While the most popular musical instrument to play changes each year, certain instruments remain perennial favorites among music students of all ages in the United States. Aspiring music students can learn more about the history and technical aspects of the three most beloved instruments in the following.
The guitar has established itself as one of the most widely played instruments in modern-day America, and its influence can be seen in a diverse range of musical genres. A versatile instrument, the guitar offers many style of play, ranging from rock and roll and country music to classical and jazz.
Historians believe that the earliest ancestor of the guitar first appeared in Spain in the early 1500s, although the modern version familiar to us today did not appear until the late 1800s. The early “guitarra latina,” as it was called, had a waist that was much less pronounced than today’s guitar and a much narrower body with a deeper sound made by plucking four courses of strings tuned to C, F, A, and D. By the end of the 1700s, the guitar had six single strings tuned to E, A, D, B, G, and E, which is today’s standard.
Guitars are made in both acoustic and electric varieties, each with its own set of subtypes. The most common four types of guitars are the nylon string and steel string acoustics, the hollow body, and the solid body electric. The nylon string guitar is almost singularly used to perform classical and flamenco pieces, while the invention of the steel string acoustic gave rise to the less technical, but more nuanced play patterns employed by artists in musical genres such as jazz and the blues. The creation of the hollow body electric had a particularly significant impact on jazz guitarists, who used the instrument’s amplified volume to make themselves better heard among the many other instruments at play in jazz ensembles. When the solid body electric guitar was invented, musicians were able to create the signature sound that characterizes rock music. The solid body electric guitar is the most popular form of the instrument among young musicians today.
The piano is a foundational instrument that professionals say children can begin to learn before the age of 6, provided that they have finger dexterity and their hands are sufficiently large enough. Around 21 million Americans play the piano, and its versatility allows it to assume the lead or fade into the background of songs that span a wide range of musical genres.
Some may be surprised to learn that the piano is a string instrument. The strings are encased within the instrument’s body and resonate when struck by hammers connected to the movement of the keys. As a result, it is also considered a keyboard instrument and was preceded by the invention of the clavichord in the 1300s, followed by the harpsichord in the early 1500s. The first true piano was invented by Italian harpsichord producer Bartolomeo di Francesco Cristofori in 1698, and it subsequently shaped much of the writing and playing styles of composers in 18th century Europe. Although some adjustments have been made since Cristofori’s early invention, such as increased string tension that significantly improved the instrument’s dynamic range, the modern piano is strikingly similar to those played in the 1700s.
The piano exists in three primary styles: upright and grand, which are acoustic, and digital pianos, which are electric. The upright piano has shorter, vertical strings compared with the grand piano, which has long, horizontal strings. The hammers in an upright piano are reset using spring-based mechanisms, whereas the hammers on a grand piano are reset by gravity, which makes each piano’s keys feel different to the touch when played.
Drums are among the world’s oldest instruments, and they continue to draw the interest of musicians of all ages. The drums play a crucial supporting role in the sound of any band and are even used as a therapeutic tool to foster positive social and emotional development in children with disabilities.
The earliest discovered drums date back thousands of years BC. The drums were fashioned from objects such as tree trunks, gourds, or shells covered with a thin membrane comprised of reptile or fish skin, and were played with the hands. Later versions of the drum contained membranes made from the skin of mammals and were played using sticks. Along with its recreational value, drums also provided early populations in Sri Lanka and some African countries with a means of communicating over a distance as early as 1000 to 500 BC. The first snare drum was developed in the mid-17th century, and by the early 19th century drums were incorporated into orchestral compositions. By the 1930s, the world was familiar with the four-piece drum kit that set the stage for many starter drum sets that new musicians are familiar with today.
While there are numerous types of drums that vary in popularity from one country to another, the one most commonly used in the United States is the drum kit, which in its most basic form consists of a snare drum, bass drum, several tom-toms, and a collection of cymbals. Although cymbals vary based on a drummer’s needs, a kit typically has a single cymbal along with a hi-hat, which is comprised of two cymbals connected by a foot pedal that allows the cymbals to crash together and come apart in time with the beat of a song.