For my first of a series of longer blog posts (expect at least 10 minutes of reading), I wanted to start with some of the pros and cons of learning multiple instruments. Before getting too deep into the weeds, I want to point out that I consider Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) as instruments and producers and turntablist DJs as musicians. There are many kinds of musicians, though some of their instruments are tough to define, like singers and beatboxers, but the bottom line is that musicians create and/or recreate music.
My hope for my entire blog is twofold: to convince musicians to learn other instruments, as I continually attempt to; and, if you don’t already play an instrument, you should consider learning more than one in order to gain a deeper understanding of the music you already love.
- Gain more perspective
- Helpful in communicating ideas
- Flexibility in finding work
- Expensive, in time and money
- Slower overall development
- Lower chance of being “the best fit” for multiple instruments
Until very recently, I thought multi-instrument musicians were rare, highly-coveted individuals. After all, many famous musicians are known for playing one instrument for their entire career. However, after following a bunch of musicians and songwriters on social media and watching some documentaries, it became clear to me that it’s often the songwriters and the musicians in bands that dabble in other instruments.
I started to wonder if I only liked artists that play lots of instruments because of my own promiscuity with instruments. As I considered the merits and downsides of practicing multiple instruments, I gained a deeper appreciation for the musicians who, like myself, dare to master many instruments.
Since I’m in favor of learning multiple instruments, I’ll start with the downsides and follow with the positives.
Instruments don’t need to be expensive to sound good, but as you develop a relationship with an instrument, it’s normal (perhaps expected) that you would want a better quality instrument or more tools to tweak your sound. For example, you don’t have to look far to find a violin or an acoustic guitar for under $100. But mid-level versions can cost at least $400 (even pre-owned). Some of the most amazing acoustic guitars for professionals can be over $1,000. I would bet that a lot of people pick their first instrument solely on the price tag. I think it’s common to find more guitarists than saxophonists and more ukulelists than drummers because that first instrument is often a gift from a parental figure.
I don’t mean that your parents don’t love you if they won’t buy you that signature John Mayer guitar that you’ve been eyeing at your local music store, but being a musician can be an expensive hobby, even if you’re only playing one instrument. I own two electric bass guitars, have two complete sets of drum shells, one electric guitar, two acoustic guitars, two keyboards, a violin, and a little djembe drum. My parents bought an upright piano for the house, and I keep a piano that was almost thrown out at my friend’s house. My dad lets me use his acoustic and electric guitars. Just for maintaining all of these instruments, I need strings, drum heads, cables, amplifiers, and tuning tools. On my drumset alone (my current favorite instrument), I’ve spent at least $1500 in the past two years getting new beginner-level shells and cymbals, additional hardware and drum heads, and a slew of different drumsticks. You don’t need to do the math to see how quickly multiple instruments will add up!
Practicing one instrument also takes a lot of time and focus. Getting back into the drums for Flaccid Acid, I was aiming to practice at least one hour every day until I could learn the parts I had written for the songs. Recently, I consider myself lucky to get to practice drums for 15 minutes a week. That’s not even enough time to play all of our songs in one session, so my practice time is very precious. To get anything to stick, I have to really focus on an idea for the little time I can set aside. If you were to practice two instruments, (I do not recommend playing them simultaneously unless that’s your act, like Nate Wood AKA “fOUR“) you would have to choose one instrument at a time to work on. The dedicated can spend years practicing and still find more things to learn or perfect on their single favorite instrument, but the promiscuous have to divide those years of dedication across each instrument. You can often tell a musician’s favorite instrument by how comfortably they play it.
My final argument against learning multiple instruments is that it’s tough to be “the best fit” for many things. Musicians, of course, include songwriters who write music for instruments they might not play, so when it comes to recording or performing, a songwriter hiring instrumentalists is going to want the best for the music. After all, there are so many talented musicians in the world that you would probably have one person in mind to play an instrument on your project. For example, let’s imagine you’re a manager and your artist needs a backing band for a tour. Your two simplest options are to hire a band that specializes in backing artists (duh) or to hire a musician for each instrument in the songs. You would probably want the best guitarist (or two), the best bassist, the best keyboardist, and the best drummer, all of whom are known to play the same genre as your artist. If you had a choice between the best guitarist and some guy who just knows how to play guitar, (assuming “some guy” isn’t your friend and that money is no object) you would most likely go for the better guitarist. That guitarist for hire most likely spends most of their free time practicing guitar and can probably handle singing backing vocals (singing while playing is a big resume booster) because they decided they wanted a career as a guitarist for hire. There’s no room in the musical mercenary scene for a jack of all trades, master of none.
To summarize the downsides of playing multiple instruments: it can be expensive, it can take up a lot of time to practice multiple instruments, and it can be hard to compete for jobs if you don’t allocate more time to one instrument over the others.
Learning an instrument is a great way to put yourself into the shoes of your favorite musicians. Before there were ways to record music, like on vinyl records or paper sheet music, drum beats and hymns were passed on through performing in front of the student. All musicians were born from this tradition of performing music as it was performed before by its creators and its admirers. Nowadays, there are many ways to enjoy music: you can find sheet music in public libraries and music stores; you can purchase and play vinyl records and CDs; you can even stream or listen to music via the radio or the internet without having to purchase individual songs or albums.
It often goes unnoticed that many of the songs we love are the result of collaboration between different kinds of musicians. All kinds of musicians create songs for others to listen to and many more musicians attempt to recreate, remix, and even reimagine these songs. Musicians get to admire music, like anyone could, but musicians also get to create more music or recreate their favorite music through their instruments. If you haven’t already begun to learn a musical instrument, I think the best thing you can do before learning an instrument is to find the music and artists that you love to listen to. There is just too much music available to really appreciate it all, but if you find artists you love, you can learn so much about artists as individuals. Famous musicians already deserve respect just for rising to the top of the music industry, and yet there is much to be learned about how they make their music and the amount of time they have dedicated to their performances.
So how does learning an instrument connect you to your favorite musical artists? Learning the instruments of your favorite musicians and trying to recreate their songs as the artist would lets you a peek into the artists’ perspective. When you play along to the sheet music written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, you are playing the music as he wanted it to be heard. When you learn the chords to an Ed Sheeran song so you can sing his lyrics, you’re playing his song through your instrument. When you learn an instrument, you learn at least a small portion of the effort that the musician poured into the songs you are learning. Likewise, when you know about more than one instrument, you can gain even more insight into the songs you’re learning by placing yourself in the shoes of another musician involved in the project. Different instruments serve different roles in different settings, and in many recordings, different instruments are played by different musicians. Learning multiple instruments can really deepen your appreciation of the music you already love.
Many popular songs come from the collaboration of multiple musicians; some songs are made by bands, some are made by a team of songwriters, and others are made by all of the other combinations inbetween of instrumentalists and songwriters. Communication is very important in any kind of collaboration, and there’s always some form of shorthand for different instruments. While music theory is often considered the common language for musicians, there are certain things that only apply to a family of musical instruments. For example, guitarists can discuss the effect that different plectrums (picks), strings, or pickups can have on their instrument, while drummers can discuss what combinations of microphones and rooms best capture the tone of their kit. Each instrument has its own world of nuances, and if you’re exposed to the nuances of various instruments, you can communicate with the musicians who only know the world of their instrument. Knowing multiple instruments is especially beneficial to songwriters and band members because being able to tell someone how to play a passage of music can be faster than showing them how you want it to be played. For example, a guitarist who knows a bit about drums could request that the drummer play a beat with a certain feel, using certain drums or cymbals; a keyboardist could ask the bassist to play a walking bass line “without the 4th;” a singer/songwriter could ask a lead guitarist to compose a guitar solo in a certain scale.
The final advantage to learning multiple instruments is being able to find work in a band. Although you might not be selected as a musician for hire by a record label, you’re very likely to find work as a gigging musician as a multi-instrumentalist. Musicians forming a band would often love to work with a guitarist that could play drums just as well, just in case they never find a dedicated drummer that fits the band’s chemistry or in case a founding member leaves the band. Knowing instruments from different families of instruments is very valuable to a band that writes music in different styles. If you were looking for a violinist to record a solo in a song, you would probably instantly hire them if they could also play saxophone in songs that don’t need a violin. It also makes good financial sense since bands often split their earnings evenly amongst the musicians; a band with three members would split their money three ways, a band with ten members would split their money ten ways. Hiring one person that plays two instruments should be cheaper than hiring two separate musicians.
The positives to learning multiple instruments outweigh the negatives for me, but if you aren’t already practicing one instrument, I think you should weigh everything very carefully. Consider how much you currently love music and whether learning how to play music would help you appreciate the music you already love. Consider how you plan to go about learning the instrument(s) of your choice, there are books, websites, YouTube channels, and many instructors and mentors to guide you through your journey. Consider your goals for learning an instrument when thinking about how much money you want to invest into the hobby: are you planning to be a gigging band member? an independent record label? a YouTube star? There are many paths for the musical entrepreneur.
Above all, I want to emphasize that no matter how you decide to learn about a music instrument, you should push back when a mentor/instructor tells you that your taste in music is right or wrong. The greatest joy of learning an instrument is playing music that you love. It is very rare to learn a musical instrument before developing a taste in music, so if you have the opportunity to choose your first instrument, it should be prevalent in the music you enjoy most. Don’t join the marching band if you want to be a battle rapper, and don’t join the church band if you don’t like the music they play. Life is too short to spend time on music you don’t love.