I think you'll be surprised at how quickly you'll pick it up no matter what the instrument is.
posted by Mrs. Buck Turgidson at 3:33 PM on July 7, 2012

Response by poster: OK! You guys have convinced me. I'm going to try the ukelele! I may also continue to mess around with this banjo and/or borrow a guitar and try to make those chords stick. But I'm gettin' a uke! I figure that, with entry level models around $50-$100, it's not too expensive (especially since there are so many resources online that I may not have to pay for lessons right away). And I can take it with me when I move, because they're small.

I was thinking I'd go to the big Sam Ash flagship store, which is around the corner from my office, to take a few for a test drive. Is there somewhere better in New York City to buy an entry level ukelele? Are people giving them away for free on craigslist? Is there some guy who builds his own and sells them at the Brooklyn Flea?

And, don't worry, I'll take the "play with other people" advice to heart, even if I don't spring for lessons. Is it better to play with other uke players, or to convince my friends who play other instruments to jam with me?
posted by Sara C. at 4:48 PM on July 7, 2012

Best answer: I'm a music teacher. I think that the least-overwhelming and most useful instruments to learn as an adult are guitar and ukulele, by far. It's easy to find other people to play with on both instruments (it's sometimes hard to be motivated if you're just playing by yourself), there are lots of materials and online tutorials available even if you don't want to bother with getting lessons, and you can easily sing and play by yourself without needing others, too. On any instrument, a couple months of lessons can go a long way not only in getting you over the initial technique hurdles and but also in giving yourself motivation to practice to make your investment of money in lessons worthwhile.

Violin is a great instrument, but as an orchestra teacher who has taught both kids and adults in class settings, it is harder for adults because just the act of getting a decent sound is frustrating to start- kids are a lot less aware of how miserable they sound. Because basic technique and tone production is relatively difficult/extremely specific to the instrument, it's an instrument that you really, really need lessons on to start so that you aren't setting yourself up for huge problems later on, and to help you over the first bumps in the road. You can likely rent a new or used totally acceptable student instrument for $20-$30 a month in pretty much any city in the United States. Lessons around my town run from $30-80 an hour, depending on if you're getting someone new to the gig or a lot more experienced.

The easiest instrument to learn is the one you want to practice, though, so pick something to rent, find a teacher or some really good tutorials and see what happens after, say, three months. If you hate it, you can try something else without being out thousands of dollars, no harm no foul.
posted by charmedimsure at 4:51 PM on July 7, 2012

Sam Ash sell Kala ukuleles, which are the Civics of the uke world. They have the cheaper Makala range (basic geared tuners, no binding or detail, basic nylon strings) and the slightly more expensive Kala range (sealed geared tuners, slightly classier fit and finishes, lovely Nylgut strings). Try both a soprano or a concert; they're both tuned to the same pitch, but concerts are fractionally larger and have easier fretboards to learn on.

You'll need a soft case, an electronic tuner, and most likely a spare set of strings.
posted by scruss at 7:53 PM on July 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

How about going out and listening to live acoustic music? Then pick up the instrument that touches your heart? A regular concert flute is good fun and very portable, as are the larger recorders. Another very beautiful instrument I enjoy is a Native American Flute.
posted by TrinsicWS at 2:08 AM on July 8, 2012

Response by poster: OMIGOD so I bought a ukulele and I learned to tune it and then I learned like two and a half chords (F is about 75% golden!) and now I can kinda sorta almost play like the first three-ish lines of Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen squeeeeeeeee.

(Thanks, everyone! And also, now I know why everyone covers Hallelujah all the time.)
posted by Sara C. at 6:35 PM on July 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

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