How to Choose a Folk Music Instrument

A guide to stringed folk instruments: the guitar, banjo, dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, autoharp, fiddle and mandolin.

| January/February 1984

Homemade Folk Music Instruments

In this article, a well-known musician surveys the pros and cons of the most popular folk music instruments.


To me, musical instruments have always seemed more like living beings than inanimate objects. Like people, each has its own personality, peculiarities, limitations, and—of course its own special sound. It takes a while to get to know one, too: Most musicians have to play an instrument for years before they fully realize all that it does or doesn't have to offer them. To help you save some of that time, I've tried to lay out the qualities—good and bad—of the seven most common stringed folk instruments. So, if you're thinking of learning to play folk music, perhaps this article will make your choice of what to play it on a little easier . . . and sounder.

Before we consider specifics, let's talk about learning to play music in general. First of all, I think almost anyone can become a decent musician on almost any instrument. The key factor is . . . interest. That's right, not talent, but interest. I've seen many very naturally skilled people give up playing, while others with only moderate abilities—but a great deal of enthusiasm—keep at it and become good musicians.

So, in choosing your melody-maker, it's important to pick one that inherently fascinates you, one you'll love to hear in good times and in bad. Keep in mind that in the early stages of learning you're going to have to go through screeching and scraping with any stringed instrument . . . so choose one that will keep you involved. (Sounds a lot like a romantic relationship, doesn't it?) Moreover, I think that most folks have a natural ability on certain instruments, while they might have to struggle unnecessarily on others. I know the banjo has always been easiest for me. It feels right in my hands, and it has a sound I never get tired of hearing. In short, I guess I'd have to say that the banjo just makes sense for me. That special, hard-to-describe attraction to a certain instrument comes from within you . . . and makes learning to play it a pleasure.

Besides examining your inner feelings, you might want to look at some of the practical aspects of the different folk music instruments. Let's start with the most popular one of all.

The Guitar

Along with the piano, the guitar is one of the most versatile instruments ever invented. Almost any style of music can be played on the six-stringer. It can be acoustic or electric and can be used to back up a singer and/or other instruments or for solo "stepping out". And—not the least of its virtues—the guitar can be carried in one hand (which certainly can't be said of the piano!). You never have to worry about outgrowing it, either, because there's always something new to learn. There are lots of good guitarists to listen to for ideas, and plenty of qualified teachers. The guitar is limited only by the creativity of its player.

For the beginner, the guitar can be pleasant to listen to almost from the first day . . . after learning to tune the instrument and play a few basic chords. There are endless numbers of songs you can play and sing along with, even if you know only three chords and a single strum pattern. And you can quickly build your repertoire and technique from that base.

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