What easy, small, cheap instrument should I learn?
April 30, 2007 7:55 AM   Subscribe

Please help me find a musical instrument to learn that fits all these qualifications (in order of importance): super easy to learn, small, cheap.

I'm looking to learn an instrument as a hobby, but I know myself well enough to know I don't have the patience to learn something that requires a lot of practicing just to get mediocre. I'd ideally like to pick up something that I can be okay at fairly quickly. I'd also like it to be portable and inexpensive so I can stick it in my pocket and take it wherever and practice when I feel the urge. I can go larger than pocket sized but not as big as, say, a guitar. Something funky and unusual would be cool, also. I don't particularly want to learn the harmonica (although if you really want to make a case for it, I'll listen).

I've checked out this thread which has some great portable instruments but not much commentary on their ease of use, and this thread which talks about ease but in relation to things like violin and piano, which are above both my size and price range.

In terms of what type of music I'd like to play, I'm pretty flexible, except I'd rather not go for something that's going to sound country-esque (ie, not the spoons or the washboard or something like that).
posted by marginaliana to Media & Arts (27 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Irish pennywhistle.
posted by yohko at 8:01 AM on April 30, 2007

How about the recorder? (Yes, it can be more than just an instrument of torture.)
posted by arco at 8:01 AM on April 30, 2007

posted by zeoslap at 8:05 AM on April 30, 2007


But nothing worth learning is "super-easy". Still, with a bit of practice it doesn't take too long to produce something recognizable on a harmonica.
posted by aladfar at 8:11 AM on April 30, 2007

Best answer: Melodica.

not too removed from a harmonica, but with a piano keyboard. used in some reggae / dub stuff to great effect. you can play chords on them, unlike other wind instruments.
posted by tremspeed at 8:14 AM on April 30, 2007

ukelele. drumsticks. singing.
posted by popechunk at 8:14 AM on April 30, 2007

Best answer: Pick up a melodica or two. They're small and cheap and they sound really cool (ask Augustus Pablo). Basically, pick up any dub recording and you'll be able to hear one, but I've heard them used a lot in modern electronic music (like Mum) as well.
posted by almostcool at 8:16 AM on April 30, 2007

Jew's Harp
posted by Martin E. at 8:17 AM on April 30, 2007

Mbira/kalimba/thumb piano
posted by LionIndex at 8:18 AM on April 30, 2007

Response by poster: Melodica looks good, as does the mbira. Any advice on web forums or resources where I can find out more about either of these (how to choose what I buy, tutorials, etc)?

I've already played the recorder a bit (badly, oh, so badly) so I think I'll pass on that. I also sing, but not super well. Irish pennywhistle might also be worth looking into.

Thanks, all. More suggestions and comments are welcome also.
posted by marginaliana at 8:34 AM on April 30, 2007

Fipple flutes, in general, are your best bet, in that they're small, cheap and a fairly shallow learning curve.

Fipple flutes include:

If you're willing to sacrifice the time and effort to develop an embouchure, you might try fife. You could also try a flute. Student grade instruments are usually pretty cheap from ebay.

And although it doesn't meet your criterion for easy to learn, you still might consider a pocket trumpet. The quality of this type of instrument can be sometimes be spotty, but coming from someone who has played trumpet for 31 years, I've never tired of the instrument and I've always loved the rewards I've gotten from learning it.
posted by plinth at 8:35 AM on April 30, 2007

Tin Whistle. Very cheap, very portable, pretty intuitive when it comes to learning.
posted by ubersturm at 8:38 AM on April 30, 2007

I got a fevah, and the only peh'scription is more cowbell.

So sayeth Christopher Walken.
posted by santojulieta at 8:44 AM on April 30, 2007

Best answer: I recommended the pennywhistle on the first thread you linked to, and I'll recommend it again.

Playing Irish music on a whistle is both easy and hard. The basic fingering is easy, and you shouldn't have too much trouble figuring out how to play the higher octave, although it takes a little bit of practice. You should be playing simple tunes more or less right away. But once you've mastered the basics, you have to figure out how to ornament the tune in order to make it sound Irish and, at the same time, put your own individual stamp on it. That's hard, and you can only figure it out by listening to a bunch of music and copying people you like and then fooling around on your own until you figure out what sounds good to you. So playing the whistle combines ease in getting started with a long-term challenge.

Also, depending on where you live, there might be good opportunities to play with other people, which is fun. An open jam in a bar is called a "session." (That's sometimes Irishized to "seisiún".) You should wait until you're pretty good to play at a session, unless it's marked a beginners' session. But even if you're not ready to join in, it's fun to listen and recognize tunes that you know how to play.

I plugged Chiff and Fipple on the other thread, and it's still the place to go for your tin whistle informational needs.
posted by craichead at 8:47 AM on April 30, 2007

Don't base your feelings on the recorder just on having played it in elementary school...it actually can be a serious instrument while being a lot of fun, and they come in many sizes! The sopranino can be a little shrill, but it's very small (and hence portable). Altos are nice because they are much mellower (less shrill) than the smaller instruments, but are still small enough to be reasonably portable and easily fingered (unlike the larger tenor and bass, which can be hard to play if you have small hands and are edging on not being very portable).
posted by leahwrenn at 8:52 AM on April 30, 2007

Plastic egg filled with sand.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:52 AM on April 30, 2007

seconding recorder. it's very easy to learn- the fingerings are pretty intuitive (mostly, you cover one more hole to lower the pitch one more tone), and the embouchure (mouth contortion) is minimal, as compared to a trumpet or flute. basically, you breathe and you're making passable sounds, and it just gets better from there. the effort-to-result ratio is pretty awesome. playing pop songs soulfully on a recorder is surprisingly pleasant to listen to, and also hilarious.

(ps, IAARP- i am a recorder player- took conservatory lessons throughout my childhood, did the exams and got grades and everything, and even taught recorder for several years. sometimes i still play it in public, at which point the crowd goes relatively wild.)

alternately, what about a jew's harp? it's the boing-boing noise you hear in cartoons.
posted by twistofrhyme at 9:02 AM on April 30, 2007

Nthing melodica.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:18 AM on April 30, 2007

Recorder is a good choice but be aware that "easy" is relative to the quality of the results desired... it's easy to make roughly recognizable noises with it but playing with good intonation is a big investment of effort and also takes an ear.

Another suggestion which has similar merits and disadvantages is the bodhran, a pitched percussion instrument that can do remarkable things in skilled hands but can also produce simple, attractive patterns almost immediately in any hands, and it's easy to incorporate into a pick-up ensemble if you want to play with others.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:26 AM on April 30, 2007

Best answer: I'll third (fourth?) the pennywhistle. It has much to recommend it for your goals.

First, it's very cheap and portable. A decent pennywhistle costs under $10, so you can buy a few and leave some in your car, etc. as well as carry one around in your pocket or backpack. (The Sweetone is a good first choice because a conical whistle is a little easier to master. You want one in the key of "D" to play most Irish traditional music.)

Second, most Irish traditional music is in the public domain, which means that you can find and print sheet music from places like www.thesession.org. There's also lots of support on the web, both at the Session and the aforementioned Chiff & Fipple.

Third, in the US, Irish traditional music is probably the most widespread genre that is played informally in groups. It's likely that you can find a "session" near where you live where you can go to get help, play with others, and so on. And I think you'll find that playing with others in a community of musicians is much more satisfying and interesting than playing only for and by yourself.

Fourth, if you're a crafty sort of person, you can get into building your own pennywhistles, which is kind of fun.

Finally, the pennywhistle leads into some more difficult/serious instruments like the wooden flute and the uillean pipes, so it isn't a complete dead-end like (say) the harmonica. (Nothing against the harmonica, mind you, it just isn't a "gateway drug" :-) It's also easy to transfer from the traditional high-D pennywhistle to the low D whistle (used to good effect in "The Titanic", "Riverdance", etc.)
posted by srt19170 at 10:54 AM on April 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Second ukelele. You'll be able to play a song in your first sitting, but there's enough of a learning curve to keep you interested.
posted by Gilbert at 11:16 AM on April 30, 2007

It may be a bit too large/expensive, but how about an autoharp?
posted by malocchio at 11:19 AM on April 30, 2007

Best answer: Strumstick meets the requirements of small and easy, but perhaps not so cheap. But the cool factor is tremendous.

The spoons.

The mouth bow.

The washboard.
posted by jeanmari at 11:24 AM on April 30, 2007

Best answer: I definitely recommend the Melodica. I found one in my grandmother's garage a few months ago not even knowing what it was and now I can play most any song on it given a minute to pick it out. It's a fun little mo-fo. This weekend I'm actually planning on taking the case off of it and giving it a lightning bolt paint job.
By contrast, I've been fiddling with a harmonica for about a year and still can only play "Love Me Do" and an assortment of loud annoying noises. But really I would say also get a harmonica. You might really like it, and they're dirt cheap.
posted by shanevsevil at 11:47 AM on April 30, 2007

Third for ukulele! My good uke was $150 and my bad uke was $8, so you can definitely find them on the cheap. The finger patterns are easy, and they're supposed to be part of the rhythm section so you can bang on them like crazy.

They're super fun!
posted by lastyearsfad at 1:25 PM on April 30, 2007

Fourth for Ukulele. Many of the other instruments mentioned are limited in the fun stakes unless played as part of an ensemble. With a Uke, you'll be able to entertain yourself and family / friends with just a handful of chords.
posted by coach_mcguirk at 2:43 PM on April 30, 2007

Fifth for uke. Especially if you can sing (even if "not super well"). I bought a harmonica and hardly touched it for a couple of years until I got a holder so I could play it with my guitar, at which point I turned into Bob freakin' Dylan. So maybe uke first, then add harmonica into the mix later?
posted by primer_dimer at 4:59 AM on May 1, 2007

« Older Lost Entourage Calendar Entries.   |   Car noob buying used Civic, in Ontario. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.