Easy to play string instruments – size matters, doesn’t it?

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

Ukulele

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:

Don’t confuse the lap dulcimer with a hammered dulcimer. I think you have to have a physics degree to play one of these:

 Autoharp

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

Guitar

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:

Banjo

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.

 Electric bass

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

Mandolin

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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About jamiebobamie

Musician - teacher - writer - gets bored easily. I write an almost-weekly blog that includes true stories gathered from 20-plus years of touring, how-to articles for musicians and profiles of performers. Also, I love dark chocolate, I can play "Brown Eyed Girl" behind my head, and I twirl the baton badly.
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13 Responses to Easy to play string instruments – size matters, doesn’t it?

  1. Sandy Andina says:

    Mt. dulcimer and bass guitar are easy to learn to play, but much trickier to learn to play well. The basics are easier on both, especially if you already play guitar; but I think bass is a bit tougher to learn as one’s first instrument (the late John Entwistle notwithstanding). But both instruments are more complex than one would think when it comes to distinguishing oneself on them. I play both, and not at the beginner level, but virtuoso status is another world removed fr even where I am. Another good beginner instrument, especially for a guitarist, is baritone uke–tuned like the top four strings of a guitar. One trick that will help guitarists transition to banjo or dulcimer is to become familiar with playing in open G tuning first–gets you thinking morally. Of course, there are six string banjos and 12 string mandolins if you want to take the easy way out and not have to learn new timings and chords. Tommy Tedesco made a killing as a studio variety-string player that way: tuning everything like a guitar.

    • Sandy Andina says:

      I hate auto-correct: that’s “MODALLY”

    • jamiebobamie says:

      I’m just talking about beginning to play an instrument. Playing melodies on a dulcimer is really easy. Chords take a little more effort, for sure.

      And yeah, not everyone can be Stanley Clarke but it’s not that hard to learn a few bass patterns.

      I always wondered how to think more morally. Gotta love auto-correct.

  2. Jim Bossert says:

    I had no idea my instrument scared you Jamie! So, it’s not about size, eh?
    Yes folks, it’s a standup bass!

  3. Larry Wines says:

    Thanks, Jamie, for a nice piece that covers a broad subject. Seeing the pic of the guy standing on his standup bass, I’ve gots ta ask if you’re familiar with rockabilly legend Ray Campi? He’s definitely gettin’ a bit up there in age, but he STILL climbs his bass like Hillary on Everest, balancing the thing on its foot, playing and standing on TOP of the thing. Absolutely remarkable! Good thing there are ways to play it without carabiners and a belay seat!

    – Larry Wines

  4. Mike says:

    Thanks for the suggestions. My son and I (he is 9 and I am mid 40) love Bluegrass music. We recently went to a festival and at the raffle we won a concert size resonating Uke from Kala. Neither of us has played an instrument but we are excited to learn. Are their any books you would suggest? I picked one up that has some basics incorporating TAB music but I feel like it is sorta cheating and I end up relying on it. I have only made it to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star so if this is a bad habit I think it can still be easily broken. Thank you from steering me away from the Mandolin for now – even though that is my favorite sounding instrument. After your descriptions above I am tempted to get a dulcimer to accompany the Uke…but I am getting ahead of myself. Thank you.

    • jamiebobamie says:

      You can’t go wrong with Mel Bay books. You could also see if there’s a ukulele group in your town. Many of them have slow jams which are perfect for beginners. Or, you could look into classes at an arts center – generally they’re affordable.

      Tab isn’t a crutch and can prove useful. It’s actually older than standard music notation. I think it was lute players who first used it.

      Don’t discount the mandolin! It’s a great little instrument. Maybe after getting a few chords down on the uke, you could look at a mandolin.

      • Mike says:

        Thank you for the quick reply! I will check out your recommendations and keep an eye on the Mandolin for the future. And thanks for the reassurance on the tab music!

  5. Pingback: Include music in your New Year resolutions | Jamiebobamie

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