Teaching oneself to play an instrument

Lately I’ve had the itch to learn how to play a musical instrument. Either the bass or piano. Conveniently enough, there’s a Yamaha upright sitting in the den. It’s my wife’s.

How far can teach-yourself-to-play-in-10-easy-lessons-type books and programs take you?

Have any Dopers taught themselves to play an instrument?

I played the violin in high school but I received instruction from teachers and various tutors. Fast forward to after high school and I’ve not played the violin in 5 years but I’m itching to play an instrument again. I decide to pick up a mandolin because the strings are the same as the violin and I can still read the music.

It didn’t take long for me to get as far as I could get without instruction. The benefit to instruction is that someone can tell you what you’re doing wrong. That goes a long way towards making you a better player. In my opinion you also need other people to play with to make you a better musician. So it would help to find a group of people to play with. If I were a more talented musician I probably could have gone farther without needing lessons.

You could probably learn some of the basics of playing a piano or a bass. You could figure out what key is what note and maybe play a few simple tunes. You might even be able to learn to play fairly well but i think it’d take a lot more time and effort on your own.


I play guitar, and I never took lessons.

Well, no official lessons. And I still can’t read proper music.

My most valued tools for learning were a chord book, some magazines and heaps of people patient enough to show me a thing or two. And lot’s of practice.

Good luck.

Well, I taught myself guitar and, at one point, I was good enough to make a living off it. Here are my tips.

First, go to a bookstore or college bookstore and pick up a Music Theory 101 book. Read it and learn it. *Note, music theory just is, don’t try and over think it. When I first got into theory I kept asking ‘Why?’. The short answer, which I told all my students, is that it just is. Accept it and move on. Later it will make more sense.

Second, buy a practice book that has finger exercises and a metronome. Practice with the METRONOME. It’ll be hard at first but, trust me, it would be harder to play with a metronome later.

Third, break up your time into two parts, practice and playing. Practice is doing exercises. Playing is working on actual songs you want to learn and trying a hand at writing. If you just practice all the time you’ll get bored. If you try playing without practicing you’ll get frustrated. It’s hard to judge the right ratio of practice to playing but to start I’d go with 70-30 until your fingers get trained.

Last, have fun with it. Experiment. Hit different notes-keys and hear what happens. Try to play a song by ear or try and play something you hear in your head.


When I was 9, I decided to join the school band. The band director asked me what instrument I was going to play (at that point, I had never played any instrument). I figured I’d better try the simplest one, easiest to learn. I said, “Drums.” The director said, “Nah, we already got four drummers, pick something else.” I looked at the clarinets, all covered with a veritable Jungle Gym of metal keys. All those keys! How do they ever learn to play those things? Clarinets, flutes, & saxes scared me off. I looked for the second simplest instrument. Trumpets—they only have three moving parts! I said, “Trumpet.”

That night my Dad took me to the music store and rented a cornet, and bought an elementary trumpet practice book. At home he placed it on the stand, explained the treble staff (Every Good Boy Does Fine, F-A-C-E), and said: Go to it. I was like, what?! How do I get started? Dad told me to just play. So I did. I learned the fingerings, made the notes, played scales, and started reading music for the first time. It’s like throwing a kid into the deep end of the pool to teach him to swim. In my case, it worked.

A few years later, I got out my Dad’s clarinet, and found an elementary clarinet practice book. I taught myself the notes the same way, and realized that appearances can be deceiving: trumpet fingerings combined with embouchure are really no simpler than clarinet keys, and the clarinet wasn’t half as tricky as it looked. I quickly became proficient on clarinet with no lessons, and in 11th grade the band director switched me to bass clarinet because he needed a fuller bass sound.

When I was 10, visiting someone’s house with a piano, I found Middle C and picked out a tune from my trumpet practice. The grownups said: Wow, he’s talented! Soon after we got our own piano and I learned the bass clef and taught myself to play right off. I did take piano lessons for years, but only after teaching myself first. I got to where I gave a recital and took first place in a regional piano competition when I was in 11th grade. I played Beethoven’s Sonate Pathétique in the recital and Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in D Minor at the competition. I have to admit the lessons helped!

When I was 15, I was consumed with the desire to play violin. I bugged my parents until they bought me one, and I just, you know, taught myself using an elementary practice book. By this time I had a solid grasp of music theory so I knew how to find the notes. If you’re really motivated to learn something, you’ll put the time and practice into it to learn it. That’s how I learned the violin, just by playing and playing a lot every day.

I soon figured out how to play chords on all 4 violin strings at once, so I strummed it like a guitar to play pop tunes. My Dad had a baritone ukelele (which has 4 strings tuned the same as the highest 4 strings on a guitar, only missing the deep A and E), so I used the guitar notations in pop song books to teach myself the chords. When I picked up a real guitar soon after, I just started playing on all 6 strings. No biggie. I played guitar, guitar, guitar for hours on end. I still jam guitar all the time and use it to compose new songs.

When I was 19, my friend was starting a band and invited me to play piano for it; he had a saxophone nobody was using so I just picked it up and played. It wasn’t much different from a clarinet.

The age of 19 was also when I taught myself the Arp 2000 synthesizer (they had one at my college) and also the Jew’s harp. I took synthesizer every semester (self-taught), learned what patch cords go where, and got automatic A’s (the only course requirement was to compose and record one piece), to keep my grade point average up and have fun doing it.

When I was 20, I borrowed my sister’s flute and started fluting like nobody’s business. Nothing to it.

When I was 23, my friend gave me an African mbira and this has got to be the coolest instrument in the world: anything you do on it automatically sounds good! It wasn’t even a question of learning how to play it. The main challenge was tuning it.

When I was 36, I finally got my own drum. A frame hoop drum called a gedang from Malaysia, pretty much the same as an Irish bodhrán. After practicing a lot I figured out how to make it sound good and invent some cool rhythms. Last year my wife gave me a small conga drum from the Dominican Republic and I’ve been practicing on that a lot. Fascinatin’ rhythm.

When I was 37, an Egyptian guy I knew was moving and sold me his ‘ûd. I quickly found where the notes were and played Arab tunes on it until it got broken. :frowning:

So the point of my story is:

  1. Learn music theory and you’ll be able to apply it to learning any new instrument; it will save lots of time and effort.
  2. If you really want to learn to play, don’t go at it halfhearted. Plunge right in, get obsessed with it, and play it all the time, get it in your blood. Have fun with it and you’ll progress rapidly. :slight_smile:

I wish I were you, Mojo!

The best advice I can give you is to not go at it alone. You don’t really need lessons as long as you have some place to start (a beginners book) and someone to play with that either you can learn with or can show you a few things.
You can learn so much from jamming.

I agree with learning music theory, too. I’m by no means an expert on it, but the little I have learned so far has gone a long way. And I’m really not taking AP Music Theory next year for the college credit!

I taught myself how to play guitar using only guitar tablature. It is very easy to understand, although I think you look at the guitar in a totally different way than someone who learned the theory. Tab teached how to use your hands to make the right noises basically.

If you are going to try guitar, don’t waste a single minute of the first 5 years or so on reading sheet. Its a total waste because IMHO only .00001% of all guitar players read sheet music. You are never in a spot where you will have to spot read guitar.

Since your wife plays bass (assuming she owns one for the purpose of playing, and not some other mysterious reason), perhaps she can help you out with whatever instrument you choose. (By the way, bass playing ladies are awesome) Remember, on the upright, it’s fretless, so you’ll have to do some ear training to learn intervals.

I’d really recommend lessons for any instrument. It’s well worth it; you’ll advance much faster. Plus, if you don’t have any previous musical training, a lot of stuff makes a lot more sense when explained by somebody else. Important stuff like music theory (helps you produce what you hear in your head with less trial and error), and reading music (which is much better than tablature). While you may be able to get away with not reading sheet music on guitar, if it’s piano or bass, I’d really recommend it, even if you don’t use it every day.

Knowing how to read music is a waste? Are you kidding? Ever heard of classical guitar? Andrés Segovia? Imagine learning to play the Concierto de Aránjuez from tabs. :rolleyes: