Learn an instrument for Self-accompaniment

I’ve recently had a lot of discussions around how to learn an instrument, especially in the context of self-accompaniment for singing.

I play a handful of instruments and self-accompany on a few of them, so I thought it worth putting together some suggestions for those who are perhaps interested in learning an instrument. Or perhaps you have a child/teenager who is looking to take up an instrument.

Learning any instrument

When it comes to the voice and voice training, the voice as an instrument is incomplete. We have to both build the voice itself to be functional, as well as learning to play the instrument as we build it.

In contrast, when you buy a good piano, guitar, ukulele, etc, the instrument is already finished by the instrument maker. The better the instrument, the fewer the flaws, but all are typically playable from the moment of purchase.

Therefore, all the work of learning a physical instrument (other than the voice) goes into learning the ins/outs and idiosyncrasies of the instrument. You simply learn how to play the notes and create music. So let’s consider what our options our, which is easiest (read: lowest hurdles to overcome) and why.

Ukulele: Easiest instrument for self-accompaniment

To self-accompany, we want an instrument that provides avenues for at least:
(i) rhythm – this involves setting the speed, tempo, or meter of the music. This is that sense of driving and pulse that makes someone tap their foot along with the music; and
(ii) harmony – this lays down the framework of chords and chords changes, and becomes the musical foundation upon which the melody to be sung/played can then sit.

PROBLEM: There are hundreds of instruments in the world, but relatively few perform both of these functions well.

Some provide purely rhythm (e.g. drums), some provide melody and some level of rhythm (wind instruments), and some provide harmony but not such strong rhythm (accordion), etc.

LIMITED OPTIONS: The three core instruments that provide strong rhythm and harmony are:
– the piano;
– the guitar; and
– the ukulele.

Each of these instruments enable harmony by way of chords to played and a rhythm to be established through those chords. However, if you don’t already play an instrument, there is also a hierarchy of complexity that people often don’t realise, as well as a physical difficulty and a cost difference. Let’s start with the best option:

Ukulele: First choice

The ukulele is by far the easiest instrument to begin learning. Canada and Japan both have their own musical literacy programmes based on the ukulele as an instrument.

The way the ukulele works enables players to finger chords to provide harmony, and strum them the denote the rhythm of the music. By changing the chords being fingered and rhythm being strummed, an easy backing is created for people to sing over. There are only 4 strings on a typical ukulele, whereas a typical guitar has 6 strings. Fortunately, the tuning of the ukulele is identical to the highest 4 string on a guitar. As such, people who start out on ukulele build a foundation that enables them to translate their skills onto guitar.

The strings are very light nylon, which makes them easy to depress to the fingerboard with no pain in the fingers. This is unlike guitar which can be quite painful or abrasive to begin with.

What is also ideal about the ukulele is it’s affordable price point. Many wanting to start an instrument are faced with a dilemma: buy a cheap instrument that you may not enjoy and give up playing, or spend more money on a decent instrument but find you don’t stick at learning the instrument. Hmmm. Piano and guitar generally don’t have the same advantage.

Fortunately, a good starter ukulele is remarkably affordable (typically £20 or so, and many others well under £50). That way you don’t have to break the bank getting a good instrument, but if you find you don’t stay the course, you haven’t spent an awful lot. This works especially well for young children looking to learn an instrument.

Guitar: Second choice

Guitar is actually not much more difficult than ukulele, but there’s a wider range of options (e.g. electric, acoustic, classical), and often requires a little more care and attention to make it playable. I know countless adults and children who have ended up with a guitar that they love intensely for a month, then goes to gather dust.

It can also be painful on the fingers at first, which is another reason that impedes progress. The generally larger size of the guitar (compared to the ukulele) also makes it a little less wieldy for younger fingers or smaller individuals.

Piano: Third choice

IMPORTANT NOTE: I love playing piano. I spend 5-10 hours a day in front of my pianoes, and I think it is by far the most versatile instrument. It is so incredibly capable, and I can easily go weeks without playing my guitars, basses, or other instruments.

But what makes it so capable, is its enormous complexity.

With guitar and ukulele, one hand fingers the chord and the other strums it. The harmony is formed in one hand, and the other generates the rhythm. In contrast, the piano requires a lot of hand independence, and even finger independence to articulate different chords.

Every key you could play in on a piano requires you to learn different fingerings for the same chord, whereas guitar and ukulele you can often shift the same finger shape up the neck to achieve the same chord in a different key.

Pianoes are even more expensive than guitars. Yes, there are cheaper versions available, but they are typically so bad to play and bad sounding, they do not in any way resemble a real piano. However hard a piano is to play when you’re a beginner, nothing will turn you off playing quicker than a cheap piano – they are nasty things indeed. But the cost of a piano that is a joy to play is prohibitive at the beginner stage.

They are also much much larger than guitars. Many lack the physical space to house even a beginner piano, let alone a bigger more fully-featured option.

For accompanying your voice

When it comes to accompaniment, the potential of the piano far exceeds that of any other instrument. However, it is this near infinite potential that makes it a lot to break down. Whereas guitar and ukulele have much less steep learning curves, and yield comparatively quick progress.

Add on top of this difficulty of learning, is that if you want to accompany yourself you also have to sing along with whatever you’re playing. This is yet another layer of complexity that compounds the difficulty.

As such, if one is looking for basic accompaniment, ukulele and guitar are the best bet. You can always graduate from ukulele to guitar, or migrate onto piano in the future once a foundation of music theory is established.

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