World renown classical pianist and composer Vladimir Horowitz once opined, “The piano is the easiest instrument to play in the beginning, and the hardest to master in the end.” It comes as no surprise to many of us that the piano is often said to be the best instrument to learn first as it introduces you to the foundational rules of music where you can play both the melody as well as the chords. It teaches you time signatures, chord progressions, musical scales, musical timing, musical notation and overall by and large gives you a comprehensive understanding of musical theory.
The modern tendency, however, is for many people to take up either the guitar or the piano as their first instrument when learning to play music. Not surprisingly the piano and the guitar are the number one and two most played instruments in the world, with the drums coming in third place. So, it begs the question, if given the choice between the piano and the guitar, which instrument would be the best to learn – particularly if you think you might pick up the other instrument at some point in time. What is it that makes the piano a superior instrument to learn for future songwriters, band musicians and musicologists? To understand the reasons for this we first need to look at the transition process itself.
Pianists Who Learn Guitar
Hopefully, you have made your choice and are already well on your way learning to play the piano. If it’s your first time making this transition, naturally you’re curious to see how to implement what you’ve learned on the piano towards the guitar. So for starters, it might help to have a look at the layout of the guitar itself. One way to do this is to see the guitar like six pianos. Sure, seeing six pianos sounds confusing and counter-intuitive to making things easier, but it’s essentially what a guitar is. If you think about it, each guitar string is like a miniature piano. What makes it confusing is that each string starts on a different note. As a result what you end up having is an arrangement like this:
E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B – C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E
B – C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B
G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B – C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G
D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B – C – C#/Db – D
A – A#/Bb – B – C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A
E – F – F#/Gb – G – G#/Ab – A – A#/Bb – B – C – C#/Db – D – D#/Eb – E
Note: Thinnest string at the top, while notes go open string notes to the 12th fret, and with black keys (accidentals) given in bold.
As you might know, standard guitar tuning is ‘E-A-D-G-B-E’. Most of these notes are perfect fourths apart, which gels with a piano player because that’s consistent. What trips people up is going from ‘G’ to ‘B’. This is a third. Confused? Not to worry, because it sounds more complicated than it actually is. In short, it’s all about playability!
Consider this – if the guitar was set up without that major 3rd interval from ‘G’ to ‘B’ barre chords would be impossible. So here are a few things to recognize:
- Think about an ‘A’ major barre chord at the 5th fret in standard tuning ‘E-A-D-G-B-E’.
- Here is what you’d have to do with a “mathematically perfect” tuning of all perfect 4ths – ‘E-A-D-G-C-F’.
Since the top two strings are raised a half-step it sort of makes for a jacked up chord, no? Just try playing one and then the other. Find other chords and see how hard, or impossible, they are to play by tuning it the same way you’d tune a piano. [¹]
Guitarists Who Learn Piano
For those of you who might have started to learn the guitar first then decided (or are deciding) to learn to play the piano, some issues you will likely experience that you should be aware of are given below:
- The fingering blueprint for the two instruments is different, and causes plenty of confusion. The #1 finger for piano is the thumb, whereas, for the guitar it is the index finger. When reading the fingering for a piece of piano music, the guitar players often put’s the wrong finger on a key, so they must learn to translate different fingers for the same numbers.
- Guitar players train themselves to use their fretting hand like a vise-grip to play songs, such as when they play bar chords. This is in conflict to what good technique is for the piano, where one wants a quiet and relaxed hand.
- It is common for guitar players to find it difficult to play both hands on the piano. This is because when they play the guitar, they are in a way playing one instrument with both hands. Many piano players will also attest to the fact that playing with both hands is/was a challenge for them too, however, for the guitar players, it can be a greater challenge because their playing is not exactly two hands playing separate things as it is with the piano.
Don’t let these things deter you from learning to play the piano, because unlike the guitar where the exact same note can occur in several places, the piano is laid out more logically in a linear fashion. This makes the piano easier to understand. Now the reason that piano works so much better as an avenue for learning music theory is because there is only one key for each note. On Piano the ‘C’ above middle ‘C’ is always a single key. On guitar you can play the ‘C’ above middle ‘C’ as, 1st fret-‘B’ string, 5th fret-‘G’ string, 10th fret-‘D’ string, 15th fret-‘A’ string, and 20th fret-Low ‘E’ string. These are all literally the same note; not octaves of each other. Understanding how to play in all of these positions on guitar becomes easier as time goes on, but it is understandable why it can be a little confusing in the beginning.
Because each note is only one key on the piano, you can physically see the distance of all of the intervals. Learning intervals is the foundation for all of music theory to come, so this is a huge advantage in the beginning. Now, intervals will be easy enough to see on guitar if you stick to one string, because each fret you move up or down represents a half step. This is the same as moving from one key to the key directly next to it, whether black or white, on the piano. However, it is moving across strings which becomes difficult in learning theory on the guitar.
Let’s study the basics of the guitar a bit more. As you might have gathered, the guitar’s main limitation in playing chords is that only one note can be sounded per string, so it’s a little harder to come up with workable voicing. Each string is like a keyboard in and of itself on guitar. Moving up higher strings, is like like switching to a piano which starts at a higher note than the one before. So once you understand your intervals on piano, you can then translate that knowledge to how the strings relate to each other on guitar.
You can see that the space between each note is the same except between the ‘G’ and ‘B’ strings. The guitar is arranged in perfect 4ths, except between the ‘G’ and ‘B’ strings, which is a major 3rd. This is another aspect of guitar that makes sense from a functionality standpoint (as stated earlier, open chords and barre chords would be almost impossible to play if it were the same interval), but it complicates things when trying to understand the guitar theoretically.
Another related reason for learning piano is from a composer’s perspective. The piano spans the entire range of an orchestra or band, and then some. On piano you can play 8-10 notes at one time whereas guitar is limited to 6 maximum. You can play supporting chords and melody to hear the complete picture of a song on a piano much easier than if you were to try to arrange a chord melody on guitar. This is why the piano’s functionality lends itself better towards a complete understanding of music theory and composition. The guitar is of course beautiful in itself for its expressiveness and ability to bend and slide notes. The world is big enough for both instruments after all, and your repertoire will only be enhanced for each instrument by choosing to learn both. [²]
In summary, unlike the guitar, the piano involves both treble and bass clefs (the guitar uses only the treble clef), chords and melody (in contrast to for example the flute or trumpet which only express the melody). Most tertiary level music programs require all students to learn some piano, even if they happen to be majoring in another instrument. In fact many university level students of other instruments express regret that they did not learn piano when they were younger. Simply put, the piano produces a more complete intelligence of how music works than any other instrument. It should be the one instrument every musician ought to learn the basics of as they will find it translates to their instrument of choice. Whatever instrument that may ultimately be, they will be guaranteed to be richer for it having learnt to play the piano.
So tell us, what do you think? Do you play both instruments? Which way did you transition and what helped you the most? Let us know in the comments below!