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What's the best way to learn an instrument? Arcade Fire, Brandy Clark and more weigh in

Learn how to play drums, guitar and piano with personal tips from Grammy Award-winning artists.
Illustration of tiny women playing large musical instruments
Here's how some of the world's best musicians recommend starting to learn an instrument.Katty Huertas / TODAY
/ Source: TMRW

The burning passion to fill time at home with new hobbies may inspire you to purchase that guitar you've dreamed about since childhood. While in-person music lessons are less accessible right now, there are still options to learn the universal language of mankind.

If you're someone who's always longed to play an instrument but never knew where to start, here's your first music lesson from some of the world's chart-topping, Grammy Award-winning musicians.

However music captivates you — whether it's listening to soothing classical as you sip your morning coffee, blasting country from your car with the windows down, nodding along to rap beats or surrendering to a guitar riff as you imagine the warm pulse of a dancing crowd (deep sigh) — there are simple ways to start your own instrumental journey.

As 2020 came to a close, I got my dream instrument: a Fender Player Series Stratocaster, one of the most classic electric guitars, in Tidepool blue (swoon!). I began practicing with Fender Play, which organizes trackable lessons for acoustic, electric or bass guitar or ukulele categorized by genre (rock, folk, etc.). It progresses through three levels with recorded teachings from professional guitarists. Still, I was curious how some of the best-in-class musicians got their start with various instruments.

To pick up more guitar tips, I spoke to singer-songwriter Brandy Clark, whose writing credits include albums with Alicia Keys, Brandi Carlile and Miranda Lambert. I discussed the fundamentals of piano with Matt Belmont, lead singer and songwriter for the London-based Belle Mt., the namesake of which is evocative of Belmont's poetic spirit. And to learn how to play drums, I called up Richard Reed Parry, the multi-instrumentalist of Arcade Fire, the Canadian band that earned a Grammy for Album of the Year in 2010, whose most recent accomplishments include writing the soundtrack for the 2020 thriller "The Nest," starring Jude Law.

So, who's ready to play some music?

Guitar with Brandy Clark

Musical roots: Clark's mom was a talented musician who inspired her daughter at a young age to sing and taught her how to be on pitch.

"I didn't realize that not everybody's mom is a great musician," Clark told TMRW.

When she was about 9 years old, a man visiting her grandparents brought his guitar. When he played, she was enthralled. Soon after, she got guitar lessons and participated in her first musical, "The Music Man." She later majored in music. Clark has now earned eight Grammy nominations for her songs.

Favorite song by another artist: "Crazy," by Patsy Cline and Willie Nelson is one of her favorites. Songs that inspired many of Clark's finger-picking style songs include "Jolene" by Dolly Parton and "Rhiannon" by Fleetwood Mac.

Get to know the fret board: Aside from finding guitar tutorials online or signing up for lessons, Clark said one of the best ways to understand the fret board of a guitar is to look at how keys are set up on a piano.

"It's really hard for someone drawn to guitar to play piano. People are drawn to music because of what it looks like. But do both — it helps. I'm a visual learner. For me, it helped to see that (on a piano) the scale just starts over."

For someone committed to learning guitar, carve out a little time to watch the fundamentals of piano playing to foster a deeper understanding of your new instrument.

Listen to things you love: "Listen to things you love. Feel them, learn them — especially if you're older," Clark told TMRW. "You can tell a child to play one note over and over and they'll always be learning. Play things you love."

Slow it down: When you begin learning how to play a song you enjoy, Clark advised not to worry about playing at the same pace as the singer or musician in the recorded or live versions. In fact, do the opposite.

"My teacher, the greatest thing he did was slowed it way down for me to learn it," Clark told TMRW. "It doesn't just get your precision better, it helps you connect to it emotionally. Slow it down and really let it get in your bones. I think that’s how you learn something."

Instrument recommendations: "I think guitars are like jeans: You try different ones but you have that one pair. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive," Clark said. "Find that instrument feels like a great pair of jeans and an old shoe."

Some reliable brands, particularly for the acoustic guitars Clark plays, include Martin, Taylor and Seagull Guitars. She also loves the OMJM, which is a Martin guitar designed by John Mayer.

"I think guitars are like jeans: You try different ones but you have that one pair. It doesn’t have to be the most expensive."

Brandy Clark

Clark added how different instruments "have songs in them," and you can really feel those when you pick one up at a pawn shop. It doesn't have to be a shiny new model. Sometimes a nylon string acoustic guitar for $100 will be just the right fit. Clark found that big body guitars began to hurt her shoulder, so she went for a smaller model. Taylor Guitars, for example, sells a smaller body guitar designed to be more comfortable called the GTe Urban Ash, which is played by artists like Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.

Piano with Matt Belmont

Musical roots: Belmont became infatuated with live music at age 9 when he heard his school music teacher play a classical piece during an assembly.

"I had no idea the other reactions of kids, but I was transfixed — amazed by this simple power I'd just seen," Belmont told TMRW. "I came running in the front door asking for a piano as if it was a chocolate bar. I didn't let up. I became obsessed and my parents found me a rickety, 100-year-old piano."

Before getting lessons a year later, Belmont began to learn the chords by ear and found he couldn't "do much wrong" if he played all the white notes or black notes together. Then, led by both feeling and eagerness, he began to learn the chords.

"For me, it's been a meditative experience," Belmont said of using piano for his songwriting. "The soundboard is facing you. The chord goes through you ... something about those vibrations that makes it different. You become part of that whole vibration; it's impossible not to be moved by it."

Favorite song by another artist: To play, Belmont can't resist Claude DeBussy's classical arrangement "Clair de Lune." To listen to at full volume, he loves Bon Iver's live cover of Bonnie Rait's "I Can't Make You Love Me."

Start with the fundamentals: Once someone learns the rules (the scale and chord construction formula) for one key, they can apply them to all the others.

"Basically, if you learn everything there is to know about the C major and C minor scale and its chords, then you can apply those same rules and formulas to every other key there is," Belmont told TMRW. "Music is quite perfect maths and the beauty of the piano is that it was designed after we’d worked it all out. So it’s laid out in the most intuitive way possible."

Belmont added that the piano's layout is representative of a full arrangement of music: The left hand plays the bass and chords and the right hand plays chords and melody. The keys were designed as black and white with different lengths to help players distinguish them easily by sight or touch, and "to fit an entire octave within the reach of a human hand."

Don't worry about starting out with virtual lessons: Belmont told TMRW he's been teaching his 10-year-old nephew piano on FaceTime and he's absorbs everything as well as he would face-to-face. If you can set up the phone or computer in a way where it's easy to ask questions and see the keys when needed, virtual music lessons can be equally as productive as in-person.

For those who choose to hire a teacher, Belmont says take your time to find someone you connect with easily. The first teacher will help establish your relationship with the instrument. For those who choose not to work with a teacher, there is a plethora of Youtube tutorials for piano that Belmont says work well. The same goes for researching the right person to learn from though — make sure there's a positive click with their teaching style.

Some Youtube teachers Belmont respects include Creative Piano Academy for piano, Rick Beato for all levels of music theory for piano and guitar and Paul Davids for guitar.

Most important thing to remember: "Have a kind relationship with yourself as you’re learning," Belmont told TMRW. "Don't be too hard on yourself."

Once you've got access to a piano, Belmont advised committing to just five minutes per day. If you've had a a rough day, five minutes is a healthy amount of time that will increase your abilities while still bringing a positive feeling. Some days, you may continue to practice for an hour or two, but that length of time commitment daily may just add unnecessary pressure.

"You want to feel like it's a joy and a privilege to sit at that instrument," Belmont added.

Instrument recommendation: Belmont said it's easy to get great deals on second-hand and used pianos that are "built to last." Here are some trustworthy options when you're ready to glide your fingers across those keys:

  • Electric: Korg and Nord
  • Acoustic: Yamaha, Kemble, Steinway and Challen

Drums with Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire

Musical roots: While Parry's one true love is the physically demanding, deep-toned upright bass, the Grammy Award-winning artist plays guitar, celesta, keyboards, accordion and drums — and sometimes switches among them on stage. That's why I asked for Parry's expertise to learn about drums, which are unique in that they are polyrhythmic and require one's brain and all four limbs to produce the sounds.

Parry grew up in Ottawa, Canada, in a family of folk musicians where singing was a daily activity. Parry always loved piano and began playing around 6 years old when he started lessons beyond the participatory nature of his family's musical community.

"Drums came second," Parry told TMRW, adding how he discovered a drum kit during sixth grade spring break at a friend's house. "I'd jam out on the drums everyday. I cobbled together a drum kit of sorts with my friend’s bandmates. I had no discipline, but it was exciting and fun."

Favorite song by another artist: Parry's song of choice "depends on the day," he told TMRW, but one of his favorites is "Small Hours" by John Martyn.

Work hard, play hard: The thing about drums, Parry offered, is that some of the most exceptional drummers are completely self-taught. Some young children may enter regimented, classical piano lessons at a young age, but the drums are feeling-forward and often attract a certain type of individual.

"You just have to really feel the thing you're doing and be drawn to it," Parry told TMRW. "The harder people work and more inventive (they are) with approach — those are the things that make a mark on the world. Absurdly different circumstances and types of people can become musicians, regardless of the path toward it."

Parry was like this himself. After taking drum lessons for a few months, he wasn't inspired. He liked to jam out and the more he did, the more he learned about the instrument.

Absurdly different circumstances and types of people can become musicians, regardless of the path toward it."

Richard Reed Parry

Start small: While Parry jested he never thought he'd be advising a national audience to pick up the djembe, he believes beginning with a less elaborate hand-drum, such as the African djembe, Cuban congas or Brazilian cahones, is ideal for someone drawn to drums.

"It's a lot simpler, less loud and less expensive than starting with a whole drum kit," Parry said. "Get your hands going. Get into a communal music experience. Get better playing with other people and with both hands… It's a step in the right direction of that instrument."

Experiment to find if the drum rhythm is right for you: An event like a free drum circle is a perfect way to listen, feel and better understand one's connection to the instrument. Drum circles are often held outdoors in parks or on beaches in places like Montreal, California and other areas and welcome anyone to come gather in a circle and get into a free-form rhythm.

If this isn't accessible, ask friends who play, reach out to a social network of local musicians, connect with a teacher or head to a local music shop to practice your drumming before making the investment in your very own drum kit.

"It can seem daunting, but just go to a music store, decent sized, near you. They have drum kits and rooms for this reason. Go and play all afternoon and see if you like it, see what it does inside of you," Parry said. "Those people may scowl at you but you're the customer and you might buy one. Go do it. Own that space and investigate for yourself. Just wail and make an ass out of yourself, it's for you, it doesn’t matter. Try it all."