Guitar is arguably the most versatile musical instrument you can learn to play. Equally at home in pop music as it is in blues, reggae or metal. It can be carried around, played by the light of a campfire or plugged in — with the help of modern effects pedals — to make a whole host of new sounds.
It does however have some drawbacks, for instance, it is the most learnt instrument in the world other than piano. This is not a drawback in itself, but if you turn up to a jam session or sing-around you can be fairly sure that there will be more guitars than anything else most of the time. This means that there is often a lot of the same sound going and with such a wide variety of instruments in the world to learn why not create a little variety.
Learning guitar can be quite difficult, particularly if you have any problems with dexterity in your hands. If you suffer from arthritis then getting your fingers around the six strings of a guitar can be troublesome and often painful. But this shouldn’t stop you learning a guitar-like instrument.
Below are five alternative instruments to consider learning to play, each with their own advantages and disadvantages when compared to your standard six/string.
The first instrument to consider, being that it is the closest in relation to the standard six/string guitar, is the tenor guitar. Tenor guitars have smaller bodies than your standard guitar which makes them a little easier to cart around campsites and to carry on public transport.
The biggest advantage that tenor guitars have however is that they only have four strings. With only four strings the neck of the guitar is a lot narrower than that of its six string cousin. This means it is far easier to get smaller hands around and in general chords become a bit easier as you are having to hold down less strings.
There are several ways to tune a tenor guitar too, although there are two that lend them selves to ease of use.
Firstly, there is Chicago tuning, where you tune the strings to DGBE which is the same as the four thinest strings on a standard six-string guitar. If you are wanting to learn guitar and get that guitar sound then this is most likely the tuning for you. It also has the advantage that once you have learnt the chords on your tenor guitar you can easily transfer them on to any standard tuning six-string guitar.
The second tuning I feel is worth mentioning is Irish tuning or GDAE. This is great tuning if you are wanting to play folk tunes like Irish jigs and reels but it also lends itself to playing rhythm as may of the chords have a open or modal quality to them which is different enough from a standard guitar to be interesting whilst still being able to fit in any playing situation you are likely to find yourself.
Two more tunings that I should mention are CGDA which is known as standard tuning and ADAD. CGDA is arguably the correct tuning to use on a tenor guitar but as most songs in the pop/rock/folk genre tend to be in the keys of G, D, A or E the both Chicago tuning and Irish tuning tend to lend themselves easier. ADAD is a great tuning but it is very limited in terms of what keys you can play in.
If you are not sure what a Tenor Guitar sounds like then check out Nick Cave’s ‘Jubilee Street’ or Ani Difranco’s ‘Hypnotised’.
Tenor guitars are a great alternative to learning a standard six-string, particularly if you have small hands or just want something that is a little easier to carry around. You still get a good guitar-like sound out of them and can be used as a gateway into learning six-string if you want.
This one is a bit of cheat but I will make up for that later. A baritone ukulele is by all intents and purposes a tenor guitar, only with an even smaller body and nylon strings rather than steel, making it a little easier on the fingers than the tenor guitar.
It is tuned to Chicago tuning (DGBE) like the tenor and again, that is the same as the top four strings of a six-string guitar. This makes it a great gateway instrument if you are wanting to progress on to a standard guitar.
For these reasons a baritone ukulele is a great option for small children wanting to learn guitar. Six, seven and eight year olds in particular who often get given either a soprano ukulele or a nylon string classical/spanish guitar. The later of these has a really wide neck and it is very difficult for small hands to make a good sound out of. The soprano ukulele is less like a guitar than a baritone, plus it suffers from being so popular that it is tempting to buy them really cheap. As a basic rule, any ukulele that costs less than £50 is a toy not an instrument. They don’t stay in tune and sound horrible.
Conclusion: Best option for children who want to learn guitar but haven’t quite got the hands to deal with six-strings yet. If you are looking for a standard guitar like sound then the tenor guitar is is more likely to do that.
Some may see this as a slightly left field option being that it is often thought of as being quite a hard style of guitar to learn. For those that don’t know, slide or bottleneck guitar is where you play a standard six-string guitar by holding a metal or glass tube on the strings rather than your fingers and sliding it up and down to make the notes.
This has one huge advantage for some people and that is the lack of dexterity needed in you left hand (if you are right handed). Your left hand is the one that would usually be holding down the strings to make notes and chords. I have worked with many students, particularly those who are in their sixties and seventies who really struggle with arthritis in the hands. Now, if the lack of dexterity in the hand is mild then actually playing standard guitar or one of these alternatives could help improve the arthritis suffered by using muscles in the fingers regularly that are not often used in day-to-day life. If the arthritis is more severe then playing slide guitar may give you a way of being able to play music without the frustration of not being able to flex your fingers as you may want to.
To play slide guitar you take a slide (or bottleneck) and place it over either your third or fourth finger on your left hand. This is then held against the strings of the guitar inline with the frets. You don’t even have to push down too much as you really only want to make contact with the strings rather than the fretboard. When playing slide guitar you normally tune the guitar to an open chord, this means that if you hold the slide over the fifth fret and strum then you are playing a C chord and at the seventh fret you are playing a D chord (presuming the guitar is tuned to open G tuning).
The disadvantage to slide guitar is that it is pigeon-holed into being something that is only really played in blues music. While this is largely true, or at least the vast majority of slide guitar playing is in blues, it can be used in any other genre too and you will hear it pop up occasional in all sorts of places. For inspiration I urge you to check out Ry Cooders ‘Vigilante Man’ or anything with Derek Trucks playing on it.
Conclusion: Slide guitar is a great option if you are into blues or if you struggle with dexterity in the fingers. It can be a bit limited to begin with, but as you learn more you will see that it can fit into any situation that a standard guitar would.
For me, this is the king of the carry around instrument. Small enough to carry on your back through a crowded festival or slip in with your camping gear. They are fairly robust too and relatively inexpensive, you can pick up perfectly playable mandolins for around £80. Traditionally seen as an instrument used the music of Greek restaurants it has become a staple of of both British, Irish and American folk music. There is a lot of variety to be had with a mandolin, whether it is Irish jigs or bluegrass, alt. country or rock. You can strum it as you would a guitar and use it to accompany your voice or improvise blues solos in a jam session.
Mandolins have very thin necks, the thinest of any of the instruments in this list, and therefore are very good for dainty fingers and small hands. They are steel strung and the strings are quite high tension, so be prepared that your fingers tips will hurt a bit whilst you are first learning, but then this is true of any steel strung instrument. They are tuned to GDAE which means that you can transfer any knowledge from it onto a similarly tuned Tenor Guitar or Banjo as well as a Fiddle if you are brave enough.
You will likely know a mandolin sound from Rod Stewarts ‘Maggie May’ and R.E.M.’s ‘Losing My Religion’, both worth listening to but you should also check out Bill Monroe and Simon Mayor among others.
Great for small hands and really easy to carry around, very versatile. Can be a bit hard on the fingers.
As the butt of many musical jokes the banjo has become known as the marmite of stringed instruments. You either love them or you hate them. Personally I think this is terribly unfair as the banjo is a highly varied instruments, capable of fast and jaunty bluegrass speed as well as slow and morose dark folk. Typically when people talk about banjo they are referring to the American 5-string banjo, which is the correct banjo to play if you are interested in playing American styles such bluegrass, or old time. There is however a second kind worth mentioning which is the Irish or 4-string tenor banjo.
5-string banjos do have a few quirks that could be seen as disadvantages when put next to a guitar. Firstly, cheap banjos are often hard to tune, but this is not an insurmountable problem. Second, you don’t generally strum a banjo, or at least, not in the same way as you do a guitar. This means that the initial learning of banjo is slightly more complicated as you can’t just bash away on it with a pick, you use the fingers of you right hand to pick the strings. It does however have a good variety styles in which you can play, there is fingerpicking (bluegrass), frailing (banjo version of strumming but more complicated) and clawhammer (sometimes referred to as old time). Increasingly, 5-string banjos can be found playing comfortably in British or Irish folk settings as well as pop and rock bands such as Mumford and Sons.
4-string banjos — also known as an Irish tenor banjo — is a direct relation of the tenor guitar. Differing only in that you don’t tend to strum them as much. If you want to play folk tunes or you want the sound you hear in The Pogues then this is the banjo for you.
If you are not quite convinced on the banjo then go listen to 16 Horsepowers ‘Black Soul Choir’ or Bela Fleck playing with Gov’t Mule on The Deepest End Live album, either may change your mind.
Banjos are great instruments and a really good alternative to playing guitar as long as you are willing to put the work in. They are quite hard on the shoulder and arm if you are sat up playing for long periods of time. Pro Tip: best played in a hammock.
Play music. Be Folk.