10 Things - Instruments that Guitarists can pick up on with a degree of ease!!
As guitarists, we’ve trained our fingers across dozens of fretboards for 6 string-instruments and have enjoyed countless hours prepping for gigs, open mics, recording sessions, jam sessions, backyard BBQ's and many other formats to present our formidable talents and stellar fretting skills. But recently during a recording session, someone asked, “do you have a strum stick?” And I said “er…..no, why do you ask?” And the response was, “it would make for a nice bed under that rhythm and percussion track.” Now I had seen a strum stick, even played around with a few but I hadn’t ever given it any real consideration as a true instrument until the very moment this statement was made to me.
So during our next break, I popped off to our local music store and checked one out. They’re quite affordable ($125 to $200 US) so I nabbed one and brought it back to the studio. In about 45 minutes or so, we had a reasonable arrangement for the part and in the end, it sounded pretty good for 45 minutes of banging and a-clanking. I thought it got a little lost in the mix at the end but it brought a very salient point home for me. As guitarists, there are lots of stringed-instruments we can play. It’s just that in most cases, we don’t know it yet.
So for this list, we’re talking about instruments that guitarists SHOULD pick up and learn how to play. It will keep your brain well-oiled and your fingers constantly challenged. You may even surprise yourself when you find out, with very little mental and digital effort that you already know how to play one of these…..less than 6 string instruments, fairly well, right out of the box. And who knows, maybe you’ll get a call for lead strum stick sesson gig and you’ll be prepared. So let’s get started:
#10) Electric Bass – this is an easy one or so you think. There is an enormous difference between being a bass player and being a guitar player that plays bass. You can normally point them out. It’s not that it’s a bad thing or a good thing necessarily (bass players may differ on this opinion), it’s just how you think. It’s how we broach chord changes, passing notes and fills; the many aspects to our playing that has been forever affected by the way we play our 6-stringed guitars. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t learn how to play bass. Pick one up, go to a jam night, play with your friends. Get the feel of what it’s like to drive the band from underneath. It makes you listen to music differently as well. If you have to learn a bass part, you listen only to the bass which really changes how you hear music. Go get one now!
#9) Tenor Guitar – this might be a bit of a stretch as you don’t tend to see many Tenor Guitars anymore. They were originally designed back in the 20’s so that Tenor Banjo players (also something you don't see too many of these days) could double on guitar. The tuning for these varies somewhat but for guitar players, this makes the tenor a match made in heaven. C-G-D-A or D-G-A-E or D-G-B-E (baritone tuning) – all of which will make playing the Tenor a lot of fun to investigate.
#8) Mandolin – this isn’t as easy as it might appear, at least from the standpoint of making the instrument sound reasonable. The strings and the frets are really packed in tight so your technique is definitely going to be different then it is on a guitar. Just don’t start listening to Ronnie McCoury or Chris Thiele out of the gate and think that ten minutes later, you're going to be able to match their performance. Start slowly – figure out the tuning; G – D – A – E and what it means to you. For acoustic recording, mandolin can add some really nice sparkle to your tracks.
#7) Ukulele – Also not as easy as it appears at first. This isn’t a strumming instrument, per se, although as you're getting started, that's probably how you'll approach it. Just Google Jake Shimabukuro and watch what he can do with 4 strings made of nylon. It’s more of a finger-picked instrument and can really add dimension to solo performances as well as in a band setting or on a recording. As you may already know, Ukulele’s popularity has been soaring in the last few years. Be careful when you purchase one. There are some really, really cheap ones out there and the end result isn’t always pretty. If you’re serious about learning how to play a Ukulele, spend a little bit more and get something that sounds respectable and that you’ll keep around for a few years before you invest in something more serious. You'll also want to take size into consideration. The sizes are; Soprano, Concert, Tenor and Baritone. And not unlike the violin family or the mandolin family, the instrument increase in size. The soprano being the smallest, baritone being the largest. Find one that's going to accommodate your size.
#6) Strum Stick – well, why not. They come in a variety of tunings; D and G – only three strings. How hard could it be? With practice, this might be the easiest of the stringed instruments mentioned so far. Not unlike learning guitar, it’s all about how much time you put in – practice, practice, practice. We saw Dave Immergluck with John Hiatt (currently with Counting Crows) do a solo on a strum stick, it was inspiring to see so much music come of out of such a basic instrument.
#5) Bouzouki – This is a very interesting category of instrument. Tradional Greek Bouzouki’s were introduced into celtic music in the late 60's, more as a chordal instrument as opposed to how the Greek version was used, which was much more melodic. As the instrument grew with popularity, it morphed and mutated to the needs of "Irish" players, the body was widened, with arched tops and backs (which mimicked the mandolin design). It’s a fascinating evolution and one well worth reading up on if you find it of interest. This plays or frets much like a mandolin, it's a really fun instrument to poke around on. The big difference between this and the mandolin, is that because the neck is longer and the string spacing is much more comfortable for a guitar player, much more like a regular 12-string guitar.
#4) Resophonic Guitar – Or in some circles it’s known as a Dobro. Dobro refers to the manufacturer name as opposed to the actual type of instrument. (You can read more about this on the wiki listing for Dobro, which is now owned by Gibson). This can be a fun instrument if for no other reason that it takes you out of your element and challenges your strumming, picking, and fretting skill set. You don’t actually do any of those things on a Reso because the strings are a good inch to two inches above the fret board. The guitar sits in your lap (or is hung by a unique type of strap that holds the guitar flat in front of you). Instead of fretting the instrument, you slide a heavy steel bar on top of the strings using your hand as a mute to keep sympathic vibrations at a minimum. Fingerpicks are traditionally used but there are a few players that use a flat pick. This can be a great tool for backing tracks when recording but will take some time to actually get a reasonable tone out of the guitar. There are some models that have a removeable nut so that you can also play the guitar in a more traditional fashion, should you tire of the slide version.
#3) Harmonica – Yes, yes, yes, we know it’s not a stringed instrument but this is one of those “kind of easy instruments to get started on” but “only the strong will survive” if you play it wrong. We’ve all been in a club when the guitar player straps on his harmonica brace and then cringe for fear of hearing a horrifying chorus of “Heart of Gold” or some Bob Dylan song gone awry. There’s appropriate harmonica use and there’s inappropriate harmonica use. If you start to play it and believe that you’re really just monitoring your breathing, then you’re not doing it right. There are numerous resources to help you learn to play harp. Carry one with you everywhere you go; look for video lessons on youtube but in the end, its once again, all about practice! Also you should note that there are various types of harmonica's; Blues harps, chromatic harps, Special Twenty - all of which will depend on what method of playing or technique you'll be using. You may want to read up on what all this means or just dive in head first, get a harp and play.
#2) 6-String Banjo – Well, short of all the banjo player jokes, this instrument will most likely be the one you get the least use out of in the long term. First off, the 6-string Banjo or Banjitar as it is known, is nothing more than a banjo with guitar tuning. It’s that simple. So if you can play guitar, you can play the Banjitar. That being said, that doesn’t mean you can technically play banjo. 5-string banjo is tuned g – D – G – B – D. The small “g” references the string that starts at the 5th string of a 5th banjo. As you can see, the Banjo is tuned to open G and uses the “g” string as a drone. Metal fingerpicks are employed and learning how to roll, ain’t easy. However, the Banjitar will give you the sound and a little of the feel of what a banjo sounds like, especially if you’re using it to record.
#1) 12-string Guitar – Well, this is probably the least difficult of the lot but with very little practice (given that you can already play a 6-string guitar) you’ll sound amazing, right out . For those of you that have never played a 12-String guitar, it’s really not all that much different than playing a 6-string. There are 6-choruses of strings meaning two strings placed very close together; the first 4 strings, low to high are; E – A – D – G, which have octave strings placed next to the normal string you would find on a 6-string. The B and the E are the same pitch. There’s many a classic track that features a 12-string and you’re sure to give them a run once you get your hands on one; Over the Hills and Far Away (Led Zep), Hotel California (Eagles), Living Life by the Drop (SRV), Love of my Life (Queen) and many, many more.
#1a) High-Strung Guitar – BONUS LISTING FOR RECORDING - In the event that you can’t afford a real 12-string guitar, here’s a great way to get the sound of a 12-string, without EFX pedals or other means. This is only intended for recording purposes as previously mentioned but you could pull it off live, if you had extra guitar players. What you do is – record your first acoustic guitar track and then you’ll need to get a set of strings that’s gauged accordingly (.010 - .014 - .009 - .012 - .018 - .026w). These are the octave strings that you’d normally purchase in a 12-string set. Now put these on your 6-string guitar – tune them as you would the octaves on a 12-string and record the track right alongside the 6-string track you just recording. You’ll be amazed at how much it sounds like a 12-string.
Well that about does it for this edition of "10 Things". If you have a thought on an instrument that we might have missed, please share it with us in the comments section and thanks for visiting with us here at Guitar.com!