The Best Musical Instruments for Adult Beginners

Posted: May 20, 2016 in Music
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An Understandable Guide to Music Theory front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of An Understandable Guide to Music Theory: The Most Useful Aspects of Theory for Rck, Jazz and Blues Musicians

Over the years, friends and acquaintances who don’t play music have asked me one question over and over: “I want to learn an instrument — what should I learn?”

At that point I ask, “Why? What do you want to do with it?”

If they just want to  learn one for their own pleasure, just want something to play at home, I tell them to learn whatever they want, but that they’ll probably be happiest learning an instrument that can produce chords (basically guitar or piano), or drum set (which is a lot of fun to play by yourself), that they shouldn’t spend more than a few hundred bucks for it, and that they should bring along someone who already plays the instrument when they go out to buy one. (As a beginner, if you walk into a music store by yourself and buy an instrument, chances are you’ll be reamed.)

(One note here is that of the other popular learn-to-play-at-home instruments, the flute is probably the easiest and the violin is very probably the hardest to learn. An additional advantage of flute is that the fingering is the same as for the sax, so if you ever decide to learn sax and already play flute, you’ll be most of the way there.)

If someone want to learn an instrument to play in a band, my answer is a bit different. I still tell them not to spend more than a few hundred bucks and to bring along someone who already plays the instrument when they buy one. In most cases, however, people will want to learn guitar or, less commonly, piano, and I advise them to learn something else. Here’s why:

  • Guitar — guitar is relatively hard to learn, and there are far more guitar players around than players of any other instrument. In addition, audiences are used to a very high level of musicianship from guitarists, much higher than from players of any other instrument in a typical band set-up. So, it’ll take a relatively long time (probably several years)  to get your playing up to an acceptable level to play in a band, and even once it’s at that level you’ll face a hell of a lot of competition. That’s why guitarists in bands commonly haul around the p.a. system (a major pain in the ass)  and do the booking (a perhaps even worse pain in the ass). If you’re an adult beginner, want to play in a band, and want to learn guitar, my advice is simple: don’t —  learn something else. If you’re dead set on learning guitar, though, also learn how to sing: that’ll help in finding bandmates, and if you learn to do it well it’ll eliminate a major headache: dealing with vocalists. (I’d phrase it “egomaniac vocalists,” but that would be redundant.)
  • Piano — learning to play piano well is perhaps even more difficult than learning to play guitar well. There are fewer keyboard players than guitar players, but unless you’re content with staying in the background and serving as support in simple styles (most types of country and rock), it’ll again take a long time to get your playing up to an acceptable level. Audience expectations of keyboard players aren’t as high as for guitar players, but they’re still pretty high.

That brings us to the instruments I’d recommend to beginners who want to play in a band:

  • Electric Bass — This is probably the easiest instrument to learn, and if you practice an hour a day your playing should be good enough to be out playing in a rock, country, or blues band within six months. Another advantage of bass is that decent bass gear is cheap: if you know what you’re doing, you can put together a (barely) “gigable” used bass rig (bass guitar and amp) for three hundred bucks. One disadvantage of bass is that while there are fewer bassists than guitarists, there are still a lot of them, so you’ll face plenty of competition. Another disadvantage is that bass isn’t a whole lot of fun to practice by yourself. A third disadvantage is that bass gear is heavy. (Years ago, I played with a friend who used an SVT. The cabinet alone weighed 155 pounds, and it took two of us to lift it out of the bed of a truck. Bass combo amps aren’t as bad, but they’re still quite a bit heavier than guitar amps.)
  • Drum Set — The advantages of drums are that it’s relatively easy to get your playing to an acceptable level on them, they’re a lot of fun to practice, and you can buy an okay, gigable set used for around four hundred bucks, maybe a little less. Another advantage is that if you have good time, a good kick foot (playing the bass drum pedal) and a good backbeat (on the snare), you’ll have a relatively easy time finding people to play with, even if your chops are only decent. (Few things are more aggravating than playing with a rushing [speeding up] or dragging [slowing down] drummer. A drummer with good time, a heavy kick foot, and a heavy backbeat is worth his or her weight in gold; chops are secondary to those three things.) Still another advantage of playing drums is that while the number of drum patterns is virtually endless, you can get by in most rock and blues bands playing only two patterns: the standard rock beat and the standard shuffle. Add in a few others (probably polka, standard surf, soca, mambo, waltz, and two-step) and you can handle a good majority of gigs.  The primary disadvantage of drums is that hauling them around, and setting them up and breaking them down, is a major drag.
  • Saxophone — Sax is relatively easy to learn, very easy to haul around, and there are considerably fewer sax players than bassists or drummers, let alone guitarists. So, if you can play sax decently, you should have a relatively easy time finding people to play with, and you almost certainly won’t get stuck hauling around the p.a. or doing the booking. One disadvantage is that the saxophone of choice in almost all styles of pop music is the tenor sax, and a decent used one will set you back about fifteen hundred bucks. However, alto saxes can be used in almost all styles, you can buy a decent one for about three-hundred and fifty bucks used, and the fingering is the same as for the tenor (and baritone and soprano), if you’d ever want to upgrade to a tenor.

If you’re thinking about learning an instrument, I hope this is of some help to you. If I’d known these things decades ago, I’d have saved myself a lot of time and grief by taking up sax or drums rather than guitar.

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