How does a person come to play a particular instrument?
Some seem born knowing what they want to play, and just naturally gravitate to it. Many will get inspired by watching or hearing another player and be motivated to try their hand at it. Others get the family instrument forced on them: Little Johnny WILL play the *insert instrument* because we already own one!”
But what if you have a choice and don’t know exactly where to begin?
It’s common to feel unsure about choosing an instrument if one of the first three scenarios doesn’t apply to you. Which instrument will you enjoy practicing? Which will you understand? Which will make you feel the most musically fulfilled? Then there are the practical factors to consider: the cost of the instrument and necessary accessories, its size and the space it will require, the relative loudness it generates (just how much aggravation might the neighbors tolerate?).
These are all important things to think about when choosing an instrument, but before tackling those logistics we are going to focus on a different area to ease into the process of making an informed selection. We are going to concentrate on your musical taste, as well as your intent to play solo or with other musicians, and start zeroing in on what resonates with your personal groove. Let’s dive in!
Playing music with others is great fun especially once you get some solid chops going. If this is your goal, you may want to look into learning an ensemble instrument. While every instrument can be played in an ensemble or group, but some perform better together than others.
Let’s get specific and explore which ensemble instruments are typically combined in particular types of music.
At the core of rock, pop, and blues, you will find electric or acoustic guitars, bass guitar, drums, and vocals; often, a keyboard or piano will round out a group’s sound. Jazz ensembles put the piano at the center, sometimes folding trumpet, saxophone, or trombone into the mix. And if you go Latin with your jazz, you’ll likely also get some hand percussion involved, possibly steel drums, and maybe a flute!
If a smaller more intimate ensemble sounds more interesting, folk music may be for you. Folk’s story songs feature core instruments similar to rock, but usually played acoustically, or unplugged.
How about going solo?
If you like the singer-songwriter feel, folk or otherwise, an acoustic guitar is your best friend. For an island twist, try ukulele, or go retro and try out a lap steel guitar.
Bluegrass groups get a little rowdier and feature all manner of stringed instruments such as banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, and upright bass or even the occasional washtub bass for extra authenticity. Multiple, tightly coordinated singers are also a signature part of this style. Like folk, bluegrass favors story-like lyrics and keeps the instrumentation heavily on the acoustic side.
Speaking of singing, consider training your voice. Lead singers bring us the rock star experience and live in the limelight. Even if the spotlight isn’t your thing, singing as a secondary skill will allow you to add backing vocals as needed. And if you’re not interested in another instrument at all, acapella groups use their voices alone to create harmonic bliss.
What about drums?
A capable drummer provides the structure and drives the beat that carries the band. As fun and satisfying as drumming looks, learning the drums is more involved than it may seem. Managing multi-part beats on a standard drum set takes every limb you have! Bringing in additional pieces (a little cowbell in your salsa band, anyone?) presents an even more complex sequence to execute. Bonus: when you get good, you’ll be in demand. Good drummers are sought out and often end up gigging in multiple groups!
Finally, we have the piano.
This orchestra-in-a-box allows the player to wield so much complexity of sound, that it really can stand alone in the concert hall. When Elton John held a series of concerts in Alaska several years back, he did so completely solo— just piano and voice. The piano or keyboard is also commonly added to ensembles; taking a background role to enhance the core players’ sound.
So, do you want to go solo or “Join together in the band,” as The Who would say? Do you want to take the lead or play a supporting role? This is a tough choice, but remember, this is your first instrument – but it doesn’t have to be your only instrument!
Cara Walsh Dorman teaches piano with an emphasis in creative exploration balanced with solid musicianship. Cara and her husband, Eddie Dorman, opened Muse School of Music 12 years ago to offer the community a fresh, spirited, and modern approach to music education. To reach Cara, email: firstname.lastname@example.org