Neat instruments for guitarists
April 19, 2008 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Guitarist looking for other string instruments to play around on...

I recently sold my guitars since I was bored playing them and fed up with the space they were taking up. I'm happy to report that despite having spent 15 years on and off in bands and playing alongside friends I don't really miss them that much.

That said, I do miss having something to hold and idly pick out a melody on while watching tv or relaxing. So I'm looking for suggestions. Small-ish, easy to learn for an experienced guitarist, not extravagantly expensive, different or interesting sound, good for playing around with and playing riffs or little melodies on. I am tempted by the appalachian dulcimer but am open to any suggestions...
posted by fire&wings to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
George Harrison loved playing ukelele.
posted by kristi at 5:50 PM on April 19, 2008

I've been intrigued by the projects and instruments at Dennis Havlena's website for some time now (seems to be down at the moment, here's the google cache). A few of them (the hurdy-gurdy, for example) are well beyond my skills for building, but many of the others look pretty interesting.
posted by jquinby at 5:57 PM on April 19, 2008

Seconding the ukelele. It gets a bad Don Ho rap, but it can be quite soulful done right.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:58 PM on April 19, 2008

re: soulful uke, see Braddah Iz.
posted by jquinby at 6:01 PM on April 19, 2008

Clawhammer style banjo was invented (or rather evolved) for exactly what you seem to want--idle futzing around. It's also wicked easy. I became technically proficient in two or three weeks with no previous stringed instrument experience.

The book I learned out of was Clawhammer Banjo by Miles Krassen. Of all the "teach yourself banjo" books I've seen, I think this one best represents the old-time style (none of this modern hippie business).

My dad, an experienced guitar and banjo player, successfully picked up the mandolin several years ago. This would be good if you looking for something small, but it takes more effort to learn. Also, because the neck's so small, it's really easy to give yourself tendonitis if you don't know what you're doing. My dad found this out the hard way.
posted by Commander Rachek at 6:01 PM on April 19, 2008

Well, the uke has been suggested... very fun to play, and unduly ragged upon for some reason. The mandolin is quite nice, since it is tuned to a circle of fifths, backwards from a guitar (GDAE), and the courses give it a full sound. I don't have much experience with the banjo, but the banjolin is a real fun instrument if you can get your hands on one. It is tuned like a mandolin, but has a banjo-like timbre, and plays like a uke. Best of all worlds!

You could also go with a shamisen for some exotic flavor, but they are nearly as big as a guitar and require a special plectrum.
posted by synaesthetichaze at 6:25 PM on April 19, 2008

Get a mandolin and call yourself Mando Calrissian.

Or a uke.
posted by ludwig_van at 6:37 PM on April 19, 2008

I picked up a charango in Ecuador for $20 after seeing a traditional South American band play with them. Not sure how available they are but as an experienced guitarist, I like to fiddle around on them. Can be hard to find the strings though, I couldn't find any in Ecuador (didn't have a whole lot of time on my hands to look) and in Colombia, though I could see music shops that sold the Charango, they didn't sell the strings. Took a long time to hunt down some.
posted by Admira at 6:46 PM on April 19, 2008

Appalachian dulcimer is basically a one-string instrument, and is limited to a major scale. They're quite long. Very quiet, too, which might help if you want to do non-intrusive noodling. For some truly demented skills, listen to what Robert Force made with Al d'Ossché.

I'd second clawhammer banjo, though again, it's hardly a small instrument. The good(ish) cheap(ish) openback banjo with decent resale value is the Deering Goodtime. Or pick up an old, used Harmony Reso-Tone and take off the bakelite resonator. I have one modified for nylon strings, and it sounds lovely. Getting really good on clawhammer banjo is difficult; folks like Ken, Chris, Cathy, Dwight, Adam and Old Man have been at it for years.
posted by scruss at 7:46 PM on April 19, 2008

Speaking as a long-time guitar player who has similarly picked up other stringed instruments for idle hacking, I vote banjo. That's *if* you already enjoy/appreciate the sound of the banjo - I certainly do, so I love plucking out tunes. If you have even basic fingerpicking skills on the guitar, you should be able to pick up the banjo right quick - the open tuning makes for pleasant sounds while learning. I picked up a mandolin years ago, but I very rarely play it, because I just suck out loud on it. And I haven't improved at all - no surprise, as I only ever learned some chords and tunes, but compared to similar time spent on the banjo, I'm getting *much* more from the banjo. (I don't know where all this uke love is coming from, but I'm seeing it infect many of my musical friends. I blame retro-ironic hipster culture. Just say no to the uke!)
posted by Banky_Edwards at 8:08 PM on April 19, 2008

posted by Sassyfras at 8:17 PM on April 19, 2008

I love my tenor ukulele--"Here comes the Sun" sounds incredibly sweet on it. My big ol' fingers work better with it than they would with a standard soprano, too. There are also neato 8-string models.

The last month or so, though, I've been fiddling around with a little toy guitar I picked up at a thrft store for $10. I restrung it with a set of old strings, and I keep it in the back of my car for lunchtime jams.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:39 PM on April 19, 2008

Get a Flea, you'll never regret it. It can stand right next to your couch for whenever your noodling inspiration strikes and, once the strings do their initial stretch, it'll pretty much be in tune every time you pick it up.

If it's light and portable you're looking for, a banjo uke would work better than a standard banjo. But even those are kind of heavy.
posted by bink at 9:31 PM on April 19, 2008

If you go the Uke route, get a Baritone Uke. With a Soprano or Tenor, you have to deal with the shorter scale length and that oddball high string in the bass position. With a Baritone it is merely the high four strings of a guitar (tuned as a guitar is also--no readjustment). The scale is also closer to what you're used to.

You'll like it. Your G chord is one finger (no low E or A string), the C major and A minor chords are the same, but context makes your intention obvious. You'll skip the learning curve as far as leads go because the tuning is familiar.

(Back in '91 I had the pleasure of jamming on one with Minor Threat when Ian handed me one on their truck between soundcheck and the show. I've had one ever since. )

So--just picture your guitar without an A or a low E. You get the idea.
posted by sourwookie at 10:40 PM on April 19, 2008

There's also the Yamaha Guitalele; a small (cheap!) nylon-strung thing like a guitar capoed at the 5th fret. If you want small and loud, there's the Greek baglama, which is a half-sized bouzouki.

Nthing the limited love for the uke. I mean, new instruments still being made with friction pegs? Come on ...
posted by scruss at 4:49 AM on April 20, 2008

I also quite like the five string banjo. However I don't know that I'd recommend the Miles Krassen book as first instructional material. The accompanying CD only has 5 tunes on it, so you'd either need to already be familiar with the tunes in the book or find them elsewhere. I'd suggest Ken Perlman's Clawhammer Banjo or some other book-CD-combo where the CD includes most or all of the tunes. Mike Seeger's materials illustrate a wide variety of playing styles.
posted by Martin E. at 6:11 AM on April 20, 2008

Here are my votes:

Clawhammer 5-string
posted by billtron at 9:01 AM on April 20, 2008

All the above suggestions are good. Remember that there are bigger members of the mandolin family (mandola, bozouki) that are easier for a guitar player to pick up (as the scale length is closer to that of a guitar). Also, you don't have to stick to the traditional tunings. E.g. get a mandola, tune it like a guitar, but a fifth higher, and you have something that plays like the highest four pairs of strings on a 12-string guitar capo'd at the fifth fret - very easy to pick up if you can already play guitar. You'll have to be careful with the string tensions if you start messing around like this - don't try it with stock mandola strings.
posted by primer_dimer at 6:16 AM on April 21, 2008

I built a Cigar Box Guitar, and I love it.
posted by leapfrog at 9:58 AM on April 21, 2008

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