Choosing An Instrument for a Beginning Child Student.
Updated January 30, 2014
Because of it’s small size , only 4 nylon strings and it’s affordability, I think Ukulele is an excellent first choice for a beginner looking to play an instrument.
This is the one I have – $50 at Amazon and is beautiful. It’s a soprano size, which is the most common and the smallest.
This is an interesting beginners instrument designed by a guy named Bob McNally. It’s a kind of mountain dulcimer that sounds like a banjo and has 3 strings tuned to a chord, so it always sounds good. The quality of the build is excellent and it always stays in tune! I suggest getting the smaller sized one in the key of G. $150 at Amazon: McNally G-29 Standard Strumstick
GUITAR FOR KIDS
For older beginning guitar students, I recommend either a nylon string classical guitar in a smaller size or an electric guitar in half size. The electric guitar is actually easier to play as the strings are usually closer to the fretboard. The quality of beginner instruments has risen remarkably in the last decade and I am very impressed with all of these instruments.
Recommended Nylon String Classical Small Size guitars
The nylon strings are easier to press than acoustic steel strings.
1) Yamaha CGS 102 – great quality for the price.
2) Hohner HC03 – I had a similar Hohner many, many years ago when I was a boy. I think my mother bought in college and I loved it.
Recommended Small Size Steel String Acoustic Guitars
If you’re child is 7 or older and looking for the brightness of the steel strings used in much pop, rock and country, there is only one choice that I would recommend:
Taylor Guitars Baby Taylor, BT2, Mahogany, Natural - I compared this to several other guitars in the same size including Martin’s and there was no comparison. This guitar is just awesome. I have one and I’ve recommended it to all my guitar students. It’s about $300 and comes in different finishes including a flowery Taylor Swift model, popular with the girls.
The 2 biggest names in guitars have long been Gibson and Fender. They also both have a second line of guitars that are like their more economy or value line. It’s sort of like how Toyota has a high end line Lexus. Both Gibson and Fender are like the high end and their respective lower lines are Epiphone and Squier. There are also excellent guitars from Yamaha and Ibanez too.
Here’s a few recommended models for young beginners.
Fender Squier® Mini Stratocaster® Electric Guitar, Pink, Rosewood Fretboard - great in that this comes in multiple popular color choices like black, pink, blue, red and is smaller sized at 3/4 scale. Perfect for little hands. About $99.
Epiphone LP Special II Les Paul Electric Guitar, Vintage Sunburst - a great quality instrument and added advantage is that it is lighter than the Gibson Les Paul. It is a regular sized guitar but not too big feeling for most teens. $149.
Yamaha Gigmaker EG Electric Guitar Pack with Amplifier, Gig Bag, Tremolo Bar, Tuner, Instructional DVD, Cable, Strap, Strings, and Picks – Black - This is a great value package and the Guitar is a Pac 012 which is a very nice guitar. This comes with the amp, gig bag, tuner, cable, strap, picks and everything you need even a DVD to teach you some basics. I’m a big fan of Yamaha guitars which in my opinion are very under-rated. Carlos Santana is probably the most well-known player of them. I still love my 30 plus year old SA 2000.
This package is about $230.
Squier by Fender “Stop Dreaming, Start Playing” Set: Affinity Series Strat with Fender Frontman 10G Amp, Tuner, Instructional DVD, Gig Bag, Cable, Strap, and Picks – Brown Sunburst - This is a great deal and is a full size Stratocaster style guitar and includes an amp. The gig bag is not very high quality. One of my students has this set and the bag broke on the first week of use. But everything else is very good. Comes in different colors. Around $200.
Ibanez GRX20 Electric Guitar (Black Night) - I had an awesome Ibanez guitar growing up. This company started in the 1930′s making Spanish flamenco guitars in Japan. In the 80′s they started getting recognition for their electrics with players like Steve Vai, John Scofield opening the doors. Now they are a well respected brand and a great first instrument for your kid. This one is $149.
AMPS for Young Electric Guitarists
Here’s a few amps that won’t shatter your eardrums, have headphone jacks and offer some portability and good value.
Danelectro N10A Honey Tone Mini Amp in Aqua - Super small and runs on 9 volt battery. You may want to get a power adaptor to save on batteries when not needed. This is so small you can carry it everywhere with you. Not going to be the hugest sound, but good for practice.
Fender Frontman 10G Electric Guitar Amplifier - this is what comes in the beginner kits. It’s pretty good – not super portable but enough to carry around the house. Probably not walking to a lesson every week.
Marsh Sound Design MG10CD MARSHAL 10 WATT GUITAR AMP - Similar to the Fender Frontman with the Marshall sound.
Fender Champion 20, Guitar Amplifier, Black - $99 a decent small amp and a redesign of the old tube classic without the tubes.
Yamaha THR Series Amps THR10 THR10 Electric Guitar Mini Amplifier - when you are ready for the best. This absolutely is amazing. Love, love, love it! And so small too.
While a quality acoustic piano is a wonderful instrument and can never be matched by an electric/digital one, the maintenance and cost of a high quality upright or baby grand or grand is usually more than most parents of beginning students want to spend. I’ll address acoustic pianos in the future. For now, here’s some recommended electronic keyboards.
Portable Electric Keyboards Below $200
These are not full sized keyboards and may be appropriate for the earliest beginners if you’re not sure the child will continue beyond a few lessons. Still they are playable and can be inspiring and fun thereby creating more interest.
Yamaha Piaggero NP11 61-Key Lightweight Compact Portable Keyboard - This is very good for the money and size. It even runs on batteries and can become a travel keyboard if you step up to a full size digital piano later. The quality of sounds is quite good and I’ve had several students purchase this one and all have been very pleased. About $160.
Casio LK165 Lighted Key Premium Keyboard Pack with Headphones, Power Supply, and Stand - Casio is another well known maker of digital keyboards and the quality is quite high for the price. Again, this is a smaller keyboard than a full size piano but can be useful to gauge your child’s interest before committing to a real acoustic piano or a full sized 88 key digital piano. About $130 including stand, headphones.
DIGITAL PIANOS – 88 Keys
When you know you are going to be playing real piano pieces I recommend you move to a full size 88 key digital piano or an acoustic piano. Here are a few of my recommended digital pianos and notes about them. The stage pianos are more portable but can also be paired with a matching stand which makes it attractive enough for the family room.
The big names in digital pianos are Yamaha, Casio, Kawai, and Roland. These names are the ones you come across in most piano forums with Yamaha and Casio being the front runners.
A note about Polyphony
You’ll come across this term polyphony which basically means how many notes the piano can handle in it’s digital memory before running out. Most modern digital pianos are at least 64 notes which is pretty good. The better ones have 128 and then 256 and even higher. This becomes a factor if you are playing pedaled notes which keep ringing. If you are using a low polyphony keyboard, you’ll start to notice how some of your notes will drop away as you add more. Not exactly realistic, but it’s how they save on costs for the lower end models.
Here are my recommended Digital Pianos Below $1000
Yamaha P155 Contemporary Piano with Mahogany Top Board; Black - This is the one I use for my students recitals and for my own composing and mixing. It is lovely and combines the relative portability, high quality sounds, and touch that are perfect for just under $1000.
- 88-note, GHE (Graded Hammer Effect) weighted-action keyboard
- 128-note polyphony
- Dynamic Stereo Sampling – 4 separate layers of stereo samples
- Key-Off Sample plus Sustain Sample for acoustic piano realism
- Emulates the soft/half pedaling and damper effects of an acoustic
Yamaha P Series P105B 88-Key Digital Piano - about $600
This one is the little brother of the P155 and yet adds some other features like a drum machine. The touch action is a little less realistic than the P155 too.
- PureCF-sampled piano: Sampled from Yamaha’s own acclaimed CFIII concert grand, no digital piano at this price point delivers recordings from such a high-end instrument.
- Pianist styles: This built-In duet partner plays along with you in one of ten different playing styles.
- Built-In drum patterns: Basic drum patterns put the “fun” back into practicing and is a practical alternative to a metronome. Or turn your solo act into a two piece band where the drummer is always on time.
- 88-note, weighted GHS action: Heavier touch in the low end and lighter in the highs, just like an acoustic piano
- 128-note polyphony: Even when using dual Voice and split mode with a drum pattern, 128-note polyphony ensures every note gets heard.
Casio PX780 Privia 88-Key Digital Home Piano, Black - about $1000 – This is a similar Casio to the Yamaha P155. I preferred the touch feeling on the Yamaha, but the Casio is very similar in value and sound quality. Also 128 note polyphony.
- 88 Note Scaled Hammer-Action Keyboard
- AiR Sound Source
- Ebony and Ivory Feel Keys
- Hammer Response and String Resonance Simulation
Casio PX150 BK 88-Key Touch Sensitive Privia Digital Piano with Tri-Sensor Scaled Hammer Action - A more affordable scaled-down version of the above Casio. Just under $500 – great value!
- Keyboard: 88 keys, weighted scaled hammer action
- Sound Source: AiR (Acoustic & intelligent Resonator)
- Polyphony (maximum): 128
- Tones: 18 Built-in tones, Duet Mode, Layer, Split, Octave Shift
- Simulator: Hammer Response, Damper Resonance, String Resonance, Lid Simulator
Digital Furniture Pianos – Ones that Look Great In Your Living Room – and Sound Great Too!
As I always tell my student parents, please put your instrument in a central part of the living area so that it becomes a magnet to your child. They will naturally want to practice and show off what they learned as you are there to hear them! The worst thing is to put it in a hidden corner and then command your child to go practice by themselves! That’s like banishment to the Practice Dungeon!
So with that in mind, why not invest in a piano that adds to the style of your living room? Something that looks iike furniture, but has the added ability to turn down the volume, never need tuning and even use headphones for early or late practicing.
Most of the digital pianos can be purchased with a matching stand to make it fit more in with your furniture. Here’s a few that are more built out which also gives them room for bigger more realistic sounding speakers.
- 88-key GH(Graded Hammer) weighted action keyboard
- Dynamic Stereo Sampling AWM piano with 128-note polyphony
- 2-track, 3-song recorder
- USB TO DEVICE port
- LED Display
Casio AP420 Celviano Digital Piano with Bench - about $1100
- New Linear Morphing AiF sound source with 16 tones
- New 3-sensor hammer action
- Keyboard with matted “Ivory Touch” surface
- New 2 x 20 watt speaker system
- USB terminal, SD memory card slot, Line
I recently have become aware of a Vocal Training device. Skeptical at first, I accepted a trial version from Roland and have been pleasantly surprised. The VT 12 is a digital device that does several things:
- Plays pre-recorded vocal warmup and training exercises from both standard classical sources AND more pop, jazz, rock exercises from Berklee College of Music
- Monitors your pitch and gives you visual feedback
- Allows you to record your workout/exercise and listen back
- Can even tune multiple voices for duos, trios!
- Exercises have a guide vocal or without
- Exercises have a full accompaniment including piano, bass, drums – so much more fun than plunking it out yourself on the piano
I am quite impressed and about to order it myself as I have to give back the one they sent me for reviewing with my students.
DRUMS FOR KIDS
When you’re a kid, anything can become a drum from a box to a pot to a garbage can. When you’re ready to get something that sounds a lot better, get them a cajón. A what? A cajón is a box drum from Peru that is taking the world by storm. These box drums are so portable, convenient and sound incredible, they are turning up in all kinds of music from world to pop to jazz to bluegrass, acoustic country – you name it.
- Birch Front Plate
- Body Constructed of Birch
- Specially-designed for the little ones -with both Kids Cajon’s, young musicians have two robust instruments at their disposal, which, with their child-friendly size and real Cajon sound, make playing fun.
I’ve become so enamored with the possibilities of the cajon that I’ve created another site all about them. Check out more about box drums here.
In music timing is key. A metronome is a device that provides a reliable beat. Practicing with a metronome builds strong listening and rhythm skills and will enable you or your child to play with others. (If you can’t play to a beat, you’ll never play in a band!)
There’s no reason to spend a lot of money on this. Here’s one that has a quartz crystal and is less than $20. You can play with sound, or just a light or even with an earphone. I’ve even heard of athletes running with a metronome earphone so they can pace themselves!
I recently started using a free metronome on my iPhone from Steinway & Sons. Awesome. Look for it in the App store.
Here’s one I have :
Wittner Metronome. I’ve had it for over 20 years and it still works great!
Wittner MT50 Metronome
What About Toy Pianos?
Someone recently asked me about the toy pianos made by Schoenhut. While these are beautiful (and costly!) and have a distinctive bell-like tone, I do not recommend these for learning the piano. I would love one of these just to have the special effect for use in say a toy commercial soundtrack or to add quirkiness to a pop recording. For learning piano, I think it’s use is limited and may become tiresome after a few months. For the same price, you can get a digital keyboard or digital piano above.