Well … no. Surprised? So are some of my beginning mandolin students. Not that you should forget about playing that cool little instrument, just don’t be misled by the small size.
Wondering what instrument to pick up? Here’s a list of suggestions, based on my years of experience.
Easiest string instruments
It’s only got four strings, they’re nylon (which is easier on the fingers than steel) and some chords only require one or two fingers. They’re amazingly versatile little things – you can play everything from “You Are My Sunshine” to “Good Riddance.” They’re very portable and inexpensive too. Great for kids because of their small size but lots of adults play them too.
Lap dulcimer (aka Appalachian dulcimer)
Most have three strings (or three sets, with two strings so close together they count as one). On one string (or set) you play the melody line. The others are drones – you don’t press them down, just include them in your strum. You’ll be playing a song within a few minutes of sitting down to play. It’s possible to play chords on it too. Here’s Cyndi Lauper playing hers:
Even though I still have nightmares about grade school music and the teacher who played one of these, I have to admit that they’re really easy to play and damn, if Janis Joplin played one they can’t be bad. You need a sense of rhythm to strum but you don’t have to do much with your other hand but push buttons. Want an A chord? Press the A button. It’s almost as easy as Guitar Hero.
Somewhat easy string instruments
I’m a teeny bit biased since I’ve played one for forty years. They’re versatile, portable and you can find lots of instruction material. It’ll take a while to build up calluses, especially if you have one with steel strings. I’d stay away from this guitar though:
If it’s tuned to an open G (as they often are for bluegrass), you’ve already got a chord without pressing down any strings with your left hand. Other chords require just a couple fingers and not much of a stretch. After playing awhile you can incorporate the melody into the chords, bringing you up higher on the coolness scale.
After you learn a couple of bass line patterns, you can start plugging them into your favorite songs. It’s not a solo instrument unless you’re Stanley Clarke but it’s a lot of fun and great for a jam or in a band.
Not to be confused with a stand-up or acoustic bass. They have no frets and frankly, scare the bejesus out of me. Looks like a nice ride though:
Instruments that are a bit of a challenge
If you already play guitar these aren’t so bad. However, if you don’t play an instrument at all, I suggest starting on one of the above instruments because strings are harder to press down on the mandolin. It’s something about the way they’re constructed. Also, while there are some great two finger chords you can do, it’s really in your best interest to learn those four finger chords bluegrass players often use. Those take a while and require some finger strength and flexibility.
Twelve string guitar
If you already play a six string they aren’t hard and they sound ultra cool. However, sometimes you have to have the strength of a ninja to press down the strings. They can be a pain in the arse to tune too.
Speaking of tuning
Get a tuner. They don’t cost very much and will save you a lot of headaches. There are apps that’ll work too as well as websites (google “tune guitar”) and videos that can help.
How to learn these fabulous instruments
Get a teacher. If you live in Ottawa and want to learn guitar, ukulele or mandolin, I’m your woman. If you live elsewhere, check out my earlier blog about finding a teacher. You can also teach yourself. I’ve got a blog about where you can get material.
I teach guitar, ukulele and mandolin via Skype. Contact me here for details. If you’re in Ottawa, ON, you can come to my studio.
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