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Buying and Choosing an Instrument
In his latest post on Ground Hog Day Resolutions, Dave wrote:
"Personally, there are some personal creative goals I'd like to pursue:
Play an instrument / Play one song well
Compose a song with an interesting arrangement"
I recently had an experience with this arena and would like to share it.
Background: I love playing and learning about music, even though I'm not very good at it; I've played the acoustic guitar now for about 8 years, and I've been playing far too long to not be better than I am. The chief obstacle to my musical progress has really been other habits that made it such that there hasn't been much time to play and I really hadn't felt the motivation to change those habits. While visiting some friends over the holidays, I played Rock Band. Now, I played the drums, and it was only on easy and medium, but I had more fun playing than I had in a long time. I mean, a long, long time. But there were two facets of the experience that were the most salient to me: 1) I loved playing the drums and 2) I loved playing with someone else.
I went down to the nearest Guitar Center soon afterwards and played an electric drum set there (I think it was the Roland Tour). After a few hours of playing (yes, I stayed there that long), I bought the more economical (read: cheaper) Yamaha DTX Exporer, as well as some other audio recording stuff (the audio recording stuff will be covered later so as to keep this entry and response manageable).
I took the drum set home, set it up, and went to town. I had the fun feeling of seeing myself improve every time I played, but something was missing. Wisely, I kept a journal of how I felt after playing, and it boiled down to me not liking the sound of the bass drum and not liking the "feel" of the set. Now, I'm not a drummer, but I am enough of a musician to know that there's a somewhat intangible feel that goes with playing instrument; it's hard to describe, but you're either in the Flow or you're not. And with this set, I wasn't in the Flow.
I wound up taking the drum set back to the Guitar Center. But, while I was there, I played the same drum set that I originally played, and felt inspired again. I also went to an acoustic drum set and felt WAY more inspired. I actually wanted to play the drums again. Given that acoustic drum sets are LOUD and require a bit more space, I did not purchase that drum set, although I could have for about the same price as the drum set I had returned.
Hang in there, as there's a little more background. Given that I bought a lot of equipment on my initial visit, I had some store credit that I was looking to spend (sidebar: I can still have that store credit returned to my Guitar Center card, but the store credit is still covered under the 0%, 12 month financing; if I have it returned to the card, then, if I want some music gear later in the year, I'll have to pay for it right then or get the 3 months financing. It's a better deal for me to hold it for now). I've toyed for years about whether I want to get an electric guitar, so I played some in the store. What has kept me from doing it in the past is 1) I don't like buying entry level gear and getting into an intermediate level set for an electric guitar costs anywhere from $500-800 and 2) I've never felt the same inspiration from playing one that I do from playing the acoustic guitar. I also have been tooling around on keyboards for a while and am more inspired by them than an electric guitar. I declined on getting the electric guitar again for both reasons; in short, I wasn't inspired by playing them.
Okay, we're all done with the background. If you're serious about wanting to play an instrument, here's what I'd recommend you to do:
Review your music collection to see what type of music you find to be the most "you" of the collection. This may be hard to do, but think about what music inspires the creative spark in you. Or, alternatively, think about what types of music places you in the mental/emotional state that you want to be in.
From this, you'll probably find that a few instruments stand out from these trends.
Consider accessibility when learning an instrument for the first time. What follows is a discussion of popular instrument choices:
Six-string guitars: Here you have two basic choices: acoustic or electric.
Electric guitars tend to be easier to learn than acoustic, mostly due to the fact that acoustic guitars require more finger strength to play correctly and that can be daunting and frustrating up front. Electric guitars are also a bit more versatile if you get a good one.
Acoustic guitars are a bit harder to learn but are a bit cheaper to get a good intermediate level guitar. However, the tonal qualities of an acoustic are what inspires a lot of people. There's also a bit more of a connection between the wood instrument and how much the way it sounds depends on you and your connection to the guitar. Lastly, a good acoustic guitar matures with you as you play it and develop its own unique sound. (Disclaimer: I'm partial to acoustic guitars)
Bass guitars: Most people choose to start with an electric bass guitar even though acoustic basses are available. Bass guitars are easier to learn than six-string guitars, but are every bit as difficult to master. Bass guitarist have to have a good feel for rhythm, as your role in a musical setting is to keep the song in rhythm and moving along. It is on your foundation that the rhythm and lead (six-string) guitars get to do their playing, for you provide the musical anchor necessary to keep the song full.
Keep in mind that some people find playing the bass by themselves boring, as it doesn't make a great instrument to learn by yourself. If you buy a bass guitar, make sure you have a way to play the music you listen to loud and clear enough that you can play along with it and hear if you're playing it correctly; most good bass amps have a line-in port that you can hook your iPod to play along with.
Drums: Drums can be incredibly fun to play for some people, but it suffers from many of the same drawbacks as the Bass guitar:
Unless you really just love grooving on drums, you may not like playing them by yourself.
An acoustic drum set is loud and takes a lot of space; they're hard to play at a comfortable level in an apartment building without running afoul of your neighbors.
A good drum set can be a bit expensive to get into.
Many people are now going to electric drum sets to get around the loudness and space factors, but 1) a good drum set is expensive and 2) though you can play all types of sounds, the range of sounds per drum/device and emotional expressiveness of an acoustic drum set is lost. For instance, the velocity, angle, and tension with which you hit a high-hat on an acoustic drumset is critical--and drummers spend a lot of time finding exactly that position; that's a bit lost in an electric drum set, though some of the high end electric drum sets can process and output those different variations.
Keyboards: The range of keyboard quality is phenomenal, and a good keyboard (with hammer weighted keys) can have much the same feel as a piano. Furthermore, they are quite versatile instruments and can be used in nearly any music setting. The coordination of the hands for playing makes improving a challenge, but learning to play a cultural staple well provides many opportunities and benefits for a keyboard musician. Also keep in mind that the learning curve for playing the keyboard/piano is a bit more steep due to its sheet music being more complex. However, if you learn to read music for piano, you can very easily pickup the musical notation for all of the other instruments.
When you consider buying an instrument, I highly recommend you buy an intermediate level instrument. We naturally think that we don't want to spend a lot of money for something we may not enjoy, but the quality of an instrument makes a huge difference. First, if you have an instrument that sounds awesome and you really love it, you're more likely to play it. Second, there comes a point with entry level instruments in which you outgrow it; this can be due to sound, features, or a whole slew of other factors individual to the instrument. Having an instrument whose quality is low can plateau your playing and those stifle your musical development. Third, entry level instruments do not age very well, and, for acoustic instruments, do not mature as they are played. That said, you'll probably need to budget the following per instrument:
Acoustic guitars: $450-600.
Electric guitars: $350-700 for the instrument, $150-300 for the amp and necessary hardware
Drumsets: $800-1000 for the drums, hardware, and cymbals.
Keyboards: $450-800, depending on what individual options you need.
Going along with the last recommendation, play the intermediate and above level instruments. This may seem daunting, because you may not know what you're looking for, but the main thing you're looking for is how the instrument sounds. If possible, have the people at the store do some playing for you so that you can hear what it sounds like in the hands of a competent musician. Plan for an afternoon so that you can play a lot of different instruments, or hear them played. GO WITH WHAT INSPIRES YOU; you'll feel it. Some quick notes per instrument type:
Acoustic Guitars: Try Taylors and Martins. They each sound a bit different; my ear registers Taylors as bright and Martins as deep and full. I prefer Martins, but that's due to my playing style.
Electric Guitars: Try the Fender Stratocasters and Gibson Les Pauls. Strats are used in a lot of rock applications and register to my ear as brighter and crisper; Les Pauls are used in rock applications, as well, but are also used much more in jazz and blues applications--they sound warmer to me.
Bass Guitars: Ibanez produces many popular bass guitars. Try their jazz version.
Drum sets: Look at Ludwig, Pearls, and Tamas. Don't be shy in the drum room and give the instruments a good tap and thump; you need to hear how the drums sound and how they feel. Texture and sound are really, really important.
Keyboards: Yamaha is the brand to look to for keyboards in the intermediate range. See whether you would rather have a keyboard with less, but more accurate and full, sounds or whether you want to go with one that has a ton of sounds that aren't quite as accurate and full. See whether you'd like to have keyboard or weighted keys.
If you buy from a chain store, such as Guitar Center, they may offer you a certain amount of time to play and return the instrument if you don't like it. Guitar Center gives 60 days if you get a Performance Guarantee with the instrument; I recommend the PG anyways, but having an extra 30 days to try the equipment is nice. Get the equipment, go home, and try it, but don't get committed to keeping it until you find yourself enjoying it; if you don't enjoy it, TAKE IT BACK!! Identify, if you can, what you didn't like, and get something else, and try it for 60 days. Rinse and repeat until you find something you like or exhaust your options; in which case, get your money back and check it off the list.
Keep in mind that learning an instrument for the first time requires work and practice!! You will likely not be good at first, but keep at it, and you'll recognize yourself getting better slowly. if you have the right instrument, you should enjoy the learning process even though you recognize that you could be better. Stick with it. Practice/play every day for fifteen minutes rather than trying to sit down for hours. As with any new habit/process, make it a part of your daily routine.
I hope this has been helpful, and if you have any questions, please let me know.