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“What is the easiest musical instrument to learn as an adult, given that I have zero knowledge of music?”

May 18, 2018

That is a question I answered on Quora.com a few days ago. Here is my rather lengthy but thorough answer.

(By the way, quora.com is a GREAT question and answer site! Tons of topics! I’m on there everyday,  reading, and often writing).


 

I have tried over 15 instruments. I have three suggestions for you, and some other suggestions later on in the post:

  1. TinwhistlePhoto on 2018-05-24 at 00.16also called a penny whistle. High pitched, shrill even at times, but can sound awesome. I learned from a teacher who taught a group class, but there are tons of tutorials on youtube, and you only need to learn a tiny bit of music theory, or none at all. An ok tinwhistle will likely set you back $20 or less. Get one in the key of D. Two brands that are the most well-known: Generation and Feadog. I don’t recommend getting a Clarke whistle. Those are made a bit differently than the rest, and are more uncomfortable to hold as you play. One of the best whistle people on youtube is a Catholic priest. If you are on youtube and type in “penny whistle priest,” you might find him. Tinwhistles are mostly used to play Celtic music and other traditional tunes from Ireland and the UK. Here’s me playing a basic tune: https://youtu.be/nAoM12zlzuo
  2. Harmonica – depending on where you live, you will likely find at least some tutorial books at your library. Also, lots of youtube videos. I would strongly suggest NOT buying a cheap harmonica. Spend at least $25–30, and buy one in the key of C, as most educational materials and videos are for harps (harmonicas) in the key of C. A few models to consider: Hohner Special 20, Seydel Blues Session Standard, and Suzuki Harpmaster. These all have plastic combs (the middle piece) instead of wood, which can swell, and are fairly comfortable to play. The Seydel is a little wider than the other two. The Special 20 is by far the best selling of the three. But I mostly play the Harpmaster, and sometimes the Seydel. I like the tone a little more. The Lee Oscar Major Diatonic in key of C is also a classic. Avoid the Hohner Blues Harp – some people love this one, but I think it is the most uncomfortable to play. I’ve found good deals on eBay.. but shop around on that site, as prices vary.
  3. A little-known instrument called the Seagull Merlin. See youtube for demos and songs. The Merlin is based on the Appalachian dulcimer – also called a Mountain dulcimer – but unlike those instruments, the Merlin can be played like a guitar, and has fewer frets than a dulcimer. The tone of the Merlin is excellent, and it’s practically impossible to hit a wrong note. The best Merlin teacher I’ve found on youtube – his channel is called “Ryan’s Seagull M4 Lessons.” https://youtu.be/FpREfbdVBykMerlins cost about $120, last time I checked. I ordered mine from Elderly Instruments online, just over 2 years ago. You can get Merlins from many vendors though, and some music stores carry them. Almost no Merlin instructional materials are available other than youtube videos. These instruments come with either a mahogany or spruce top. I like the spruce top, because the sound is a bit brighter and punchy than the mahogany top. Get one in the key of D to start out with, since most tutorials will feature Merlins in the key of D (key of G also available).

Seagull Merlin, Tom Meninga

The problem with tinwhistles, harmonicas, and the Merlin is that, unlike a piano, guitar, and so many other instruments, you will not have access to all notes needed to play all songs. Experienced whistle players travel with a bag of whistles in different keys, and harmonica players carry cases with many different harmonicas – this is so they can jam with guitarists and etc.

Music is based around keys – sets of notes – scales and chords to go with each key. If you have an instrument, such as a whistle or harmonica, that can be played in only two keys (only one key will be listed on the box or packaging material), then you will need more of these instruments, tuned in other keys if you want to play with other musicians. Eventually, buying a bunch of whistles or harmonicas in different keys can be quite costly. But only if you become quite proficient, and jam with other people. You won’t have this problem with pianos, guitars, etc. because you’ll have access to notes in all keys.

Another fun instrument is the cigar box guitar – especially if you are into blues. You will have the same problem with this one though.. not all the notes, if I remember correctly – It’s been awhile since I’ve played one of these.

Here is the most popular cigar box guitar guy on youtube, Justin Johnson (yes, he looks like a cross between a pirate and a Musketeer): https://youtu.be/N2cGz8W6GCw

Almost no songbooks available, but lots of tutorials on youtube. You can find lots of these instruments on eBay, and I think there is at least one builder on Etsy.

I like a CBG builder on eBay, called Weeklyhouse. Good prices and good workmanship. Bidding usually starts at $65 plus I’m not sure how much shipping.. $30 at most, if I remember – but this depends on where you live.

I have already bought two from this vendor, a 3 string and a 4 string, and am thinking of getting another 4 string. 3 string CBG’s are by far the most common, and are a little easier to play than 4 stringed CBG’s . They sound cool, but I like 4 string CBG’s better. I like playing finger-style guitar, and this works better with a 4 string CBG. The 4 strings have a fuller sound. But, you are more likely to find 3 string tutorials on youtube.

Edit 5/23/18.. a few days ago, after some online communication with Chris Weekly, the builder of Weeklyhouse CBG’s, I ordered one. It arrived today, a day earlier than expected. And it is great!

Photo on 2018-05-24 at 00.09

Photo on 2018-05-24 at 00.10

I played it for over an hour today, even though I don’t really know how, as of yet.

One things I had forgotten.. these are not very loud. If you are jamming with a friend who is playing a regular acoustic guitar – steel string or classical – you will not be heard.

Good thing the one I bought is acoustic electric.

I’m guessing there are some that are louder than this one though. This one was made with a small cigar box, and only has one sound hole. I’m thinking I might buy a small practice amp tomorrow. I don’t exactly need one. I can hear the instrument fine if I am playing alone, but it’s so much fun to plug these instruments in, and get some crunchy tone!

Get a coricidin-type bottle sampler on eBay from blooze bottles.

Here is one:

Photo on 2018-05-24 at 00.33

A sampler of bottle slides of different sizes. It’s possible to have a strap button put on the back of your CBG, on the back of the neck or box, and use a strap adapter or shoelace to attach the strap to the front (headstock) of the instrument. I had the strap button put on at a music store by a guitar tech, since I do not know how to use power tools.

Some CBG’s are built with the strings so high off the fretboard that it is only possible to play these while using a slide. Other builders have the strings low enough so you can play the instrument using your fingers to fret the notes. If you find one online that you like, ask the builder (if possible) how low the action (string height) is, and whether or not you can play with your fingers as well as a slide. I only like CBG’s that have strings low enough to be played either way.

Some CBG’s are acoustic-electric – meaning you can plug them into an amp. This is fun, even if the electronics on some CBG’s are rather cheap. They might pick up extra noise, compared to a regular guitar pickup, but at least you can plug the instrument into an amp, and dirty up the sound. It is possible to get CBG’s with no electronics, and also possible to get them with regular guitar electronics built in. The ones with standard guitar pickups (electronics) will likely cost more than those without such pickups.

You will find a large price range on these instruments, since they are all handmade.

I think, if you want to learn songs, the Merlin is a better choice than a CBG. If, however, you are really into blues, and just want to figure out blues tunes.. and ones you make up on your own, then a CBG is fun.

If you don’t want to bother with notes at all, hand drums can be enjoyable. Get a djembe. If you don’t mind a heavy one, and one that has a drum head of made real goat skin, buy a djembe from Overseas Connection. These are still made in Africa, as far as I know. You can find them online, and in some music stores. They sound great.

If you want a djembe with a synthetic drum head, Remo is the only brand I know of that makes these. The others, even if they are made in factories in Asia, will likely still have animal skin drum heads. Toca and Meinl are pretty good brands.

Congas are great too, but less portable, and more expensive. Lots of lessons on youtube. Being part of a drum circle can be quite enjoyable. I was in one back in 2009. Lots of fun. You’ll just need to be patient with yourself as you learn basic rhythms,

There is a hand drum that looks like a wooden box, and is called a cajon. To play it, you sit on it, lean over, and beat on the vertical surface of the drum, which is between your knees. You can get low pitched tones and snare sounds. Not so easy on the back though.

Meninl makes a slap-top cajon that has a horizontal surface. The snare tone of it is on the left, a mid-tone on the right, and bass tone in the middle. I’ve owned two of these. I can play them comfortably on my lap, or put them on a table and bash away.

Here is my demo and review video of the slap-top cajon. I show a regular cajon at the beginning of the video for comparison.

You might want to consider ukulele – but if so, consider this.. the ukulele is not as easy as I expected it would be. Some of the chords are very easy, and some are surprisingly difficult – even tougher than some guitar chords. Plus – narrower fret spacing than on a guitar, so you will be squeezing your fingers into smaller spaces on the fretboard than you would on a guitar. My fingers kept cramping up, but I was playing some really challenging chords.

Also, the uke has odd tuning (called reentrant tuning) compared to most stringed instruments. The string you’d expect to have the lowest sound doesn’t. This makes learning the uke a bit tricky, especially for folks who already know how to play a guitar.

It’s possible to replace the oddly high-pitched string with one that is the same note, but lower in pitch, but most books and other tutorials are meant for standard reentrant tuning. If you are just strumming chords, this will not be an issue, but it will be if you plan on learning music theory on ukulele, or playing finger-style – playing individual strings and notes.

With ukulele, as well as guitar – you have access to all the notes, scales, etc. and can play tons of different songs in many different keys. You can’t do that with the other instruments I mentioned, unless you buy more of those in different keys.

Here is my uke. It is one of two Mitchell models. The other looks more traditional, I suppose, but this one sounds better. I tried a few others, and this one, I felt was the best in the $100 price range.

It is a concert size uke (second smallest). I had a strap button installed on the bottom, and a strap adapter (small leather strap) attached to the headstock (not pictured). Some folks won’t use a strap, because playing without one is traditional. But there are certain things it is pretty much impossible to do on a uke if you don’t have a strap holding it.

There are 4 main sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The first three are all tuned the same. Start with one of these. I recommend either a concert or tenor. The baritone uke is by far the largest, and is tuned differently from the others. I do not know why.

Bass guitar.. if you just want to learn songs, you can do that without learning music theory. Just do what so many guitarists do- learn to read tablature – it’s a lot easier to read than standard notation.

The basics of bass are not very difficult. Only 4 strings vs. a guitar’s 6, and you don’t have to worry about playing chords.

The downside to bass.. you won’t sound good playing by yourself. You’ll want to be part of a band.

Some other things to consider regarding bass.. Once you get good and start playing gigs, you will need a large, heavy bass amp – much bigger and heavier than guitarists carry.

And lastly, many bass guitars are heavy enough to be uncomfortable for some musicians.

You don’t have to spend a lot of coin to get a decent starter bass. $200–300 will be fine.

My top bass recommendation is the Ibanez GSR-200. The newer ones require a 9V battery to be put in the back in a special compartment. Once the battery is out of juice, you will not get any sound from the instrument, until you change the battery. Some used models (quite common online and in some music stores that sell used gear) do not require a battery. These GSR-200’s have 3 knobs, instead of 4. Basses that don’t require a battery are called “passive” basses, and those that do are called “active.” I think the passive ones sound better.

Squier – the cheap brand of Fender, has some good, inexpensive models, but these are somewhat heavier. Other good starter basses are made by Yamaha, and Mitchell, which is Guitar Center’s house brand of basses and guitars.

I recommend a 3″ wide leather strap to support the weight. Levy’s is a good brand, but I like the Franklin glove leather 3″ strap best. Not cheap – but worth it.

Start out with a small Fender Rumble amp.- these are great. The smallest one, the Rumble 25, costs $100, and some vendors offer free shipping. Ampeg is also pretty good. Avoid Acoustic, the house brand of Guitar Center. I love shopping at GC, but do NOT like their line of bass and electric guitar amps.

What brand of cable to buy? Most that are sold in a package or on a rack and have a brand name (and are not in a bin) are good enough to start out with. I like D’addario/Planet Waves – good cable for the money. You won’t need very expensive cables if you are just starting out. Buy a $100 cable if you turn pro.

What length of cable to get? Even when just practicing in my room, I liked having a 20 ft. cable, so I could wander around my room as I practiced. This is a good length. I used to have a shorter cable, 10 ft., I think. I had to stand close to my amp the whole time I played. Not fun.

My favorite youtube channel for bass is called Scott’s Bass Lessons.

One great series of learning materials for both guitar and bass is the Play-A-Long series – tablature books and a CD Rom that you can use to play along with, and slow down the tempo of the song. I’m guessing these are still being published. They are definitely useful when learning songs. I think there is one called “easy bass guitar,” or something like that. If you like The Police (Sting’s former band), the Police play along book is also good, since many Police bass lines are simple.

You might want to try a guitar. You might not find guitar to be that hard. Some people do, and some don’t. I still dabble on guitar, but after many years, still cannot play it well – you might really take to it though.

I’d say start out on an acoustic steel string guitar and learn the basics – chords and so forth. Your fingers will hurt for awhile, but you will build calluses and then your fingers will not hurt. Some good brands for beginners: Yamaha, Ibanez and Seagull.

You can get a good starter guitar, either steel string or classical, for under $300.

I personally prefer playing a classical acoustic with nylon strings, instead of steel string acoustic. I prefer the sound and also like that the nylon strings are easier on my fingers than steel strings. I’ve played steel string acoustics and electric guitars in the past, but like the classical guitar best.

Yamaha classical guitars are good. You might also want to try Ibanez or Cordoba. Seagull does not have a classical line, as far as I know.

You can start out on an electric guitar if you want, but then you have to deal with choosing from a multitude of amps with various features, and will likely get quite distracted by the myriad of sound options and effects most amps, even small practice amps, are equipped with these days.

If you decide to go electric, I recommend Epiphone. Their cheapest models seem better built than some of the cheap models by other brands. Ibanez makes pretty good cheap guitars too, and so does Yamaha and Schecter.

Stay away from any Squier electric guitar models that have the Squier logo only in black, and not in gold – the logo on the headstock. The ones with the logo in black are not good. Unfortunately, the standard Squier models are a lot more expensive than they used to be. But, you get what you pay for. A standard Squier Strat or telecaster should make you happy.

Some electric guitars have two sets of double pickups on them called hum buckers (you will find these on Ephiphone, Schecter, Ibanez, and other models). Most Squier and Fender guitars have single coil pickups, which have a thinner sound, and can produce more unwanted noise. But some people love these guitars. Some Squier Strats come with one humbucker and two single coils – a good combination. This is true of Ibanez as well.

Electric guitar amps.. best practice amp, in my opinion, is the Fender Mustang (these come in different sizes. You’ll just need a small one). Line 6 is also pretty good. If you want one with less effects that is built reasonably well, then go for a Marshall practice amp, or Orange (that’s a brand, not just a color). Blackstar has some little amps that also sound great – but with these, there are less knobs than most, so to change some of the sounds, you will have to plug one into a computer via USB cable, and use the Blackstar website.

Mandolins sound good, but they are kind of like ukuleles in that the necks are short and narrow, making chords hard to play. Also, mandolins have 8 strings – you’ll be playing two strings at once instead of one. This takes more finger strength. Not the easiest instrument to learn, but they sure do sound great.

If you really want to study music theory, then learning piano is best. At least with piano, the note you see on the sheet music can only be played with one key, either a black or white key on the piano. On a guitar, and other stringed instruments, the note on the page can be played on several different locations on the fretboard, and it is the same note.

But, you are asking about an easy instrument to learn. I don’t play piano well, as of yet, but so far, I can tell you that compared to some other instruments I’ve mentioned, playing piano is not easy.

I have found playing chords on a piano to be easier than playing chords on guitar or ukulele, but unlike on these stringed instruments, while playing piano, your left hand will be playing some notes, and your right hand will be playing others. Left hand more for rhythm, right hand more for melody (not always, of course).

It is very tough to have your hands doing two different things, such as playing chords with your left hand and single notes with your right. On a guitar, your right hand and left hand will be teaming up to play the same notes/chords, even though one hand is picking the strings, and the other s fretting them.

Lastly, with piano, if you really get into reading sheet music, you will have to learn both the treble clef and bass clef, and read both of these at once. For other instruments, like guitar and most wind instruments (trumpet, sax, clarinet, etc.) you’ll just be playing one note at a time, and will just be using the treble clef. That’s better than reading both clefs at once.

It is certainly possible to learn piano without learning both clefs. There is a dude called Scott the Piano guy, who has books on this. And you’ll probably find videos on youtube that show you how to play using simplified sheet music called a lead sheet (there are books, called “fake books,” that are full of lead sheets. Tons of songs).

A lead sheet will have a melody line in the treble clef, (bass clef will not be on the page) and letters above the notes that signify what chord to play. This form of sheet music is MUCH easier to read than standard notation. But you need to know what you are doing, and still need to learn lots of chords to play with your left hand. And of course, you will need to learn the treble clef well, so you can play those notes with your right hand.

One last thing regarding learning how to read and write music.. many of the greats, such as Jimi Hendrix and Eddie Van Halen, never learned how to read or write music. According to an excerpt of a John Lennon interview I read a few nights ago here on this site, even the guys in The Beatles started out without being musically literate. It isn’t necessary for playing popular music. If you want to learn to play classical music, then yeah, you REALLY need to know your music theory. And, if you want to learn jazz, knowing theory is really going to help.

Regarding wind instruments – the only one I played for awhile was clarinet. On both clarinet and sax, there is something called an octave key – this raises up all the notes so that they are the same, but higher in pitch. Unfortunately, the octave key doesn’t raise the notes on the clarinet only an octave higher, but more than an octave, so you will have to know two notes for each little key you play on the clarinet. Otherwise, the clarinet is not a terribly hard instrument. But you’ll not likely be playing one unless you are part of a school band program, like classical music, or New Orleans style early jazz.

I tried saxophones and a trumpet, briefly, but didn’t have money for lessons at the time, so I can’t weigh in on which is easier. To play a lot of notes on sax, you will need to learn what notes go with what keys on the instrument.

The trumpet only has three buttons on it – three keys – to play lots of notes, you will need to change your breath, and position of your mouth on the mouthpiece.

I would call neither of these instruments, nor the clarinet, easy.

Ok, so.. tinwhistle, harmonica, and Merlin are the easiest, and it’s not too hard to get started on bass guitar. Cigar box guitar is fun if you really like old style blues and don’t mind not being able to learn a ton of cover songs. Hand drums are great.

If you want more of a challenge, you might want to give ukulele, guitar, or piano a try.

Regardless of what instrument you start on, you will need to get yourself a metronome – preferably either a small digital one, or, even better, a metronome app on your phone – so you know you are practicing in time. Very important.

I know, at first especially, it really sucks to be practicing with a metronome, but you better do it if you want to play songs well, and especially if you want to eventually jam with other musicians.

Hope this post has helped.

 

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