So You Wanna Be a Rockstar: A Beginner’s Guide to the Kick-Ass World of Band Instruments

Sex? Money? Fame? If you want to rock (rock!), then you need an instrument. Get the lowdown on the ups and downs of all your rocking options before locking in your decision. Now let's melt some faces!

Kevin H. MacLean is an accomplished singer songwriter and has been professionally trained in guitar and voice. He also has taken piano lessons and is self taught in playing the harmonica and bass. And he's currently single…(ladies).

Every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars are thrown away by people not so unlike you or me. Money wasted on things that people are unprepared and unwilling to accept the responsibility of. All across this great country Roland G70Ms, American Deluxe Precision Basses, 6-piece Mapex sets sit unused and unwanted in dusty, moist, and mildewy corners. A '68 Classic Les Paul. Broken and rusted, warped, and did I mention unwanted?

And why? Why do all of these amazing and beautiful instruments lie in torturous prisons while they're captors roam the earth free of punishment and oblivious to wrong doing? Because, they are idiots. That is why. And they did not take the important time necessary to consider the responsibility, motivation, and (most importantly) dedication necessary to put one of these instruments to proper use.

So people continue to go around picking up whatever musical instrument they see thinking its “no big deal” or “just for fun” with very sad and cacophonic results. But don't worry, this long winded, satiric, opening is going somewhere. I am here to make sure that when you are ready to take that step and try to make some music yourself, it doesn't suck. Music is a beautiful and natural part of life and there are few things in life as pleasurable as making some good music.

So keep reading, and don't be afraid to ask: “What instrument is right for me?”

musicians on stage
Photo by Kerfern


If you are reading this and have played some instrument before in your life, chances are that it was the piano. For several reasons, it is one of the best instruments to introduce yourself to the world of music. There are several levels of play in piano so you can move at almost any pace and always be making progress.

The price range of pianos and keyboards is very broad so you don't have to spend much to get one. It is an excellent instrument to learn how to read music on (something that isn't so common on other instruments). Not to mention its more esoteric value as an ambassador to music history (Translation: learning the piano leads to learning about famous musicians from the days of yore). Oh yeah, and it's a lot easier to sing while playing the piano than the guitar (don't try to tell me I'm wrong, I play both).

There are only two real issues when it comes to pianos. The first is a relatively minor problem: they can be big and heavy. All you need to do to solve this is get a keyboard instead of a grand piano, but the thing to remember is that unlike a few other instruments I'm going to reference you can't just pick up a keyboard and take it wherever you please. The second issue is that the piano is very difficult to learn properly without lessons. I don't want to give the wrong impression; music lessons are a very important part of learning any instrument and for first time musicians I recommend at least six months of lessons for anything so you can at least avoid picking up bad habits. Lessons, however, do cost money so it is an obstacle you may need to consider.

The piano scores low on mobility but is relatively cheap and a great instrument for beginners to better acquaint themselves with music.

Base quote


Ah, bass. The poor man's guitar (for those who don't know a bass is basically the bottom four strings of a guitar on a longer neck). I don't want to give the impression that I am knocking basses or bassists but probably the biggest upside of learning the bass is that it is so easy to become efficient in. Bass, more than any other instrument, is something where you can actually be in a good band and never really be challenged by any material. Within a few months of picking it up you could be able to tackle a lot of your favorite songs (depending on what type of music you listen to of course). I want to make it clear that I am NOT saying that it easy to play the bass, it takes a lot of time and dedication to be really great at any instrument. What I am saying is that you can be more or less decent at it faster than other instruments. My point is that if you want to be able to rock out as soon as possible, bass is probably the way to go.

The funny thing about bass is that it's downside is both a blessing and a curse. The good news is that if you decide you want to make a career out of being a bass player there will always be work for you. The bad news: bass is not nearly as cool as guitar. The main reason being (in my opinion) you can't write, play, and sing songs on a bass anywhere near the extent that you can on a guitar. It's a double edge sword, and ultimately if it even matters, depends on what you hope to accomplish.

Dave Grohl on Drums


Drums are cool. In the immortal words of Piebald “All you need is drums to start a dance party.” Because of the drums detachment from the melody, the approach of playing them is a little different from other instruments. It is also, like the bass, a slightly easier instrument to learn quickly than guitar or piano. You see, bass and drums are (usually) rhythm instruments, which means that they keep the beat so everyone else can go crazy. While this is very important, it often means the bass and drums are stuck with playing repetitive, simple, loops. As you get better you can make things more complicated for yourself and throw in a lot of cool fillers. In the mean time, it only helps that you can learn on the fly with other musicians. Also, it definitely gives the best workout of any instrument.

How do you get a drummer to get off your porch? Pay him for the pizza. Drummers have long been the butt of many a joke in the music world. Why do you ask? Because, drummers don't technically play music (well, if they upgrade to percussionists they do, but that's a different story). Drummers play rhythms and beats not melodies and harmonies. Because of this, they have a habit of being less knowledgeable when it comes to musical jargon other musicians are readily familiar with. Not knocking drummers, a great drummer is as respected as anyone else in a band but I felt it was worth mentioning.

The real downside to the drums you probably could've already guessed. They're big, loud, very difficult to transport, and can be quite expensive. The price thing only really becomes an issue if you plan on getting serious (in which case you will spend a lot of $$ no matter what instrument you spend it on) but you will need to spend extra money on sound proofing material if you plan on getting a drum kit. They obviously aren't easy to move around either but if that really is an issue for you; there's always the bongos (note: bongos are awesome for jamming, I had a roommate in college who played them. Good times).

Hey, did you hear about the bass player who left his keys in the car? Yeah, it took him over two hours to get the drummer out of the car. (I know, I'm just saying!)

The drums are cooler than the bass and in only slightly less demand and quicker to learn than some other instruments but they produce a LOT of noise and are very difficult to transport.


The littlest instrument sometimes can carry one hell of a wallop. The harmonica is a really fun instrument to play. They're by far the cheapest of all the instruments on this list and it is a relatively easy instrument to teach yourself how to play (as long as you have a decent book). Note: I said easy to teach yourself not easy to learn. You can play it simultaneously with guitar, which always looks cool (even guys are impressed when they see you pull that one off). Its size makes it very ideal for travel and it also goes well with just about any other instrument making it a fantastic (and unique) jam instrument.

For such a small instrument a harmonica can sure be loud. And you know what, for as good as a harmonica sounds with other instruments it can sound pretty freakin' annoying when it is all by itself (particularly when you are just learning). It also has the slight downside of you needing to purchase multiple harmonicas to accommodate different keys (I own five), but they are still cheap and if you really have a problem with that you can always get yourself a chromatic.

The harmonica is small, sleek, fun, unique, and cheap but it can be a bit obnoxious to force others to listen to while going through learning pains.

Slash guitar


When I first started playing guitar I was thirteen and not yet savvy to what all the girls necessarily wanted in a man. So when my sister informed me that a guitar is “a chick magnet” you can imagine my surprise, and subsequent joy. Yeah, that's all true. Girls love the guitarist with mystique, but as far as pursuing it for the love of music there are lots of great things featured by a guitar. First off, it is the premiere instrument to write and sing songs with. I've played guitar for about ten years and piano for five. While I would not consider myself a virtuoso at either I'm not bad. In my whole life I've written probably upwards of around 75 songs on guitar compared to something like 3 on piano. Get the drift? A guitar is also very versatile. You can play almost any genre of music with a guitar distinctly and fully. Indeed, you get as full a sound with a guitar as you would with any other instrument you could ever pick up. It is relatively easy to transport around and believe me, if you are planning on leaving your guitar hidden away in your bedroom every time you go out you are making a big mistake. Being a guitarist is only cool if people know you play it.

Important note: I strongly recommend your first guitar be an acoustic with bronze (not vinyl) strings. It is better to learn on than an electric because there is more resistance in the strings and you will build up your calluses more. If you learn on an electric you may have to reface the same obstacles all over again if you try to pick up an acoustic.

So you wanna buy a guitar? That's fine, just don't pussy out and become a statistic. Far more than any otherGuitar Quote instrument, guitars are the most over owned and under used. Unlike bass players, there is no shortage of guitarists in the world and if you plan on making a name for yourself you had better make sure you are dedicated enough. You will often run into situations playing with other guitarists where you won't necessarily feel pressure to out perform anyone but you will need to avoid looking like you suck compared to the guy next to you (in my experience some days you rock, some days you kind a look like you suck). You are going to get calluses on your fingers. Before that they are going to hurt, and its not going to be some sort of killer pain you can't deal with but after about an hour of playing the same three scales over and over the pain can get annoying. Lessons are also highly recommended (although not necessary) bad habits are abound in guitarists and bad habits can be the death of you if you really want to make that step from pretty good to awesome. Guitars can also run pretty expensive after that initial $150 Alvarez you learn on wears down into nothingness (like mine). Read more about buying a great guitar if you're ready to get passed “Wonderwall” and get serious.

It doesn't get any cooler but everyone and there grandma knows that so you'll have plenty of company in your section of the music store. It is a great instrument to write and play songs with and it is a “chick magnet.”


Hmm, betcha didn't think I was gonna throw this one in here, did ya? Well I am, because it is in fact an instrument and it also happens to be pretty damn important. I'm combining Upside and Downside for this one because, when it comes down to it, you can either sing or you can't. Nothing is a greater blessing than having a strong singing voice and nothing is a greater curse to those around you than thinking you have a strong singing voice. Now, most people can be honest enough with themselves that they can figure it out but for some of the more delusional people a good indicator if you have a bad voice: if the only person you ever heard compliment you on it is your mother, that's a bad sign.

Whichever person you are, taking voice lessons is never a bad idea. Voice lessons may not seem necessary to those of you who are already in bands and what not but they actually help pretty significantly. Voice lessons improve your range, tone, diction, power, recovery, and help you learn how to breathe more efficiently not only for singing but just in general. For any level of singer, lessons are almost guaranteed to significantly improve your skills and they are very, very highly recommended.

Now hopefully you are a little bit more informed to make that move you've been thinking about for so long. You are no longer that sad ignorant soul you were when you woke up this morning, oblivious to the responsibility of a new musical instrument. Good luck and rock on!

Kevin MacLean

Kevin H. MacLean currently resides in Brooklyn, NY where he enjoys people watching, writing, and dominating all comers in four-square. You can keep tabs on him at his blog