The author is a guitarist and bassist with over 35 years of experience as a musician.
Choosing a First Instrument
Learning to play a musical instrument is rewarding in many ways. Through music kids and adults can learn discipline, express creativity and find a healthy way to manage stress. For people who stick to it and get good at it, music might even become a career. But even among those who play just for fun, there are very few who regret bringing music into their lives.
Every wannabe musician has to start somewhere, and that somewhere isn’t always so easy to figure out. There are so many different instruments out there, each with a strong set of pros and cons. If you don’t know much about music to begin with, how are you supposed to choose?
This article can help. I’ve played guitar and bass for over thirty years, but over my career as a musician, I’ve dabbled in many of the instruments listed in this article. Obviously I’ve made my choice, but I also recognize that there are many other options out there for all kinds of people.
There are also a few instruments here that I have on my bucket list of things I intend to do in this world before I shuffle off. This brings me to the first of two important points I hope you take away from this article: You are never too old to learn a new musical instrument!
If you are a teenager or adult you might feel like your ship has sailed, but don’t give up so easily! Every second you waste wishing you had decided to take up music sooner is a second wasted where you could be learning music now! So quit whining and get to it!
The second point is that the best beginner instrument for you is the one that inspires you to play! This is not only true for adults, but especially for kids who may not be super-motivated to study. You’ll read a lot of different advice in this article and elsewhere, but above all else, it is important to choose an instrument that gets you (or your child) excited about music.
So let’s get to it, and find the perfect first musical instrument for a beginner!
In my opinion, the guitar is the best musical instrument for most newbies. Yes, I may be a little biased, but I am prepared to defend my position! The reason I put guitar number one is that it so accessible and popular in modern music.
Starting out on guitar is very affordable. You can grab a beginner’s kit for $200 or less, and you have many, many options to choose from. You can take lessons if you want, but there are also a wide range of learning methods available through books, computer software, and even online lessons. Finding songs to learn is super easy, and if you don’t want to learn to read music you can always depend on tablature to help you along.
You have a broad future ahead of you if you choose guitar. You may go the classical or jazz route and study guitar at a prestigious music school. You may become a rock player and form a cutting-edge band. You may decide to play acoustic guitar and write songs. The sky is the limit, and over your career as a guitar player you may experiment with many ideas.
Should you start with an electric or acoustic guitar? There are pros and cons to each. My advice is always to pick whichever most motivates you to play. In a nutshell: Acoustic guitar is generally more affordable to start out on, where electric guitar is a bit easier to play. The choice is yours and there is no wrong answer.
There are some amazing acoustic guitars for beginners on the market today, but I always suggest the Yamaha FG Series for newbies just getting started with the instrument.
I highly recommend the Yamaha FG800 as a first acoustic guitar for beginners. It is an affordable, high-quality instrument that will last a newbie a long while. This guitar is an upgrade from the FG700S, which has attained somewhat legendary status as a beginner guitar.
Also look for the FS800, which is a similar instrument with a slightly smaller concert-style body. If you choose to start out on acoustic guitar either is a great choice!
The Yamaha FG Series
2. Piano or Keyboard
The piano is next on my list, This is actually the first instrument I learned to play as a kid, and even today I mess around with it a bit. While I’ve obviously gravitated to guitar, I recognize the major advantage of my early days learning piano.
Learning this instrument is nowhere near as convenient as the guitar. A piano is expensive and takes up a big chunk of space in your home. You usually can’t tune it yourself, and you’re probably going to need a few formal lessons to learn to play the thing. Getting good at it requires developing some serious coordination.
The major upside to learning piano is that you get such a strong background in music theory, one that’s translatable to almost any other instrument. With a piano, all of the notes are right in a row, and it’s easy to see the theory behind musical concepts like chords and scales. If you later decide to take up guitar or another stringed instrument where the relationships between notes are not nearly as clear, you’ll have a major advantage.
You can make learning piano more accessible by choosing a keyboard instead. Keyboards are electronic instruments capable of a wide range of sounds, where pianos are acoustic instruments with one distinctive sound. Keyboards are easily portable, take up less space, and in general, they are much less expensive.
Pro-level keyboards usually require a separate amp, but mid-range models often come with their own speakers. There are even electric pianos out there with weighted keys, to give you the sound and feel of the real thing.
If you haven't the room or budget for a piano, I recommend an affordable starter keyboard like the Yamaha PSR-E463. This unit will give you everything you need to learn to play, without busting your wallet. Later on, you can upgrade to a higher-end model, or go with an electric piano with weighted keys.
3. Bass Guitar
Even though an electric bass looks like a big guitar with fewer strings it is a distinctly different instrument requiring a very different mindset. Still, many of the same reasons you might start out on guitar also apply to bass.
Beginner bass guitars are super affordable, lessons are cheap and abundant online and elsewhere, and finding music is very easy. If you prefer bass over guitar it is every bit as valid a choice.
I have a whole article dedicated to how to choose between bass and guitar, so I’m only going to touch on that a bit here. There are certainly a few things beginners should consider when deciding if the bass is the perfect first instrument for them.
Firstly, bass is not necessarily easier than guitar. So if you have the idea that you’ll start on bass because it seems simpler and then move to guitar, you’ve got things a little backward. Both require practice and both can be as challenging or simple as you wish to make them.
A bass is not a dumbed-down guitar. It is more accurate to say bass and guitar are highly related instruments, each requiring a specialized set of skills. Bassists are typically more rhythm oriented, and work with the drummer to form the backbone of the music.
So why learn bass instead of guitar? If you decide the bass moves you and you love the sound it is a solid alternative to learning traditional guitar. You don’t have to learn guitar first. If you like bass, learn bass!
The Ibanez GSR200 is an Outstanding Bass for Beginners
4. Banjo and 5. Mandolin
My grandfather was a banjo player, and I learned the instrument around the same time I was first picking up the guitar. I wasn’t very good, and I gave up too quickly, but it was a lot of fun. It’s something I’ve always wanted to get back to someday.
A banjo is typically a four or five-string instrument that produces sound utilizing something like a drum head, and often a back piece called a resonator.
Mandolins are eight-stringed instruments that produce sound utilizing a chambered body, more like a traditional acoustic stringed instrument. I’ve grouped them together here not only because they are both often used in the same forms of music, but because they share some of the same pros and cons.
Like guitar, mandolin and banjo are both very inexpensive and easy to get started on. Lessons and music are plentiful, especially with the rise in popularity of country and bluegrass over the past decade or so. If you just want to learn some basics, like guitar you can be playing music on one of these instruments in no time.
But these are also instruments with small, thin necks, and it takes some practice to get good at them. Expert banjo and mandolin players are every bit as skilled as the best metal guitar shredders or classical guitarists.
You probably won’t need to take lessons, but you are going to have to spend many, many hours working on your chops to hold your own in most styles of music where these instruments are used. Don’t let that stop you if either of these instruments are what you really want to play!
Hear the Fender Concert Tone 54 Banjo
For good reason, drums are among the most popular instruments in the world. They are a ton of fun to play, and if you get decent at them you will always be in demand for bands and gigs. But there are also a few reasons I put them a little further down on the list.
For one thing, starting on drums is a little expensive. You’re likely looking at a few hundred dollars over what you’d spend to start on any of the instruments listed above, excepting a full-sized piano of course. They are also hard to move around, and they take up a lot of space in your house or apartment.
One positive there is that, once you have a decent drum kit, you won’t need to upgrade in the same way a guitar player will always be looking to move up to a better amp or guitar. You can add cymbals, extra drums and accessories as you go, but your base kit will last you a long time.
Another negative is that acoustic drums are very loud. A hard-hitting drummer will literally have a house shaking and the neighbors taking notice. For parents looking for a beginner instrument for a child, this is something to consider. Electric guitars get a bad rap when it comes to noise, but at least they have volume knobs. Drums do not!
The solution is to go with an electronic drum kit like the Roland TD-1K. Electronic drums let you bang away in relative silence. If you want to play drums but you're worried about the racket, this is the answer. They make little noise unless you plug them into an amp, and you can use a pair of headphones for silent practice. They are also a lot easier to pack up and tote around. For people who live in apartments, or for parents who fear the wrath of the Neighborhood Association, they are the ideal solution.
The Roland TD-1K Electronic Drumset
7. Violin and 8. Cello
Cello is the instrument that is at the top of my bucket list, and I am determined to learn it before my days are done. Violin and cello are instruments typically used in an orchestra setting or string quartet, and most often in classical music. They have a sweet, woody sound, and some of the most renowned musical pieces in history have been written around them.
Would Bach have written for electric guitar if he were around today? No, I think he still would have chosen to create music for the classical strings.
If you are moved by classical music like I am you may love playing violin or cello, but the downsides are some of the reasons I have yet to scratch cello off my bucket list. Firstly, you’re probably not going to learn violin or cello on your own. I’m pretty confident in my ability to pick up music, but this is something that will require expert intervention. That means lessons, and undertaking some serious study of the instrument. As a rock guitarist for most of my life, I feel this would require some mental preparation on my part, and it should not be something taken lightly.
You can learn a few chords and strum a guitar on your back porch. Nobody does that with a cello.
The cost of entry is also a bit steep for both of these instruments. For a basic, quality cello that will stick with you for years to come you’re looking at somewhere around the $1000 mark. For a violin, you’ll spend quite a bit less, but the demand for neither is such that you’ll find the same deals as with a guitar.
Learn More About the Cello
Brass instruments include trumpets, French horns, tubas, and trombones. While they are found in classical orchestra settings, they are also used prevalently in many other forms of music such as marching bands, jazz bands, and even rock. Playing one of these instruments takes not only excellent hand dexterity but some mighty lung power as well.
These are also the types of instruments many students gravitate toward in high school so they can participate in marching band or orchestra, but then never touch again after graduation. That’s unfortunate, but there are reasons why this happens.
You can learn an instrument like the trumpet or tuba in the sanctity of the school music room, and your parents will probably tolerate your practice at home if it means a grade or participation in extracurricular activities. However, when you go off to college or move into an apartment you’ll likely find your peers are a little less enthusiastic about you wailing away on the trumpet just for fun. When musicians no longer have the support of a school program, they often drop the instrument altogether.
I think it is important to have a long-term plan in place when you decide to pick up an instrument. You don’t have to quit a brass instrument just because you’ve left school, and you can certainly learn one as an adult if you wish. You just need to apply a little creative thinking when it comes to finding a way to practice without making everyone crazy.
Woodwind instruments include saxophones, clarinets, flutes, and oboes. Reed instruments are a subdivision of woodwinds, and they are instruments like saxophones and clarinets that employ a wooden reed in the mouthpiece. Like brass instruments, to be good at these you need to have the right-hand technique as well as some decent cardiovascular conditioning.
Also like brass instruments, many musicians tend to drop these instruments once they leave school and no longer have an outlet for performance and practice. While instruments like saxophone and clarinet lend well to rock and jazz music, others like the oboe and flute struggle to find a home outside of classical music and orchestra performance
Certainly, there are many self-taught or semi-self-taught saxophonists and clarinet players out there, but most of these orchestra instruments require training and discipline over many years to master. If you have the desire to learn one of them you surely can, but your approach is going to need to be much more organized.
Many musicians learn woodwind or brass instruments in school while simultaneously learning guitar or percussion on their own. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, and it means, if you do decide to set the trumpet aside when the high school marching band days are done, you don’t have to give up music altogether.
Learn More About the Clarinet
More Musical Instruments
You can learn one of the more traditional instruments listed above, or go off the beaten path with one of the instruments below! You're a musician now; you can do whatever you want!
Here’s a brief list of some other instruments you may consider as a beginner:
- Ukulele: The uke is a fun little instrument that’s easy to carry around and not too hard to learn. I’ve been occasionally asked if it is smart to learn the ukulele as a bridge to taking up guitar, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. However, if you are looking for something similar to guitar but a little simpler this may be the perfect little instrument for you. That said, be aware that some players get really, really good at the ukulele, so it is certainly not an instrument to take lightly.
- Bagpipes: I’ve always wanted to learn to play the bagpipes, just because they sound so cool. But they are also really loud, somewhat expensive, and seem to take more than a little patience to learn. Your family members and neighbors will need to have some patience too! There are practice chanters you can use to keep peace while you are getting better.
- Harmonica: Usually the harmonica is like a side instrument you mess around with, but some musicians take it very seriously. I actually played in a band for short time with a guy who did nothing else but play the harmonica. That was a little odd. Harmonicas come in different keys, and some people have a bunch of them. I played for a little while a long time ago, and it’s one of those instruments almost anyone can learn but few get really good at.
- Upright (Double) Bass: The double bass is a classical orchestra instrument played with a bow, which eventually morphed into the stand-up bass played in jazz and rockabilly. That, in turn, led to the invention of the electric bass guitar. The double bass is a huge instrument, very expensive and tough to lug around. Some electric bassists like to learn it in its stand-up version, but you may also take the classical route and learn it in the traditional way.
- Bongos and Percussion: If you don’t want to go whole-hog with a drum kit you can get into bongos and other forms of percussion. Typically, smaller percussion instruments are much easier to carry around, not nearly as loud and easier to learn. If you just want to have some fun and bang on a drum this might be the right choice for you. Or, you can get good and find yourself as the percussionist in a band.
A Lifetime of Music
I’ve given you a list of musical instruments that are great for beginners, and even let you know which I think are your best options. The guitar is a safe bet for most newbies, followed by the piano. But there is a world of options out there to consider. You need to choose whichever instrument gets you the most excited, no matter how popular (or not) it might be, and no matter what the guitar guy on the internet tells you.
Whatever you have going on in your head, my single most important piece of advice I hope you take away from this article is this: Learn something! Bring music into your life in some form, whether you intend to spend thousands of dollars learning a classical orchestra instrument, or you spend fifty bucks on a ukulele.
The benefits for children are immeasurable. Kids who have music in their lives learn to be disciplined (yes, even if they are learning rock guitar) and they learn how to express their creativity. A kid who is shy and awkward in social situations may come to feel empowered and confident with a musical instrument in his hands. Music is something that will benefit them as they grow older, and on into adulthood.
But what if you are already an adult? It is never too late to become a musician, and learning an instrument now will benefit you too. You’ll have an outlet for stress management and, even when nothing else seems to be going right, you’ll have your music to lift your mood and brighten your day.
So, learn an instrument, whether it’s the bass or the bassoon, and do something to bring music into your life. I’ve been playing guitar for over 35 years as I write this, and I took my first piano lesson long before I ever picked up a guitar. Even today, I am always looking for ways to learn more about music. I will learn that cello yet!
If you do the same, I can guarantee you’ll never regret it.
Which is the best instrument for you?
Anne on August 25, 2020:
What an excellent site. Thank you
Bill W. on May 07, 2020:
GREAT explaination The Best Ive seen on line yet !!!!
carol wesslinger on May 06, 2020:
I definitely recommend the clarinet for beginners! Not too difficult at first and very fun!
Guitar Gopher (author) on March 30, 2020:
@Lizzyy7 - Yamaha does not appear to have a lefty version of the FG800. However, they do have a left-handed version of the FG820, which is a notch above the FG800 and slightly more expensive. Ibanez also has some affordable left-handed guitars such as the AW54.
If you intend to use a right-handed guitar, you would have to take it to a shop and have it restrung and set up for a left-handed player. People do that, but I think a beginner is probably better of starting out with the correct guitar. Good luck and let me know if you have any more questions!
Lizzyy7 on March 29, 2020:
@michaeljames - I am left handed and interested in learning acoustic guitar. Does the Yamaha FG800 work for right and left handed people? It doesn’t specify on amazon when I went to the link. Thanks!
Guitar Gopher (author) on February 20, 2020:
@Shirley - Even one with weighted keys and full-size keyboard? I always thought they were pretty close to the real deal.
shirley on February 19, 2020:
it was a pretty great article, but personally, as a piano player, i wouldn't purchase an electric piano if you decide to keep playing
debby on October 25, 2019:
very nice and educative article,which if am to award i will give 5 stars.Nice job,
Hezekiah from Japan on March 25, 2019:
As a singer, guitar is easier to play common chords and sing at the same time. Piano is easier to visualize keys and chords for music theory. Both have their advantages but I would steer towards the piano
Guitar Gopher (author) on January 21, 2019:
@Hezekiah - You can do that with guitar as well, once you have a decent command of the fretboard. However, I agree it is much tougher since all of the notes on the piano are lined up in row.
Hezekiah from Japan on January 20, 2019:
I vote for piano or keyboard like I play. You can actually visualize the make up of chords, so there it less memory work. The same pattern can apply for any key. Unlike the guitar where you need to memorized each chord(s)
Guitar Gopher (author) on September 25, 2018:
@annabelle - We all have different musical aptitudes, so it's impossible to give an answer that will apply to everyone. If you are reasonably coordinated and rhythmically inclined, and willing to put in the practice, you could probably become a competent drummer in a year or so. However, if you want to be a really good drummer it will take much more work, and if you want to be great it will take even more work.
Like with any instrument, it is as easy or as hard as you want to make it. You can easily learn some basic beats and rhythm patterns. But to be a really good drummer takes much more work.
annabelle on September 24, 2018:
how easy is it to learn the drums
Harpreet Singh on September 23, 2018:
i get to know how to choose particular musical instrument.
Love you universe.
Guitar Gopher (author) on May 30, 2018:
Reginald Thomas from Connecticut on May 29, 2018:
A great article here! Lots of good information and I did enjoy the video examples. Nicely done.
calvinpassal on November 08, 2017:
I love piano and violin but don't know how violin but piano is one of my most favorite.