Tips – 8/11 – Musical Gear

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Musical Instruments For Beginners

Not everyone is born with a harp on their arm, or a piano under their hands.

For many of us, musical pursuits come later in life.

That doesn’t mean it’s too late to start learning about music or even take up a musical instrument that could eventually become a lifelong pursuit.

If you’ve never pursued music before, aside from the occasional playing of “Guitar Hero,” what is the best way for you to get started?

There are a few instruments you may enjoy:

The Piano.

The piano was one of the primary instruments of composers like Mozart, Beethoven, and even frequently used in classic rock and today’s pop songs.  It’s perhaps the most versatile instrument out there, but there’s one more thing about the piano that makes it great for beginners:  it’s the perfect instrument for learning music.

 

The piano displays all of the notes in a visual pattern, helping you to make connections between sounds and visual notes.  Also, knowing how to play a basic music keyboard like the one you see on the piano means you can easily transfer those skills to other keyboard-based instruments like the harpsichord, the organ, and even electronic instruments.

The Drums.

Drums are the “piano” of percussion, a great way to learn about how musical rhythm and tempo fuel how songs sound to our ears.  Drums don’t always play musical notes (although drums like the Timpani can), but if you want to learn about what makes a song’s beat the way it is, learning the drums is a great way to start.

 

The drums are great for beginners because they’re relatively simple to understand – bang the tom, and get a certain sound!

The Acoustic Guitar.

Guitars aren’t always easy to master, but if you learn a few chords, you’ll find out how easy it is to strum some songs by your favorite acoustic musician.  Learning a guitar like the acoustic guitar usually means learning chords – or sets of three notes – and the more chords you understand, the better you’ll understand the music that you listen to.

How do you choose?

If you want to pick up an instrument, take an attitude of “try it before you buy it.”

Find a cheap acoustic guitar on a web site like eBay or Craigslist and try it out for a few weeks – if you enjoy it, you can stick with it.

The more you enjoy an instrument, the more likely you are to practice, which means you’ll pick it up faster.  Which instrument do you enjoy the most?

History Of The Sitar

 

When you hear a sitar, you often make the association with the country of its origin – India.

But we sometimes forget that the sitar has become a relatively frequent instrument used in today’s pop music.

What exactly bridged the gap between Indian music and western music, and when did that happen?

What brought the sitar from India to the West?

In short, George Harrison of the Beatles did.

To say it was him alone would be overly simplistic:  Harrison took an interest in Indian music and started taking lessons in the sitar from Ravi Shankar, a famous composer and player of the sitar who is still alive today.

When Harrison started using the sitar in Beatles songs like “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” people became more aware of the instrument and its popularity took off from there.

You’ll also notice a sitar on the Rolling Stones song “Paint It, Black.”

The sitar has since been used by artists ranging from Stevie Wonder to Beck, providing a bright, bold color to a number of different types of songs.  The guitar that is fitted to sound like an “electric sitar” has been used by artists from Lenny Kravitz to Van Halen.

What makes the sitar such a unique instrument?

For one, the sound it produces is unmistakable:  it creates a sharp but deeply-resonating “twang” that can sound interesting in both low and high notes.  The sitar looks like a long version of an acoustic guitar, but can sometimes have over twenty strings lining it, as opposed to more familiar string amounts like six and twelve strings.

The sitar is also built for being played while sitting, which is a stark contrast to the way traditional Western guitars are played.

Today, it’s not unheard of to hear a sitar (or sitar-like sound) played in pop music that tries to evoke Indian or simply “ethnic” sounds, and it can be a welcome departure from the instruments most listeners are familiar with.

Many pop recording artists might use the sitar to provide a simple riff as a transition between sections, while others might be more inclined to make a sitar sound central to the song itself.

When you hear the sitar, you’ll now know a little bit more about its origins in Western music, and how George Harrison’s interest in the sitar helped popularize its usage in our modern pop culture.

 

 Choose a Musical Instrument

If you’re just starting out in the world of music and have done little more than dabble with a couple of instruments, ther’s a chance one simple thing is missing from your musical life:  passion. For one single instrument.

While someone like Paul McCartney can record an album playing virtually all of the instruments, we tend to remember what he did on the bass guitar, the instrument he plays so often.

If you’re going to become your own musical star – even if it’s only in your own life – it’s time to pick an instrument and stop dabbling.  Here’s how.

 1.  First, determine what kind of learner you are.

For instance, I know that I’m a visual learner, so the piano was a natural fit for me, and to this day is still the instrument I play best.  If you’re visual as well, you may enjoy seeing the keys and notes laid out for you, organized from lowest to highest.  It’s not quite the same to pluck guitar strings for us visual learners.

If you’re more kinesthetic, on the other hand, and enjoy the feel of an instrument, a guitar may feel totally natural in your hands.  Pick the instrument that feels most natural to you, because it will be easier to stick with.

2.  Second, do some research if you’re still loss.

Consult a classification list in order to get an idea for the range of instruments out there.

You don’t have to choose between guitar and drums – why not choose something like the saxophone or the violin?

Of course, if you want to stick with your instrument, you can’t exactly just throw your finger down and pick at random.  You’ll want to actually enjoy your instrument.

3.  Third, test a few out and ask yourself something simple:  what’s the most fun instrument to play?

The amount of fun you have playing means that you’ll be motivated to spend more time practicing, which in turn makes you better.

If you crawl your way through an instrument like the guitar but feel absolutely at home sitting behind a drum kit, that’s your intuition telling you what instrument you should be learning.

Even if you’re not a great artist yet, you should be able to have fun with playing an instrument even in the early goings.

 

Oldest Musical Instrument

The world wasn’t always all Korg Synthesizers and electric guitars – in fact, up until the 20th Century, you could say that everything was essentially acoustic.

But that’s not going back far enough for the purposes of this article – we want to find the oldest musical instrument of all time, or at least find the oldest instrument that’s still around and played today.

Heck, why not both?

Finding the oldest instrument ever also plays on our definition of musical instruments in the first place.  After all, producing a couple of sounds by banging a stick on a rock could arguably be the world’s first drum.  That’s why we’ll want to define an instrument as something that was created specifically in order to make music – and was more than a stick.

With this definition, we see that a pre-historic flute was actually one of the oldest instruments we’ve ever seen, discovered to be from a time some 35,000 years ago.  And you thought Bach was old.

(By the way, if you want to argue that a flute is “just a stick” I, well, I can’t really argue with that.)

Finding a “flute” satisfies both of the questions posed in the first paragraph, so let’s move forward in time tens of thousands of years and find out what instruments of today look like they did hundreds of years ago.

We know the piano was a favorite of Mozart and Beethoven and that the organ and harpiscord were utilized by Bach.  But we do know that instruments like today’s harps and even guitars have been around for thousands of years.  King David played the lyre in the Old Testament of the Bible, which suggests that music has been popular for these same millenia.

With that in mind, it’s not difficult to tell which instruments have been around the longest.  Flutes can be simple and sometimes easy to make; it’s not a big surprise that prehistoric man figured them out.

Plucking a string is about as old as music itself, which is why it’s not surprising to find that harps and lyres were played thousands of years ago.  But the musical explosion of the 18th Century on has seen a dramatic increase in the sophistication and usage of a wide variety of instruments.

Today, there are endless amounts of sounds we can create on the computer.

Including a prehistoric flute.

 

Starting A Band

Being honest, most garage bands start out when a small group of people pools their possessions together and sees what they end up with – one drummer, two guitarists and a lead vocalist.

But if you were putting together a band from scratch – the ideal band of three to five people – what instruments would you include?

Here are a few suggestions:

 For three people

With three people, you’ll definitely need at least a drum set, but after that, is it really necessary to have a guitar?  After all, the bass guitar is incredibly important for laying down the lowest pitches, but you can make up for it with a synthesizer.  After you have a drum kit, you’ll need a couple of things:  at least one instrument with a lot of potential range, like a piano or a synthesizer, and a good lead instrument like a guitar.

 For four people

One more person means a little more freedom.  You’ll still want your drum kit, but you can now add the bass guitar along with the lead guitar, and an optional fourth instrument.

The synthesizer is great these days, as you can stretch the sounds out to fit a wide array of songs, but you can also add another guitar – which is essentially how The Beatles were comprised.  Not a bad way to create your own band.

A four-person band also means you can get a little funky; for example, ditch the drums and become an a capella group.

This might not suit what you’re looking for, but it’s something to keep in mind.

or five people

This may be crossing into “boy band” territory, but with five people, there’s a lot of room for handling different instruments.  You can even have a vocalist who only handles vocals.

With the five-person band, make sure to include drums, at least one guitar, at least one bass, and at least one keyboard player.

If those are the only instruments you need, you can add a lead singer and you’ll have a complete band.

Obviously, these guidelines aren’t very strict.  You’re free to start whatever kind of band you want, whether you want to bang on trash cans or have two sets of drums.

The important thing is that you find instruments with versatility; or at least band members with the same.

 

Synthesizer

In looking for more musical instruments to add to your sound, there’s no doubt that you’ve come across a synthesizer.  The dedicated musical recorder already knows exactly how a synthesizer works, but for the unitiated, it takes a little bit of explaining.

 The term “synthesizer” is essentially a generic term for a keyboard and computer set that will generate artificial noises at specific pitches.  In other words, if a computer was a musical instrument, it would be a synthesizer.  Listening to the top hits of today’s music, you’ll hear the work of plenty of synthesizer effects, across a wide range of musical genres.  You can find a relatively typical synthesizer from Korg by viewing this video.

Because the synthesizer is organized in the form of a piano keyboard, you only really have to know how to play the piano in order to play a synthesizer – or at least know the notes on the piano.  Many effects on the synthesizer will play themselves out if you simply hold in one of the keys, allowing the electronics to do their work.

What is a good synthesizer good for?  It depends on what you need, but you can find some good uses for synthesizers in the following instances:

 Recording music for an album.

Synthesizers don’t play as well live as they sound on a computer with direct access to your ears via headphones, so they sound clearer and more vivid when they’re recorded for a CD or an MP3 file.  Many of today’s producers utilize synthesizers to handle essentially all of the recording work, since it means they don’t have to spend money acquiring other instruments that used to be used in recording.

Live performances.

As mentioned, synthesizers aren’t ideal for live performance, but they do provide a versatility that other instruments don’t have.  Piano players who can’t lug a piano around wherever they go can find that bringing a synthesizer with them to performances works as a great way to bring their talents around to their shows.

Is a synthesizer for you?  Only you can answer that.  If you’re already interested in working keyboards and recording your music, a synthesizer is a must-have.  For live music, it might be considered a “pleasant bonus.”  If you do decide to buy a synthesizer, be sure to do plenty of research into individual features to find out what you might enjoy the most.

Acoustic Guitars

There’s something really pure about the sound of an acoustic guitar, understanding that the only thing between the musician’s mind and your ears are the hands striking the strings.

If you’re a bit of a purist who’s looking to create a great, intimate live sound with an acoustic guitar, you’ve come to the right place.

Unlike many electronic instruments, the range of sound with acoustic guitars will be relatively limited.

Yes, some acoustic guitars will have superior craftsmanship compared to others, but there is a physical limit on the potential of the acoustic guitar to create sounds.  Once you accept this, you’re ready to find what you’re looking for.

And what are you looking for?  A great live sound.  To produce this, it helps to know how to record acoustic guitars, if only to know how the acoustics best feed into microphones.

 

Check the Brand’s Reputation

Musical instruments come with from a relatively small variety of brands, and if you want to learn about the best acoustic guitars, it helps to know the best brands.  You’ll hear names like Gibson, Fender, and Martin, so make sure to do your research and really examine the reputation of these brands as it relates to acoustic guitar production.

It’s important not to get lost in other peoples’ opinions and buy the guitar that sounds like the best.  Remember, it’s also important to keep your own goals and specifications in mind.

 

Sample live guitars before you buy them

Even if you’re ordering a guitar online, be sure to go to a local music shop and try similar guitars to see if they’re up your alley.  Be sure not to place a lot of stock in these “live auditions” if the guitar isn’t similar to the one you’re purchasing.  Try to find the make and model of your guitar and test it out before buying in person or online.  It can also help to see if any musician you know has a guitar like that for you to try out.

Key things to remember?  Acoustic guitars are different, and you’ll find a lot of variety, but what’s important is how the sound works for you.  So keep your goals for your acoustic guitar in mind and work from there.

 

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