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  #1  
Old 03-28-2005, 03:42 PM
jebert jebert is offline
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What are the easiest and most difficult musical instruments to play?

Is there some kind of generally agreed-upon “degree of difficulty” scale for musical instruments ranging from easiest to learn how to play proficiently to most difficult? For example, is it harder to become good at the clarinet than the piano?

If such a scale is too subjective to cover all classes of instruments, I would think it might be easier to do so within classes of instruments, say brass, woodwinds, and strings. Is the trombone easier than the trumpet, or is the viola easier than the cello?
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  #2  
Old 03-28-2005, 04:18 PM
Fritz Fritz is offline
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I've heard that the most difficult are the double reeds (Oboe, Basoon, English Horn, etc.) and French Horn.

Easiest? Hmm...Electric Bass is pretty easy, at least starting out.

I think all instruments are very difficult when going to a professional level.
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Old 03-28-2005, 04:20 PM
Fritz Fritz is offline
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Sorry, I only glanced at your post before replying, and only replied to the title.
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  #4  
Old 03-28-2005, 04:29 PM
ticker ticker is offline
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My guess would be the easiest must be something like the triangle.
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  #5  
Old 03-28-2005, 04:30 PM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
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Reeds, in particular double reeds, are often singled out. There's no escaping the fact that an absolute beginner on a reed instrument makes a helluva racket. On the other hand, it's hard for a beginner to make the piano sound unbearable.

Does this make the piano easy, or the oboe difficult? Hopefully not. 'Ease of making

When asking about instrument families, you're further reaching the border of asking the impossible. The violin and cello are, quite simply, are different. The double bass even more so. They make completely different requirements on the player.

If you want to ask questions about specific instruments, then by all means ask. But it's impossible to give blanket answers for the whole range.
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  #6  
Old 03-28-2005, 06:28 PM
samclem samclem is offline
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Since this question is ultimately gonna involve informed opinions rather than concrete answers, let's move it to IMHO.

samclem GQ moderator
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  #7  
Old 03-28-2005, 08:05 PM
fishbicycle fishbicycle is offline
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Triangle is probably the easiest. Toughest instrument to master and have astounding music pour from it: my vote is for the Chapman Stick.

After Tony Levin demonstrated his absolute mastery of it with King Crimson in 1981, you might have thought there would be a lot more Stick players afterward. But no, it's a very, very difficult instrument to play anything on, never mind to execute both a bass and an accompaniment simultaneously - whilst tapping and hammering on with both hands and as many free fingers as you can muster.
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Old 03-28-2005, 08:32 PM
yBeayf yBeayf is offline
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I vote for uillean pipes. You've got one arm squeezing the bag, so you've got to maintain a constant air pressure there. You've got the other arm pumping a bellows, so that's another thing to worry about. You have a fairly complex fingering on the chanter, plus all sorts of ornamentation that is so neccessary to Celtic music, and finally you have regulators, which are 3 or 4 drone-like pipes coming out the back that can be turned off and on to play accompanying chords. I've read somewhere that it takes seven years to learn to physically play the uillean pipes, seven years to learn the music to play on them, and seven years to put it all together.
Quote:
Triangle is probably the easiest.
Depends on what you're playing. Copts accompany their chanting with highly complex polyrhythms on cymbals and triangle, and they start their kids learning to play them early; I've seen 10-year-olds playing stuff that would leave your head spinning.
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  #9  
Old 03-28-2005, 08:41 PM
don't ask don't ask is offline
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Only guessing but I know more self taught guitarists than any self taught players of any other instrument. I have heard from several people who play lots of instruments that if you learn piano first (as they all did) the rest are easy to pick up on your own. Of course this doesn't mean that piano is necessarily harder to learn.
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  #10  
Old 03-28-2005, 08:48 PM
don't ask don't ask is offline
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Here is a neat little guide to the pluses and minusues of learning various instruments. They seem to feel the easiest in each class are saxophone, tuba, double bass and piano or electric guitar.
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  #11  
Old 03-28-2005, 08:59 PM
antechinus antechinus is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fishbicycle
Triangle is probably the easiest. Toughest instrument to master and have astounding music pour from it: my vote is for the Chapman Stick.

After Tony Levin demonstrated his absolute mastery of it with King Crimson in 1981, you might have thought there would be a lot more Stick players afterward. But no, it's a very, very difficult instrument to play anything on, never mind to execute both a bass and an accompaniment simultaneously - whilst tapping and hammering on with both hands and as many free fingers as you can muster.
I have always imagined the gong as being an easy instrument to play.
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  #12  
Old 03-28-2005, 09:02 PM
pool pool is offline
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I played the Euphonium for seven years but quit after I graduated high school and it really is not a difficult instrument to learn. Same fingerings as trumpet and tuba of course but has pretty much the same range as the trombone. I now play electric bass and consider myself pretty damn good. Some instruments are harder than others at least in learning the beginning fundamentals but the more advanced the music the harder it becomes.

Anyone else ever listen to Pat Metheny and his band...those guys are amazing. Does anyone know that weird guitar thing he plays that has two necks one with like regular guitar and I think it has resonator strings under it, and another neck has I think really low tuned strings or like baritone guitar or something and it also has like has something similar to a harp or something. Any Ideas?
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  #13  
Old 03-28-2005, 09:04 PM
pool pool is offline
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Quote:
Electric Bass is pretty easy, at least starting out.

Lol yep and then there are those people like Victor Wooten who produce sounds and rhythms on a bass you would never think possible.
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  #14  
Old 03-28-2005, 09:19 PM
Wesley Clark Wesley Clark is offline
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Cymbals and triangles are pretty easy to play. I think the trombone is pretty easy to play too.
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  #15  
Old 03-28-2005, 09:27 PM
asterion asterion is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ticker
My guess would be the easiest must be something like the triangle.
The thing is that percussion, even auxillary percussion, can be rather difficult to play well. You don't have all the issues that a string or wind player would have, but the instruments do have their own specific ways of being played (and being played well). Cymbals, especially crash cymbals, are difficult to play well. The triangle is simple enough if all you need is an occasional ding, but start throwing rolls and some wicked rhythms in there and it isn't that easy, especially since your goal is to make all hits sound exactly the same. Actually, that goes for a lot of the auxillary percussion. It's not just banging stuff together, especially with modern composers. They throw in all kinds of rhythms and effects and the like, especially in pieces written solely for percussion. Add on my complainants about the way composers and publishers will often write/print the music, and percussion isn't as easy as you'd think. Also, even though people specialize, at the high school/college/amateur level you often have to be able to play lots of different instruments and know how to play these minor instruments.
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  #16  
Old 03-28-2005, 09:34 PM
Abbie Carmichael Abbie Carmichael is offline
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According to my high school band teacher:

Woodwinds: Bassoon & Oboe

Brass: French Horn

I think a lot of it has to do with your lips. Someone with poofy lips like me is probably going to have a hard time getting a trumpet or flute/piccolo to do anything. That may not mean that these instruments are "harder" than the bassoon and clarinet (which I do play), it may just mean that certain people are better suited to certain instruments.
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  #17  
Old 03-28-2005, 10:42 PM
Boyo Jim Boyo Jim is offline
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Nobody's mentioned the kazoo yet?!
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  #18  
Old 03-28-2005, 10:52 PM
KJ KJ is offline
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Most difficult: Holophonor

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Old 03-28-2005, 11:11 PM
DrLoveGun DrLoveGun is offline
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Don't forget the Glass Armonica.
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  #20  
Old 03-28-2005, 11:23 PM
yBeayf yBeayf is offline
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And the octraventral heebiephone.
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  #21  
Old 03-29-2005, 12:12 AM
Apricot Apricot is offline
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I think Abbie Carmicheal is on to something. I am surprised at how often the French Horn comes up as a difficult insturment to play. I didn't find it that difficult to pick up. The flute, on the other hand...
I do think there are anatomy variations that are not easy to understand. A difficult instument may be difficult, or it just may require unusual anatomy.
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  #22  
Old 03-29-2005, 01:10 AM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by don't ask
Only guessing but I know more self taught guitarists than any self taught players of any other instrument.
Do you, by any chance, also know more bad guitarists than players of any other instrument? (I sure as hell do...)
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  #23  
Old 03-29-2005, 01:12 AM
GorillaMan GorillaMan is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Apricot
I think Abbie Carmicheal is on to something. I am surprised at how often the French Horn comes up as a difficult insturment to play. I didn't find it that difficult to pick up.
I've often got the impression that many of the 'difficulties' of the horn are actually from the differences between the modern instrument and that which particular music was written for. Plus an awful lot of bad writing. Does this tally with your experience?
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  #24  
Old 03-29-2005, 07:59 AM
Fritz Fritz is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by pool
Lol yep and then there are those people like Victor Wooten who produce sounds and rhythms on a bass you would never think possible.
My opinion is that Victor is not of this earth...
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  #25  
Old 03-29-2005, 08:22 AM
Ethilrist Ethilrist is offline
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For those saying that triangle, cymbals and gong are the easiest to learn how to play: bear in mind that, if you've got this instrument in front of you, you're all alone. If you play at the wrong time, everyone will know. If you're one of 12 2nd violins, and you screw up, most people won't notice... or they won't know that it was you. Triangle goes ding at the wrong time? You screwed up. Plus, everybody watches the percussion because they're doing all sorts of interesting stuff, moving from instrument to instrument and smacking things with sticks and hammers.

Easiest instrument to play: Aeolian harp. Just set it up and it plays itself.
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  #26  
Old 03-29-2005, 08:26 AM
BrotherCadfael BrotherCadfael is offline
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The classic answer is that the clarinet is easy to play, and the oboe very difficult.

No one can argue that the oboe is easy. HOWEVER, while the clarinet may be easy to play, listening to an elementary school woodwind ensemble will convince you that it is very difficult to play WELL.
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  #27  
Old 03-29-2005, 08:31 AM
fishbicycle fishbicycle is offline
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This reminds me that I read of a famous conductor who said that the oboe is "an ill wind that no one blows good."
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  #28  
Old 03-29-2005, 08:39 AM
AmericanMaid AmericanMaid is offline
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I took oboe lessons for years, taught myself to play piano, played the tenor sax and euphonium. In my experience, I'd say piano is fairly easy. Oboe and euphonium are equally hard. It took a while for my oboe not to sound like a dying duck. Brass is such a difficult experience for a woodwind player - only three keys and the notes created by the tension of your lips.
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  #29  
Old 03-29-2005, 08:59 AM
bouv bouv is offline
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I play(ed) trumpet and French horn, and I can tell you that yes, the French horn is hard. It is a very small mouthpiece, which in brass instruemnts means that more of the pitch and tone is created by how yuo use your lips. A tuba, on the other hand, has a HUGE mouthpiece, and it is a lot easier to hit the right notes. I remember in high school band the brass players always made fun of the woodwind players because they had it so easy. They liekd to assume that since they had more "thngis" to press with their fingers, that it was harder to play. Well, initially, learning how to get the fingering may be harder, but once you get past that, it is much more difficult to get the nots in brass instruments. You know how hard it is to make a couple dozen notes when you only have three valves? I remember the first time I got a piece of music and I had to continually hit a high C, no easy feat for for a high school trumpet player.

The first day i picekd up a French horn, though, I considered my trumpet as easy to play as those damn woodwind players did. If your lips are just a bit off, a very bad sound can eminate. In addition, gthere was a lot more tubing to ahve to push air through. If all my music was more like things a tuba or barotone played, well, all would be well, but arrangers tend to like the way a French horn sounds, so they give it thigns that might normally go to a string instrument, or trombone. Tonguing 16th notes at 160 beats/min is hard in a trumpet, damned mear impossible with French horn (at least it is for someone who had been playing it for less than a year.)
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  #30  
Old 03-29-2005, 09:22 AM
MrO MrO is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by AmericanMaid
In my experience, I'd say piano is fairly easy.
I tried to teach myself piano. I would agree that it's fairly easy--if only I had two independent brains! Right hand: no problem. Left hand: no problem. Both together: complete paralysis.

Percussion instruments aren't always as easy as they look. Triangle and gong may not require a lot of fancy fingerwork, but the people who play them often play lots of other percussion instruments in the same piece. A gong can be especially deceptive--strike it too softly and no one hears it. Strike it a little too hard and immediately liquify the brains of everyone in the building. (I played tympani in a high school orchestra, but occasionally had to reach over and bang the gong.)

Some musicians like to joke about the un-musicalness of drummers. Hell, a monkey can sit behind a drum kit and bang on things, right? Sure, if the monkey has four independent brains, as opposed to the two required to play piano. Each limb of a drummer is doing something different most of the time; it requires amazing coordination to put it all together. And even if doing nothing else, a good smooth roll on a snare drum takes plenty of practice.

I've played a few wind instruments--flute, sax, clarinets (mostly alto and bass clarinets). Not so hard to play adequately, but like most instruments, not easy to play really well. Sax, especially tenor or bari, can take an enormous amount of wind even to produce a sound. Flute was much easier for me, but fast fingerings are not easy to master, and to get a good tone requires great embouchure control. (I never tried to play piccolo, so I don't know if it's hard to play. I only wish it were impossible.)

My main instrument these days is electric bass, mostly fretless. I'd agree that electric bass is a pretty easy instrument to play adequately. Of course, to play like Victor Wooten, Tony Levin, or Jaco Pastorius is roughly as easy as walking on water.

Some instruments are harder than others to get started on. Violin, I suspect, has a pretty steep learning curve at first, whereas guitar and bass guitar really don't. To master an instrument, even a harmonica, takes work. How much work depends on individual talent and inclination. I'm pretty sure I could learn to flap my arms and fly more easily than I could learn to play piano.
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  #31  
Old 03-29-2005, 10:15 AM
BrotherCadfael BrotherCadfael is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fishbicycle
This reminds me that I read of a famous conductor who said that the oboe is "an ill wind that no one blows good."
In a similar vein, the bassoon is sometimes called the "farting bedpost".
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  #32  
Old 03-29-2005, 10:24 AM
siberia siberia is offline
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Bassoon player here. I actually started on the alto sax which I believe made learning the bassoon much less difficult. Creating and mastering a balanced embouchure on the sax was far easier yet was a great foundation for the double reed instruments.

To the OP, I think the answer to the question is going to vary depending on one's natural abilities.
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  #33  
Old 03-29-2005, 10:49 AM
F. U. Shakespeare F. U. Shakespeare is offline
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I've played guitar almost thirty years. I've played lead, solo fingerpicking, bottleneck slide, electric lap steel and Dobro. I also play harmonica.

All instruments are (about) equally hard to master. Where they vary is how hard it is to get to first-notch competence.

Of the instruments that I play, I would say harmonica is the easiest -- I was sounding good in a matter of months. But I haven't really improved for years -- it seems to have an unusual, steep learning 'plateau'.

And Dobro is the most challenging instrument that I play: both hands have to get very proficient at a lot of things. You have to have very good pitch, especially to play bar slants, and a good sense of theory and harmony to take advantage of the polyphony. And your picking hand has to be as fast as a banjo player's. Bluegrass Dobro (as distinguished from Hawaiian lap guitar and old-country Dobro) is basically slide guitar, played in your lap, picked like a banjo. Electric lap steel IMO is a little easier, because the bar doesn't have to be as athleticly handled.

Acoustic bottleneck blues slide is not all that hard to get to first base at, but part of that is because people are used to the imprecision of a lot of the 'primitive' repertoire. To play it exactingly, like Robert Johnson, Tampa Red, or Bob Brozman is as hard as Dobro.

For most people, basic guitar, i.e., strumming chords around the campfire, is almost as easy as the harmonica. Fingerpicking is of course harder. Playing lead is a mixed bag: to get good enough to express yourself musically is quite a challenge, as with any instrument. But you can sound good enough to impress non-musicians pretty quickly, especially if you use effects pedals. (Playing lead with a slide (ala Duane Allman) is more exacting). I taught guitar for several years, and these were my observations.

Although I have no first-hand experience with brass instruments, I have always presumed they were very hard. My brother is a professional bassist, arranger and composer -- he can pretty much play anything. And he said trumpet (which he switched from) was very hard.

I think the violin family of instruments (violin, viola, cello, bass) is quite difficult -- it is tough to make a bow sound good.
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  #34  
Old 03-29-2005, 11:03 AM
HeyHomie HeyHomie is offline
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I picked up a jaw harp about 20 years ago and had it down pat within minutes. Not just simple plucking, mind you. I'm talking about the types of complicated sounds like you'd hear in the Dixie Chicks' song Sin Wagon.
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  #35  
Old 03-29-2005, 12:09 PM
MagicEyes MagicEyes is offline
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The nose flute is easy to learn, too.

The piano is easy in a way, because if you hit a key, you get the right note every time. The hard part is, you have to play lots of notes all at the same time, and sometimes you have to play softly with one hand and louder with the other hand. With a lot of instruments, you only play one note at a time, so you don't have to worry about hitting all the right notes (and it's easier to read music when you only have one note at a time).

And then there's the organ--same thing as the piano, but you also play with your feet. That's a bit tricky.

MrO, keep trying. It's not impossible--if I can play the piano, anyone can!

Does anyone know how to play the theremin? Is it hard to play?
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  #36  
Old 03-29-2005, 12:56 PM
Apricot Apricot is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by GorillaMan
I've often got the impression that many of the 'difficulties' of the horn are actually from the differences between the modern instrument and that which particular music was written for. Plus an awful lot of bad writing. Does this tally with your experience?
Not sure, but I think you're right - I quit because I couldn't get any good parts. They'd pick music without a french horn part ('cause they're hard, you know) and I'd be stuck on clarinet again. I wish I said I've never seen a clarinet before.
I did go into it with a ton of piano experience, and I do think that helps with pitch and tone identification.
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  #37  
Old 03-29-2005, 03:08 PM
stpauler stpauler is offline
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From easier to harder (from my experience in playing them).
Fretted Instruments:
Strum Stick (as set up like an appalachian dulcimer)
Appalachian Dulcimer
Balalaika
Bass guitar
Ukulele
Mandolin/Mandola/Banjolin
Oud/Lute
4-String Banjo (Dixieland style strumming)
Guitar (Strumming)
5-String Banjo (Picking)
Guitar (Picking)
7-String Guitar
Chapman Stick (This was a serious WTF moment)
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  #38  
Old 03-29-2005, 03:32 PM
fishbicycle fishbicycle is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by stpauler
Chapman Stick (This was a serious WTF moment)
Boy, is it ever! I caught Emmett Chapman on an old game show (I think it was "What's My Line") demonstrating his instrument. He played "Yesterday". It was worse than terrible. I may never watch that particular piece of videotape again.
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  #39  
Old 03-29-2005, 04:00 PM
NAF1138 NAF1138 is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MagicEyes
The nose flute is easy to learn, too.



Does anyone know how to play the theremin? Is it hard to play?

I don't play theremin, but I ahve a friend who owns one and have gotten to fool around with it for several hours. While it is easy to play in the sense that it is easy to make noise with it (like a piano would be easy to play) it is unbelevably diffcult to control your tones well enough to play anything that sounds like music.

I got the opportunity to see Metropolis once with live thereman accompaniment
and it blew my mind.
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  #40  
Old 03-29-2005, 04:41 PM
Infovore Infovore is offline
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I always thought the didjeridoo would be difficult to learn, though I don't know how hard it is once you master the "circular breathing" concept. I worked with somebody who played one a few years ago and he let me try it, but I couldn't get the hang of breathing in and out at the same time.

And there's always the Space Bass. I met Constance Demby, the lady who invented it, once and she played us some of her CD. Seriously freaky, but it sounds kind of cool. No idea how hard it would be to play.
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  #41  
Old 03-29-2005, 05:16 PM
chaoticbear chaoticbear is offline
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I've played clarinet, alto and bari sax, trumpet and (baritone). The hardest of all was probably alto sax, due to the difficulty in controlling volume and because they had hard parts. This was followed by trumpet, which wasn't that hard mainly because I was on 4th part.
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  #42  
Old 03-29-2005, 06:37 PM
asterion asterion is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fishbicycle
Boy, is it ever! I caught Emmett Chapman on an old game show (I think it was "What's My Line") demonstrating his instrument. He played "Yesterday". It was worse than terrible. I may never watch that particular piece of videotape again.
I saw Tom Griesgraber (part of Agent 22) playing the Chapman stick here at school once. I gotta say, I was really impressed. Pretty good music, and lots of talent to pull off an instrument like that.
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  #43  
Old 03-29-2005, 08:02 PM
monica monica is offline
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I know nothing about music, but I wouldn't think the tamborine would be too challenging.
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  #44  
Old 03-29-2005, 09:16 PM
Sam Stone Sam Stone is offline
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For easiest instrument, I'd have to say the Irish Whistle or Tin Whistle. Of course, to play it beautifully you need a lot of skill, but anyone can pick up a whistle and learn to bang out a few tunes in a matter of a minutes to hours. It's easier than the recorder, and it's also easier to get good intonation.

I've played saxophone, piano, and guitar. I enjoy playing my whistle more than any of them. Mainly because it's easy - I have one sitting beside my desk, and even while I'm just waiting for a page to load I'll pick it up and play a few riffs.

The other nice thing about a whistle is that they are cheap. Usually, a cheap instrument is junk, but with a tin whistle, that's not the case. There are professional whistle players who play with $10 Clarke whistles.

There are also some very good Whistle resources on the internet, like the Chiff and Fipple forums. Lots and lots of free music as well, because a lot of it is traditional music that is in the public domain.
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