Whether I am performing on stage or teaching in the classroom, I frequently get the following question “Which instrument is the easiest to play; the Banjo, Guitar, or Mandolin?”
For the banjo player, there are various styles that you can learn to play, such as old time banjo, claw hammer or five-string three finger picking. If you choose five-string picking style, then you must learn to roll and roll and roll with the right hand, until you are blue in the face or your fingers hurt. The chord structure is not as complicated as the guitar but the scale structure is not as clearly delineated on the fingerboard either. Banjo players want to play fast right out of the gate but if you don’t learn to slow down and master the right hand and left hand technique, then you will soon become frustrated when playing a song. The banjoist must also learn back-up technique as well, which includes vamping the chords to create a percussion sound.
A guitar is quite a diverse instrument. There are acoustic, electric and nylon string classical guitars. The width of the neck varies, based on the type of guitar you purchase. Do you want to finger-pick or flat-pick the instrument? Is your preference to play blues, rock and roll, country or bluegrass? The guitar is an important rhythm instrument, so learning how to strum and change chords is vital for you to become proficient as a rhythm player. Chord structure is more complicated than the banjo, and mandolin, since you have more strings to play and thus, more chord forms. Don’t forget that one day you may hope to play lead guitar like Tony Rice or Eric Clapton or Lee Ritenour (depending on your preferred genre). Learning scales around the fingerboard is essential to becoming a great lead guitarist.
A mandolin is a tiny instrument but don’t let the size fool you. Tiny does not equate to easier to play. The mandolin has various right and left hand techniques that you will also learn if you play guitar or banjo, yet they may be more prevalent in some cases. The terms tremolo, cross-picking and chops should ring a bell for a seasoned mandolin player. You must practice these techniques regularly, in order to master them. The mandolin scale structure (depending on the key of the song) is nicely laid out and may be more simplified on the fingerboard but many of the chords are not easy to play. Quite the contrary, a mandolin player has to hold down double strings with each finger. The frets are narrow and there is little room for large fingers. Yet, tiny fingers also create a different problem, since the finger tips have to hold down the double strings at the same time. The mandolin is also a diverse instrument with a broad following that spans the globe. A mandolin player may be heard playing classical, celtic, Irish, bluegrass, jazz and other styles of music.
So what is your choice and can you play more than one instrument?
At the risk of sounding condescending, if someone is looking for an easy instrument to play, then maybe they should start out with a kazoo. The bottom line is that there is no such thing as an easy instrument. Music itself it not simple and one just needs to study the musical language and music theory principles to understand how complicated it can become. As the great Mr. BB King once said, you will get out of your instrument what you put into it. The sky is the limit. The harder you practice, the better you will become. So yes, it is possible to learn and play more than one instrument, as long as you dedicate the hours towards practicing and learning each instrument.