How easy is it to learn a new instrument?
November 20, 2006 3:19 AM   Subscribe

How hard is it, as a (relatively) long-time musician, to pick up new instruments? (more specifically, as a guitarist moving to other areas)

I have been, since age 8, a guitar player. I started out in the blues and rock idiom, began doing jazz later in high school, and from the end of high school until now (as a sophomore music major) I have been practicing classical guitar and it is that in which I currently take lessons (although I certainly haven't forsaken my roots :) ). I also recently dug out my alto saxophone, which has been essentially untouched since early high school, and I am still about as proficient at that as I was when I stopped, proving that I am at least capable of playing more than one instrument. In addition, I have a reasonable knowledge of classical and jazz theory. However, it's been forever since I've gone through the more tedious beginning stages of learning and this will probably be a rude awakening.

Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible for me to take any more instrument lessons than what I have on my plate.

My apologies if this is question is over-reaching, but essentially my curiosity about other instruments takes three branches: bowed string instruments (most likely the violin or the bass), plucked string instruments (banjo or mandolin), and the piano. I categorize these this way because of certain specific (observed and possibly incorrect) characteristics:

The piano, unlike most instruments, is playable "out of the box." The technique concerns hitting the right notes the right way, without having to learn secondary skill-sets such as bowing. Given this (as a complete novice, although I will have to take keyboarding classes in the future), is learning pieces and practicing scales and chord progressions my best bet for becoming proficient with the piano on my own?

Bowed instruments, while more similar to the guitar than the piano, involve a lot of work. Intonation and bowing are complex skills that I would have to begin learning very late in the game. Is it even within reason to think that I could develop any sort of ability with these instruments on my own?

The last category, plucked strings, shares the most with the guitar. Most of my learning would consist of some new right-hand patterns, adjusting to new physical dimensions in the left hand, and new tunings. This doesn't seem like it could be that difficult, but I wouldn't be surprised if that turned out not to be the case. Is it?

I would be very interested to hear from either players of these instruments or guitarists who have moved to these instruments. While I hope to master the guitar some day, my ultimate goal for any of these pursuits would be something around the top-side of proficiency: while I don't plan on (or think I could be) the next Bill Evans or Itzhak Perlman, the ability to play most any piece out there and improvise skillfully would make me very happy (I'm a jazz man at heart :) ).

Sorry for the long-windedness and thanks for reading!
posted by invitapriore to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I would not agree that the keyboard is completely playable "out of the box." If you don't get lessons early on you can develop very bad habits with posture, wrist position, finger position, and it's hard to break those habits later. If you do decide to go for it, make sure that you choose an instructional book that's very explicit on fingerings (i.e., which notes you hit with which fingers), especially on scales. Another bad habit of mine.
posted by Jeanne at 4:14 AM on November 20, 2006

I will say this, as a guitarist, the piano is the easiest to pick up. Its so much easier to see the notes and chords on it than the guitar, which basically requires memorization for those tasks.
posted by Ironmouth at 4:41 AM on November 20, 2006

as a guitarist, you already know how to play banjo in a guitar kind of way ... all you need to do is learn any new tuning and any new picking style, which once you do, can be instantly transferred to guitar, also

mandolin's a bit tougher ... the few times i've messed with it, i couldn't get my fingers on the teensy little frets well enough to make a clean note with them ... and then there's that picking style, which is difficult

keyboards, you will find are significantly different in technique and capacity ... and there's also a big difference between playing piano and playing organ or synthesizer ... learn on piano first, i think ... if you do move to organ later, the difference in adjustments you'll have to make won't be as tough

by the way, i'm self-taught and i'm not so sure that "bad habits" are all that bad or important to worry about ... many musicians often settle upon unorthodox technique because it feels right to them and works for them

(no opinion on violin, but it sounds tough)
posted by pyramid termite at 4:57 AM on November 20, 2006

FWIW, it's very easy to figure out chords on the mando - just reverse (top-to bottom) the fingering for a guitar chord, using only the lower four strings (E-A-D-G) of a guitar. The baby frets are a bitch, tho.
posted by notsnot at 5:24 AM on November 20, 2006

Picking up another picked stringed instrument will be child's play for you. Learning proper bowing and getting used to no frets will take you more time on a bowed instrument.

Piano, while "all mapped out" is a challenging instrument to play proficiently. Lessons will help immensely.

In a general sense, I've found that to a certain degree all musical instruments are pretty much the same. I've certainly not played them all, but I've played instruments in just about every category and you really get this odd feeling because even though, say, technique is very different between trombone and trumpet, from my point of view they're the same instrument. Give me a month to work and I can cover trombone well enough to fake it. Give me a year and I could kick ass. Everything you've learned carries over: intonation, expression, rhythm, theory, reading, etc. What's left is technique behind the intrument and since instrument pretty much have to obey the same laws of physics, there's a lot of commonalities in terms of harmonic series, overtones, etc.
posted by plinth at 7:22 AM on November 20, 2006

For banjo, you only need to learn new chords. The hand movements should come pretty naturally to you.
posted by Uncle Jimmy at 7:49 AM on November 20, 2006

I was taught the violin as a child. As an adult I've picked up mandolin and ukulele easily, and am now teaching myself guitar. My number one problem with guitar is that when fingerpicking with my right hand, I have an urge to use the same finger that I'm using on my left.

I also only recently got mandolin lessons after fooling around on my own for 10 years - I hadn't bothered because the tuning is the same as the violin. It has been really eye-opening just how much better my playing has become with a little guidance on correct technique.

I have a friend with a guitar/mando background who taught himself violin. His technique suffices for folk and country but simply prohibits any fancy playing, because no one ever showed him the correct positions for his hands. I've tried to give him some pointers but his bad habits are too ingrained.

I think it really depends whether you want to be able to just pick up instrument X occasionally, or whether you want to be GOOD at instrument X. If you want to be good, you need coaching and guidance on correct technique, otherwise you will very likely learn habits that hinder you or even prevent you making the sounds that you want later on. If you just want to bash out the odd tune, go ahead and teach yourself and your basic grasp of principles will carry you over.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:20 AM on November 20, 2006

Best answer: My opinion as a composer/guitarist:

You'll do fine with picking up piano, banjo, mandolin, etc. on your own, assuming you're not aiming to become a world class player.

It will be very difficult for you to develop proficiency on the bowed strings on your own.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:38 PM on November 20, 2006

Best answer: My opinion as a trombonist and music ed major:

Learning violin is hard. I should know - I'm in a string techniques class right now where we spend a semester learning very rudimentary violin and viola. It's not impossible, but there's a reason that lots of kids start on Suzuki violin when they're 3... IMHO, it requires a great deal of development and muscle memory, aside from just figuring out that A string + 1 finger = B. That having been said, I am learning violin faster than I learned trombone 10 years ago, because I have a good understanding of music theory and basic musicianship (as you probably do as well). So, all in all, I would not shoot for the violin, or probably the bass either.

Mandolin/guitar would be fun skills to pick up on your own, as ludwig says. And piano - shoot, everyone should have piano chops.

In summary: take piano lessons. Learn the shit out of that instrument, and continue your training on your original axe.

(plinth - I politely and vehemently doubt that you could become "kick ass" at trombone, or any other instrument, in one year, although you're entirely right about lots of things carrying over).
posted by rossination at 7:56 PM on November 20, 2006

Best answer: I've made some of the transitions you talk about (these are all following ~10 years self-taught guitar, and teaching myself the new instruments)

Guitar -> Banjo
Easy. If you get a 5-string (the most common type) then the scale length is pretty much the same as a guitar, so the frets should be comfortable. I learned clawhammer-style, in contrast to bluegrass style, so there was a very characteristic and different right-hand technique to learn, but once I got that down it was very quick to learn. If you like fingerpicking, then bluegrass-style might be for you; I could never get comfortable with the fingerpicks you have to wear.

Guitar -> Mandolin
Instead of getting a mandolin, I got a bouzouki, same tuning but an octave lower and the same scale length as a guitar. If you find the frets on a mandolin too small, try a bouzouki or mandola (a bit bigger than a mandolin). As you surmise, it was just a question of learning new fingerings, and dealing with two strings per course - this should be easy if you've every played a twelve-string. You can, of course, just put (light gauge!!) guitar strings on a bouzouki and tune it like the top four strings of a twelve-string, in which case you don't even have to learn any new chord fingerings. This is fun.

Guitar -> Piano

I found this to be far harder, unsurprisingly. The main source of frustration I found was simply how hard I found it to learn pieces, in the sense of memorising them (in contrast to the guitar, where I can play complicated finger picking patters from memory quite happily). I assume this is a muscle memory-type thing and would get easier. Also, I suck at reading music (I much prefer to learn by ear), which slowed things down a lot. Having said that, there's so much beautifull music written for piano that it's easy to find something not-that-hard that's enjoyable to play. And pianos are just gloriously complicated inside - I enjoy the contrast between picking up a guitar, and sitting down at something that feels like a machine made from wood and steel.

I've never tried to learn any of the bowed instruments; maybe I'll have a go on my girlfriend's violin tonight and let you know how difficult it was :-) Basically, playing lots of instruments is one of the most fun things about being a musician; go for it.

(*fingers crossed for an autoharp for christmas*)
posted by primer_dimer at 3:28 AM on November 21, 2006

Guitar to Ukulele: quite easy. It's almost more reduction than learning, but you get to pick up nice strumming tricks and a good understanding of supportive melody.

Bowed instruments are tough.

I'm learning piano currently. It's not as hard as bowed instruments (I've tried the cello), but much harder than the banjo, etc. But it really, really helps your awareness of music theory, I believe.
posted by tmcw at 1:49 PM on July 30, 2007

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