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I really want to learn to play a musical instrument. Ever since my "keyboard" lessons as a kid 3 decades ago - I have been put off.

I learned songs on keyboard by "rote" i.e., the instructor scribbled the notes for me to play and I had to memorize them. Over time I hated my music class. However, a friend recently suggested a stringed instrument such as guitar/ukulele might be something worth looking into as an instrument that does not require mastery of musical theory or reading music to be able to play songs.

I have absolutely abysmal/zero understand of musical theory. E.g.: I don't even know what a "chord" means and how a song is composed of chords (I know the definition of a chord, but don't understand it musically.)

My primary aim is to learn to play songs by ear, strum for fun with friends over or just meditate by playing for myself in a closed room, but being "good enough" at it to keep it interesting. I can set aside up to 3-4 hours a week for musical endeavors so something that's learnable over time within such time frames might fit my needs.

Between Guitar and Ukulele, what are the differences and other considerations that I might want to take into consideration when choosing an instrument to learn to play?

  • Do you plan to sing too, or just play the instrument? – topo morto May 22 '18 at 22:11
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    There's only one legitimate reason to play an instrument: because you want to, because you'd enjoy it. So pick whichever one you want to play. You're the only person that can answer that. – user37496 May 22 '18 at 22:18
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    You should pick an instrument for which there is a lot of music played that you love. If you love rock or pop or country, then guitar or bass is more likely to thrill you. If you love classical, then you might do best picking your favorite instrument from the orchestra. BTW, it sounds like your early music teacher was not a good one, so I suggest you keep an open mind and try to forget that experience. – Todd Wilcox May 22 '18 at 23:59
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    This question is worded too specifically and opinion-oriented. A better angle for this site would be something like "what are the pros and cons of starting with ukulele vs. guitar?" – MattPutnam May 23 '18 at 0:20
  • The answer is of course a matter of opinion, but one thing I have not seen mentioned is that there are a ton more songs/song books out there for guitar than ukulele. – John Wu May 23 '18 at 2:50
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They're very similar in terms of technique. Differences:

  • Ukulele is 4 strings, meaning it's always pretty easy to fret a chord, since you have one finger for each string. Guitar's 6 strings mean you have to use barre chords for 5- or 6-string chords, and that is always a pain point for beginners.
  • The ukulele is smaller than guitar, so stretching to reach chords in low positions is easier. But on the other hand, it becomes impractical to play chords up high because the frets get too close together.
  • Since ukulele has only 4 strings (and in a reentrant tuning), it doesn't have much range. It's harder to be creative and find patterns that aren't just the same chords over and over.

Other differences:

  • A steel string acoustic guitar is usually much louder than a ukulele.
  • A steel string guitar will be more uncomfortable to play at first until you build up callouses.
  • A guitar is a more flexible instrument with a wider range of notes and tones, and you can use the same knowledge to play electric guitar, which has a vast tonal palate. There are electric ukuleles, but they are still not as flexible as electric guitars.
  • Despite the ukulele's recent popularity, there is still a lot more literature (sheet music, YouTube lessons, magazines, web sites, etc.) available for guitar.
  • Naming bar chords as an argument against guitar is a bit strange. It's not like just because the strings are there you must play 5- or 6-string voicings all the time. And lots of stuff can be played with open chords, especially if using a capo. – leftaroundabout May 23 '18 at 21:52
  • bar chords are only a problem at the beginning, with some practice you don't think about it anymore. – Thomas Oct 21 '18 at 13:26
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Several questions in one here. Which instrument, to start with. Ask yourself which instrument stands out most in the music you listen to. If in your mind, you imagine yourself on stage at a stadium wielding that guitar, then there's an answer. If you find yourself humming the bass line from pop songs, there's your answer.

Next - do you want to learn to play an instrument, or get deep into music - what makes it all work? We're straying into the 'theory' territory here, but to play an instrument by ear, as probably half (my guess) do, is no bad thing, and a lot of pleasure - for you and your listener - can be realised with little or no deep knowledge of why it all works. Strumming chords and playing riffs on guitar is a lot of fun, and works for many.

However, if you have a desire to understand what's going on, the guitar, although it's almost instant satisfaction (play three chords, and your inventory of songs is in the thousands), it's not the best for explaining on.

Keyboard comes into its own here - graphically set out, easy to see which notes fit with which, but hard(er) than guitar to play convincingly.

Uke. Easier than guitar with only 2/3 of the strings. Easier to take into work for a 10 minute play at lunchtime. Cheaper to buy initially. Quite limited as to the sounds it produces. Maybe harder to find others who play similar instruments. Fewer resources. Playing pop songs lacks that certain something.

And what style of music you see yourself playing will have great bearing on the choice of instrument. Bear in mind there are several kinds of ukes, just as there are guitars.

Your choice in the end. This is just food for thought. Or the food of love. Play on...

  • You made some good points in terms of what things to take into consideration as part of the decision. I see that the question was closed as opinion based (but was still able to upvote your answer) but you and others have added valuable information for those who have a similar dilemma. I edited the question (to remove opinion) and voted to re-open. Please check my edits and add your vote to reopen if you agree. Thanks – Rockin Cowboy May 23 '18 at 16:06
  • @Tim - my imagination almost "always" leads me to a piano. I've always thought it'd be "easier" to learn music - theory and practice, on it. However, owning a piano isn't possible (for me) and not sure how I'd go about practicing it. Perhaps I could buy a decent keyboard. My goal is to pick up the easiest instrument to learn music with a faster feedback loop to keep me motivated. The flute "blowing practice" was total turn off. – PhD May 23 '18 at 18:45
  • I won't sing definitely - too hoarse for it. But would love to play music - I enjoy symphonies every once in a while and would love to play some of my favorite songs (by the ear). I don't aim for concert level performance but do aim for "better than average" capability i.e., if someone asks me to play on stage (work event, neighborhood show etc.,) and I ace that, that'd be "good enough" for me. Anything beyond that is a bonus but not aiming for it – PhD May 23 '18 at 18:51
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WOW! I don't know where your friend got the information. In my opinion the guitar, and string instruments in general, are pretty difficult to learn. Keyboard is usually thought of as easier. I think you had a bad experience and that was unfortunate.

Your goal is not 100% clear. Do you want to learn a guitar like instrument or learn music?

I would say take vocal lessons. That will teach you to learn the instrument you were born with while also getting your ear in tune. Many instrument teachers encourage voice lessons or incorporate voice in their lessons for just this reason. By rote is an important learning technique because at the end of the day you typically learn by doing and when we learn to speak we learn to imitate.

with all due respect if you are serious I'd find someone to take lessons from, explain your situation and see if you can find someone good. Video lessons, and self teaching methods, can cause more harm than good since you don't have someone to critique what you are doing. There are too many opportunities for confusion and misunderstanding.

As for Guitar versus Uke. Just pick one based on what you see yourself doing in the future. Which do you want to play?

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    I might have to vote to close the question as opinion based because I learned both guitar and piano and guitar was MUCH easier. I've also learned a bit of violin and clarinet and trumpet and the only thing easier than guitar that I've dabbled in was harmonica. – Todd Wilcox May 22 '18 at 23:57
  • It depends on what you consider "learning". I've played violin, classical upright bass, baritone horn, guitar, uke, and a few others. Violin and bass were considerably harder to learn intonation (being fret-less instruments) but by far Guitar was hardest to develop any real skill on as it is a multi-voice instrument with multiple ways to play a single voicing. Comparing classical solo guitar to classical solo bass, I'd say guitar was way harder than bass. – ggcg May 23 '18 at 0:03
  • And, I should have mentioned keys. Again, I think hard vs easy is relative to the performance level you are aiming for. Key lab is a requirement in most music school programs regardless of your main solo instrument. – ggcg May 23 '18 at 0:29
  • @ToddWilcox Todd you were correct to vote to close the original question as opinion based. I edited the question and voted to re-open. Please consider adding your vote. – Rockin Cowboy May 23 '18 at 16:04
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Between ukulele and guitar, ukulele is almost definitely easier, although probably less versatile, but which instrument you learn should depend on your goal.

I love the keyboard/piano as a starting instrument, ESPECIALLY if the goal is to learn more instruments later. There just isn't any way to visual music like the keyboard, and learning piano will drastically improve attempts to learn other instruments later.

Starting on chording instruments like guitar and ukulele leads to much abstraction from the actual music (instead of really understanding chords, many beginner guitarists think of them simply as shapes for the fretboard) which, while not disastrous, definitely makes it harder to learn music.

That being said, if your goal is just to be able to play music, like at a campfire or with friends or whatever, then learn guitar. Super versatile and if you don't plan on having an in depth understanding of music theory, it probably won't impair you too much to lose that keyboard visualization.

Ukulele is also a great choice because of portability and ease of learning, but its use cases are limited by its low volume and, shall I say, specialized sound. (I love the sound of the ukulele, but it isn't for every setting)

  • What's the difference between shapes for the fretboard and shapes for the keyboard? I have taken three college level music theory classes, I sight read, I write, etc., and I still view chords as shapes on both keyboards and guitar. To me, that's a good thing. – Todd Wilcox May 23 '18 at 16:58
  • @ToddWilcox Because on a keyboard all of the notes are laid out in a row, it's easier to think of the different notes of the chords as intervals. Think about how on guitar, most people learn chords by looking at tabs that show pictures of how to play the chord, whereas on piano, at least I was taught by learning the actual structure of, say, a major chord (root, third, fifth) and applying that in whatever key I'm in. – General Nuisance May 26 '18 at 4:09
  • I just look at it differently from you is all. It’s all shapes to me. Shapes that line up in a row are still shapes. – Todd Wilcox May 26 '18 at 4:38
  • @ToddWilcox I guess what you mean is that in practice -- like when you're actually playing piano/guitar -- our brains use muscle memory (i.e. shapes) to quickly move to the next chord. I was kind of focusing in on the visualization of the individual parts of a chord. Interesting discussion! – General Nuisance May 26 '18 at 19:45
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Between guitar and ukulele, I would recommend the ukulele for you to start with. Here is why:

  • Ukulele is easier for a beginner. It has fewer strings, making chord shapes easier. Because it is smaller, it is easier to hold. The nylon strings are easier on your fingers than the steel strings of a guitar.

  • Ukulele is more portable. It is smaller and lighter, and is easier to take with you anywhere you want to go.

  • Ukuleles are less expensive. Because of their smaller size, you can purchase a good ukulele for less than you could a good guitar.

  • Ukulele can prepare you for guitar. If you decide in the future you want to “upgrade” to guitar, your time spent with a uke will not be wasted. Chord shapes, strumming rhythms and techniques, and songs are all transferable to the guitar.

  • OP's in his 40s, probably with quite large fingers. One point against a uke, maybe? – Tim May 23 '18 at 13:43
  • @Tim Not a problem. Age means nothing. If his hands are larger than average, then pick up a concert or tenor uke instead of a soprano. – Ben Miller May 23 '18 at 13:57

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