Drums, bass, guitar, or hopeless? Help an old guy learn new tricks?
January 3, 2019 11:40 AM   Subscribe

Once again while making resolutions for the new year, I've been considering taking yet another run at learning an instrument. Advice from experts and/or late-life musical learners appreciated. More inside.

So over the holiday I spent time with some family who play instruments and they were having a grand time plunking around and I really wished I could join in. Over the years I've taken a run at learning an instrument a few times - but it hasn't stuck.

Details - I'm in my late 40s and never learned to read music. I took a few drum lessons in the early 90s and that went OK - instructor said I needed much practice, but my sense of time is good so it wasn't hopeless. Then I wound up moving into an apartment where drums were not an option.

Have also tried guitar but I have fat, stumpy, clumsy fingers and I'm skeptical my fingers are going to do those things. Also have a hell of a time not fretting more than one string at a time.

Would like to take another run at learning to play something, preferably something I can enjoy a few early successes on so I will be more likely to stick with it. Wondering if bass might be a better choice than guitar, or if I should take another run at drums. If drums, how good are electric kits these days and any recommendations for a neophyte who doesn't want to terrify the cats while whacking away at an instrument?

Also willing to consider keyboard or something else - preferably something that is portable and could be part of an impromptu jam session next year. (Amateur-level competence is fine.)

What would be the best way to get good enough at something to enjoy it in a year? Do I have to learn to read music? Advice, success stories, or even "give it up, already" all welcome.
posted by jzb to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I took up piano in late 2016 and really enjoyed it. I got a digital piano (~$600), which is nice because I can play with headphones and not worry about having to bug the neighbors. I will say though that it's not nearly as portable as a guitar, which was my second choice for instrument (but I decided against it because I didn't want to deal with building up calluses on my fingers).

I only think you need to learn to read music as much as you want to. For guitar, just being able to read tablature is totally cool. I learned how to read music while playing piano; it's definitely an acquired skill but quite useful. But my impression was that if I decided to move in a more-jazz direction, my teacher wouldn't have pressed the point.

Speaking of which, my #1 tip is to get in-person lessons from a qualified teacher. It really did wonders for my skills to have someone able to correct me when I was making persistent mistakes. I don't think watching YouTube videos or similar methods would work as well.

Also key is to practice as much as possible. Not that it needs to fill your every waking hour, but if you can play, say, a half-hour every day, it'll do wonders for your skills. (Also note that that playing six half-hour sessions a week is much better, and much more doable, than one three-hour session.) Also, remember to start out playing SLOW, and get faster as you master those initial speeds. A metronome (real or an app) will be useful for this part.

Enjoy learning an instrument! It's such a neat skill to have, and much more gratifying than I ever imagined, even though I'm still definitely a n00b.
posted by miltthetank at 11:53 AM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

If drums, how good are electric kits these days and any recommendations for a neophyte who doesn't want to terrify the cats while whacking away at an instrument?
My understanding is that the higher-end electronic kits are getting very good, and the middling ones are probably more than good enough for amateur play. BUT: it is controversial among drummers and teachers whether or not one should learn on them; also, it seems that noise may still be an issue, depending on your living situation.

Wondering if bass might be a better choice than guitar
It's probably easier than guitar to lean how to play functionally, like where you can play simple parts with others, but it's just as challenging to play well.

What would be the best way to get good enough at something to enjoy it in a year?
Take lessons, practice every day, play with other people.

Do I have to learn to read music?
To play rock and folk and hobby/fun level stuff, no, not at all.
posted by thelonius at 11:55 AM on January 3, 2019

It may sound silly, but the Rock Band game series is a good way to practice playing rhythm against classic tracks, especially on bass and drums.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:00 PM on January 3, 2019

Should you elect guitar or bass, I can wholeheartedly recommend Rocksmith as a great way to get started. It can use almost any guitar or bass and is basically Rock Band with real instruments. It's how I began playing guitar six years ago; I now own more than 10 guitars and spend hours each week playing.

And don't worry about your fingers- unless they're wider than they are long, you'll be fine. A friend of mine is a far better player than I, and he has the most sausage-like digits I've ever seen.
posted by EKStickland at 12:05 PM on January 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

How about a cajon? It’s portable, works great for acoustic jams, would tap into your sense of rhythm, and is much less practice intensive than a drum kit.
posted by doctord at 12:07 PM on January 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I gravitated to bass in my 20's because guitar frankly intimidated me, and played and enjoyed it for many years in different musical settings. That said:

- Practicing with no accompaniment can be a challenge to stick to. Recordings you can play along with (or I suppose some of the other suggestions above, though I have no experience with them) when learning songs helps a lot.
- I've found that an acoustic bass guitar is easily drowned out by even semi-enthusiastic guitar players, requiring a lot of effort to be heard.
- An upright bass, even an "inexpensive" plywood one, is a logistical concern that you'd really need to be ready to commit to.
- Bear in mind that an electric bass requires an amplifier, which is an additional cost and logistical issue - not necessarily as much as an upright bass, but probably more so than a portable digital keyboard.
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:13 PM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Since it seems like you are, in part, looking for an instrument to take up, consider expanding your possibilities beyond the rock trifecta of guitar, bass, and drums. A decent harmonica, for instance, can be had for less than $50. A baritone ukulele has a smaller neck than a guitar and only four strings, which may better accommodate your hands. There are low tin whistles and ocarinas and things which make really lovely sounds and which also might better suit your hands.

Someone above mentioned the Cajon, which is also a great option. In fact, if you can keep time, you might find that your best addition to a jam session is a bunch of relatively inexpensive hand percussion instruments and a light touch using them.
posted by gauche at 12:18 PM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've had a ball learning ukulele and didn't start until I was nearly 40. Cheap to buy, super-portable, and lots of great instructors on YouTube. You can get them acoustic or electric these days, too. I recommend The Ukulele Teacher. One tip: spring for the electronic tuner because it will save you a lot of time. If you're worried that the strings might be too close together, there are some recommendations in the comments of this page discussing ukulele nut width.
posted by Wild_Eep at 12:38 PM on January 3, 2019 [2 favorites]

I get that playing along with others is a big part of what makes music fun, but would you consider electronic instruments? I like playing guitar, but I play so badly that I never play in front of anyone (even my wife). I used to have some drum machine apps on my phone that scratched the same itch, though. Many are pretty easy to use, and it takes a lot less time to create your first beat than it does to learn and play a chord progression. Plus, if you have headphones in, you can make music in public without fear of judgment.

That said, it's pretty easy to get to the "OK" stage of playing guitar. You really only need to know about seven open chords (A, Am, C, D, E, Em, G), and everything else you can just do power chords. Power chords are probably easier for your fingers anyway. The great thing about guitar is that you don't have to be Yngwe Malmsteen. You can just strum along and accompany your family members.

Bass might be easier for fat fingers, although you will not infrequently run into situations where you have to stretch pretty far. Playing a clear note with a stretched pinkie is hard, and you don't have other chord tones you can hide behind like with guitar. The biggest argument against starting with bass, though, is that it's really easy to go from guitar to bass, but going from bass to guitar is not much easier than starting guitar from scratch.

Drums are another instrument like guitar where you can gain basic competence reasonably quickly (just lay down a backbeat, and that'll work for almost all pop/rock-based music). The main drawback to drums is portability. You're never going to just be hanging around like "yo, let me grab my drum kit really quick". It's a lot less spontaneous than a guitar, or even an electric piano. If you're going to be playing drums with other people, it's usually because they are coming over to your place specifically to play with you.

One thing I might suggest: Because there is a need for rhythm at spontaneous gatherings of musicians, you could try becoming proficient at non-percussion percussion. Things like hand claps and foot stomps. If you can lay down a nice beat using your hands and feet, you can be a valuable part of an improv ensemble.

Unless you're aiming to achieve technical proficiency or play art (classical) music, reading music is not necessary, and may actually be counterproductive. You'll spend a lot of your practice time learning to read music instead of learning to play your instrument. All popular music for guitar is available in tablature, probably more so than actual sheet music, which is a more intuitive way to read what you should be doing to me. I can read music, but I prefer tab. And if you're playing with other people, most of the time they'll just show you the chords.

And of course, regardless of instruments, consider learning to sing. If you have a good voice, nobody will object to you being a part of a jam session.
posted by kevinbelt at 1:07 PM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

Enjoying all the answers so far, keep them coming please! Quick answer to two things:

Ukulele is probably out, I am not fond of its sound. Sorry.

@kevinbelt I have a great voice for speaking, but terrible for singing. I don't want to inflict that on people who aren't properly soused first. Even then, my karaoke selections are mostly limited to "Werewolves of London" and selections by The Dead Kennedys.
posted by jzb at 1:12 PM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

As mentioned above, the ukulele is a really great option that’s wallet/apartment friendly. If guitar was frustrating for you, the uke might be an easier entry point into fretted stringed instruments (less string tension and fretboard real estate to contend with).

The other benefit of the ukulele is that (depending on where you’re located) beginner-level uke jams are totally a thing.

What would be the best way to get good enough at something to enjoy it in a year?

The key to consistent progress is a bit of time spent on it each day - even if you can only spare fifteen minutes some days, it moves you forward (plus it’s fun and relaxing, IMO).

Splashing out for a few in-person lessons to get you started with some basics doesn’t hurt, either.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:14 PM on January 3, 2019

Personally, I think it is much easier to learn bass than guitar. I'm saying it's easier to master it -- but I think that it's much quicker to hit the point of being able to jump in and play along with others. You can practice an electric bass with headphones (or unplugged) so that you don't disturb the neighbors.

A downside with bass is that it is meant to work with other instruments. So you can practice while listening to other songs, which is great -- but you're probably not going to wow people at a campfire by pulling out the bass and playing something solo

One other possible consideration is to think through what instruments other people are likely to have -- and what, therefore, would be a good addition

I know that you've taken uke off the table, but I tried one over Xmas and had a blast. I think it's a great first instrument to learn. Me and son were quickly jamming Nirvana and Radiohead tunes with me on uke and him on melodica, a wacky sound, but we sure had fun!
posted by agog at 2:36 PM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I'm trying the cigar box guitar, only 3 strings. Plus you can build your own for added pleasure. Lots of resources on the web.

posted by sandpine at 2:52 PM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

As someone who lives with a person who has a high-end (I assume, since its worth thousands of dollars) electronic drumkit - they are still quite, quite loud. The headphones stop the actual music from being heard but the sticks/pedals hitting the drums (cymbals especially) is a constant thudding sound. If you live in an apartment still, I'd probably avoid, unless you are happy to shell out for the soundproofing stuff available from music stores. My partner plays while in the (detached) garage and I can still very easily hear every drum strike while in the house with the doors and windows shut.
posted by BeeJiddy at 4:13 PM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

I got hubby the Alesis Forge electronic drum kit ($500) and a subscription to drumeo online lessons ($200) and he’s very happy. I do hear the thudding in the house but its never woken up my toddler so I’m fine with it.

On the other end of the spectrum, in quite happy with my $80 ukulele :)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:19 PM on January 3, 2019

Whoops, hit post before I read you’re not into ukes...
posted by St. Peepsburg at 4:21 PM on January 3, 2019

I've fiddled with lots of instruments, but nothing beats sitting around plucking an acoustic guitar for relaxation. A nice pastime especially in your later years. Get some nylon strings if fretting is hard for you.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:45 PM on January 3, 2019

I am a latecomer to music myself, and this may be peculiar to me, but I find the guitar incredibly frustrating and hard to play, while piano is much more rewarding/forgiving. The guitar physically hurts my body. Not just my fingers, but my wrists, arms, shoulders and back. I am also seemingly physically incapable of switching between even the simplest chords. I'm sure a good music teacher could explain what I'm doing wrong but I don't have any plans to get one in the near future.

I find with piano that I'm able to at least play a simple melody on one hand without much problem and can see improvement when practicing songs in just a few playthroughs. I bought a cheap 32 key MIDI keyboard on amazon that plugs into my computer and I can listen to my playing with headphones so I don't bother anyone in my building with my playing.

There's lots of resources online for learning to play an instrument as well as a bunch of good apps and programs that can help you practice. Here are a few I tried.

- Justin Guitar - website with video lessons, forums, etc. I found the beginner tutorials to be very helpful but got stuck at changing chords.

- Synthesia - Game that lets you practice piano with a selection of built-in tracks but you can also download MIDI files to play from places like musescore. Limited play time for free. $30 to unlock.

- Yousician - Lessons and practice for piano, ukelele, guitar, bass and voice. Subscription model from $15-$30 a month but you can download and try the app for free with no signup.

RE: Rocksmith, I have to disagree with it being a good way to either learn guitar or learn to play a song. There are lots of lessons and games but they're not well connected to the songs that you can play. And, when you learn to play the songs the difficulty increases so that at first you'll be playing individual strings and then suddenly you're playing chords. If you're a complete novice like I am, even the simplest song in the Rocksmith track list becomes impossible when it hits that point. This post on Reddit explains a lot of the drawbacks of Rocksmith and some ways you can improve it as a learning tool.

Last but not least, if you've got a mac I've found that GarageBand can really help you break down a song, especially for piano.
posted by runcibleshaw at 5:54 PM on January 3, 2019 [3 favorites]

I would just go ahead and learn to play the banjo. It's portable, can be anywhere from very simple to quite complex, and it's incredibly easy to be obnoxiously loud and it's basically the high strings from a guitar strung across a drum. Plus you'll generally be the only one who actually knows how to play it, whereas every other dingus thinks they know how to play guitar.
posted by aspersioncast at 8:31 PM on January 3, 2019 [1 favorite]

. sense of time is good
. fat, stumpy, clumsy fingers
. something that is portable
. could be part of an impromptu jam session

Consider a handpan/hang? It has a really rounded and luminous timbre so it's less obtrusive to neighbours than something like a drumkit. It can be percussive or melodic (or both) so if you're better at either rhythms or tunes you can rely on one when jamming. It's easier to pick up than guitar and piano. Its image is that a lot of its players are hippieish/alternative though, so given that you list relatively mainstream instruments that may be a negative for you. I've seen people jam on them with kit and guitar before though so it's not like it's not done.
posted by womb of things to be and tomb of things that were at 6:44 PM on January 4, 2019 [1 favorite]

Get a mandolin. You don't need to become a virtuoso to jam with people, your fingers won't hold you back, and you won't harm anybody with the noise you make learning ( like with drums.) Unlike a uke, you can play chords or melody. Good for folk, blues, country, Greek music, and corny 1920s pop songs. You can get a good one for around $300, or a usable learner's mando for around $120, or even less online. And all you need to begin learning is on youtube.
posted by zaelic at 10:39 AM on January 5, 2019

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