What is the best instrument to learn first?

by | Jan 3, 2021 | Beginners, Musical instruments | 0 comments

What is the best instrument to learn first?

People often ask, “What is the best instrument to learn first?” While this is a good question to consider if you’re new to music, it is a little bit like asking, “What is the best food to eat?”

The Ukulele Sisters play eleven instruments and have taught thousands of beginners. So we definitely qualify as balanced ‘’music eaters’ and ‘chefs’, to stretch a metaphor.

Here are some factors to consider when deciding what is the best instrument for YOU to learn first.

Pick the instrument that inspires you

The best instrument to learn first is the one that inspires YOU. Learning music is fun at first but it’s also a lot of work. Most of the beginners I have taught are surprised at how much work it is to learn an instrument. So you want to pick an instrument to learn first that calls to your heart. There are always challenging spots in learning anything. Picking an instrument you love will help you keep going when things get tough. To sum it up: learn the instrument that you love most first.

A second factor in deciding which instrument you like is your response to its sound. Do you respond to the gentle plucking of a harp or the energizing beat of a skilled drummer at work? Maybe you love the singing, surging legato of romantic piano music? Or does cool smooth saxophone playing make your day? Use your emotions about sound to help you choose an instrument to spend time with.

What’s your goal?

Another consideration is the musical style you’re interested in. If you want to play a particular type of music, learn an instrument that’s central to it. For example, if you want to rock out , learn electric guitar. If you love Scottish Highlands reels, learn bagpipe. If you love Beethoven symphonies, choose violin or cello.

Are you working towards becoming a professional musician? You need to know piano to get a music degree even if you are majoring in another instrument.

Do you just want to have fun and maybe perform sometimes as an amateur? Any of the non-piano instruments could work great for you

Why pick only one instrument?

Learning more than one instrument will dramatically increase your understanding of music. The more you understand about music the easier it will be to learn your chosen instrument.

I’ll talk about this more below, but each instrument focuses on one aspect of music. For example, the drums provide the rhythm or beat to the rest of the band. Rhythm guitar provides the middle of the music and some of the beat. Single line instruments like saxophone usually play melody parts.

group of musical instruments

Here are the best instruments to learn first

OK, so here’s my ranking of the best instruments to learn first along with my reasoning. Remember, everyone will have their own view on this topic and that’s how it should be. I hope reading my ranking will help you make up your mind on which instrument to learn first.

1. Piano

I have played and taught piano for decades so of course I am biased. But lots of other people also think you should learn piano first. Western music is organized by scales which are basically stair steps of sounds. The spaces between each sound are either half steps or whole steps.

Pros:

Great visuals: The half and whole steps are laid out clearly on the piano keyboard. So learning piano can help you understand the structure of all Western music. You can just look at the piano keyboard to see how each pitch is related to another pitch. That’s why all music schools require students in all majors to learn to play the piano at a basic level.

piano keyboard

Make a complete song: It’s easy to play more than one note at a time on the piano. That means you can make a a complete musical texture by yourself on the piano. You can play the tune (what a singer would sing) and the background (what the backup band would play) at the same time. You can’t do that with a single line instrument like the saxophone or trumpet.

Gigantic pitch range: The highest note on the piano is higher than the highest note an orchestra can play. The lowest note is lower than the lowest instruments in the orchestra can play. This means that piano music can have incredible contrasts and drama.

Stays in tune: The piano has thick wire strings under a lot of tension. Pianos are tuned by professional tuners and usually stay in tune at least 6 months. So you don’t have to fiddle around with tuning before you can start playing.

Lots of styles to play: You can play classical, rock, blues, folk, and even popular tunes on the piano.

Sound great from the beginning: Even cats and dogs can get a sound out of the piano – remember Nora the cat? You don’t see a lot of videos about animals playing violin or saxophone.

Cons:

Big: The piano is large – about 6 ½” wide and at least 6” deep if you include space for the bench and someone sitting on it. That’s a lot of space for one instrument especially if you are sharing space with others.

Expensive: Sometimes you can find an old upright piano being given away for free. But, you get what you pay for. An instrument worth playing will cost at least $500-$1000.

Loud: The acoustic piano is quite a bit louder than some of the other options listed below. If you are sharing your space with someone who is working from home, you may have to limit your practicing times. Another option is to get an electronic keyboard. Then you can play with headphones when you need to be quiet. Electronic keyboards are very popular these days. However, an electronic action is not as good for practicing on as an acoustic action. But being able to play more hours makes considering an electronic piano a good idea. And your keyboard can create all kinds of sounds such as harpsichord, organ, and strings.

Takes a long time to master: The piano has 88 keys and three pedals. To play it you need to use all 10 fingers plus your feet at the same time. It can take a long time to get the coordination needed to play it well. By long time, we’re talking 10 or more years of lessons with a skilled teacher.

Not so great for popular music: The piano was most popular in the 1830s through the 1920s. It is perfectly suited for music from those years: classical music and jazz. Playing pop, rock, hip hop and rap on the piano can be tough. It’s pretty hard to play music that was originally played by 3-4 skilled musicians with only one brain.

2. Ukulele

Well of course on a site called ukulele.io we are big fans of ukulele. Here are some of the pros of learning ukulele as your first musical instrument.

Inexpensive: You can get a serviceable instrument to try out for less than $100.

Portable: The Beatles often took ukuleles on tour because they are small and easy to stow and carry. You can even get waterproof carbon fiber ukuleles to take to the beach or campsite.

Small and easy to hold: The ukulele comes in four sizes. Find out how to choose the perfect ukulele size for you here. The first three have the same tuning and the fourth (the baritone) has a different tuning. Even the largest ukulele is quite a bit smaller than a guitar. So, if holding a guitar is a stretch, the ukulele will be a great fit for you. Read more about ukulele sizes here.

Play harmony: Like piano and guitar, you can play complete chords on the guitar. You can even play the melody plus the chords at the same time which is called ‘chord melody’. It’s great to be able to play a complete song by yourself.

Easy to learn without a teacher: Ukulele is very popular right now. So there are many online ukulele tutorial videos, books, and courses. You can check out our offerings here.

Easier than guitar: The ukulele has only 4 strings not 6 or 12 like the guitar. That means that the chord shapes you make with your left hand are simpler and easier to learn.

Great for popular music: Lots of popular songs sound great on ukulele. If you like music that has guitars in it, you will like the ukulele

Happy upbeat sound: Many people associate the ukulele with happy mellow feelings. And who can’t use more of that in their life?

Great for playing with others: Lots of people join ukulele clubs to play in a group with other strummers. There are clubs all over the world. Facebook is a good place to look for a ukulele group.

Or you can improvise or play duets with a friend. Many of our books include the melody written out in ‘tab’ plus chord symbols to make it easy for you to play duets. (Tab is an easy to learn way of writing down music.) One person can play the melody while the other person strums the chords.

Sound good fast: The four strings of the ukulele sound great all by themselves. And that’s before you learn how to play your first chord. It’s not that hard to learn to strum the ukulele, so you can play complete songs within a week or two of starting. In fact, our introductory book teaches you 21 songs in 6 days. They are easy songs of course. But you are creating complete songs with a melody plus an accompaniment all by yourself.

3. Guitar

Pros:

Lots of popular songs to play: The guitar is the main instrument of pop, rock, folk and country music since the 1950s. Which means that it is a great instrument to learn if you want to play any of these styles.

Affordable: You can buy a beginner quality acoustic guitar for around $200. No way could you start on piano or acoustic bass in that price range

Easy to jam with a friend: Like ukulele, you can easily play with a friend. One of you would strum chords and the other can pluck melody notes and/or sing. Just decide what scale you’re playing in and you’re ready to go.

Expressive: You can affect the sound you make by how you strum or pluck the strings with your fingers. It’s a very direct and intimate music making experience.

Acoustic vs. Electric? Again, this depends on what style music you want to play.

Acoustic guitar is generally more affordable to start, and electric guitar is a bit easier to play. The choice is yours and there is no wrong answer.

Cons:

Lots of guitarists: There are a lot more guitarists than any other type of musician. This means that the competition to play in a group is a lot tougher.

Too big: For some folks, the guitar is just physically too big. Or maybe getting your small hand to wrap around the neck and cover six strings is too much of a stretch? In that case, we recommend the ukulele.

Which is better – piano or ukulele/guitar?

It all comes down to what you would like to do with your music. Do you want to learn some of your favorite songs, or play around a fire with some friends? Then I would recommend ukulele or guitar. If you would like to get deeper into music and maybe learn some classical pieces, I would suggest piano.

4. Bass guitar

Affordable: Beginner bass guitars are super affordable. Lessons are cheap and abundant online and elsewhere, and finding sheet music is very easy.

Different from guitar: Bass is a separate instrument from guitar. It is larger than a standard electric or acoustic guitar. It has four strings rather than 6 or 12 and its sounds are lower than the guitar. Because it is low, it usually works with the drums in a band to create a rhythm.

The electric and the acoustic (stand up) bass have the same strings. If you play the acoustic bass, you can really easily learn electric bass or ukulele bass because the fingerings and notes are the same. This also means that acoustic bass students can practice on an electric bass guitar at home! Being able to stash an inexpensive instrument at home will save you money and a lot of schlepping.

Big: The acoustic (stand up) bass is big.  In fact, it is so big you might have to buy a new car to tote your instrument around. But you can get a smaller size bass for younger students. If you go with the acoustic or stand-up bass, it is really big – and expensive. 

Strings are hard to press: to get those low tones, the strings need to be thick. That makes them harder to push down, which can tire out your hand and arm.

Usually in the background: If you like to be in the front playing a solo, you will not like the bass. Most of the time the bass works with the drums and rhythm guitar to create the supporting texture of a song.

5. Violin & Cello

Beautiful singing sound: These two instruments are the main part of any orchestra. They make a beautiful smooth singing sound. Some of the greatest classical music has been written for them. Violin also shows up as a fiddle in bluegrass, country and folk music. Violin even shows up in jazz played by artists like Regina Carter and Stephane Grappeli. There is a wonderful jazz violinist in the HBO series ‘Treme’, along with a lot of brass players.

Available in smaller sizes: It’s easy to get smaller size violins and cellos for children. They are available in ¼, 1/8 and 1/16 sizes. Read more about smaller violins here.

violins and cellos in orchestra

Easy to learn in school settings: Many schools have orchestra programs which offer lessons and loaner instruments to students. One of the Ukulele Sisters has a day job as a middle school orchestra director.

Always a group to join: Orchestras need lots of violins and cellos. So if you become proficient you’ll always be welcome to join a group. There are many amateur orchestras for adult players to join too.

Definitely will need serious lessons: These instruments are not easy to learn. It can take a while before you can make a good sound. You’ll need one on one lessons with a professional teacher.

With the right teacher, the Suzuki method of instruction can be a great option. Read more about the pros and cons of the Suzuki method here. 

Expensive: Even the cost of a starter instrument is on the higher side. Most school orchestra teachers recommend that you rent an instrument from a reputable dealer. You want someone who will handle repairs when needed, and look for a rent-to-buy program. It’s best to work with a business that is located near you so you can bring the instrument in to the shop in person.

Violins and violas are $20-$35/month depending on where your rent. Cellos are double that.

If you get to the point where you need a professional quality instrument, watch out. You could be spending thousands of dollars on just the instrument. The bows that you draw across the strings to make the sound are sold separately and can also be quite expensive.

6. Saxophone & other wind instruments

Wind instruments are a large group of instruments that you play by blowing into a mouthpiece. The flute is an exception – it is played by blowing across a hole. The oldest known musical instrument is a fragment of a bone flute from 60,000 years ago! Other popular wind instruments besides the flute are clarinet and saxophone.

Saxophone is easy to learn and is available in a variety of types and sizes. The alto saxophone is the most suitable for beginners. You can learn more about different kinds of saxophones here.

Easy to learn in school settings: As with orchestras, many schools also have band programs. Playing in the band can be a fun way to learn music and connect with other students in your school. I loved playing flute and piccolo in my high school’s marching band.

Not that many groups for adult wind players to join: Many wind players drop music once they leave school. When they don’t have a way to play with other people anymore it’s not as much fun. This was my experience. I didn’t get chosen for my university’s orchestra and never played flute again. For many years I wished that I had learned cello instead of flute.

There are not so many bands and wind groups for adults to play in because there’s not that much music written for band. Wind instruments like saxophone and clarinet sound great in rock and jazz. But wind instruments like oboe and flute are mostly limited to playing in orchestras. And orchestras usually need only one or two of each type of wind instrument. So you have to be really good to make the cut. The TV series Mozart in the Jungle tells the story of Hadley, an aspiring orchestral oboist.

Many years to master: There are lots of self-taught saxophone and clarinet players out there. But most wind instruments need training and discipline over many years to master. If you have a strong desire to learn one of them you definitely can do it. Just know that you will have to be very organized and identify a good teacher early on in your learning journey.

7. Drums

Fun: Drums are another instrument with a long history. It can be easy to make a sound at the beginning. But once you try to play with both hands and one foot at the same time, things become more challenging. Once you’ve passed this hurdle, you’ll get to a decent level where most rock blues and pop songs are playable. pretty quickly. In fact, choosing to play drums can be the quickest way to get proficient at playing a single instrument

Man playing drum

Lots of opportunities to play: If you get moderately skilled, you’ll have lots of chances to join bands. And it’s a good thing, because very few people have ever written a percussion only song.

Expensive: At first getting your drum kit set up will be expensive. Once you have a basic set up you’ll be OK for a while. Then you can gradually add different drums and cymbals.

Noisy: The drums are loud. Very loud. So many learners train on an electric drum kit to help neighbors keep their sanity.

8. Brass instruments such as trumpet

Easy to learn in school settings: Many school music programs offer lessons and loaner instruments. Playing in the band can be a fun way to learn music and connect with other students in the school.

Fun: Brass is great for the school marching band or orchestra. And it can be a ton of fun to be in the band at school sporting events. I mean, watch those dancing tubas in the Stanford Marching Band! Are they having fun or what! There is even a very famous college football play that included the band members.

However, when you no longer have the support of a school program, it can be difficult to keep your instrument up.

Not that many groups for adult wind players to join: As with wind instruments, there are few adult music groups that need lots of brass players. Adult orchestras only need one or two of each brass instrument, so you have to be good to get chosen to play. You can play jazz and some rock and pop on brass instruments. But brass instruments are not so common in styles besides classical.

So, if you’re learning a brass instrument at school, try to plan on how to continue once you are out of school. A good plan can be to learn a second instrument such as ukulele, piano, or guitar. That way you’ll be able to keep playing music when you leave school.

Very loud: Brass instruments are used when the music needs a loud or piercing sound. Think marching band and army signals. But neighbors most likely will not be enthusiastic about hearing daily brass practice. You can get a practice mute or play with just the mouthpiece some of the time. But you will need regular practice time when you can play your instrument unmuted.

So what is the best instrument to learn first?

Now that you’ve learned about the many options, I hope you’re ready to choose what instrument to learn first. If you are feeling overwhelmed with information and pros and cons – don’t freak out! Choose SOMETHING to get started. Even if you only try it for a month or two, you’ll learn a lot about music. And the knowledge you gain will help you as you move on to a second instrument.

Playing music as an adult is a great way to socialize and express yourself. Working with music will help you develop your creativity and thinking in new ways. In fact, music is often used to help folks rehabilitate from strokes.

So what do you think? Which instrument will you try to learn first? Let us know in the comments.

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