You might find yourself overwhelmed when you first walk into a music shop, and it might not just be the number of people playing “Stairway to Heaven” on the guitar. There are always so many instruments to choose from, it can be dizzying to try and name them all.
That’s why most instruments fit into one of four categories: strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion. These sections make up an orchestra, but not every instrument in them feels at home in a music hall. From electric guitars that would make heavy metal fans swoon to delicate harps made for the lightest of touches, here is an introduction to the different types of instruments available to musicians around the world.
The String family of instruments is the largest family in an orchestra. Stringed instruments vary from the traditional concept of a guitar (check out our reviews of the best acoustic guitars for beginners, best acoustic guitar for the money, best electric guitar for the money, best guitars for bluegrass, best classical guitars under $1,000, best acoustic guitars for blues, best lap steel guitars for beginners, and best electric guitar under $200), violin, or upright bass, to things like mandolins, harps, and even pianos (though there is some debate over if a piano is a stringed instrument or a percussion instrument). Every instrument can be broken down into different categories based on their size and use, as well as if they are electric or come with an amp hookup. For example, travel guitars are made for those who need a compact solution to bringing a guitar on the road. Before picking out a stringed instrument, keep in mind that you may need a different sized instrument depending on the age of the musician, and to look into the best kind of musical instrument for your investment.
If you see yourself becoming a full-time upright bassist, the it makes sense to invest in a high quality instrument that will last you for decades to come. If, however, you’ve never played the instrument before in your life, you may want to take lessons before making the full investment, or look into cheaper, but still worthwhile styles to purchase as your practice instrument. For example, if you think you want to learn the ukulele you should start with a ukulele for beginners. Likewise, if you want to learn the banjo, start with a banjo for beginners. If you want to learn the bass, go for a beginner bass guitar. Stringed instruments present the additional challenge of restringing the instrument, which can be a bit confusing at first.
Thankfully there are many different tutorials to help take some of the twists and turns out of tuning and maintaining your stringed instrument of choice.
From bassoons to pan flutes and everything in between, the woodwind family is named for the wooden reed present in the various instruments under this name. Woodwinds are largely divided by their size and their range, from the deep sound of a contrabassoon to the high pitched noise of a penny whistle. Learning to play a woodwind instrument requires patience and breath training, as your breathing needs to be both powerful and even to produce a clear note.
Flutes and other woodwinds have been found throughout human history, including discoveries from tens of thousands of years ago. While many ancient flutes were made of bone, modern woodwinds are traditionally made with either wood or metal, and are carefully constructed to produce the clearest notes possible. When shopping for a woodwind, keep in mind that mastering a woodwind can take years of dedication and practice. While it may be tempting to grab the first piccolo you see and decide to improv like Ferris Bueller, the resulting squeaks may be less musical than you would have hoped for. For an easier instrument, try a harmonica.
Another thing that comes along with maintaining a woodwind instrument is changing the reed. Some woodwinds have as many as four reeds to produce the proper sound, and should these reeds crack you will find yourself in need of a replacement. Thankfully there are plenty of replacement reeds to choose from, so you don’t have to worry about going without your flute for very long.
This section includes trumpets, trombones, and French horns, to name a few. For many people, the idea of picking up a brass instrument as a hobby seems unheard of. However, they’re missing out on one of the most interesting families of instruments. Unlike their name, brass instruments are not all made of brass. What includes an instrument in the brass family is that they create noise due to vibration, specifically the vibration of the musician’s lips. By resonating this noise through the shape of the horn, they can produce the loud, recognizable sound of a bugle, or the soft sound of a muted French horn.
Instruments made of animal horns are also considered brass instruments, even though they are not made of metal. Brass instruments depend on valves and turns to create their iconic sound, and a fair amount of lung strength (and arm strength, if you’re a tuba player). From spit valves to seals and everything in between, learning to play a brass instrument may seem daunting at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be happy to join in with the rest of the band, or practice your trombone skills for your adoring public.
These are the real hard hitters (pun intended) of the instrument world. From child drum kits to triangles and cymbals, percussion instruments get their sound from, well, percussion. By hitting together instruments, using a drumstick, or even using your hands, percussion instruments create the beat that guides the other instruments. Like how a good rock band is nothing without their bassist, without percussion instruments songs everywhere would fall flat.
While a majority of percussion instruments are some kind of drum, the varying size and tone of different drums makes this a large category to tackle when first starting out. From the rattle of a cajon box drum to the deep thudding of a bass drum, the first thing to keep in mind when shopping for your next percussion instrument is what part you want your music to play in the song. Mastering percussion takes more than just a strong arm. A good percussionist has a sound sense of rhythm that guides the song from beginning to end. They should be able to weave multiple rhythms together without overpowering the song. And, of course, they should know how to get loud when they want to be.
From solid wooden drums to drums with skin drum heads, choosing the right percussion instrument requires getting a feel for the beat, and your price range.
No matter your instrument of choice, taking the time to practice your music (perhaps with a metronome) and choosing the right instrument can go a long way to getting you to the steps of Carnegie Hall (or the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame). Whether you’re a fan of the woodwinds, kalimbas, or looking for a new looper pedal or tremolo pedal for your guitar, there’s a wide world of instruments out there to choose from to help you find your musical voice.