Learning a musical instrument for the non-musically inclined?
August 28, 2007 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Suggestions for a quirky, small musical instrument that a music-newbie can learn to play on their own?

I'm tired of being surrounded by piano and violin players; the neighbors practice their cello and drums, and there's a guitar player on the bus every day. As a youngster, I chose the visual arts as my creative outlet, and I've been happy with the decision, but now as an adult, I want to pick up a musical instrument as a new hobby. But I don't want to do the typical stuff: piano, guitar, violin, flute, etc. I want something unique and portable, something I can learn to play on my own. Any suggestions?
posted by lychee to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (43 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
Tin Whistle?
posted by god hates math at 3:46 PM on August 28, 2007

Umm, I always thought this exactly what harmonicas are for?
posted by JMOZ at 3:47 PM on August 28, 2007

posted by thinkingwoman at 3:47 PM on August 28, 2007

Harmonica, piccolo?
posted by djgh at 3:48 PM on August 28, 2007

thumb piano
posted by Satapher at 3:50 PM on August 28, 2007


Bongos, djembes, cajons, congas, really, there's a pretty wide sonic palette. If you're super cheap you can ge a 2.5 gallon plastic water bottle or a 5 gallon bucket. If you've got money you can get electronic MIDI-capable controllers that run on batteries and have built in speakers.
posted by lekvar at 3:51 PM on August 28, 2007

Another vote for the ukelele! My boyfriend serenaded me on our third date with the uke, and it was charming, to say the least.
posted by scody at 3:54 PM on August 28, 2007

Also, when you say "unique," do you mean a standard instrument in a shape that few people play (cigar-box guitar for example), or a super-exotic instrument that few people would recognize, let alone play (a tonkori or siter)?
posted by lekvar at 3:56 PM on August 28, 2007

Banjos are imediately satisfying for the novice.

The pain only comes when you realize that you will never, never be Earl Scruggs or Bela Fleck.
posted by lekvar at 4:00 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ukelele, melodica.
posted by ludwig_van at 4:04 PM on August 28, 2007

posted by billtron at 4:05 PM on August 28, 2007

The chanter.
posted by fire&wings at 4:07 PM on August 28, 2007

one of those programmable drum machine doohickeys. the originals (eg TR-808) are probably hugely expensive and a bit big, but surely there are more modern, smaller portable versions?
posted by andrew cooke at 4:07 PM on August 28, 2007

Recorder. Pan pipes. Jew's harp. Mandolin. Bodhran. Bones. Uilean pipes or northumbrian pipes. Concertina.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:10 PM on August 28, 2007

posted by konolia at 4:12 PM on August 28, 2007

Oud, cittern, lute, Irish harp, soprano sax, xaphoon.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:12 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

(like one of these)
posted by andrew cooke at 4:13 PM on August 28, 2007

Recorder. They're cheap (around $10 in the toy section of Target) and easy to use. My brother-in-law picked it up very quickly, and he is not musically inclined. They're also pretty fun.
posted by emilyv at 4:17 PM on August 28, 2007

Harmonica. I practice whenever I'm bored or even while surfing the internets or watching tv. Simple, portable, and beautiful.
posted by Roman Graves at 4:31 PM on August 28, 2007

What about a concertina? Probably not super easy to learn to play, but I've always enjoyed messing around with them. Great for sea shanties. Most of 'em look pretty cool, too, in case your interest in playing should wane and you need an interesting conversation-piece/bookend.
posted by otolith at 4:39 PM on August 28, 2007

I'm shocked nobody's suggested the harmonium yet!
posted by crinklebat at 4:47 PM on August 28, 2007

Recorder. You can do some cool shit with a recorder, believe it or not.
posted by SassHat at 4:47 PM on August 28, 2007

The ladies, they love a kazoo.
posted by jga at 4:54 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Uke. I got mine a few years ago on a whim, and I'll never give it up. Just get yourself a Fluke, because (a) they've got more "wacky" than a typical Uke, and (b) they can stand on end, so you don't need to find a place to store it -- you can stand it on the floor wherever you are.

note to self: time for a Rick Astley cover on the Uke?
posted by davejay at 5:02 PM on August 28, 2007

I second the thumb piano. I just played one a couple of days ago, and it's really fun. Plus, the sound is completely hypnotic, it's very unusual, and almost small enough to fit in a pocket.
posted by epimorph at 5:07 PM on August 28, 2007

I discovered recently that a musician-quality slide whistle won't run you much more than $10, thus fulfilling a lifelong dream of mine. And then, if you're ever called upon to score a cartoon or to perform in Ravel's L'enfant et les sortil├Ęges, you'll be ready.
posted by darksasami at 5:10 PM on August 28, 2007

A little derail, but apropos thumb piano. Insane. Sample.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:38 PM on August 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

Cuban tres.
posted by paulsc at 5:47 PM on August 28, 2007

Recorder. Yamaha plastic (other plastics tend to awful, wood sounds better but is $$$ and requires care) soprano ($6?), until you are threatened by unadmirers, then alto ($20?). Baroque fingering (the other kind is always out-of-tune)
posted by hexatron at 5:58 PM on August 28, 2007

Yep. The theremin.
posted by grateful at 6:01 PM on August 28, 2007

A recorder would be a good option, they're simple enough to pick up quickly, very portable, and they have a surprisingly beautiful sound.
posted by katala at 6:02 PM on August 28, 2007

Harmonica. Fits in your pocket, can do some cool stuff, and, best of all: ~100 hours to hit intermediate level, where you can do some stuff that sounds good enough to fool your friends into thinking you can actually play. (much, much, longer, though, to reach true mastery.)
posted by kingjoeshmoe at 6:18 PM on August 28, 2007

Learn to play the Jew's harp. Like Snoopy.

I did. It's fun. (And you can whip it right out whenever anyone starts playing music on a bus.)
posted by eleyna at 6:59 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Check out this thread, and also the threads the poster links to.
posted by nanojath at 7:20 PM on August 28, 2007

The Autoharp is a zither with structure that lets you push buttons and strum with a pick to produce specific chords. Trust me, it is very player friendly.
posted by longsleeves at 7:45 PM on August 28, 2007

Seconding eleyna. It's also known as Jaw Harp. In addition, it's central to some cultures' musical traditions. For example, in Tuvan culture it's called a khomus and some of the music is quite impressive.

It can be found in music all the way from China to Italy (my brother, who's a bit of a fanatic, has Jaw harps from Siberia, Italy and the good ol' USA). It's very easy to play, and difficult to master.

You can play it without needing to be particularly tonal, there's no music to read, and it generally sounds cool no matter how you play it. And it can fit in any pocket.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:51 PM on August 28, 2007

I strongly second the banjo--but clawhammer banjo, not fingerstyle. (This will ease the pain of never being Earl Scruggs). I picked it up as an adult and you can play a simple tune after one lesson. Plus, a clawhammer banjo doesn't have a resonator (a back) which makes it a pretty lightweight instrument. Otherwise, the uke is good. My husband plays, it's simple and fun.
posted by Ollie at 8:11 PM on August 28, 2007

A laptop dulcimer (aka mountain dulcimer) is a very, very easy instrument to get a basic proficiency on, and you can take it as far as you want. I don't read music, but I can play a dulcimer, and can transpose melody lines from sheet music to something I can learn on the dulcimer (using fret numbers).
posted by Doohickie at 8:36 PM on August 28, 2007

I'm in a similar position, and I've been learning the Musical Saw.
posted by ITheCosmos at 8:42 PM on August 28, 2007

posted by hermitosis at 8:48 PM on August 28, 2007

Seconding the Uke (small, cute, versatile, easy to learn but can be pretty challenging to master) and the concertina (small, cute, fits in with quirky music and looks cool, but can be kind of expensive). Personally, I'd avoid ocarinas or penny whistles because I find them annoying (but YMMV).

But the Uilean pipes? I think those are roundly acknowledged to be one of the most difficult instruments to play, anywhere (though they are breathtaking when played properly).

Grab a Lark In The Morning catalogue and browse a bit (though beware of acctually ordering anything from them. They stock a lot of junk).
posted by Pecinpah at 7:07 AM on August 29, 2007

Zither! You can play along with The Third Man.

Bells are cheap, if you like cheap things.

Also, the Jew's harp made my teeth feel vibratey for a while after playing, and strangely sensitive and uncomfortable. Of course, the things are available for <$5, and if it bothers yours too, you could always give it to a child whose parents you dislike.
posted by fidelity at 7:18 AM on August 29, 2007

If you like the sound of the Jew's harp but are intimidated by the idea of holding vibrating metal against your teeth, you might try the Dan Moi, a Vietnamese instrument, which is played in a very similar way to the Jew's harp but is held against the lips instead of against the teeth. Much more comfortable to play.
posted by leapfrog at 2:12 PM on August 29, 2007

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