Choosing an Instrument – A Practical Guide (Strings edition)

Perhaps singing isn’t for you? Or you feel your child is too young to start formal singing lessons? Maybe you just want to explore all your musical options? The first and most important reason for learning an instrument should be that you want to learn it, but even then, it’s good to think about practicalities too. Here’s some ups and downs of your string instrument choices to help you out:

Strings in general

Strings+ loads of opportunities for group music especially in orchestras
+ widest range genres other than for piano
+ no spit involved
o some don’t use conventional notation, but TAB or chords instead
– not the cheapest of instruments, and replacement strings etc can make it even pricier
– can be heavy to carry around


UkeleleUkulele – The latest fashion in classroom instruments, the ukulele has quite a following for something that is essentially a very tiny guitar

+ cheap for a string instrument at under £30 for a starter instrument
+ very easy to get going with simple chords
– not likely to encourage learning of notation
– usually only taught in large group lessons
– limited options for progressing past beginner level (exams are only offered by Victoria College)


ViolinViolin – The classicly popular cut-gut strung instrument. Sounds rather like you’re strangling said cat for a while in the beginning, but gets beautiful.

+ plenty of opportunities to play with others – orchestras need lots of them
+ wide range of styles from renaissance to modern as well as folk music for “fiddle” styles
+ great opportunities for young players through Suzuki method etc
+ uses conventional notation
o starter violins are reasonable to buy (around £100-150), but they quickly become pricey
– harder to get a good sound out of than woodwind and can be unpleasant to listen to
– needs a good ear, or training, to really be pitch accurate



Viola
– the butt of many a musical joke, the viola is an essential instrument in orchestras and string quartets.

Viola01

+ unusual instrument, so in demand for group music
+ also offers a wide range of styles, though limited solo music
+ uses conventional notation
– more expensive than the violin with entry level instruments around £50-£75 more
– challenging to start with, and needs a good ear for accuracy
– uses the alto clef which may be confusing to begin with
– teachers may be violinists doubling up


Cello – bigger, floor-resting stringed instrument with much lower, richer tone.

Cello+ often considered to have the most pleasant sound of all strings as similar in range to the human voice
+ good for group music, though less in demand than violins
+ has a good range of styles including plenty of solo music
+ uses conventional notation
– very expensive with outfits starting around £400-£500
– similar need to have good accuracy in pitch to other strings
– uses not only the bass clef, but switches to the tenor clef at times too


DoubleBass

Double Bass – the grandaddy of all strings, and a stalwart fixture in all kinds of music

+ an in demand instrument as not many people play
+ essential in a wide range of styles of group music
+ uses conventional notation, albeit bass clef
– very large and a pain to carry around
– expensive with outfits starting around £750+

– not terribly exciting roles in group music, and limited solo music
– teachers may be cellists doubling up


ClassicalGuitar

Classical guitar – not to be confused with acoustic guitar, classical guitar is the acoustics slightly geeky cousin. Uses plastic strings and is primarily plucked.

+ more interesting than the chord strumming of the acoustic guitar
+ reasonable in cost to buy starting at under £100
+ uses conventional notation
– not terribly cool
– primarily a solo instrument
– not a popular choice, so teachers may be harder to come by


AcousticGuitarAcoustic guitar – the hip relative of the classical guitar, the acoustic uses metal rather than plastic strings and is generally strummed as well as plucked

+ the height of cool in instrument terms
+ reasonable starting cost of £100 upwards
– doesn’t teach conventional notation as primarily uses leadsheets, TAB or aural learning
– limited range of genres


Electric GuitarElectric guitar – the out-there rock and roll dude of the string family. Uses the plucking techniques of the classical guitar combined with modern amplification to produce face-melting solos

+ coolest of them all
+ use of an amp means it can be practiced with headphones
– more expensive than most guitars, and an amp is required as well so you’re looking at £200+
– doesn’t teach conventional notation
– limited range of genres of music
– not very useful as a solo instrument – much better in a band


BassGuitarBass guitar – if the classical is the geeky cousin, the acoustic the hippy and the electric the wild child, the bass guitar is the slightly dim but solid one

+ simple to play most things (though I am assured being a really good bassist is hard!)
+ use of an amp means it can be practiced with headphones
– more expensive than most guitars, and an amp is required as well so you’re looking at £200+
– doesn’t teach conventional notation
– limited range of genres of music
– can be very dull to play as not really a solo instrument


So there you have it, a quick run down of the main members of the string family. There are, of course, many other options which include the harp, and the viol, but they are substantially more unusual.

Still confused? Click some of the links below for more options, or have a look at this handy flowchart from Sinfini Music.

[Woodwind] ♦ [Brass] ♦ [Other] ♦ [Why take singing lessons?]

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