13 votes

Cheap/small alternative to the guitar

Being cooped up inside has made me realize how much time I spend in front of screens, for work and for play. I think it would be healthy for me to try to find something that's not screen related to do but remain socially distant, and I think learning to play an instrument would be a good candidate.

The problem is, I don't know which one to learn. When I was in middle/early high school I played the drum set, but having moved out on my own I certainly don't have the space for that anymore. I also thought about the recorder, since people play cool medieval music on it, but I'd rather not subject my neighbors to the shrill monstrosity that is someone learning to play recorder. I like the type of music that can be played on a guitar, but ideally I'd like something physically smaller, and perhaps a little more interesting. Also, for social distancing's sake, it would be ideal if it was an instrument where it is possible to teach oneself how to play.

Am I overcomplicating things and should just learn guitar? Are there any instruments that hit inexpensive, self teachable, small, and can be used in music in ways similar to a guitar?

35 comments

  1. [8]
    autumn
    Link
    I found the ukulele to be much more approachable than the guitar. It has only four strings, and they’re much easier on my fingers. I’m still terrible at playing it, but it takes up very little...

    I found the ukulele to be much more approachable than the guitar. It has only four strings, and they’re much easier on my fingers. I’m still terrible at playing it, but it takes up very little space. You can also look into a 3/4 guitar.

    9 votes
    1. suspended
      Link Parent
      My wife is not known for her creative abilities and has, recently, started following YouTube lessons for the ukulele (about four weeks...maybe an hour per day). I'm amazed at how much she has...

      My wife is not known for her creative abilities and has, recently, started following YouTube lessons for the ukulele (about four weeks...maybe an hour per day).

      I'm amazed at how much she has progressed in such a short amount of time.

      5 votes
    2. Moonchild
      Link Parent
      You can also try classical guitar, which uses nylon strings.

      much easier on my fingers

      You can also try classical guitar, which uses nylon strings.

      3 votes
    3. [2]
      Akir
      Link Parent
      Yeah, the Uke is definately the answer to this question. It's almost literally a tiny guitar, just missing one string. It's also probably the easiest to learn of the stringed instruments, and...

      Yeah, the Uke is definately the answer to this question. It's almost literally a tiny guitar, just missing one string. It's also probably the easiest to learn of the stringed instruments, and "student" grade ukes are extremely inexpensive - they start at around $30-60, with professional grade starting at around $150.

      But speaking as someone with absolutely zero talent, the easiest instrument to play is probably the tin whistle. It's not terribly loud, it's very easy to get the right sounds out of it, and you don't have to worry about chords at all. It's easier than a recorder and you will get quick results.

      3 votes
      1. bloup
        Link Parent
        The ukulele has 2 fewer strings than a guitar, and also features reentrant tuning (which means the top string is tuned to a higher note than the bottom 3). I think a uke is a great choice for...

        The ukulele has 2 fewer strings than a guitar, and also features reentrant tuning (which means the top string is tuned to a higher note than the bottom 3). I think a uke is a great choice for beginners, but if you learn how to play it I don't think you'll find it makes playing the guitar any easier (at least, it won't make it any easier than learning how to play any other lute-like instrument). Playing the ukulele is honestly pretty distinct from playing the guitar.

    4. joplin
      Link Parent
      My spouse bought me an ukulele for my birthday last year, and we've had a blast with it! There's a ton of tablature on the web for your favorite songs, and it is small, relatively quiet, and...

      My spouse bought me an ukulele for my birthday last year, and we've had a blast with it! There's a ton of tablature on the web for your favorite songs, and it is small, relatively quiet, and definitely self-teachable. I found this site helpful for doing some beginner stuff, but if that's not your speed, there's a ton of stuff on YouTube from basic technique to teaching specific songs.

      FWIW, my wife chose a tenor uke for me since it's a little bigger than the traditional soprano uke you usually see. It's big enough to not feel like a child's toy but still nowhere near as big as a guitar.

      1 vote
    5. Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      Ukulele or a smaller guitar both sound like good options. My reservation with ukulele is that I associate it with upbeat/uptempo music pretty much exclusively, which is silly because I'm sure you...

      Ukulele or a smaller guitar both sound like good options. My reservation with ukulele is that I associate it with upbeat/uptempo music pretty much exclusively, which is silly because I'm sure you can play it many different ways. Thanks for the suggestions!

      1 vote
    6. bel
      Link Parent
      I picked up my first uke 1 month ago. Concert size for me. Soprano is the standard, but it's teensy. I played violin in school for 6 months and it killed my fingers, so I was concerned uke would...

      I picked up my first uke 1 month ago. Concert size for me. Soprano is the standard, but it's teensy. I played violin in school for 6 months and it killed my fingers, so I was concerned uke would be similar. Nope; probably 1/4 the impact of the violin's strings.

      1 vote
  2. [3]
    skybrian
    Link
    As a keyboard player I'm biased, but I think a melodica is a great starting instrument. Playing a melody with one hand is considerably easier than learning to play with two hands doing different...

    As a keyboard player I'm biased, but I think a melodica is a great starting instrument. Playing a melody with one hand is considerably easier than learning to play with two hands doing different things (like with piano or accordion), and breath control is fun to play with. On some songs you can pretend you're a horn player. And then you can learn about adding right-hand harmony too. Most of what you learn is transferrable to other keyboard instruments.

    I don't know how close your neighbors are, but I think higher pitches are easier to muffle by keeping doors and windows shut. You could get a digital keyboard and use headphones if it's an issue.

    I have a ukulele and would recommend it over guitar, but I find it harder to get into; playing just a few chords, painfully learning each one separately, or playing simple melodies badly seems limiting, and I haven't gone beyond beginner stuff. Maybe it's better if you're a singer.

    4 votes
    1. [2]
      Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      The melodica is cool, but I'm not sure it will go where I think I'd like to music wise. It kinda sounds like the lovechild of an accordion and a harmonica which is wild. As far as a keyboard, I...

      The melodica is cool, but I'm not sure it will go where I think I'd like to music wise. It kinda sounds like the lovechild of an accordion and a harmonica which is wild.

      As far as a keyboard, I was going for smaller instruments as in "less than a full additional suitcase", which I guess a keyboard could be? I'll have to think about that one. Right now though, I'm leaning towards something stringed like the smaller guitars or bigger ukulele's, or maybe a finger harp since those are wild.

      1 vote
      1. skybrian
        Link Parent
        Yes, there are small keyboards too. If you go that route you have to decide whether to get full-size piano keys or not, but I've gotten used to switching; my digital piano, accordion, and...

        Yes, there are small keyboards too. If you go that route you have to decide whether to get full-size piano keys or not, but I've gotten used to switching; my digital piano, accordion, and melodicas all have different key widths.

        1 vote
  3. [6]
    Flashynuff
    Link
    Mandolins are small and cool, but I think you're going to find that there's a lot more resources out there for the guitar or ukelele. I would recommend guitar over a wind instrument just because...

    Mandolins are small and cool, but I think you're going to find that there's a lot more resources out there for the guitar or ukelele. I would recommend guitar over a wind instrument just because you can easily practice it while looking at a screen or watching TV. As someone else said, if you are looking for something smaller, a 3/4 scale guitar is an excellent choice. Go with what feels comfortable for you.

    3 votes
    1. [2]
      Moonchild
      Link Parent
      Not sure how much of a help this is, given the OP said:

      I would recommend guitar over a wind instrument just because you can easily practice it while looking at a screen or watching TV

      Not sure how much of a help this is, given the OP said:

      Being cooped up inside has made me realize how much time I spend in front of screens, for work and for play. I think it would be healthy for me to try to find something that's not screen related to do

      1 vote
      1. Flashynuff
        Link Parent
        It's more from my own experience -- since I have to be in front of a screen all day for work, it's nice to have something I can just pick up and play idly while I'm in a meeting.

        It's more from my own experience -- since I have to be in front of a screen all day for work, it's nice to have something I can just pick up and play idly while I'm in a meeting.

    2. [2]
      knocklessmonster
      Link Parent
      There's a lot of resources out there for mandolin. I learned after guitar, but it wasn't horribly difficult. The biggest thing would be a chord chart, but I've learned a variety of techniques...

      There's a lot of resources out there for mandolin. I learned after guitar, but it wasn't horribly difficult. The biggest thing would be a chord chart, but I've learned a variety of techniques simply through YouTube.

      And, being related to violin, there's no shortage of music for it you can learn.

      1 vote
      1. Flashynuff
        Link Parent
        Then maybe mandolin would be good! I think it depends mostly on what style of music OP would like to play.

        Then maybe mandolin would be good! I think it depends mostly on what style of music OP would like to play.

    3. Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      Mandolin or a small guitar both look neat. From some searching it looks like there's two different kinds of mandolin (at least) so I'll have to look through that. Thanks!

      Mandolin or a small guitar both look neat. From some searching it looks like there's two different kinds of mandolin (at least) so I'll have to look through that. Thanks!

  4. [5]
    CALICO
    (edited )
    Link
    If wind instruments are off the table: The Guitalele is essentially a ukelele-sized guitar. Six strings, more chord combos than a ukelele. The Kalimba/Mbira/Finger Harp is a clever little...

    If wind instruments are off the table:

    The Guitalele is essentially a ukelele-sized guitar. Six strings, more chord combos than a ukelele.

    The Kalimba/Mbira/Finger Harp is a clever little instrument with roots in Zimbabwe. These are lemellophones.

    The Jew's Harp—another lemellophon—utilizes your mouth as the soundbox. If you can beat a bit, you can make fun techno sounds.

    Handpans are pretty neat, they're a subset of steel drum.

    Violin is classic, but can be a shrill monstrosity when first learning. Versatile, one can play from Bach to Celtic Fiddle (my favorite)

    The Middle East, Africa, and Asia gives us some interesting stringed instruments such as the Rebab (bowed), Rubab (plucked), Oud, Pipa, Kora, the Tar, and a wealth of others.

    Prices are I suppose all over the place, but for instruments "cheap" is pretty subjective.

    I got a little carried away from guitar-types, but I'm sticking to it.

    3 votes
    1. Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      No problem, I appreciated that little tour through instruments of the world! I will definitely look more into guitalele and finger harp, I like the sound of both quite a bit. I'll stay away from...

      I got a little carried away from guitar-types, but I'm sticking to it.

      No problem, I appreciated that little tour through instruments of the world! I will definitely look more into guitalele and finger harp, I like the sound of both quite a bit. I'll stay away from the more exotic ones though, as I fully admit that this is something I'm just picking up and I don't want to purchase something strange and expensive only to change my mind and have trouble getting rid of it. I do love the sound of the Pipa though...

      2 votes
    2. [3]
      wirelyre
      Link Parent
      From the time I played with a kalimba, it felt deceptively like a toy at first. I'm worried that it wouldn't be intriguing enough to keep learning with. I definitely strongly discourage violin or...

      From the time I played with a kalimba, it felt deceptively like a toy at first. I'm worried that it wouldn't be intriguing enough to keep learning with.

      I definitely strongly discourage violin or viola — they're very hard to learn even with in-person lessons, and impossible to learn by yourself. Beginning cello might be possible with remote lessons, but cellos are already way past "cheap".

      Other than those, really excellent suggestions! I think lutes are probably the way to go. @Gyrfalcon, you might want to choose an instrument with nylon strings (pretty much every lute in the parent comment, and also classical guitar), as it's much easier on your fingers and gives a more intimate sound like you've indicated you like.

      Also, maybe take a quick listen to lower-pitched recorders. An alto or tenor recorder might be in your price range, and they're much less shrill by nature.

      1 vote
      1. [2]
        CALICO
        Link Parent
        Mostly agree, but I'd sub 'impossible' for 'incredibly difficult'. I have some violin experience, and boy howdy. It takes a special kind of person to learn without a dedicated instructor....

        I definitely strongly discourage violin or viola — they're very hard to learn even with in-person lessons, and impossible to learn by yourself.

        Mostly agree, but I'd sub 'impossible' for 'incredibly difficult'.
        I have some violin experience, and boy howdy. It takes a special kind of person to learn without a dedicated instructor. Fiddle-style would probably be less difficult to teach oneself, but without an instructor on the manner of form & avoiding cat-mating sounds it will be an uphill battle to say the least.

        Not for the faint of heart, for sure.

        1. wirelyre
          Link Parent
          Yeah, there's certainly room for one-in-a-thousand motivation and talent. I envy those people. I started sounding pleasant on violin/viola after about 10 years of lessons, the last two with...

          Yeah, there's certainly room for one-in-a-thousand motivation and talent. I envy those people.

          I started sounding pleasant on violin/viola after about 10 years of lessons, the last two with college instruction.

  5. [2]
    meatrocket
    Link
    I'm a guitar player, so bear my bias in mind. A smaller guitar shouldn't be too hard to find, and it might fit your needs. A parlor-sized acoustic is a good deal smaller than the dreadnought size...

    I'm a guitar player, so bear my bias in mind. A smaller guitar shouldn't be too hard to find, and it might fit your needs. A parlor-sized acoustic is a good deal smaller than the dreadnought size that you may be more familiar with. Even smaller travel-sized electric guitars are also not uncommon, and an electric setup might also fit suit your desire for "more interesting" because of all the effects possibilities. I'd strongly recommend buying a used guitar over a new one, be it from something like Reverb or from a local shop. You'll get more for your money that way.

    If you do decide on a guitar, I've heard nothing but praise for Justin Guitar's lessons.

    3 votes
    1. Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      At this point, I am definitely interested in a smaller guitar or a bigger ukulele. Electric guitar would do more things, but my understanding is that they would be both more expensive and less of...

      At this point, I am definitely interested in a smaller guitar or a bigger ukulele. Electric guitar would do more things, but my understanding is that they would be both more expensive and less of the sound I'm looking for. Used could be better though. Thanks for the suggestions.

      1 vote
  6. [3]
    knocklessmonster
    Link
    Ukulele does the job fine. If you want to somewhat easily graduate into guitar without having to rethink a lot, a baritone would be a good start. If you want something you can buy off-the-shelf,...

    Ukulele does the job fine. If you want to somewhat easily graduate into guitar without having to rethink a lot, a baritone would be a good start. If you want something you can buy off-the-shelf, you can drop about $60-80 (I have this line's baritone and pineapple soprano, they're great). You have to be particularly driven to play more than song covers though, but if you're interested in music, you'll find what you want. I play baritone, concert and soprano (tenor, concert and soprano all tune the same, it's just size and acoustics, baritone tunes like the higher strings on a guitar), and never had a hard time on any of them, but the songs I play are ones I learned on other instruments, or I'll just noodle.

    Otherwise, why not just get a guitar? Decent ones can be had for really cheap, even as low as $100 US (my brother had a mahogany Rogue that was great), but if you come up towards $200, you're moving into much better territory, and would recommend a Recording King. It's a parlor, but they're fun, comfortable, and play just as well as full-size.

    Mandolin is also fun, and I find it easier to do melodies on than guitar. I have one of these I got for $180 seven years ago, but Oscar Schmidt makes cheaper ones, and they should all play fine (minor bridge adjustment is all that's needed). Buy a tuner, picks, and a gig bag, and you'll come in under $200.

    2 votes
    1. [2]
      Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      Ukulele, especially the guitalele mentioned elsewhere seem interesting, and I did see some about mandolin, which could also be neat. I'll do some more research on both, thanks. I kinda feel like...

      Ukulele, especially the guitalele mentioned elsewhere seem interesting, and I did see some about mandolin, which could also be neat. I'll do some more research on both, thanks.

      Otherwise, why not just get a guitar?

      I kinda feel like "dude who plays guitar" is a trope at this point, but I should probably just get over myself.

      1. knocklessmonster
        Link Parent
        Yeah. The "guy with a guitar" has a uke parallel where they're playing open chords with a near-identical strumming pattern, and only three/four-chord pop songs and hip-hop covers, but even with...

        I should probably just get over myself.

        Yeah. The "guy with a guitar" has a uke parallel where they're playing open chords with a near-identical strumming pattern, and only three/four-chord pop songs and hip-hop covers, but even with the ukulele, you aren't limited to accompaniment. I'm still trying to shake that one, but it seems to reinforce itself to me.

        1 vote
  7. [2]
    Moonchild
    Link
    Why do you want something smaller than a guitar? Lack of space in your home, or something else? What's uninteresting about guitar? The skill ceiling is certainly as high as any other instrument.

    I like the type of music that can be played on a guitar, but ideally I'd like something physically smaller, and perhaps a little more interesting

    Why do you want something smaller than a guitar? Lack of space in your home, or something else?

    What's uninteresting about guitar? The skill ceiling is certainly as high as any other instrument.

    2 votes
    1. Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      Space is somewhat tight, though certainly I have room for a guitar. I do like the idea of being able to take an instrument with me, and while you can do that with a guitar, it's kind of an extra...

      Why do you want something smaller than a guitar?

      Space is somewhat tight, though certainly I have room for a guitar. I do like the idea of being able to take an instrument with me, and while you can do that with a guitar, it's kind of an extra suitcase worth of instrument. Not that I really have much of a place to go right now.

      What's uninteresting about guitar?

      I guess it's that "dude who plays guitar" feels like it's been done before, but I should probably just get over myself on that point.

  8. [2]
    Comment deleted by author
    Link
    1. Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      Not a bad idea, and certainly inexpensive. Thanks for the suggestion!

      Not a bad idea, and certainly inexpensive. Thanks for the suggestion!

      1 vote
  9. [2]
    3d12
    Link
    I don't see anyone having mentioned it yet, but the next non-conventional instrument I get is almost certainly going to be a Harpejji Here's a video of Stevie Wonder playing one:...

    I don't see anyone having mentioned it yet, but the next non-conventional instrument I get is almost certainly going to be a Harpejji

    Here's a video of Stevie Wonder playing one: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQtEElCV2lY

    It sounds like a guitar, requires an amp for best volume, and is played by tapping the strings like Eddie Van Halen a piano. The layout resembles a guitar too, with half-step changes going vertically making for easy bendy-type sounds. Definitely an interest for me.

    2 votes
    1. Gyrfalcon
      Link Parent
      Very interesting, and a nice sound. Unfortunately, it looks like the manufacturer charges quite a bit for them, and I'm probably looking to spend no more than $100 right now.

      Very interesting, and a nice sound. Unfortunately, it looks like the manufacturer charges quite a bit for them, and I'm probably looking to spend no more than $100 right now.

      1 vote
  10. alphamule
    Link
    Completely off the path from all these acoustic instruments, but you might also consider a pocket operator. It's electronic, but not much of a screen. They're small and not bothersome and < $100....

    Completely off the path from all these acoustic instruments, but you might also consider a pocket operator. It's electronic, but not much of a screen. They're small and not bothersome and < $100. There's a pretty interesting community on all the various social media where people post videos of songs they've made. Unlike watching a virtuoso guitar player or whatnot, with a pocket operator, you could actually figure out how to make the song being performed in the video and perform it yourself without a super-elite instrument & years of dexterity practice.

    There was a nyt article about them last summer: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/25/magazine/electronic-music-synthesizers.html

    Some videos: https://www.reddit.com/r/pocketoperators/

    2 votes
  11. wcerfgba
    Link
    In addition to budget and space, I think you should consider the kinds of music you like to listen to and the kinds of music you'd like to play (for some people those are not exactly the same!) I...

    In addition to budget and space, I think you should consider the kinds of music you like to listen to and the kinds of music you'd like to play (for some people those are not exactly the same!) I really like jazz-funk (and jazz and funk, but I find the intersection of the two to be my sweet spot for listening enjoyment), and I gravitate towards skankface inducing basslines, so I decided to pick up bass guitar. If you like folk then that's a better argument for mandolin, blues -> harmonica, classical -> violin, classical guitar, ... etc. Maybe there is one particular instrument you like within your favourite genres, or across many genres: I have a friend who wants to learn piano for that exact reason, she just really likes the sound of the piano.

    I've dabbled with guitar in the past but I found it really hard to fret chords: with bass I still need to know chord/scale shapes but I find it way easier playing one note at a time rather than having to fret 4+ strings all at once.

    Typical bass scale length (how long the strings are from nut to bridge) is 34", so you're looking at about 38"-40" for a typical bass, but you also get short-scale basses which are more around 30"-32" scale length, so they're not much bigger than a regular electric guitar. And you can get a decent one pretty cheap. Example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V6CmDZHAzYk

    1 vote
  12. piedpiper
    Link
    I would just get a smaller travel size guitar if you want more portability. If an acoustic guitar is not interesting enough for you I would get an electric guitar as you can manipulate the sound...

    I would just get a smaller travel size guitar if you want more portability. If an acoustic guitar is not interesting enough for you I would get an electric guitar as you can manipulate the sound more.

    I would go guitar over ukulele as I think you can just do more with it and you will be able to find more tabs and tutorials out there when you are trying to learn songs. But that's just my opinion. I learned guitar first and then bought a cheap ukulele, and while it was fun for a while I just went back to guitar and never touched it again.

    You mentioned the recorder. If you were to go that route I would instead suggest a xaphoon. Similar portability but that sound is just incredible.