The Five Best Instruments For Guitar Players To Learn

Updated on July 21, 2016

Choosing a New Instrument

The guitar is one of the most popular musical instruments in existence, and because of its widespread use, it is easy to find guitar learning resources or even an instructor. But a number of other stringed instruments are easy (or at least interesting) to pick up after a player has built a solid foundation of skills using the guitar. Even if you aren't a guitar player already, you may be looking for alternative instruments to learn. So this article presents a variety of similar musical instruments that you could consider learning.

Because one of the most emphatic attractions of the guitar is that it is a relatively easy instrument to sing along with, I will only select musical instruments that allow the artist to play and sing simultaneously. This is likely to allow an easier transition for those seeking to move from the guitar to a new instrument, and also make it simpler for them to re-learn many of the same songs they already know on the guitar.

When choosing a new instrument to begin playing, you should first determine what role you think the instrument will play in your musical experience. Will it just be a secondary, fun, "light" instrument that you would like to be able to pick up and play now and then for variety, or do you want to embark on the process of learning a particularly challenging instrument ? Reading the summaries of the instruments below should help you to decide how challenging they might be for a guitar player, how much learning material is available, and what types of music the instrument is typically used for.

The Instruments

In order to best help you select an instrument that you might be interested in, I will try to provide the following information about each one:

  • Learning curve of instrument
  • Availability of learning resources (in English)
  • Ease of transitioning from guitar
  • The entry-level price range
  • The sound of the instrument (via a written description and video)
  • The type(s) of music the instrument is generally used for

1. The Ukulele

General Description

The ukulele (pronounced "oo-ka-lay-lee" in proper Hawaiian, but more often "yoo-ka-lay-lee", and often abbreviated to uke ("yoook")) is a small instrument resembling a miniature guitar with only four strings. It was developed in Hawaii during the 19th century after Europeans brought small stringed instruments from the lute family to the island.

The instrument comes in four standard sizes: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone (from smallest to largest). The soprano is quite small at 21 inches in length, while the baritone is a considerably larger 29 inches. The ukulele is typically strung with nylon strings and strummed with either the thumb or forefinger. Some strings, especially those made for the larger size ranges, are metal wound over a nylon core.

Advantages of the Ukulele

The primary advantage of the ukulele, especially for someone transitioning from a guitar, is the ease with which one can learn the instrument. This does not mean that ukuleles are necessarily "easy" to play for everyone; however, for a person who already knows guitar, they are likely to find the transition to a ukulele very quick and painless. This is especially true if they play a baritone ukulele, which is tuned exactly like the highest four strings of a standard guitar (D-G-B-A).

Like the guitar, the ukulele is a highly versatile instrument that can be used for a wide range of music. However, because of its small size and somewhat more "whimsical", laid back, and airy sound, it may not be appropriate for heavier or more somber musical styles.

Aside from being relatively simple to learn for a guitar player, the ukulele is also extremely popular. Because of this, there is a great deal of information available for those seeking to learn or improve their ukulele skills. A decent ukulele can also be purchased for a relatively small sum of money.


  • Learning Curve: Shallow
  • Availability of Learning Resources: Very good
  • Ease of Transitioning from Guitar: Easy
  • Entry-Level Price Range: Low
  • Instrument Sound: Light, breezy, somewhat whimsical
  • Most Commonly Used For: Wide variety

Tenor and Baritone Ukulele Comparison

2. The Mandolin

General Description

The Mandolin is an instrument in the lute family with a long history of use, particularly in classical and folk music. It evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and became popular largely because of its ability to produce a high volume of noise; previous instruments, which did not feature the same type of soundboard, were not very loud.

Like the guitar, the mandolin can be played either strummed or plucked. The instrument has a total of eight strings arranged in courses of two that are typically tuned in unison. It is possible to tune a mandolin to mimic the tuning intervals of a guitar to achieve more familiar chord patterns, though this is somewhat uncommon and probably not advisable if you are interested in taking up the instrument as a serious pursuit.

Mandolins have a vibrant, somewhat "twangy" sound. While they are more of a niche instrument than either a guitar or a ukulele, it should still be possible to adapt mandolins to a wide range of musical tastes and styles.

Advantages of the Mandolin

Although the mandolin may not be as adaptable an instrument as a ukulele or a guitar, "adaptability" largely depends on the ability and determination of the player. Mandolins have a bright, beautiful sound and they are especially well-suited to folk music, so guitar players who are interested in genres such as Celtic and bluegrass may find the mandolin to be an excellent choice.

Additionally, there is a long tradition of classical music that has been composed specifically for the mandolin. This also provides another avenue of specialization for those guitar players who prefer finger-picked and classical styles of music. Standard tuning for the mandolin is exactly the same as for the fiddle - so if you have ever taken violin lessons, the mandolin might just be your ideal choice!

A decent beginner's mandolin can be had for a very reasonable $50-60 from a brand such as Rogue, which specializes in cheap low-level instruments.


  • Learning Curve: Medium
  • Availability of Learning Resources: Good
  • Ease of Transitioning from Guitar: Medium
  • Entry-Level Price Range: Low
  • Instrument Sound: Twangy, bright, clear
  • Most Commonly Used For: Folk, Bluegrass, Classical

A mandolin being played alongside a guitar.


3. The Banjo

General Description

The banjo, though long associated with American folk music, actually has its origins in similar African instruments which used gourds as sound boxes. It was not until the 1830's that the instrument was popularized and made mainstream by traveling minstrel Joel Walker Sweeney.

The banjo's body consists of a resonator - a thin membrane of animal skin or plastic - stretched over a (usually circular) cavity. There are several varieties of banjo from which a player can choose, including the standard five-string, four-string, plectrum, and tenor. There are also "cello" banjos which are tuned one octave lower than their tenor equivalents and thus have a distinct, bass-like sound.

The sound of banjos has become distinctly recognizable for its unique, folksy tone, and it is usually very easy to recognize the sound of a banjo when it is played with other musical instruments. But even though the banjo is most strongly associated with country and folk music, it has been widely adapted into many different musical genres and styles. While the sound of a banjo is often described as "twangy", banjo notes actually have very little sustain, and tend to disappear. This is why banjo music tends to be a succession of very quick, successive notes which "pop" in and out of existence as soon as they are played. I would not describe this kind of sound as "twangy", as I would a mandolin, which has much longer sustain.

Depending on the skills and style of the guitar player, a banjo could either be a relatively simple or extremely difficult instrument to learn. Banjo chords do not "mutate" as they progress up the neck of the instrument like guitar chords do, and there are usually less strings. However, banjo music is typically played at an extremely fast pace with a great deal of plucking involved, meaning that a good deal of time and energy will have to go into gaining muscle-memory to go from slow, clunky practice to fast, flowing music.

Entry-level banjos tend to be somewhat more expensive than either ukuleles or mandolins, but not outrageously expensive; it should be easy to acquire a good, solid beginner's banjo for less than $200.

Advantages of the Banjo

The banjo enjoys a good deal of popularity, particularly among lovers of folk, country, and even rock musicians. This means that finding materials online to practice and build up banjo skills should be relatively easy.

Because there are several different styles of banjo available to learn, the instrument also affords players with some opportunity to expand and experiment with different sizes and styles. For instrument lovers like me who really enjoy collecting and learning to play on a wide variety of instruments, the banjo offers an ideal combination of unique sound and variety of form.


  • Learning Curve: Medium
  • Availability of Learning Resources: Good
  • Ease of Transitioning from Guitar: Medium
  • Entry-Level Price Range: Medium
  • Instrument Sound: Unique, flat, "plucky"
  • Most Commonly Used For: Folk, bluegrass, country

Guitar vs Banjo, "Dueling Banjos"


4. The Appalachian Dulcimer

General Description

Looking like a strange cross between a guitar and a toboggan, the Appalachian dulcimer is a familiar sight to many enthusiasts of American folk music. The instrument, as its name implies, originated in the Appalachian Mountains. It is a three-stringed instrument with a diatonic fret pattern, which means that its frets are set a full note apart (unlike guitars and the other instruments listed above, which have frets in half-steps). This makes them very easy to play and learn, though they are just as difficult to truly master as other instruments.

Dulcimers produce a vibrant, ringing sound with a high amount of sustain in a well-made instrument. While the tone of the dulcimer is very easy to listen to and pleasant and could easily go with many types of music, the instrument's simplicity and diatonic fret construction severely limit its versatility. For this reason, it is best suited to folk music, although it has more recently been used in many other (sometimes eclectic) styles.

The prices of entry-level dulcimers seem to vary widely. Depending on your luck on auction sites and/or how many good reviews you require an instrument to have before you would consider buying it, you could be looking at paying anywhere from $80 to $250 for your first dulcimer. You also might not find a great deal of dulcimer music available if you want to branch into non-folk styles, and if that's the case, you can probably plan on doing a lot of experimentation and self-research.

Advantages of the Dulcimer

The primary advantage of the dulcimer, aside from its beautiful tone, is the simplicity with which one can learn the instrument. Even someone who has never picked up a musical instrument could be making pleasant-sounding music within five minutes of sitting down with a dulcimer, allowing that they aren't completely tone deaf. But the dulcimer also provides a good level of challenge for those who are truly looking for an instrument to master; becoming really good at playing the dulcimer will require a very good ear, fast fingers, and highly practiced muscles that have retained the proper muscle-memory to jump from one end of the fretboard to the other.


  • Learning Curve: Very shallow
  • Availability of Learning Resources: Good for folk music, poor for other styles
  • Ease of Transitioning from Guitar: Easy
  • Entry-Level Price Range: Medium
  • Instrument Sound: Airy, resonant, folksy
  • Most Common Styles: Folk

Typical Dulcimer Music

5. The Irish Bouzouki

General Description

By far the most exotic of the instruments on this list, the Irish bouzouki is a direct descendant of the Greek bouzouki, an instrument which traditionally has six strings in three courses of two ("trichordo"), with a less common eight-stringed variant ("tetrachordo"). During the 1960s, an Irish performer adopted the Greek instrument for use in Celtic folk music by changing the eight-stringed tetrachordo bouzouki to a modal harmonic G-D-A-D tuning.

The Irish bouzouki looks something like a cross between a guitar and a mandolin, with a bright metallic percussive sound that most closely matches the mandolin, but with the lower pitch, volume, and sustain of the guitar. The Irish bouzouki is also just as suitable for strumming as the guitar is, unlike the mandolin.

Because the Irish bouzouki is a rare instrument in many parts of the world, it is unlikely that the same wealth of learning materials are available to its players than are available to players of more traditional and popular instruments. The Irish bouzouki is also quite expensive; it will be almost impossible to find an instrument for less than $200 without a great deal of luck, with more reputable makers typically selling their entry-level instruments for $700 or more.

Advantages of the Irish Bouzouki

The biggest advantage of the Irish bouzouki, aside from its general rarity and wow-factor, is its gorgeous tone and fairly simple chord structure. While the uniqe G-D-A-D tuning means that the chord shapes do not closely match any instruments familiar to a guitarist, the fact that the instrument is strung in four courses of two ensures that the chord shapes themselves are fairly simple and easy to learn.


  • Learning Curve: Shallow to Medium
  • Availability of Learning Resources: Poor
  • Ease of Transitioning from Guitar: Relatively Easy
  • Entry-Level Price Range: High
  • Instrument Sound: Bright, loud, resonant
  • Most Common Styles: Celtic, folk

Man talks about and plays an Irish bouzouki

Other Plucked String Instruments

While I selected these as the best five instruments for a guitar player to consider picking up, there are certainly a vast variety of other instruments one could potentially choose depending on his or her tastes. Here are just a few more plucked string instruments that might make good candidates for someone looking for their next instrument to learn:

  • Autoharp
  • Harp
  • Lute
  • Greek Bouzouki
  • The Pipa, Guzheng, and other plucked Chinese instruments
  • Koto (similar to Guzheng)
  • Lyre
  • Oud
  • Sitar

None of these instruments share as many similarities with guitars as the five listed in detail above, but they—along with many other instruments not mentioned here—all have interesting and unique qualities of their own.


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    • profile image

      BrianSlattery Ausralia 

      6 months ago

      Terrific information you've provided ..I've played acoustic guitar for a number of years, and have always been attracted to the various sounds & tones of other stringed instruments on recordings and when played live ...I can now see some stringed directions to explore.. .Afterthought: At the George Harrison Memorial Concert (Royal Albert Hall, one year after George's death) one of the performers stated that George always travelled with 2 ukeleles with him: One for himself, and one to lend to somebody, so he had someone to jam with...seems fair enough, doesn't it?

    • smw1962 profile image


      5 years ago

      I've played guitar for years. A few years ago I purchased a ukulele. You are absolutely right, it was very easy to pick up and enjoyable to play!

    • rustedmemory profile image

      David Hamilton 

      6 years ago from Lexington, KY

      They are all very good choices. Other instruments make you think out of the "guitar player" box!


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