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I am a programmer and I do this for living. As a programmer, I've noticed how much difference it makes to learn another language - the quality of your work improves greatly, just because you know how things are done in different environments. Looking at the same things from another point of view cam be a bit help.

So - does the same apply to music? Will learning the basics of piano, trumpet or violin help me at all? Are there any benefits of being able to play several instruments if my goal is to be better at guitar?

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8 Answers 8

up vote 35 down vote accepted

Learning another instrument will not necessarily make you a better guitarist; since the time spent learning another instrument is time that your spending not building your technical ability on the guitar.

It will however probably make you a better overall musician; since playing/learning a different instrument encourages you to think about your preferred instrument differently; and will probably give you a better idea of how they fit together musically.

There are many guitarists who have got ideas for their own playing by analysing the music of players of other instruments. Actually learning another instrument is a natural extension of that.

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Just to expand on this: Al Di Meola started as a drummer, "Drums were my first love, and then guitar."; Listen to his compositions, especially his early stuff with Return to Forever, and you hear how his rhythmic sense was very drummer-like. He's always been a good guitarist but knowing the drummer side of him explains the emphasis on great rhythms in his songs. –  Anonymous Feb 6 '11 at 1:59
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I started music as a clarinet/Alto sax player and as a guitarist I have a better sense of melody and phrasing than I do for complex rhythms as I'm sure a once drummer would have on guitar. A drummer, I assume that begins to play guitar would be able to grasp the strumming faster than say scales and phrasing. Any body have that experience? –  InternalConspiracy Feb 13 '11 at 3:19
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Accepting the answer because you also have mentioned the back-draws: "Learning another instrument will not necessarily make you a better guitarist; since the time spent learning another instrument is time that your spending not building your technical ability on the guitar." Thank you! –  Silver Light Feb 14 '11 at 7:18
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IMHO, sticking with the guitar but playing music from other genres than you're accustomed to might help you become a better guitarist. For example, if you're playing rock and roll most of the time, try playing an entry-level jazz piece or a classical piece. It will challenge your current technique as well as expand your view musically. –  seanreads Jul 14 '11 at 11:23
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I believe "time spent learning another instrument is time that your spending not building your technical ability on the guitar" is strictly false. 'Time spent on practice' isn't something fixed that needs to be allocated - if we look at how human motivation and pedagogy work, changing to different activity may easily create additional time as a separate hobby, and even revigorate previously lost motivation to spend time on practice and play. –  Peteris Feb 16 at 23:27

Learning the piano is the best way to learn about music in general. Its orderly, logical keyboard layout reinforces music theory concepts that can be otherwise difficult to learn and appreciate. Plus, the ability to play bass, melody, and chords simultaneously make it a great way to learn how all the different parts of music work together to make a whole sound. In fact, it's such a good way to learn about music that most music schools require their students to pass a keyboard proficiency test, regardless of the instrument they're primarily studying. It's not an accident that almost all of the major composers of Western classical music were at least decent keyboardists, and some (Beethoven*, for example) were among the very best pianists in the world.

If you were also a bassist, I'd recommend too that you learn to play the drums at least passably well. The bass/drums interplay is the foundation of most pop music, and when both instrumentalists understand each other better, it can go a long way to making your lives easier.

As for trumpet, saxophone, and other non C-based instruments, you don't have to learn how to play them, but it would probably be helpful to at least understand that they call the notes by different names than you do: for example, when you ask a trumpet player to play a C, the sound that comes out will actually be a B♭. Understanding that will clear up a lot of confusion.

*Possibly apocryphal but believable story about Beethoven's piano prowess: He played the piano for the world premiere of his Piano Concerto #1 in C Major (this part is undisputed fact). When he arrived at the concert, the orchestra had tuned to the oboe, as is SOP, so they were in standard concert pitch. But the piano, it turns out, was a half-step flat. Rather than re-tune the orchestra---because, after all, he wrote the piece in C and not B for a reason---he proceeded simply to sit down and play the entire piece in C♯ (!!).

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I'm also from the school of thought that thinks theory on a piano is the right place to start learning theory. And cool Beethoven story. –  Ian C. Feb 5 '11 at 19:47
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The piano is called the "composer's instrument" because it lays out all the intervals and chords where they're right in front of you. I also started with it, added trumpet, then picked up guitar. My piano knowledge came in very handy and helped me visualize a lot of chord and interval things, especially when I was taking music theory. I'm not sure playing other instruments helps with guitar technique. Knowing theory definitely helps with guitar because it helps you know how to build chords and pick the right scales. –  Anonymous Feb 6 '11 at 1:42
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As a proficient guitarist and one time Sax player..the piano still scares me to death and have a hard time doing anything but throw my fingers down and try to make a cool sounding chord. I agree with the reply 100% I WANT to learn piano so that it will enhance my ability to grasp poly rhythms and chord interplay. –  InternalConspiracy Feb 13 '11 at 3:10
    
Once you get to a certain level on the piano, you start realizing that the guitar is really a piano with a different layout ... and you start experimenting with your chording hand over top of the neck and "keying" the strings instead of coming from below ... hehe. +1! –  Matthew Read May 30 '11 at 0:43
    
Learning the piano may be the best way to learn about western music. It's pretty hard to play any style that uses quarter tones on a piano. Of course, that is fine for fretted guitars, but why limit yourself? –  naught101 Mar 9 '12 at 0:07

I think learning other instruments can give you great new perspectives on music and how it's made.

Take the piano for example: a radically different approach to music creation. Very linear. There's only one place to play a C3 on the piano. There can be multiple places to play the same note on the guitar. That may make certain musical expressions and techniques easier on the guitar, which in turn may make expressing your music easier if you understand how to play the piano. I'm actually of the school of thought that thinks theory should be taught at a piano first. It's linear and you can see exactly what notes you're playing quite clearly.

And knowing other instruments can also help you understand their roles in an ensemble. If you can keep a beat on the drums, you'll understand better why the drummer can't make 5 things sound simultaneously (because he's only got 4 limbs to hit things with). You'll understand an instrument's range, it's limitations and you can score better for it if you're writing for an ensemble.

In addition to a deeper understanding of music, I just personally think there's a ton of joy in exploring new instruments. You get to revisit that struggle to get proficient. You get to have those "ah ha!" moments all over again, where you suddenly realize some deep new insight in to your instrument. The journey, in my opinion, is so much a part of the fun.

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This is true, I never thot about being able to play potentially 10 notes at once instead of only 6 till I began to noodle on the keyboard. –  Anonymous Feb 5 '11 at 19:33
    
I have found that the more proficient with one instrument; the less of a struggle it is to become proficient in another (I'm excluding wind instruments from this statement, since learning how to blow is whole 'other kettle of fish) –  DRL Feb 5 '11 at 19:41
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@DRL for me it's drums. Co-ordinating four limbs I find very, very hard. But I like the struggle nonetheless. –  Ian C. Feb 5 '11 at 19:48

Learning other instruments will open you up as a musician. Composers in particular need to learn how to write for multiple instruments, for the simple reason that songs will sound different when written for different instruments -- even when written for different musicians! When I started writing songs specifically for my band's flute player, and tailoring songs to our singers' vocal ranges, these pieces were always easier to learn when rehearsing, and were simpler to play live.

This in turn caused me to be more comfortable as a musician. I write a lot of songs on the piano and, even though I'll later transfer them to guitar -- it's much harder to bring an 88-key keyboard on a gig than a guitar -- these songs sound different than the ones I wrote on guitar.

Putting writing to the side, knowing multiple instruments can make a musician more confident in their playing. I sometimes learn a song on piano, later transferring it to guitar to play it live; this will change how I play the piece, perhaps learning a piano part on guitar that I wouldn't have thought to try.

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My 2 cents : if you are a guitarist, and want to dramatically improve your playing, take drum lessons.

It might seem surprising, but after one month you won't play guitar the same way. At all.

The idea is to litterally add another dimension to your playing style.

Piano or another "harmonic" instrument won't make so much different. Additionally, I don't know if you are playing the classical guitar, but piano is definitely a symetrical instrument somehow, which is not necessarily a direction in which you want to go forward when playing such a disymetrical instruemnt as the guitar.

What will drumming lessons bring to you ?

You will become sensitive to rythm. Very sensitive. Much more sensitive than with all the "studies" you may go through and which are purely intended at improving your guitar playing.

You will realize the essential role of dynamics. You can play a whole piece of music with only one snare drum. By varying rythm, notes intensity, and the exact place where you hit them, you create a variety that feeds the piece you are playing. Always the same note.

Good luck !

(P.S. : try to learn on a real drumset, not an electronic one. They have a much lower dynamics amplitude)

EDIT:

Just saw you were a programmer. An analogy would be that you will make a bigger conceptual leap, as a C++ programmer, by diving into LISP, than by learning Java, which is quite similar and won't teach you how to think differently.

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As someone who started on drums, I can wholeheartedly agree with this. I'd also add that it forces you to focus more on the group dynamics when playing in a band. As a drummer, I couldn't stand guitarists who were off in la la land ignoring what the rhythm section was doing. As a guitarist now, I pay more attention to the drums than anything else when performing. –  Dan Gayle Dec 27 '13 at 3:37

I learned piano and violin before moving on to guitar.

Some of the guitarists I learn with struggle with improvising harmonies. It feels logical that if one note in the melody harmonises with, say, its fifth, then moving that chord shape up or down the fretboard for the next note will also create a pleasing chord -- yet that doesn't always work.

It's possible to explain why this is without recourse to a piano keyboard -- but it's a lot easier to explain if you can use a keyboard. Likewise there are things that are easier to explain with a guitar than a piano.

I would like to add though, the piano layout is especially biased towards western music; locked as it is to a chromatic scale, and laid out around a major scale.

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Definitely. Cross training to see how the "other guy does it" will make you a better musician. Someone that other musicians will want to play with, because you develop an empathy for the work that others do. The attack on a trumpet is different than an attack with a sax. Knowing this can affect the way a drummer sets up figures in a piece of music. As a drummer, I try to think of tempo in relation to how hard a part is to play on sax or guitar at that tempo, or if the singer will be able to phrase effectively. It just takes a second, but my bandmates appreciate that, and over time, I wound up with a reputation for having "big ears" That's a killer compliment to a musician.....

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I'd like to reiterate what Skippy Fastol said (drum lessons) and add that a lot of searing, blisteringly good solo/lead guiltarists I have heard aren't so good on the rhythm side. I don't want to assume this of you, but I've always thought that some drum lessons would help them appreciate the excellent play to be had with dynamics, syncopation, and also what you don't play as well as what you do. That is : When a note stops is as important as when it starts. Learning drums has worked wonders for me in this respect. Somehow I seem to get more than twice as much fun out of music. The whole is larger than the sum of the parts, and all that.

Learning bass guitar might be an easily accessible turn. Still stringed, you can play the tune immediately as it's tuned the same as a guitar's bottom 4 strings - but what works well on a bass is totally different to what works on a guitar, so you have to re-learn how you're going about it. It's a rhythm instrument, and the notes are almost secondary.

Go for it ! I hope you enjoy it as much as I have :-D

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