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So you want to learn a musical instrument? We advise you what instrument to play, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know about instrumental tuition

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Frequently Asked Questions


People often contact us with queries about buying, selling and playing instruments, and we always try to help if we can. Here is a selection of the more interesting and tricky questions we have been asked recently, with our replies. We will add to this list as time goes on.
Q. It has been a long-term wish to play the saxophone but I need some assistance in making the right choices.
First of all, I cannot read notes at all so could you please advise whether I should start learning to play at all or whether it is best to start learning how to read notes first. Preferably I would like to learn to read notes and play at the same time.
No, don't try to learn the notes first. It is quite normal even for quite young children to learn the notes as they learn the instrument - in fact, that's probably the best way to do it. Don't let reading music be too big an issue. Once you get into it, it's not that hard and it's not that important. 90% of all the musicians in the world don't read music. It's just us European classical types that get hung up about it.
Secondly, I want to teach myself how to play, initially without help from a teacher. Taking into consideration I will have to learn to read notes as well can you please tell me whether this is advisable and if so, which literature would be best using to start.
(This answer will offend many established saxophonists and saxophone teachers, and I would always say that ideally one should seek a good teacher for any instrument. However, the question is frequently asked and I must answer it truthfully - it can be done, and often is. Remember we are dealing with an intelligent, literate, articulate and motivated adult here ...) It is perfectly possible to teach yourself and many people have done so. The hardest part is getting started, and learning how to control the reed and the mouthpiece (and therefore the sound) with your mouth. The fingering is easier and can be learnt from a book. What I would suggest is that you should find a local saxophone player or saxophone teacher (or a clarinet teacher would be just as good as the two instruments are so similar) and have just one or two lessons to get you started. Then work on your own for some time, but after a couple of months go back and have another lesson just to make sure that you are not developing any bad habits, and to sort out any problems you may have encountered.
A suitable book would be Learn As You Play Saxophone - you can buy it online through the link on our Saxophone page. I also strongly recommend that you get The Rough Guide to the Saxophone - it will probably answer nearly all of the questions that may crop up in the first few months. The same publisher has a good book about learning to read music. There is another "tutor book" which I have used in the past and found excellent. It is called Tune a Day for Saxophone - it's rather old-fashioned now, but has nice pictures to demonstrate every step, and introduces new notes and the notation to read them, in easy stages.
Thirdly, would you advise to buy a new saxophone or would a second hand one suffice as well?
With most instruments, secondhand is fine - in fact, some instruments are actually better bought secondhand. However, the saxophone is a very popular instrument and is often bought by people whose attraction to music is rather transitory, and fades as soon as the task gets difficult. This means that there can often be secondhand instruments on the market that have not been very well looked after, and may need repair or maintenance once you have bought them which can be expensive. For instance, one routine repair that has to be done every few years is to replace the pads that close the holes, and this can cost anything between £50 and £120. It's quite hard for an amateur to look at a saxophone and tell whether it's in good condition or not. Therefore I think you might be better advised to buy a new instrument.
Last but not least, what would be the best place to buy a saxophone? There are loads on offer on the Internet but I am not sure whether it would be advisable to go to a music shop or whether buying online is fine as well. If so, which websites would you advise.
So long as you make sure you are buying a saxophone made by one of the big, well-known manufacturers there should be no problem buying online. The shops on our links page are reliable and experienced and will always replace the instrument if it proves faulty, although on the whole musical instruments are themselves pretty reliable. The advantage of buying from a local music shop is that it's much easier to take the thing back if there is any problem, but you will pay more. If you do buy locally, you should still make sure you are buying a well-known type of instrument (Jupiter, Yamaha (good but expensive), Conn, Corton (cheap), Selmer, Buffet, Trevor James (very popular with beginners in the UK). Don't buy from a manufacturer that isn't featured on at least two of these shop websites, then you should avoid any poor quality cheap imports (although almost all woodwind and brass instruments are imports these days - whichever firm makes them, they're all actually built in Taiwan or China, and none the worse for that). I think if I were in your position I'd buy a new Trevor James or Jupiter from John Myatt. Almost all beginners start on the alto saxophone - it's easy to change to one of the other types later on if you want.
I hope that's helpful. I wish you luck. I had an email yesterday from someone who said "your site is most pessimistic. I am Grade 5 on the flute and want to work in a professional orchestra. Now I feel like giving up. Thanks a lot!" I didn't reply, because I didn't think they would welcome anything I had to say. If I had replied, I would have had to say "Grade 5? Professional orchestra? Get real! I'm not pessimistic, I'm just not telling you what you wanted to hear!" I know a young flautist who got Grade 8 with Distinction when she was 13; she's now 25 and still hasn't managed to get a job as an orchestral musician. It IS going to be harder than you imagined, and there WILL be times when you feel quite discouraged, and it WILL take much longer than you expected .... and .... and .... But if it was easy, everyone would do it, wouldn't they? Some things are worth a little pain.

Q. This one is not a question at all, but a comment on what we have said in our "Piano" page. We thought it was an interesting view, so here it is: "I must comment on digital pianos. I too find them unbearable to play using the internal speakers or even through my fairly good hifi. However, I was fortunate to be persuaded to buy some Grado headphones. At about £100, not cheap but worth every single penny. When I plug these into my Roland HP-237 with the reverb on, the sound is awesome - a thousand times better than what you hear through the awful internal amp/speaker system. You seem to have full control over the keys compared to that when playing through the speakers.
Combined with the obvious benefits of not disturbing neighbours, no tuning necessary, a uniform keyboard etc., a beginner or intermediate student could do no better for this price. All the new pianos I've heard costing £1200 (the cost of my digital and headphones) sound nowhere near as good as mine does for private practice".
A. We're sure you're right. But what we object to is not the sound so much as the feel. Any very experienced pianist will tell you that on a really fine acoustic piano (say, a Bechstein or a Bluthner grand) you find you can play things that normally on an ordinary old nail you can't get your fingers round at all - it just raises your own performance in some mysterious way. To me, electric instruments fall somewhere below the average village hall piano in this respect. I am a pretty good pianist but find my own performance deteriorates markedly on an electric instrument. I don't know why this is, although sometmes I have wondered whether it's the depth of the keys - on an acoustic piano the keys are a few millimetres longer from front to back than on some electric ones. Why this should make a difference is beyond me, as you never use the back bit of the key, but there we are. It's a mystery, but all our pianist friends agree.
(An extra comment, added a few months after this reply. In connection with my work with The Harmony Girls' Choir which often performs abroad in churches that have no conventional piano, I have recently bought a Yamaha Clavinova. I am forced to admit that it is very pleasant to play, although to get the best tone you need to play it quite hard which takes some getting used to. However, I find I can play just as well on it as I can on an ordinary piano, which is marvellous. So I have to eat my words. It still sounds like a piano in a box, though!)
Q. I have been playing the acoustic guitar for a few months now but I really want to move on to the electric guitar. I know chords and stuff and want to know is the transition between acoustic and electric guitars that big or would it be easy to change?
To be honest we know very little about the electric guitar, but yes, so far as we have learned the transition should be easy. We believe that in some ways the electric guitar is actually easier - for instance, because all the amplification is done by electronics, the finger pressure of the left hand can be much less. We fancy the strings may even be made of softer material. And the right hand probably has to do less work for the same reason. Certainly the tuning of the strings and therefore all the hand-shapes will be exactly the same - but beware, the bass guitar is quite different - it's tuned like an acoustic double bass.
It seems to us your main problems will be (a) getting the right equipment and connecting it up satisfactorily, and (b) deciding what style of music you want to play. Music shops, especially those that specialise in rock instruments, often have a shop assistant who is a would-be rock star and therefore well able to give you advice. And there are a number of books available to help - try going to Amazon and using the search box to search "books" for "electric guitar". There are probably a lot of websites that will offer advice, too. I'd go to Google (our favourite search engine) and search for "electric guitar tips" or "electric guitar hints" - something like that.
Q. How important is "flaming" to the sound quality of a string instrument?
"Flaming" is the symmetrical pattern produced, usually in the back of a violin or 'cello, by the careful use of two pieces of wood from the same tree with identical grain markings. The patterns are produced by medullary rays in the structure of the timber. Timber which has been cut from the tree so that its surface lies in the plane of the diameter of the tree ("radial cut") will have more flame, and since this cut is more stable (i.e. is less affected by changes in temperature and humidity) it is desirable in instruments. The flame is thought attractive by some but is irrelevant to the quality of the instrument as a tool for making noises.
Q. I have recently heard of a bass trumpet. Does it use the same size mouthpiece as a baritone horn?
A bass trumpet is really in the trombone range. It needs a mouthpiece of trombone size. There are two shank sizes on trombone mouthpieces, standard and large. We assume that the standard shank would fit a bass trumpet and a cup size somewhere between Vincent Bach 6 to 12 depending on the player. The bass trumpet is usually played by a trombonist.
Q. I am a keen supporter of Rock 'n' Roll and Rockabilly music and want to learn to play the upright double bass, but "slap bass", not with a bow. What type of double bass is suitable?
"Slapping" a bass is playing the strings pizzicato (plucking them with your fingers) but doing it quite hard so that the string actually "slaps" or "snaps" against the fingerboard. The instrument normally used for folk/jazz/rock music is exactly the same as the one for classical music - you just slap it instead! So you need to look for a fairly robust (let's face it, it's going to have a .... lively sort of life, isn't it?) bass of three-quarter size, no bigger. Don't overlook plywood instruments - for your purposes they'll be fine. We played one ourselves for many years.
There's a wonderful website full of double-bass links, especially for slap bass, at
Q. I am an older learner returning to the music I started in my childhood. Is it best to learn as an individual with a tutor or maybe at a college with other learners? Which is best for the beginner, lone attention or group work? How much difference is there between Grade 3 and Grade 6?
We suspect you would be better off with individual lessons rather than a class. In our experience there are two major differences between children and adults learning music. One is that adults have a much clearer idea of what they want to know or to do next, and are more capable of taking charge of their own learning. The other is that adults lack confidence when doing something new and need a lot of reassurance. We think a sympathetic teacher in a one-to-one situation is more likely to be successful.
So far as finding a teacher is concerned, look at the website MusicLessonsOnline, and then try and make contact with the local schools' music service. If neither of those works, go to a concert by your local amateur orchestra and buttonhole one of the orchestra members during the interval. Musicians tend to know each other - the "musical mafia".
Exams - who cares what the difference is beween Grade 3 and Grade 6? It's only going into a room and playing a couple of pieces and some scales in front of some strange bloke. How important can that be? Exams are just a (very crude) way of measuring your progress. Sadly some teachers and their pupils make them into an end in themselves, which I think is a great mistake. But if you must know, there's quite a big difference between Grades 3 and 6 - about four or five years' worth for most people.
Q. I am a university student and want to learn the 'cello. A friend says I should start on a three-quarter size 'cello - is that correct? I am six feet tall.
No, at your age and height you definitely need a full-size 'cello. We worked for many years in an organisation lending instruments to thousands of school pupils and sending the instrumental teachers into the schools to teach them, so we know very well that most of our young 'cello pupils moved from a three-quarter to a full-size at approximately age 12 to 14 - depending on their physical stature, of course, but long before they reached 6 ft.!
Q. Can you play the trumpet left-handed?
Yes, it's quite possible although very few people do.
Many instruments can't be played with the hands the wrong way round - for instance, all woodwind instruments have the keys laid out so that the right hand is furthest away from your face, and this can't be altered. It is possible to play string instruments the wrong way round - you have to get a luthier (violin maker/repairer) to take the strings off and put them back in the opposite order, and reverse the bridge - not a major operation. However, very few people do it for the simple reason that if you sit in an orchestra and play left-handed, your bow will keep clashing with the bow of the person next to you. You'll also have a job to see the music, since sharing a music-stand is normal. Guitarists don't have this problem, of course, and there have been some very well-known "wrong way round" guitarists - Paul McCartney for one.
In general, if you're left-handed you should just learn the same as everyone else. Loads of fine musicians are left-handed, and if they can do it so can you. Whichever hand you use, the actions and positions are going to be strange at first, and eventually you'll get used to it.
Q. I am a violinist but am interested in taking up a brass instrument. Which one should I try, and would I be able to get to a high standard relatively quickly?
I am not a proper brass player, but did have a half-hearted try many years ago. It may be the particular formation of my mouth, but I got the distinct impression that the larger the instrument the easier and quicker it is to get the hang of the embouchure and make an acceptable sound. In my opinion you should avoid the trumpet, cornet and french horn (a notoriously tricky instrument). They have small mouthpieces and to make the sound you need to "smile" the mouth into considerable tension and achieve quite a bit of air pressure. The larger instruments seemed to me to require less tension and less air, too, surprisingly. Those that are larger but still easy enough to carry are the trombone, baritone horn and euphonium. The last two are only suitable for use in brass or wind bands, so if you have a preference for orchestral playing or jazz that narrows it down to the trombone.
The trombone has a slide of course, rather than valves, but really that's the least of your worries - everything about brass playing revolves around the mouth, and things like the shape and disposition of your teeth, the thickness of your lips, the relative strengths of the different muscles in your face can all affect your ability to play. You will also have to learn the bass clef for orchestral playing, but I shouldn't think that'll take you long.
As to how fast you will learn, I hesitate to make a prediction because there are so many imponderables, but I have known young people make astonishing progress if they were prepared to put plenty of time into it on a very regular basis. I should have thought that two grades a year ought to be quite easy for someone dedicated, intelligent and musical (and whose mouth turned out to be suited to the instrument, but you won't know that till you try). You ought certainly to progress much faster on a trombone than you ever did on the violin.
Another thought. On any brass instrument you need to know in your head what the note you are trying to play actually sounds like. Do you have a good ear? Can you sing? (I don't mean have you got a good voice, but do you sing in tune?) Can you look at a piece of printed music and know roughly what it will sound like when it is played? Or is the reason you want to try another instrument because you find it difficult to play in tune on the violin? If so, you might have difficulty with brass as well.
Q. How do you make the sound on a clarinet?
The sound of the clarinet is made by the air from your lungs passing over the reed (thin slip of cane, shaved down and fastened to the mouthpiece by a metal band or "ligature"). This causes the reed to vibrate several hundred times a second in the same way the wind passing over a flag makes it flap to and fro. The vibrating reed makes the air in the tube of the clarinet vibrate as well, and it is this vibration we hear as sound - ALL sound is just vibrating air, which makes our eardrums vibrate in turn.
To make the sound, put the clarinet mouthpiece in your mouth with the reed resting on the bottom lip which is drawn in to cover the bottom teeth. Firm the lower lip against the reed, place the top teeth on top of mouthpiece to hold it in place, and in the shape of a forced smile, blow without puffing your cheeks.
By covering and uncovering the holes with your fingers you effectively alter the length of the tube, because the air escapes from the first uncovered hole it comes to. As short tubes make higher sounds and long tubes make low ones, this is how you produce different notes.
Other instruments that use a reed to make the sound are the oboe and the bassoon (their reeds are double pieces of cane) and the saxophone which is very similar to the clarinet. The flute gets a similar effect by passing the air over a sharp metal lip instead, which is called the "fipple". In brass instruments there is no reed, but you make your lips vibrate which has the same effect.
Q. Where can I buy a violin?
It might be a good idea to rent a violin to start with. Try Foote's - this is a shop in London that has an excellent rental scheme, quite cheap and they are prepared to send instruments all over the country.
If you want to buy, any music shop can get hold of the type of instrument beginners use in schools - the best-known make is Stentor - expect to pay somewhere in the region of £100. If that's too much, try the local paper or Exchange and Mart magazine - there are always people trying to get rid of violins their children have given up playing. If you can afford more, once again your local music shop can supply better quality new instruments.
Q. How do I find a violin teacher?
To find a teacher, try Musicians Friend. Failing that, contact the local Education Authority Music Service. They won't help you directly as they exist to serve schools only, but they must employ a lot of violin teachers many of whom will be interested in giving private lessons in their spare time.
Q. How can I teach myself music theory?
I don't know an easy answer to this one, mainly because music theory is, frankly, really difficult - hard to understand, hard to learn and hard to explain! I am seriously considering trying to write an eBook on it myself.
The most common theory texts in the UK are The AB Guide to Music Theory Vol.1 and Vol.2 by Eric Taylor, published by the Associated Board. They are thorough but by no means easy to read and learn. There's also something called "the little red book" published by Associated Board which is supposed to be simpler but I don't have a copy.
I did a search on Google for "really easy theory music" which gave some interesting results, particularly a CD-Rom by someone called Gary Ewart - try the same search and see what you think.
Q. Can you sell me a small violin for my daughter?
I'm afraid we aren't a shop and don't sell instruments, we just give free advice. Almost any music shop should be able to sell you a NEW violin for about £100 - you don't need very good quality for a 4-year-old - frankly she won't know the difference! Ask for a make called "Stentor" - they are basic but cheap and tough.
Q. I am teaching myself the flute, and don't read music. What are scales and keys?
"Scales" and "keys" are pretty much the same thing in music. If a composer writes a tune using only the notes of the scale of C major (which are C, D, E, F, G, A, B and high C) then that tune is said to be "in the key of C major". A tune "in the key of D major" would use only the notes of the scale of D major which are D, E, F sharp, G, A, B, C sharp and high D. You can construct a scale beginning on any note you please if you know how, so there are major scales of C, C sharp, D, D sharp, E, F, F sharp, G, G sharp, A, A sharp and B.
To make matters worse there are also "flats". E flat, for instance, is actually the same note as D sharp so you can have a scale of E flat which will be the scale of D sharp only written differently! There are also "minor" scales of different types - a scale of C harmonic minor goes C, D, E flat, F, G, A flat, B, high C. All very complicated, I'm afraid.
Fortunately any tune can be written and played in almost any scale (again, if you know how) so you can get away with knowing only a few scales - C, F and G will be plenty to be going on with.
Q. How do I know what key a tune is in?
You won't have too much trouble finding a book that tells you what the key signatures are. The most common ones are ....
No flats or sharps = C major or A minor
One sharp = G major or E minor
Two sharps = D major or B minor
Three sharps = A major or F sharp minor
One flat = F major or D minor
Two flats = B flat major or G minor
Three flats = E flat major or C minor
Sharps are little hash signs like this "#", and flats are little pointy lower-case B things.
To tell whether a tune is in the major or the minor key, find out what note it ends on. If it has one sharp and ends on G it's probably in G major, but if it ends on E it's probably E minor. Minor tunes tend to have more accidentals (sharps and flats) sprinkled about than major ones. Tunes also "gravitate" round their key-notes, so if the tune has an awful lot of E's in it, that suggests it may be in E minor rather than G major.
Q. How do I know what chords to use with a tune?
The chords of 1, 4 and 5 will be enough for a great many tunes. It works like this ..
The scale of G major goes G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G. In this scale, G is therefore 1, C is 4 and D is 5 - obviously. You make a chord by taking the "root" - so the "root" of the chord of 1 or G is therefore G itself. To this you add the note three steps up (remember that in music we always count inclusive) which is B, and the note five steps up which is D. The chord of 1 or G is therefore GBD. The chord of 4 will be CEG and the chord of 5 will be DF#A.
These three chords will do for perhaps 70% of all tunes that are in the key of G major - especially blues, folk, rock or traditional jazz tunes, but less so in classical music or modern jazz. Of course that still leaves you having to decide which of the three chords to use at any point in the tune - that is mainly a question of trial and error - if the note you are singing is F# it will sound awful to play a chord of 1 (GBD) against it, so what you need at that point is the chord of 5 (DF#A).
Q. Is there a website that will tell me how to play the high notes on the flute?
I am not a flautist myself (I'm a string player, mainly, although I can get a tune out of quite a lot of instruments) so I can't advise you about actual flute technique like getting the high notes. Nor do I know of a website that gives this kind of detailed advice. If you were to find a flautist who would give you just one or two lessons, that might be enough to get you started on the higher register and you could go on from there by yourself.
There are books - called "flute tutors" - that would help. Tune a Day Flute is a little out-dated these days and most flute teachers would look down their noses at it, but it does take you along in easy stages and gives you the fingerings you require at each stage. It will probably give advice about getting into the higher register too. Naturally it uses conventional music notation, but reading music is really not difficult - start at the beginning of the book, do a little at a time and be patient and you'll soon get the hang of it.
Q. I have a very old cello which I am told is worth quite a lot of money. How do I go about selling it? (I am in the USA)
If I were you, I would try to get in touch with one or two string players from the major orchestras in your state. Good string players need good string instruments, and they need good dealers to buy them from. So if you were able to find websites of your local orchestras on the net (I did this recently and found eight professional orchestras with websites in one state) and contact them, they might be able to come up with a name or two. Your local university music department might be able to do the same. In this country (and I presume the US is the same) musicians tend to know each other and gossip a lot - if you can get to one, you'll probably get to them all!
One further suggestion - if you write or phone or email any of these people and say "I've got a cello for sale, are you interested?" they'll run a mile. If you say "I'm urgently trying to contact a dealer in fine orchestral string instruments" they'll be more sympathetic. People who deal in high quality old instruments use the words "fine violins" or "fine cellos" a lot to distinguish themselves from ordinary music shops. Don't look for a 'cello dealer - they're very rare indeed - most violin dealers will deal in cellos too.
(Postscript: I heard from this lady again a few weeks later. She followed my advice to the letter, found a buyer without difficulty and got a very good price, too. Score one for Pay the Piper!)