This is going to be a little different today. Today, I’m going to convince you that, yes you, can play a musical instrument. I’m not going to say that you can or will play it professionally or even particularly well, but if you’re interested in playing, it’s within your grasp to do so.
Playing musical instruments, even playing them poorly, brings me enormous joy. I think there’s a perception out there that they require a huge investment of time and money to have any fun with them and, in my experience, that just isn’t so. Let’s do this as a Q&A where I’m on both sides of it, because it’s always easier to answer your own questions, isn’t it?
Why should I play an instrument?
Because you want to! I mean, there are plenty of scientific studies that show that there are benefits to doing so (here’s a good example), but my experience has been that “wanting to do it” is the reason that makes it stick. For me, it was hearing music that I loved and wanting to be able to make that music on my own.
OK, I want to play an instrument. What should I play?
Whatever speaks to you. There’s no “best” instrument to start with, especially if you’re not planning of making a career of it. If what moves you is harmonica music, pick one up! Bass? Piano? Drums? Clarinet? All good! Think about what kind of music you want to make and go from there.
Fine, I want to play guitar. Should I start with an acoustic?
If you like acoustic guitar music, then sure. If your favorite guitarists play electric and you want that sound, though? I honestly think electric is easier than acoustic. It’s also not nearly as expensive to get started as you probably think. We’ll come back to that.
Sweet. I’m going to get an electric guitar! Which one should I get?
It matters a lot less than you think. If there’s a guitar that has a shape you love, then that’s a good choice. If there’s a guitar your favorite player uses, then that’s good too. What I don’t recommend, though, is buying your first sight unseen. I wouldn’t buy a laptop without checking out the keyboard first to see if I like typing on it.
You really want to pick it up, check the weight, check the feel of the neck (is it comfortable to wrap your wrist around it?) and see what it feels like. If it’s not comfortable to play, you’re not going to enjoy it. I had an old Gibson RD* that I loved the shape of and the sound, but it just plain hurt me to play it. Don’t do what I did.
Where can I go to check out the feel of a guitar before buying it?
Well, music stores are usually a pretty good bet. Guitar Center usually has enough people in it that I don’t feel self-conscious trying stuff out. There’s always That One Guy shredding at too high a volume or a classically-trained pianist in the piano department, so if you want to be left alone, it’s pretty easy to get lost there.
Some pawn shops are also good for this. Find one that doesn’t have all of their instruments behind a counter if you want to try your had at a bunch of ‘em. They’ll usually have variations on four guitars: Fender Stratocaster, Fender Telecaster, Gibson Les Paul, and Gibson SG. There will be others, but most of ‘em will at least look like one of those four.
Should I buy new or used?
That’s a fine question! Here’s the secret that has kept me going all these years: Used instruments tend to appreciate in value, so buying something used usually means that you can sell it for more than you paid for it if you don’t like it. I have had dozens of instruments and I have very rarely taken a loss on them when I sold them, so in some ways, it’s a very low-risk hobby. But…I have been ripped off a couple times on eBay.
Buying new means that, if you ever do decide that this instrument is not for you, you will likely take a loss on it. But, you get a warranty and that’s not a bad thing. Plus, you actually got your hands on the instrument before you bought it, so you can be pretty sure of what you’re getting.
I tend to split the difference and buy used through either Guitar Center or Reverb.com. You pay more than you would on craigslist but with less risk as well (and a warranty of sorts in most cases).
What about an amplifier? Don’t electric guitars need expensive amps?
Yes and no. They need an amplifier, but it doesn’t have to be an expensive one. If you’re not going on stage, then a small amp that has some built-in effects is probably going to suit you just fine. I use a tiny Roland MicroCube, which is small enough to be battery powered but it can produce more sound than my apartment can really take, and it has some decent effects as well.
So, guitar, amp, cables, etc. How much will this all cost me?
A few hundred dollars if you find good deals. Realistically, for under $500, you can get a really nice setup that will be fun to play with, provide plenty of flexibility, and if you decide you don’t like it, you can probably sell for what you paid.
Should I take lessons?
It depends on what your goals are. I took guitar lessons for a couple of years before my teacher told me that I just wasn’t going to get any better. Most of what I learned, I got from sheet music books (they have chord diagrams above the sheet music), guitar tab sites like ultimate-guitar.com , and lately, from YouTube.
(guitar tab is a what of writing guitar music that is less formal than sheet music and more suited to playing guitar)
I’ve changed my mind! I want to play keyboards instead!
Cool! That’s way more up my alley. It doesn’t have to be either/or, though.
What keyboard should I get?
OK, before answering that, I have to ask you a question: Are you more interested in trying to come up with your own sounds, are do you just want to play?
What difference does it make?
Quite a lot, really. There are really nice, really inexpensive home keyboards that have speakers built in (nice money saver) that have hundreds of sounds, but you can’t really change them much. So, you have string sounds, horn sounds, drums (usually), stuff like that. These are great! There’s an African artist named Hama who uses one like this to make records and they’re really great.
If you want to play something more like a piano, there are some fantastic digital pianos that have heavy keys, that sounds like real pianos, but cost much less and are much easier to fit into an apartment or take over to a friend’s house or whatever.
Now, if you want to mess around and make your own electronic sounds, then you want a programmable synthesizer. There are some great, affordable options out there for these as well.
I noticed you didn’t say “get whatever your favorite musicians plays” or “what was used to make your favorite song”…
That’s not really a question, but good catch. Here’s why my answer was different: You can get a Stratocaster, or something very much like it, for a reasonable price. They’re still being made. That’s not the case with most vintage synthesizers. There’s no Prophet 5 in production now, so they go for $3,000. And, honestly? Since you’re making your own sounds, you can do that for a lot less than $3,000.
I’ll go with a synthesizer. Should I get one that’s analog or digital?
Doesn’t matter! In a lot of ways, they’re just different ways to get to the same result. It’s true that there are some thing unique to each approach, but the biggest difference is in the workflow. It’s about how you are comfortable making the sounds.
Your best best is to kind of figure out what features are important to you and start from there. Do you need full-sized keys or will the cheaper, smaller keys work for you? Do you want to do one note at a time (a monophonic synthesizer) or do you need to be able to play chords (a polyphonic synthesizer)? Do you want to be able to save your settings and recall them later, or just twiddle the knobs each time and see what you get?
That’s a lot for a beginner!
It is. Sorry about that. But, the upside is that it’s a lot of fun! It’s very satisfying to make a cool sound. Again, I strongly recommend going to a Guitar Center or some place that sells keyboards to check them out to see if any jump out at you.
Do I need an amplifier for my synthesizer?
Maybe? Many of the newer synths have headphone jacks so you can play through your headphones or even computer speakers if you want. Older synths may not have this option and, to be honest, amps are more fun anyway. I use my MicroCube for my synths and my guitar.
If you HAD to pick one to start with, what would it be?
I’m a huge fan of the Korg Minilogue. It has tiny keys, but it has more programming capabilities than any synthesizer I’ve ever owned. They’re a little expensive (~$400), so if you’re not wanting to spend that kind of money, I get it. Honestly, it has so many options that it might be a little daunting.
A better starting place might be the Behringer MS-101. Behrigner has taken to making inexpensive clones other companies’ old synths, and they’re doing a fine job of it. the MS-101 is a remake of the old Roland SH-101 which was one of my first synths. It has incredibly intuitive workflow to create sounds from scratch and hit has full-sized keys. You can only play one note at a time, but it does have the ability to put a guitar strap on it and play it like a keytar, so that’s cool!
What about those computer instruments you play by hooking a keyboard up to a laptop?
We’re a little out of my range of experience here; I’m a big fan of hardware synths as opposed to the software synthesizers. That said, they’re great. They can emulate many expensive older synths very well and at a fraction of the cost. You obviously have great flexibility and a fairly small gear footprint going this route. I’m just not that familiar with the landscape, so you’ll have to research this option yourself.
What about other instruments?
Pick ‘em up and play ‘em! Do it! It’s fun. Seriously, if you pay attention, you can almost always get an instrument for what you could sell it for, so don’t think of it as an investment: Think of it as putting down a deposit and then using it for as long as you like at no cost.
What about those ukuleles? Are they even instruments?
Absolutely! That’s a completely legit instrument. You want to make stringed-instrument sounds with a minimal investment? You just like the sound of a uke? Do it! I’ve read reports that ukuleles are the only thing keeping the “guitar” industry afloat.
* I bought mine for $350. Like I said, they appreciate.