Multi - (and more than multi- ) instrumentalists?

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Many of you are multi-instrumentalists, and in fact may play even more than 2 or 3 instruments. So before I launch into my answers, my questions first: Is there one instrument that you consider your main one? Maybe one that you perform with? And does that ever change?
And also - How do you determine which one(s) to play, and when, and how often to practice?
In my bio, I wrote that I expected this to be a banjo-focused 50/90. And it started out that way. Now I have 43 songs (40 posted) and I play banjo on 17 of those. I've also used acoustic guitar on at least 10 (with harmonica added to a couple of those), and ukulele on maybe that many. Plus piano on a couple and cookie-tin slide guitar on one. And a couple a cappella.
Within the next week or so, I plan to play harmonium and tongue drum (wooden drum with grooves - strike between the grooves and you play notes in the key of D).
So, yes, my banjo - which had been idle most of 2019 - has seen some action this 50/90. And I've been using the uke so much because my daughter is also learning, so it's always out on a couch or table.
Banjo is such a challenge to play well - I like to say that if I were going to pick one instrument to dive into a deep study of, it would be banjo. But also I know that the only way that would work is if I had no other instruments around.
Guitar is my performing instrument, and I'm good at it, in the sense I can play and sing at the same time and occasionally create an interesting solo in between. Playing banjo and singing at the same time is way more of a challenge to me, but I have done it.
Piano was my first instrument, and I really think that's why I've been able to pick up so many other instruments with some level of competence.
Another instrument that I've studied in a rather focused way, but haven't played since maybe last 50/90, is the mandolin. In fact, when I'm not writing songs (and I only write during FAWM and 50/90) I tend to just play the guitar and maybe occasionally the banjo. I have some friends who host an informal jam a few times a year, and I might rehearse the banjo a few days before so I have something different to add to the party.
So, I suppose a final, more general question is: What does being a multi-instrumentalist mean to you?

I play mostly the guitar. I studied a couple years of classical guitar when I was a teenager, and played a lot of Beatles songs. A few years ago I started learning the electric guitar, and it's now the instrument that I'm most comfortable with.

That being said, I love playing with the piano because I don't fall into the same habits that I've grown used to in the guitar. Since I don't have the technique, I'll just press keys that sound good to me, and this leads to chord progressions and melodies that I would've not written on the guitar.

I guess my personal definition of a multi-instrumentalist is someone who is good enough on more than one instrument to play either of them in a band. For me, the only thing I'd feel comfortable playing in a band is guitar even though I knock around on drums, and might be able to fake it on bass and uke. Even when people ask me if I play other instruments, I say, well I *play* guitar, but I enjoy noodling around on other instruments sometimes. Smile

To me it's pretty much a case of which ones I'm comfortable with. I like what @Valerie Cox says about which one would I be happy to play in a band. So, for me that would be bass, recorder, acoustic and electric guitar.

However, there's a twist, and it's in the mindset. Those who are familiar with my music know that I often use a guitar synth controller to add brass, voice, organ, and a variety of other instruments layers to my stuff. I've spent years studying how to think like a brass player, an organist, and so on.

So, if you asked me to play trumpet in your band, I'd bring my guitar and synth controller and play trumpet lines all night for you.

But my absolute, know inside out, play anything you want with my eyes shut instrument? Bass. Every time.

@Chip Withrow I've been enjoying your banjo stylings a lot. I need to come back and listen to more! To answer your last question first: being a multi-instrumentalist is fun, pure and simple! I love the challenge; it helps me to discover how an arrangement fits together; it means I can produce demos that are closer to what I can hear in my head before I start; mostly, though, it's because I couldn't decide on *one* thing to play and ignore all the other shiny toys available. So bring on that harmonium and tongue drum!

To answer your first three questions: Up until 2014, I'd have said that keyboards were my thing. They're what I used to play gigs with back in the 80s and I still have a stack of the things from those days. But in 2014 I bought my first brand-new electric guitar (I'd been playing acoustic guitar since I was a kid and I'd had a battered, second- or third-hand electric since the very early 80s) and I got obsessed with it. I made more progress on guitar doing 50/90 that year than I had in the previous two decades. So these days I focus on guitar and that's probably what I'd pick up if asked to join a band.

Having said that, I'm probably still more competent on keyboards. Bass, Chapman Stick and everything else would share third place. As far as I can recall I don't think I have ever so much as touched a banjo. One day...

I shouldn't answer as I am guitar player. I'm trying to be a singer and while it's not going poorly, it's going much more slowly than I had hoped. So the whole, play in a band thing... yeah, guitar.

Now recording a demo... I program a mean fake drum line... and I play a crappy bass line on my short scale hammer bass guitar. And I could almost play one song on the fiddle... almost... and I've dabbled in drums just enough to know I'm not a drummer.... and I have a mountain dulcimer that is fun to play, but I'm wildly clumsy on it... and... well, lots of ands...

I don't perform anymore, but it was the guitar. However, when recording I play keyboard, uke and in the past, bass. Does tambourine count? I play a mean one Smile

Uke and mandolin would be my two primary performance instruments, specifically when I’m accompanying myself. Trumpet was my first instrument, and still the one I’m best at, even though I don’t practice anymore and rarely play. I need to do some more trumpet writing this year. I also play recorder consort, didgeridoo, mountain dulcimer, singing bowl, cornetto, and keyboard. I have a guitar, but haven’t actually gotten around to learning it adequately. I also play a little violin. Maybe I’ll get up the courage to play violin on a track.

To answer the question my first, primary, and almost exclusively performed with instrument is guitar. I play other stringed instruments like I play guitar. Keyboard/piano very rudimentary. I joke that I am a mediocre multi-instrumentalist. Why do I pick up another instrument? For fun, to get new ideas (sorta like alternate guitar tuning), for variety, to justify having more gear, and I like the different sounds. Practice? ROFL

I am mainly a guitar player. The beauty of being a guitar player is you can switch instruments to get different sounds! From steel string acoustic to electric to classical, each one has its own unique sound. And then you can add different tunings for a nice change of pace. And in the past few years I have discovered cool variants such as the wonderful tenor guitar and the lovely baritone guitar. So yeah, mainly it is guitar for me!

But, once you are a guitar player there is no stringed instrument you cannot learn to love! I now love banjo just as much as guitar! I used to think I had to master Scruggs style banjo to be any good but then I discovered clawhammer! And you can also finger pick or even strum a banjo to make some great music!

I enjoy the larger ukuleles (tenor and baritone) and while I love the sound of the mandolin I have found the fretboard to be uncomfortably small for my hands. The fiddle is a monster that I hope to master some day but I fear my brain my never fully be able to wrap around it. I'd love a cello too but maybe that will have to wait for my next lifetime!

I am slowly learning a little on keyboard because I love virtual instruments with MIDI and you need to know your way around a keyboard to use them. Harmonica is nice and I can play some basic stuff and bend the notes on my blues harp.

I am slowly learning to sing so that is also a favorite instrument if you can count voice!

I think that playing an instrument well enough to record it is what I strive for. I started playing classical/acoustic guitar and then acquired a bass, because the band already had 2 guitarists. I became a pretty decent bass player, though playing a lot of classical guitar as well in some art bands. Sometime in college a friend of mine gave me a Russian mandolin and that was the first step toward different tunings. There's a band we still have for the last 5 years where I play mandolin. After that I was given a balalaika - my Russian grandpa was said to be quite a catch playing it, though I only remember 3 of them hanging on the wall in a decorative way and I was astonished by the simple tuning - 3 strings tuned (EEA) and involving a busy thumb-playing technique. Then in Turkey I bought a saz which has many different tunings according to songs played and has also 1/4 tones which you can move around if you are into maqams and stuff. I did a few recordings with it and it also has a nice hollow round body that could be used simultaneously as a drum. I also became slightly proficient on tambura, since the players in the ethno-folk band that followed tuned it simply- HEhe, so everyone with basic guitar knowledge can have fun with it. I am recently becoming pretty solid on ukuleles, since we often go to a friends house and all he's got there is two ukes. My girlfriend also once had a sitar, which I inherited after I married her, but I can't sit in those crazy Indian way for too long, so it didn't got much play, though it suffered as well some recording ( To put it shortly, strings are my passion. I also used in my recordings recorders, various flutes, bells, shakers, percussions and synths, etc. ( I guess any object can become an instrument (with a few physical/mental adjustments), remember Zappa used to play the bicycle when he was young ( As for main instruments - I consider the guitar, then mandolin and bass. This probably makes me a multi-instrumental connoisseur.

Wow, long answers all “tltr” Wink Smile hahhh

I get asked this and my answer seems to bother them for some reason, don’t understand why — I don’t have a main instrument, never did and go on “benders” of rotation.

It’s why I say I “play” an instrument, but not a e.g. drummer, Bass-ist... guitar player (?) (what is that anyway? Smile )

And many of those categories are happy to agree with me. Smile

Also, what bothers some is — I don’t “practice”, anything, I just play. Bothers my e.g. drummer friends since in a playing situation, we don’t sound much different and they try to “block” me from the kit Wink hahhh! Especially the electronic one (high end) and see those double kicks are “triggers” not foot work as on acoustic kit Wink anyway ... “old women of rock and roll... bitching about everything... “

I do say that, - I am a musician who only plays his own music, and always has, and that goes back to high school days when asked to get up an play a certain song — I was like, “what for”? I didn’t see that as different, but know it is, now. (Why would you want to hear me do “day tripper”? You got the record... so would not get up on “stage” to do that.)

And, as said previously, — then asked, Wink when do my own, my way, — “wow, who’s that!?” And then when get them to understand (?) (why so hard?) — they walk away, confused, looking like I have given them a hard time... not, — geese, Uno!?

Tso, derUgo — the same answer u always get Smile u banjo player u! Smile

I bet 5090 and FAWM are skewed heavily toward multi-instrumentalists -- we sit around and write songs, then want to put a recording together that might involve other instruments, so the urge is strong to be able to do a few things.

I'm really a bass player. That's what I do in public, and I've been playing for decades. I'm confident on electric bass. I also play upright (standup, thus the name) bass, and have been taking lessons this year and practicing. I'm still a better electric bass player and probably always will be.

But I play guitar too, and have since I was 15 or so. I'm in a band playing guitar now, and getting a little better at playing "leads". I can play and sing much better with guitar than with bass. It was a long struggle to sing and play bass, and I can do it now, though the drummer I play with points out my rhythm goes straight to hell when I have to sing and play simultaneously.

I play keyboard instruments with two fingers, no proficiency there. I own a mandolin, and took lessons for a while several years ago, and it has languished recently. I own a banjo but do not play it well. Resonator guitar, lap steel are fun, but I'm no expert. Accordion is also a fun toy but I cannot claim to be any good.

When we got a Craigslist used drumset for the basement @pfoo and I both took drum lessons for a bit. I could see it was going to take a LOT of time and effort to be any good at all, and quit. Though I enjoy banging on the drumset now and then. Pfoo stuck with it and is a solid drummer.

"Good enough to record" for me isn't very good at all. Between unlimited takes to get it right and editing in the DAW I can claim to be "good enough to record" by playing one note per measure and then moving them around until it sounds like real playing.... tbf, I'm slightly more proficient than that on most things, but maybe not by as much as I'd like to think.

"Banjo is such a challenge to play well." How true that is @Chip Withrow. I fell in love with music upon hearing one of my neighbors play banjo at a neighborhood block party. I was 7 years old, and he was walking around wearing a striped shirt, braces, and a boater, like the guys in a barbershop quartet. It was the summer that Proud Mary was a huge hit, and there was also a neighbor's band that played that song, and that totally hit me too, but the banjo, the banjo, omg. Mind you, the only music I had heard before this was classical, especially opera, which my mom loved and had on constantly. She thought it was hilarious that I liked the twang so much. Anyway, I have never learned to play the banjo beyond the rudiments. It is an incredibly difficult instrument to master. With electric guitar you can basically put on some fuzz and compression and emote and it'll be passable. Really, most people who are advertised as multi instrumentalists sound to me like people who have learned to play a lot of instruments pretty well, but none as well as they could. Jack of all trades, etc.

I probably would see my voice as my primary instrument but I'm not sure that's in the spirit of the question. I have performed live with trombone (and made some actual $$$ doing it, back in the day), guitar, mandolin, and Seagull Merlin, but the guitar's generally my go-to. I'm not particularly proficient on any instrument but I've learned some tricks to make my guitar playing sound better than it is, if that makes sense?

owl's picture

I am mediocre at a number of different instruments! Or should I say, "I'm proficient on different things on different instruments."

I think keyboard is my best instrument--I can solo and improvise and do basic comping very comfortably. However, I'm not very good at playing keys and singing at the same time, so I think I'm a better "lead player" (although really as a keyboard player I should be doing both at the same time, haha.). This is useful, though, because with a MIDI keyboard I can fake a whole bunch of other instruments, too.

I love the ukulele, but I'm a pretty limited player--I can never get my barre chords on uke to sound decent, something about the shape and size of the fretboard, so I always end up staying in the open chords area. And the re-entrant tuning and limited string situation is extra confusing to me when trying to play melodic lines.

I used to be about the same skill level on guitar, but I've been playing it a lot and taking weekly lessons, which I think has helped me grow and understand the instrument a lot better, and while I'm still a very mediocre guitarist, I'm learning and can feel myself slowly improving, which is a nice feeling. My ukulele skills carried over nicely to fingerpicking and strumming, I'm still trying to get better at flatpicking and lead playing... and just generally playing the guitar like a *guitarist* and not like a ukulele player who picked up a guitar. Like my brain knows in theory I don't have to strum chords 100% of the time all the time, but in actual practice I think I end up overplaying almost all the time.

The good thing about guitar (and uke) is that I feel comfortable playing rhythm and singing at the same time! The bad thing is that I don't intuitively understand the fretboard enough yet to feel comfortable improvising on guitar, and I still don't have very good technique so even if I did, my playing isn't very fluid and clean on leads.

I currently do play guitar and keyboards in a band but they tend to be inverse parts... rhythm guitar, lead keyboards... or rhythm piano stuff where I don't need to sing. So I think this makes me a multi-instrumentalist, but does it really count if you have to use each instrument to shore up the parts you suck at with the other one? Smile

I think im like Usta. I binge instruments then move on. I like trying new ones. Bakalaika , sitar and bouzouki of late. I probably play keyboards most but i teach uke a lot and guitar sometimes so they get a go. Been messing with accordion, sax and harmonica lately. I try and get passable at everything so that i can record what my head tells me a song sounds like. I am pretty average at banjo and the mandolin has taken a back seat lately. Im actually specifically upping my bass skills as we have a shortage of bass players around here. I think guitar or uke if i was asked to play live in 10 minutes. I think if you asked in a year i might say keyboards and bass.

Great thread! As @standup wrote, 5090 and FAWM would tend to attract multi-instrumentalists. We know the sounds we want to hear in our songs, and it's most efficient to make them ourselves.
So much to respond to here ... a couple of you mentioned voice as an instrument - absolutely! I used to just try to sing in tune, but in the last few years I've really paid more attention to being a good vocalist (different from a technically proficient singer). And so as for instruments I could play in a band - vocal, guitar, piano, banjo.
Like @johnstaples, I used to think Scruggs style on the banjo was the only way to go. I just don't have the dexterity to play fast bluegrass - I think I would have had to have started at a much younger age (picked it up about 10 years ago in my mid 40s). So I couldn't play banjo in a traditional bluegrass band.
To be in a band at all now, I'd have to be the leader. I've been a one-man band for too long. (Although, years ago, I was the hand percussionist/backing vocalist for a guitar playing buddy at a few of his gigs, and I dug that.)

I was always the bassist back in my band days and, to be honest, it’s the instrument that I have the least problem with, and I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant in any way. It’s the instrument that I am quickest with recording.

Back in band days (the 90’s) I’d go into the studio, play for the initial live guide, and most times I’d have nailed the bass track there and then.

I was already playing rhythm guitar (and harmonica) before taking over the bass role, turning that band from a four-piece to a trio.

At school I often played drums in a mess about way, and played drums as a stand-in for the regular drummer at same rehearsals before moving to bass. One band I was in had a guitarist who was a graded pianist, who showed me the basics of where the middle C was, basic major and minor chords, and from there I get by with simple keyboard work, and own a fair few keyboards.

I owned an upright bass for a while, but no longer do. However, in my job as a mobile security alarm responder, there is a specific school that we do that has an upright bass that I’ve occasionally played when I go there. The same goes for pianos and even drums on sites.

Over the years I’ve bought and been gifted instruments that I get sounds out of, such as a tambura, Sarangi, recorders, tin whistles, melodica, mandolins, ukuleles (soprano, tenor, and baritone), stylophone, percussion, xylophone, zither, music maker...

Does that make me a multi-instrumentalist? I don’t know about that, but I can get a good sound out of most instruments that I come into contact with. Smile

I play a lot of things to a mediocre level. If I take @Valerie Cox's definition, I currently play guitar, clarinet, melodica and cajon in bands. I also filled in on drums recently. Additionally, in the past I have played bass, mandolin and ukulele in bands (also stylophone briefly on a couple of songs that needed a keyboard solo and that was all I had available). I played piano and bassoon for many years. The former, I can still get by on, the latter, I severely doubt I could, and I dabble at any other instrument I can get my hands on Smile

I find it very interesting the comment, “if I was in a band I’d have to be leader”, Smile that may need a separate thread.

I’m happiest being in a “good” band, and just playing; or, with “good” musicians I am the puppet master in total Smile Middle ground rarely works out between “songwriter-musicians” imo/ime otherwise.

That’s an interesting element to dissect in context of a Fawm5090 project. Just do what I say and all will be OK Wink hahhh!

I play guitar, bass, drums, a bit of piano, and sing. So to answer your questions - I would generally consider myself to be an electric guitarist, but I probably play electric guitar in a gig on average about once a year at the moment, whereas I play acoustic and sing a couple of times a week. I also write virtually only for acoustic, I wouldn’t ever sit down and write a song on some other instrument. It changes every now and again, I went for a while where drums was my main instrument. I bought a bass for the first time ever a couple of weeks ago, and after playing for about 15 minutes decided that it’s the best instrument ever and that I could quite happily only play bass for the rest of my life.

I don’t deal in ‘practice’, I sit and play acoustic guitar and sing for maybe an hour or two a night, and play other instruments when I feel like it, which is really not going to be that often.

I don’t know if being a multi-instrumentalist ‘means anything’ to me other than it represents the fact that when I was younger I was more into writing music than playing it, and I wanted to write all of the parts, so I had to learn what the function of each instrument was and so on.

I recorded one multi-track song for fawm this year but otherwise the songs I upload to 50 90 are always just acoustic guitar and vocals in one take. Anything else is like, effort.