What instrument should I learn?
March 30, 2006 12:27 PM   Subscribe

Where to start learning a musical instrument for the musically inept?

I'd like to learn to play a musical instrument, preferably any musical instrument, as it stands I can play part of "When the Saints Go Marching In." Not the whole song mind you, just part of it.

So with that grand start, I'd like to learn to play an instrument, preferably something I can attach headphones to so I don't bother anyone, as this isn't going to be pretty at first. Obviously I don't want to just go out and drop a ton of money on this either, because who knows if I even CAN learn to play an instrument.

So what's a good starter instrument? Guitar is the first thing that comes to mind, since they can be had reasonably cheap, and are fairly ubiquitous. Is there a better choice? I'm definately thinking something like the violin is a bad choice.

If it's at all relevant, I'm 26 and a computer programmer by trade.
posted by KirTakat to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (38 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Piano is the keystone for all western instruments. You can get a keyboard for $100. Learn a few scales, write a few songs, and you'll be a musician in less than a year.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 12:40 PM on March 30, 2006

You can even hook it up to your computer with MIDI for more fun, and play any instrument, real or imagined.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 12:41 PM on March 30, 2006

But, only an acoustic guitar will impress a girl at a party.
posted by The Jesse Helms at 12:42 PM on March 30, 2006

Guitar and keyboard/piano are the most versatile in terms of being able to play them unaccompanied and still sound OK, not to mention you can sing while you play if you want.

Both are fairly easy to learn -- if you're willing to practice. Playing every day for an hour or so, you could be reasonably competent on either instrument in a few months.

Between the two, I would personally recommend guitar because it's portable and you can get cheap guitars anywhere.
posted by camcgee at 12:46 PM on March 30, 2006

What kind of music do you like? What kind do you want to play? It'll be a frustrating experience to learn to play an instrument that doesn't let you play the stuff you like.
posted by mendel at 12:46 PM on March 30, 2006

Why? What is your goal? If you want to play in a marching band, then you shouldn't choose the guitar. If you want to play in a rock band, the euphonium should probably not be on your list.

It's like saying "I want to learn to program" without any kind of goal in mind. Do you want to program embedded controllers? make web pages? steer a turtle around the screen?

It's helps to have a goal. What do you imagine doing with your instrument once you learn it?
posted by nonmyopicdave at 12:54 PM on March 30, 2006

Cheap guitars are much harder to learn on than cheap keyboards. I play both instruments, and learning guitar on a cheap Yamaha was a big mistake. I've got a nicer guitar now, but the Yamaha certainly hindered me in the beginning.

Get an acoustic guitar, not an electric if you decide to play a guitar.

Though I would still recommend picking up the piano nstead.
posted by mr.dan at 1:01 PM on March 30, 2006

Response by poster: My music tastes are reasonably varied, I tend towards Rock, Industrial, or more electronic music. I'd probably lean towards learning to play the guitar in the piano versus guitar debate. I suppose part of my question is to figure out if there were choices I was missing. Like maybe the washboard would be an awesome instrument to start on, and I just didn't think of it or something.

As for what my goal is, learn to play an instrument. It's just an area i've found to be lacking in my life. I don't really have a goal of playing in a band, or really for other people, I just want to pick something up as a hobby. Sorry if I'm being frutratingly vague, but I really don't have a "goal" in mind. The closest thing to a goal for this is for me to learn something about music. As it stands I'm woefully uneducated when it comes to music, often I even have a hard time picking out the beat in a song.

Assuming I was going to go the guitar route, what's the best way to start with that? I'd probably want to get something electronic, just so my girlfriend didn't kill me at some point.
posted by KirTakat at 1:01 PM on March 30, 2006

If you want to understand music properly, you'll be better off with a piano. I've found it a pain in the ass trying to learn theory and harmony on the guitar with no visual indication of which note name is which. If you just want to be able to bash out some songs, you'll have more fun with a guitar I suspect, and I would recommend an acoustic.
posted by teleskiving at 1:02 PM on March 30, 2006

Response by poster: Mr. Dan, TJH, why do y'all recommend the keyboard over the guitar?
posted by KirTakat at 1:02 PM on March 30, 2006

Also, there is a joke: "How do you get a guitarist to play quieter? Give them a piece of sheet music!" How you feel about being that guy should give you an idea about how to progress. I actually think that the first question should not be what instrument you want to play, but what kind of musical knowledge you want to have.
posted by teleskiving at 1:04 PM on March 30, 2006

Response by poster: What kind of musical knowledge? Just a basic understand of music, not a textbook knowledge, but rather, understanding how the various parts fit together to make music, I'm very good at generating random noise.
posted by KirTakat at 1:08 PM on March 30, 2006

I would suggest an electric guitar if you want to do anything that sounds like rock and roll. It's easy enough to learn a couple of barre chords that you can quickly turn into identifiable songs, and with a little distortion you can sound positively rockin'. An acoustic will be more demanding and less forgiving, but ulitmately would make you a better guitarist.

I agree that piano is an excellent choice if you are determined to read music and learn theory, but I really think guitar is the hot route to just having fun while making music.
posted by malocchio at 1:09 PM on March 30, 2006

Response by poster: Actually, I think Malocchio nails what I'm going for, just having fun making (learning) music. I'm not trying to ever perform in front of people, nor do I plan to write concertos. I'd like to pick up a musical instrument as a hobby, so that way when I get home from work, I have something interesting to do away from the computer.
posted by KirTakat at 1:13 PM on March 30, 2006

teleskiving has it: you'll pick up theory faster on a piano because the keys are linearly arranged and color coded for your convenience. I mostly play guitar but I'll often work out a new idea on the keys first. I also guess that as a programmer you'll find theory both not too difficult and interesting and that you'll enjoy learning about the ideas of music as much as learning some songs by rote (for which guitar is a fine choice).
posted by tiny purple fishes at 1:14 PM on March 30, 2006

I also recommend learning a rhythm instrument as well; if you haven't developed a good sense of rhythm it'll be hard to sound good on anything. I took a couple of basic drumming classes (just hand drums like conga and djembe) and found that it helped my playing in general, and was also a lot of fun.
posted by xil at 1:19 PM on March 30, 2006

If you want a portable instrument, choose the guitar over the piano. If even the guitar is too much to handle, try the ukulele. I started playing one (a Flea) a few years ago and I love it to bits. I usually keep it stashed in my office for quick breaks.
posted by Sangre Azul at 1:33 PM on March 30, 2006

Response by poster: So it seems like keyboard is the preferred learning instrument, followed by guitar. I have friends with both, so I figure I can try each for a little bit, and see which I like better. To that end, what's some good recommendations for a starter keyboard and a starter guitar?
posted by KirTakat at 1:38 PM on March 30, 2006

You can get a good starter guitar setup online at Musician’s Friend for $100-$200 that will have an entry level guitar and small watt amp (make sure it has a headphone out.) You can’t go wrong with the Squire or Epiphone version (the Fender and Giobson budget brands.) Be sure to get an electronic tuner if it doesn’t come with one—it’s only about $15 and will make it a lot easier to keep in tune. Any Casio or Yamaha keyboard in that price range should be fine to learn on, just make sure it has full sized keys and not those little ones.

I never went far learning piano—it was always hard for me to make my hands do two completely different things. It’s not like they do the same things on guitar, but they work in tandem instead of independently. Things like that will have a pretty big effect on which choice is best for you.

Whichever way you go, take some time to work on learning things by ear. Just put on a record and try to pick it up. It will be hard at first, but there is no better way to get a feel for music and how it fits together. Plus it helps you learn how to pick something up on the fly, which is a great skill if you ever decide to join a band. It’s true that a lot of guitarists can’t read sheet music (guilty), but there are a lot of pianists out there that can’t jam—take away their sheet music and they’re completely lost.
posted by InfidelZombie at 2:03 PM on March 30, 2006

I can't say whether anyone has had success with this route, but I'd actually suggest your first guitar be from Red Octane. I learned guitar long ago as a hobby, and never learned anything about music, but I'm guessing that if you're starting completely from scratch that Guitar Heroes will help you quickly gain some basic rhythm and fingering skills. You just get the motions of how to move your hands in time with music. Yet it is so completely different from playing a real guitar that you won't develop any of the bad habits people tend to acquire when teaching themselves guitar. And if you don't pursue guitar any further, you still have a fun game.

I drastically improved my rhythm and timing playing DrumMania, even though the actual beats don't translate well to real drums at all. I've got a feeling that games like these are going to become pretty standard in teaching instruments in the future. It's a lot more interesting than playing scales to a metronome.
posted by team lowkey at 2:16 PM on March 30, 2006

I read a cool book that also suggested some ergonomic considerations. Stand relaxed with your hands at your side. If your palms tend to face towards the back, keyboards might be better. Neutral or slightly forward works better for guitar.

I'll throw in a nod for harmonica if you are interested in just learning how to improvise riffs in blues, rock or country. $25 will get you a professional-quality instrument you can take anywhere. $150 will get you the keys used in 90% of popular music. On the other hand, if you are the type of person who wants lessons, it's a bit harder.

Piano is nice because there are piano arrangements for almost everything, and a huge volume of music at all levels of performance. Most communities will have a good number of teachers who will get you started.

Guitar didn't work for me. But then again, I've not been able to consistently practice for years. On the other hand, guitar group classes are abundant, and cheaper than individual classes.

And don't knock voice either.

As a hint, some music stores will let you rent or lease musical instruments with deals including instruction. This is because many parents can't or won't drop a chunk of money on an instrument this year, to find that their kids want to do soccer next year. So you can see if something is going to work for you before dropping the cash for an investment.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:39 PM on March 30, 2006

I would say, pick ridiculous instruments. Everyone can play some piano or guitar, so unless you're great at it, or have a really interesting technique, you're just going to be one of 'em. I'm learning how to make tape loops and play the saw, myself, and my boyfriend just built himself a washtub bass.
posted by ITheCosmos at 2:44 PM on March 30, 2006

one nice thing about playing guitar is that once you have some of the basics down, you can just run around on the internet finding tablature to songs you like and be able to play the simpler ones without too much effort. it's got a very high return on investment, i'd say. just learn where on the fretboard to press down and you're set - being able to play more complicated music is just a matter of building up some dexterity. not like my violin is going to be, where every moment will be suffering and all i'll out of it is pain.
posted by soma lkzx at 3:04 PM on March 30, 2006

Yes, I agree with ITheCosmos...stand out from the crowd and pick a non-standard instrument!

Tin Whistle and recorder are small, portable instruments that are easy to learn but you still learn the basic aspects of music.

The flute is also nice, but cost a bit more than tin whistles or recorders.

The alto saxophone is also an easy instrument to learn and you can produce really beautiful music without too much trouble.
posted by luneray at 3:05 PM on March 30, 2006

electric kazoo
posted by omnidrew at 4:09 PM on March 30, 2006

Go world rhythm! Hand drums like conga and djembe are excellent examples. And if you learn djembe with the right teacher, you will learn that the dununs (played with sticks) really make the foundation of the rhythm. Bonus, the dununs are easier to master. Then you'll wind up going to festivals and thinking man, I wish I could play some tablas or something. Or maybe the bodhran. Whatever. But playing an instrument that nobody knows about (or can spell) is actually a lot of fun and will get you into marching bands sooner.
posted by crazycanuck at 4:17 PM on March 30, 2006

I'm going to deviate from most of the people here, and make this recommendation: learn the Ukulele, and do so specifically by purchasing a Fluke or (slightly less expensive) Flea. Here's why:

#1: The ukulele is very, very easy to learn -- nylon strings, narrow neck and only four strings. While learning a harmonica is probably a mite easier, the Ukulele is renowned for being one of the easiest instruments to learn.

#2: The ukulele is convenient -- small enough to carry around, and in the case of the Fluke and Flea, you don't even need a stand; each has a flat bottom, and you can put it right down on the ground.

#3: A quality ukulele is significantly cheaper than quality instruments of more common varieties, such as guitars or pianos -- one of the most discouraging things for a music beginner is the accidental selection of a poor or mediocre instrument. You'd be surprised how many people think they lack skill and talent, only to discover (usually through the borrowing of a good-quality instrument from another person) that it was the instrument holding them back.

#4: Ukulele songs tend to be simple and straightforward, easy for beginners to memorize and play quickly.

#5: The ukulele is a gateway instrument to more complex stringed instruments -- I personally stuck with the piano for years, because I -sucked- at the guitar and couldn't make any decent progress. My wife bought me the Fluke, and I was playing songs well within a few weeks, and now I write and sing songs regularly for my kids. More importantly, I picked up my sadly neglected guitar recently (which is of mediocre quality and cost more than the Fluke, a high-quality instrument, did -- remember point #3?) and tried to play it. I still can't play the guitar well, but I play it a lot better now than I did before, as I don't need to concentrate on strumming and fingering fundamentals -- I got those on the uke.

#6: Fluke and Flea ukuleles look just enough like non-ukulele instruments that you can pull one out without people laughing, and without people expecting you to play hawaiian songs.

That's all I've got. Good luck with whatever instrument you choose; playing a musical instrument with any competency whatsoever is one of life's greatest joys.
posted by davejay at 5:14 PM on March 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

Note: this is what I have, just the basic concert pineapple with no options, and I will never give it up as long as I live.
posted by davejay at 5:17 PM on March 30, 2006

One more thing: if you try to learn guitar or piano, you'll be surrounded by people that play it better than you; very discouraging. However, if you play the ukulele (and I see there's another commenter who also suggested it, in their case the Flea) you're unlikely to encounter someone who plays better that you. Shortest possible path to respectable skills, then.
posted by davejay at 5:20 PM on March 30, 2006

Ukulele lovers unite! I always wanted to learn an instrument too. But guitar was too complicated, keyboard a pain because you can only play it in one place. The uke is perfect. Small enough to fit in an airplane overhead (though it will go out of tune) The fluke davejay recommends is generally considered a great, quality beginner to intermediate instrument. It is easy to learn how to play, and more importantly, FUN not frustrating. I know a few songs, but mostly I just like to sit around and play it, making it up as I go along. It's pretty simple to learn a few chords that go together, and improvise. MUCH easier than guitar. I started with a Mexican concert uke I picked up in Hawaii (crazy isn't it?) and then added this one to my collection. A Hawaiian uke I picked up in Boston!
posted by Roger Dodger at 7:38 PM on March 30, 2006

Looking for a more unusual choice? Try a melodica. It's a keyboard harmonica. Very easy to play. If you have some friends playing guitar (or uke!) you can easily jam along and play lead breaks.
posted by richg at 9:20 PM on March 30, 2006

The accordion may or may not suit you. Among the pluses are that the bass side is very systematic. (You're looking for a 'Stradella' bass, not a 'free' bass.) The main row of bass keys is arranged by the circle of fifths, which means that three-chord songs use three adjacent buttons, and slightly more complicated songs probably use other closeby buttons. From the main row you've got rows of major, minor, seventh, and diminished-seventh chords, so making the standard oom-pah accompaniment is just a matter of hopping rows. The treble side is going to be more complicated: Piano-style treble involves all the complications of piano fingering, diatonic button treble can't play accidentals you might want, one type of chromatic button treble is diatonic with supplementary keys, and the other (though systematic) is pretty abstract and kind of hard to buy outside of Europe/Russia.
posted by eritain at 9:44 PM on March 30, 2006

I suggest piano/keyboard and a very patient teacher. My tone-deaf father learned to play the piano at age 50 or so. It was pretty painful for my mom and me, but I'm really proud of him. If he can do it, anyone can.

Don't do guitar. Guitar was really difficult for me, and I had training in violin, piano and voice.
posted by radioamy at 10:48 PM on March 30, 2006

Another vote for the Uke. You can get electric versions so you can plug in the headphones and practice without complaints.

Alternatively, for an even easier time, get hold of a Pickin' Stick (eBay's a good place to look) and go to the StrumStick site for some really simple songs to play.
posted by mtonks at 12:29 AM on March 31, 2006

I had a friend who grew up in a family devoid of any appreciation, even acknowledgement, of music. I met him the in 6th grade, and discovered that he had no idea what a beat was. Like you, he couldn't find it in any song. And he was completely tone deaf. Couldn't match a note with his voice. Had no concept of what the difference was between a high note and a low note. I thought that he was just born without an aptitude for music, but I also knew he had little exposure to it at home.

In college he spent the summers teaching water skiing at a girls camp in Maine. These teen girls made rituals out of every daily event (meals, scheduled games, etc) and every ritual had a song. They were constantly clapping and singing songs. I'll be damned if after three summers of shouting along with these girls singing easily memorizable songs, my buddy didn't learn to clap with the beat and sing on key.

He had it in him the whole time, but trying to learn music head-on would've never worked. Instead he learned by simply participating and mimicking others without the slightest clue of what he was doing. I'm sure he was horrible at first, but he just kept doing it and eventually his brain caught on. He learned how to clap with everyone else and match the pitches.

My point is, that your head-on approach of picking an instrument and learning it may be a long hard road. You may not want to be a camp counselor, but maybe you could find a large choir where they let anyone join. Sing in it for a year and see if your sense of rhythm improves. Once you have a natural unconscious sense of rhythm and pitch, learning an instrument will be a lot easier.
posted by nonmyopicdave at 12:41 AM on March 31, 2006

just buy a MIDI keyboard and take piano lessons. seriously.
posted by tumult at 3:44 AM on March 31, 2006

I'm a composer/guitar player, but I'd love to take up the ukelele, and it sounds to me like a good idea for starting out.

Beyond that, guitar is more portable than piano. You'll probably sound competent more quickly with guitar, but you'll produce a pleasing sound more quickly on the piano.

But I agree about unconventional instruments. But don't play an unusual instrument just because it's unusual - play it because you like it. Although you can always use a guitar or piano in unexpected ways (and don't let anyone tell you that an acoustic guitar is inappropriate for "rock.")
posted by ludwig_van at 10:06 AM on March 31, 2006

Just to throw something different into the mix, I'm going to suggest an instrument that I've had my eye on for a while; the autoharp. They're reputedly easy to pick up because you literally press buttons to change chords. Kind of folky, but definitely unusual.
posted by primer_dimer at 3:54 PM on March 31, 2006

« Older Need Landscape CAD   |   keep me from killing my treo phone Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.