Unlike many classical musicians who can play two or more instruments to a very high level, we electric and acoustic guitarists rarely consider learning a second instrument and instead appear to devote our time to mastering the guitar’s intricacies. While I’m not saying this is a bad thing, I would like to outline some of the benefits which learning another instrument can give the ‘ax slinger’.
Recently I began taking piano lessons, and although I’m essentially a self-taught guitarist who has performed, taught and practised guitar for over twenty years, I am happy to report that the piano lessons are helping with many aspects of my guitar playing.
I want to share these thoughts so that they may give encouragement to those of you who may be worried that learning a second instrument will take too much practise time away from the guitar, or, that it will be teaching a completely separate set of techniques which are unrelated to the guitar, or, that you don’t have the time to learn a second instrument.
While this discussion comes from the perspective of a guitarist-who-is-also-learning-the-piano, I’m sure that many of these observations are applicable to other instrument combinations.
Time to Practise:
Scheduling sufficient practice time in our busy lives can be a nightmare. Many of you are probably thinking, ‘I don’t have enough time to practise one instrument, how will I practise two?’. While this argument is, for many, the main reason for not learning a second instrument, it doesn’t have to be.
The golden rule for any type of practice routine is, LITTLE AND OFTEN. Even ten minutes every day is better than two hours once a week; and you will see greater improvements also. The important point is that your practise is regular and is focussed on specific areas which require attention – playing through everything once is NOT focussed practice. Because having two instruments to practice means you’ll probably have even less time to spend practising, it tends to actually focus you onto areas which need the work as opposed to simply playing the easy parts and neglecting the more difficult.
As a largely self-taught guitarist I’m enjoying the fact that I’m being taught by someone else, as opposed to finding out information for myself. The piano’s long history means that there is no shortage of teaching methods, teaching material and repertoire. This structure is something which many self-taught musicians lack and for many their practice time is not as productive as it could be. Having specific practice material for scales and arpeggios; finger independence and dexterity; and performance pieces is a great way of dividing however much time you have for practising your instrument into productive, focussed sections.
Finger Independence and Dexterity:
Because classical pianists are trained so that they are capable of playing anything which is required, their finger dexterity and overall technical command of their instrument is generally far greater than the average guitarist. The exercises which pianists use to improve their capabilities translate well to the guitar.
Obviously, exercises for the left hand are more helpful for the guitar, although, my tapping hand has also gained more strength and endurance with piano practice.
Let’s face it, sight reading for most guitarists doesn’t rate very high on the need-to-learn list. If you are a guitarist who can only read a music chart very slowly, learning the piano will definitely assist in taking your sight reading skills to the next level. Because there is no equivalent alternative method for writing down piano music, such as tablature for guitar, all of the resources which you will be using for your piano lessons are written using standard notation. This will encourage you to learn the notes and it will improve your reading speed also. You will also have to learn the bass clef to play the piano which, although it may not seem important or necessary for a guitarist, is great for expanding your general music knowledge.
Probably the greatest difference between learning the guitar (modern styles) and learning a classical instrument is the amount of time which classical musicians take to perfect the intricacies of a piece. Dynamics in particular is one aspect which electric guitarists generally neglect as the use of an amplifier minimises the dynamic range of the guitar, unless you are constantly manipulating the volume pot or amp’s volume controls. Articulation is another aspect which generally doesn’t concern electric guitarists (again, it could be the amplifier’s influence which masks the many subtle ways in which a note can be played). Giving more thought to these aspects can give extra depth to your playing while also enhancing your connection with the notes and music.
You need to make sure that the second instrument is something that you really want to play. As with most things, if you have a strong urge to learn a second instrument then chances are, it’ll happen for you.