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I am looking to learn either the violin or guitar and am slightly confused. I have no musical background except that I tried learning the piano for about a month when I was very young. I am willing to devote a good amount of time(1 hour+ on weekdays and 3 hours+ on weekends for multiple years) and my goal is to master a single instrument to a very high degree-such that I can play some of the most difficult pieces on the instrument. I'm not really concerned about which instrument is easy to pick up but rather which is easier to master. For example, I have heard the violin is difficult to learn initially but easier to master as compared to the guitar. How true is this?

Also, I want to know any potential difficulties with both instruments. For example, whilst I was playing the piano I quickly discovered how difficult it was to play both hands simultaneously and that made me completely lose interest.

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  • As a player of both, I say guitar is easier. Either way, you’ll need a teacher to reach your goal, and at least five years to reach a high level, and perhaps a $2000 - $5000 final gear budget to have equipment that isn’t holding you back. – Todd Wilcox Nov 10 '20 at 4:50
  • @ToddWilcox which did you learn first, how much practice have you done on each, and what music do you play on each? – phoog Nov 10 '20 at 5:58
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    If trying to use both hands on the piano being difficult is what made that not your instrument, I have some very bad news for you. You’re going to struggle for at least a year learning any instrument. Maybe harmonica can be learned to a good degree in a matter of months. I want to add that I agree with others that one hour a day plus six on weekends probably won’t make you a master. You can get pretty advanced that way, but you’ll plateau before well before you’re playing the most difficult pieces. – Todd Wilcox Nov 10 '20 at 7:07
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Just about all instruments are very difficult to master, basically by definition. If an instrument is in principle easy, it just means more elaborate music will be written for it. Piano is maybe the clearest example – the instrument itself is quite objectively simple to play, but piano parts tend to be so polymorphic that they would be just impossible on most other instruments. Vice versa, you could play most guitar or violin parts on the piano, though it would typically sound quite unsatisfying.

Definitely, there exist some horribly difficult pieces for both guitar and violin.

But frankly, starting an instrument with the main goal of reaching some sort of master level is stupid. Music is not a competition. Learn an instrument that you find inspiring, that you want to master for the sake of playing the music you love, not the music that brings you highest in some hierarchy of players.

It definitely is safe to say that violin is harder to learn initially than guitar. But if you're really into violin music, then this hurdle should be surmountable, provided you find a good teacher. Like any instrument (except maybe theremin and octaventral heebiephone...), violin will get easier over time. If you've learned it enough, it will then be easier than guitar for you. And certainly, on violin you'll more readily be able to play a flashy lead melody than on classical guitar – but then again, on electric guitar it's much easier to learn something you can show off with, if that's what you want.

The main difficulties with violin are

  • Intonation – very tricky to get right, and if you're a little off it'll sound really out of tune
  • Bow control – very easy to produce really nasty scratch sounds, hard to produce clear notes. The bow needs to also select the right strings, rhythm, and coordinate with the fingering.
  • Posture – violin isn't exactly easy on one's neck & shoulders.
  • Steadiness of playing with dynamics, vibrato etc..

The main difficulties with classical guitar are

  • Coordination between the hands. Since there's typically quite a lot of arpeggiation through all strings going on, this is rather more challenging than on violin (but in a different way from piano).
  • Clean fingering of chords. Bar chords require some force.
  • Unfolding of dynamics / expression. Whereas violin rather leads you to play with too much expression, guitar can well be quite dull if the player does not put some life into the notes.
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  • I'd forgotten about octaventral heebiephones! :-) – Old Brixtonian Nov 10 '20 at 5:34
  • @OldBrixtonian Also the famously difficult muppophone. (And by "difficult", I mean "recalcitrant".) – Aaron Nov 10 '20 at 5:52
  • @Aaron: Excellent! – Old Brixtonian Nov 10 '20 at 6:00
  • Ugh! SE should allow one super upvote a month for answers like this. I just want to click the up button like 20 times! – Todd Wilcox Nov 10 '20 at 7:01
  • This reminds me of the two kinds of students I had when I was a teacher: those who wanted to be “good guitarists”, and those who wanted to play guitar. The former were easily frustrated and impatient. The latter achieved their goal every day when they picked up their guitars and their progress was unstoppable. – Todd Wilcox Nov 10 '20 at 7:09
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It’s going to be hard at beginning either way.

Assuming you’d put in the required time and energy to master the instrument you choose, let your personal preferences drive the decision.

You like violin music? Then choose the violin. You like to sing? Choose the guitar as it’s a good instrument to accompany the voice. Want to perform face melting solos - choose either. Want to perform in front of a quiet audience? Choose violin. Want to be part of a country group - choose either. Like campfires? Choose guitar.

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If you found it impossible to play the piano with both hands and gave up after a month, do you think you have the commitment and determination to master another instrument? The hands need to work just as independently playing a violin or a guitar as they do playing a piano.

A violinist playing "some of the most difficult pieces on the instrument" probably started young and certainly practised (US: practiced) a great deal more than an hour or two a day. That's true of classical music or jazz.

As has been mentioned, a violin beginner spends a long time making an awful racket. That's where the guitar scores. Would you be able to borrow a violin to have a go on?

If you chose the guitar and were interested in pop or folk, then hour a day should nail it!

Why not get a good teacher and try the piano again?

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  • So, is the independence of the hands in the piano as big a problem as in the violin? – Shashwat Tomar Nov 10 '20 at 6:09
  • Well - each hand is doing something very different. The bowing-arm needs tremendous subtlety. – Old Brixtonian Nov 10 '20 at 7:04
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Opinion question, so this seems likely to be dropped, but ...

  • Ergonomics — you strap on a guitar, or you balance it on your knee, while you have to hold onto the violin with your chin
  • Note Creation — you pluck the strings with a pick of your fingers, while you use a bow with a violin, which, if you don't use correct pressure, will sound like a sick cat, but you can get fast bow direction changes easily, while high-speed pick dynamics is largely a dark art
  • Intonation — guitars have frets, which lock in the intonation based mostly on your bridge and nut, but violins have a fingerboard without frets, and it will take time to get your ears and hand to know the right notes and the liberties you may take
  • Tuning — guitars are tuned (mostly) in fourths for ease in chording, while violins are tuned in fifths for ease in playing melodies

It depends on what you consider "mastery". You can get to performance-level skill much easier on guitar (IMHO) but there's things that can be done with violin that couldn't be done in guitar until mid-20th century.

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I'm concerned about the term master. It isn't really a term that a beginner would be concerned with. To 'master' any instrument always takes many years, and as a beginner, that journey may never end - in fact, at what point can one honestly say they have 'mastered' their instrument? Even the 'masters' will say they're still learning!

The other answers address some of the learning comparisons, but thinking generally, to become a 'master' on any instrument won't really matter what that instrument is.

Consider Yehudi Menhuin and Stefan Grapelli. What each do on the same instrument is remarkable, although very, very different. Which criteria can be employed to determine using the word master?

For those reasons alone, the question is impossible to answer properly. Sorry.

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