An Introductory Guide to Becoming a Multi-Instrumentalist

Infographic: How Easy Is It To Switch Instruments? | Music Tips

Drummers, are you curious about the cello? Is it easy or hard to switch from guitar to piano? Learn the tips and tricks for switching instruments in this post by teacher Willy M

Have you been playing an instrument for a while now, but you’re beginning to realize that it doesn’t do everything you’d like to do musically? Did your parents spend a lot of money on an instrument (and you like it), but you’d also like to try something new?

If you answered yes to either of these questions, then this is the article for you!

Switching from one instrument to another — from guitar to piano, for example — doesn’t have to be difficult. Sure, you won’t master it overnight. But this article will dive into tips and tricks to make the transition easier.

How to Play Multiple Instruments

switching-from-piano-to-guitar

I am a multi-instrumentalist. I play keyboard instruments, and I play stringed instruments like the guitar, the banjo, and the mandolin. I also play wind instruments like the harmonica and the tin whistle, as well as percussion and drums for different bands.

People often come up to me when they see me perform with some kind of amazed wonder. Other musicians approach me as if I am some kind of superhuman to be able to play at a professional level on a wide variety of instruments.

But let me assure you, I am a normal person just like you.

What makes me different is that I’ve learned to understand that all instruments share some of the same fundamental principles. And once you understand the principles that apply to all instruments, you can figure out how to make music on these instruments.

But first, let’s break down the four main types of instruments:

  • Piano (including keyboards)
  • Stringed instruments (including guitar, banjo, mandolin, and violin)
  • Wind instruments (including flute, harmonica, brass instruments, and bagpipes)
  • Percussion instruments (including drum set, djembe, and cajon)

Understanding the Basics

switching-from-drums-to-guitar

There are a few things to keep in mind when transitioning from one instrument to another:

1) The basic notes will almost always be the same, no matter what instrument you switch to. (I say almost, because some world instruments do have extra notes, but for our discussion we will stick to well-known Western instruments.) A Major scale will always be A Major scale. A Minor scale will always be A Minor scale.

2) There will be some muscle memory issues that need to be worked out with almost every transition you make. Sometimes you will be switching from predominately using your left hand to predominately using your right, or vice versa. Sometimes, you’ll need to build finger strength when you move over to an instrument that requires more than your first instrument. Posture muscles, lip and mouth muscles, finger calluses, arm muscles, and even leg muscles may need to be developed and conditioned.

3) You may find that the way you comfortably sit with one instrument is not the way you sit comfortably with another instrument. As an example: when I play the banjo, I sit with my knees tucked in to allow the banjo a place to rest while I play, whereas with the drums, my knees are wider apart to reach the hi-hat and kick pedals.

4) You may find that your fingers are already trained. For instance, a guitar uses the left-hand fingers for playing chords and lead lines. The Irish tin whistle uses the left hand to finger some of the holes, and the dexterity gained from playing the guitar can easily cross over to the tin whistle.

5) Depending on the instrument you begin with, some new musical techniques may need to be learned. If you started with an instrument that uses a particular clef, you might need to learn to read another clef. If you never read tablature before, you might need to learn.

How to Switch Instruments – Diving In Further

An Introductory Guide to Becoming a Multi-Instrumentalist

So now that we’ve covered some basic things that you need to look out for, let’s take a look at switching to and from certain instrument categories.

Jump to Sections:

Piano to Strings
Piano to Wind
Piano to Percussion
Strings to Piano
Strings to Wind
Strings to Percussion
Wind to Piano
Wind to Strings
Wind to Percussion
Percussion to Piano
Percussion to Wind
Percussion to String
Recap

  • Switching From Piano to a String Instrument

Switching from keyboards to stringed instruments can be tricky. If you are switching to a stringed instrument that primarily uses tablature (guitar, banjo, mandolin, lute) you might find that learning to read the TAB is confusing.

Another thing to look out for is this: when you play a keyboard instrument, it takes little to no muscle strength to push down on the keys to produce a note. But with most stringed instruments, you will need to build up finger strength, finger sensitivity (yes, you might start developing calluses on your fingers), and even arm strength when you transition. These things are normal.

  • Switching From Piano to a Wind Instrument

When you switch from playing the piano or keyboard to an air-blown instrument, you may find that you are much more conscious about your breath control. You may find that your ribs hurt, and you might feel lightheaded at first as you learn how to support your breath. Also, depending on the type of instrument (padded, valve, or open-holed) you may find that you develop thicker pads on your fingers if you are switching to an open-holed type of wind-blown instrument.

As far as reading music is concerned, though, most wind instruments use the same clefs that you have already memorized– so that will be easy for you!

  • Switching From Piano to Percussion/Drums

One of the nice things about switching from piano (where you are using pedals with one foot) or organ (where you are using pedals with two feet) to the drum kit is that you are already trained to use your feet as you play. This dexterity of your hands and feet will make this transition much easier.

Also, many piano parts in popular music and classical styles tend to be rhythmic and multi-rhythmic, respectively,  so mastering the multi-rhythms of the drums should feel like something you already know.

The tricky part of this switch is it might take you some time to develop finesse on the drums. It is all well and good to beat out a rhythm on a percussion instrument, but to do it smoothly and with subtlety will take some practice.

  • Switching From a String Instrument to Piano

It’s always easy for me to spot a performer who started out on a stringed instrument and then moved to the keyboard, because they tend to have what I call the “guitarist’s hiccup.” When you play guitar, you play left then right — the left hand forms the chord first and then the right hand strums. Even if this is done almost instantaneously, it is still something that you will hear when a guitarist-turned-pianist plays. There is always a ba-dum rhythm to their playing as the left hand lands on the keyboard slightly before the right hand. Musicians who successfully transition from guitar to piano learn how to get rid of this stutter.

Another thing for some string players to consider: if you’re switching from an instrument that is devoted to one clef, you might need to learn a new clef; if you are coming from a TAB-based instrument, you’ll need to learn how to read sheet music. Also, proper seated position at a keyboard might be a bit uncomfortable for some string players, but you’ll develop it with practice.

  • Switching From a String Instrument to a Wind Instrument

Many of the challenges here are the same as the ones I mentioned for switching from piano to wind instruments.

Additionally, if you’re a guitar player who has developed calluses on your fingers, you may have some trouble with open-holed instruments, as the calluses on your fingers may cause a gap. You’ll have to press down with extra strength to seal the hole.

Here’s the bonus: Some air-blown instruments can be played while you play your stringed instrument, like playing a harmonica with a guitar.

  • Switching From a String Instrument to Percussion

Moving from a stringed instrument to a percussion instrument, like from guitar to drums, is a relatively easy transition. Both use wider arm movements, and both tend to be used as rhythmic instruments. Percussion sheet music is similar to TAB, and often the rhythm string players are used to listening for the kick drum to help them keep time. The left-hand dexterity that is developed in many stringed instruments is also good for helping you play smoothly.

However, if you’re switching to a drum set that requires playing with both hands and feet, this is where you’ll need practice.

  • Switching From a Wind Instrument to Piano

This may be one of the more difficult transitions to master. Muscle memory will need to be re-learned, since your hands will transition from being in-line to side-by-side. You’ll be a pro at reading one clef — but with keyboard you’ll need to read two clefs (and up to 10 notes) at a time.

For this type of switch, I recommend approaching each finger on the keyboard as if you were looking at a separate wind instrument. Spend a lot of time learning how chords and harmony work, too.

  • Switching From a Wind Instrument to a String Instrument

This can also be a bit of a tough switch, as you’ll have a similar problem with the hand positions. You also may have a lot of pain as you develop calluses on your fingers, and as you develop muscles in the arms you are not used to using.

Also, if you play an open-holed wind instrument, keep in mind the same advice applies from transitioning from strings to air-blown instruments. Your calluses might get in the way of achieving a nice tone on the stringed instrument. You may also need to learn how to read tab, if you’re switching to guitar.

  • Switching From a Wind Instrument to Percussion

If you play a wind instrument, switching to percussion might seem like a bizarre transition. For some percussion instruments, you’ll need to get used to using both your hands and your feet!

Keep in mind, though, that rhythm doesn’t change from one instrument to the other, so the rhythmic principles will always apply. And the fact that you are used to playing left and right hands in various sequences will do you well when you switch over to the drums.

  • Switching From Percussion to Piano

Switching from drums to piano produces a lot of the same challenges as the other way around. On the plus side, it’s good that you can use both your hands and your feet. This will be useful, especially if you are going to be playing the organ.

But there are a lot of new musical principles that percussionists will need to learn. For example, you’ll have to learn chords, scales, how melodies work, how chord progressions work, how harmony works, and the differences between major and minor and modes. It’s a far greater learning curve than the other transitions that I mentioned above.

  • Switching From Percussion to a Wind Instrument

As a percussionist, you’ll likely have rhythm down pat — so that part will be easy for you. But for this transition, you’ll learn to focus on one note and one hand position at a time. While you might find this a bit constrictive, in the end it will give you another outlet for your musical expression. You’ll also need to practice breath control and support.

  • Switching From Percussion to a String Instrument

Like the transition from drums to piano, switching from drums to strings has a whole host of challenges. The foremost is probably development of finger strength, which is not something most percussionists spend a lot of time on (unless you play something like the djembe or cajon). Other issues include learning tab or sheet music, learning about chords and harmonies, learning about melody, and all of the other things that you would learn if you were to transition to the keyboard, as mentioned above.

On the plus side, you’ve probably built up your arm strength, which will carry over well.

Recap: Notes for Switching Instruments

guide-to-switching-instruments-guitar-piano-violin-etc

Ready to Make the Musical Switch?

So this concludes my overview of the tips and techniques that will help you become a multi-instrumentalist. One last piece of encouragement: if you decide to delve into this exciting world, know that you will be greatly rewarded! You’ll learn about different aspects of music, as well as find your strengths. In the end, you’ll be a much better musician all around.

Readers, what instrument will you learn next? Are you currently switching from guitar to piano, piano to guitar, or another category? Leave a comment below and share your experience!

 

Willy MPost Author: Willy M.
Willy M. teaches guitar, ukulele, and mandolin lessons in Winston Salem, NC. Willy has been teaching for 20 years, and his students have ranged in age from young children to folks in their 80s. Learn more about Willy here!

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2 replies
    • Suzy S.
      Suzy S. says:

      Hi Lathan! What area are you in? Are you looking for an in-person teacher, or online? Give us a call at 800-537-4404 and we can help you find a teacher based on your criteria 🙂

      Reply

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