Learning A New Instrument

I often get asked which instruments are easiest and hardest to learn. It’s a tricky question and the best way to answer this is: every instrument has a different learning curve. Now what do I mean by “learning curve”. Well some instruments are easy to get started on, but then get tricky when you try playing harder pieces. On others it is hard just to make a sound on, so that instrument is difficult from the start and has a steep learning curve that then gets shallower. There are several aspects to learning an instruments and whether you are better at one or another might decide which one is more suitable for you. These elements might be broken down int to these categories:


Note creation



Physical Strength


Let’s take two very different instruments: the piano and trumpet and compare these. On the piano the note creation is very easy – if you dropped your cat on the keys, the piano would make a sound – if you drop your cat on a trumpet the trumpet would,however not make any sound, but there would be a howl of protest from your cat. Making a note on a trumpet is very hard. You need to press your lips together to form the smallest gap and force out a narrow and strong current of wind. I never managed to produce a note on the trumpet, but strangely played trombone for several months, where I did not struggle as much. This has to do with the fat that the lip tension on trombone (certainly in the lower registers) is much looser than with a  trumpet.


Students first struggle terribly with making a note on the trumpet, and increasing the range to the upper register is a very slow and hard process. So you need to build up a lot of strength in your lips, as well as your buttocks and diaphragm, to be able to build up enough body tension to create a sound. The piano certainly does require you to build up strength in your hands and arms, but nothing like the trumpet. So looking at these aspects alone, you might think the piano is easier. But not so fast.


When it comes to co-ordination the trumpet is relatively easy – lip strength and the three valves have to be combined – so no huge feat in co-ordination. On piano however you have to learn to move fingers independently, something that at first feels very unnatural, and additional you will have to learn to independently coordinate three limbs (two ams and your right foot for pedalling).


When it comes to note reading the piano gets very tricky. On the trumpet you are only concerned with one note at a time, as well as only having to read one clef (treble clef). On the piano you have to read two clefs (treble and bass) and read a multitude of notes all at the same time – piano sheet music for that very reason tends to look quite scary, especially to beginners, who struggle to read all the information quickly enough.
I have learnt a number of instruments, some to a higher standard, some to a lesser, and every instrument has its own areas of difficulty. It is often stated that bass guitar is an easier instrument to learn, and generally I have to concur, though it depends on how far you want to take your bass playing. If you want to be able to play walking bass lines, slap bass, fretless and play like Jaco Pastorious (one of the best bass players ever), then the bass is a very difficult instrument. If, however, you want to play along to U2 songs, you should be up and running pretty quickly. Yes, you need to build up “pads” or scar tissue under your fingers and you need to build up strength in your hand to be able to press down the strings properly, but it is not anything like as hard as playing a double bass, where the distances are much bigger, there are no frets to tell you where to put your fingers, and the strings are much fatter and hard to play (if you are plucking them jazz style).


Of all the wind instruments the alto and tenor sax are certainly two of the easier options (the smaller cousin in the saxophone family, the soprano, however is pretty tricky to play). Note production on the sax is fairly easy, and the instrument is generally pretty in tune. The same cannot be said about the clarinet – though note production is not that hard, the instrument goes very flat at the top of the range, and mastering this is very tricky.




What about the guitar? Well, as I have noticed, you need different sorts of pads under your fingers compared to the bass guitar as the higher strings are very thin and end to cut into your skin more. Bass guitar strings are more abrasive by contrast. You need to build up a lot of strength in your hand and wrist to be able to play some of the trickier chords on guitar. The iinteresting thing though is that there are generally 3 types of guitars out there: electric, nylon acoustic and steel string acoustic. Out of these the electric is by far the easiest, so if you choose to start playing the guitar, I would start with an electric. Steel string is by far the hardest as it requires the most strength in your wrist/fingers to play the notes correctly.

So what about the drum kit? Note production is easy and there are few notes to read (there is no entirely universal system for drum notation though a few are used). All of that is true, but you have to co-ordinate 4 limbs independently, and that is very tough indeed.


Sometimes when people choose to start playing an instrument they simply choose the wrong instrument for them. They give up, thinking they are not musical, but they simply may have just chosen the wrong instrument for them.