Updated on 05.20.08

Make Your Own Kind of Music

Trent Hamm

Quite often, I’ve mentioned that learning your own musical instrument is an incredibly frugal hobby. Almost every time I mention it, someone asks some follow up questions along the lines of: “How can that be frugal? Instruments are expensive!”

Recently, I wanted to put that to the test and show how inexpensively a person can start learning a musical instrument in their spare time. I decided that I would learn how to play a pop song on a keyboard and finally settled on the song “Clocks” by Coldplay. Here’s the video for it (you’ll be able to hear it quite well if your speakers are on):

I chose it because, well, I like the song, it had a very obvious piano component, and also (in my not-very-musically-inclined mind) it seemed like it would be fairly easy to learn. Here’s how I did it – for free.

Acquiring the Instrument
The first step, of course, is figuring out what instrument to play. I settled on the keyboard fairly quickly, but there are a lot of instruments out there that can potentially be had. I’d recommend that, if you’re learning an instrument by yourself at home, pick up one that has a lot of tutorial material available – guitar, banjo, keyboard, and harmonica are all good places to start.

Once you know what you want to play, start looking for instruments on the cheap. If you’re just learning, a low quality instrument is a great place to start. You don’t need a $3,000 Fender Stratocaster to learn to play guitar – a low-end acoustic guitar will do the trick. You can move on to the Fender if you start becoming deeply passionate and deeply know the difference between it and the low-end acoustic that you learned on.

Here are some ways to find an instrument for free (or nearly so).

Freecycle is a great place to put out a request. State that you’re a beginner and are looking for a used version of the instrument of interest. I had success finding a keyboard this way in my county’s group – an elderly lady was thrilled to give hers to someone who genuinely wanted to learn.

Charity Music is another place to look. For the most part, they target younger people and people with low incomes, but if you find yourself in both groups, this is definitely a place to look.

Local Goodwill and second-hand shops I often see used instruments like harmonicas and old acoustic guitars at places like these for just a pittance. On occasion, I also spot instruments at yard sales, though not too frequently.

Family and friends You’d be surprised how many people around you have an old instrument stashed in the closet that they haven’t touched in ten years that they’d be happy to share. Just ask around a little bit – you might be surprised.

Learning by Yourself
The next challenge is to find ways to learn for free. There are several routes you can take to do this.

Use the internet There are a lot of tutorials and other assistance available online for free. Lifehacker has a great guide discussing how to learn an instrument online and most of that material is free. I’ve found the most success, incidentally, from looking at YouTube. I found tons of videos on basic keyboard and piano skills as well as guides on how to begin reading sheet music. I even found some guides on how to specifically play “Clocks” on the piano – incredibly useful.

Use free book resources, like the library or PaperBackSwap On PaperBackSwap (or a similar used book service), my wife acquired a pair of books on beginning piano for older students which has been immensely helpful for me, as it provided guided exercises to help with various techniques as I poked around. Look at services for free learning materials, like the library, and see what you can find.

Trade skills with an instructor. If you know someone skilled with that instrument, offer to barter with them in exchange for some lessons. Perhaps you have a skill you can share with them – “I’ll fix your computer in exchange for a few piano lessons” or something like that.

My experience learning “Clocks”
I had hoped to show you some stunning YouTube video with me busting through “Clocks” like there’s no tomorrow, but frankly, it’s hard to do. It’s one of those things that’s very fun for me to practice and I can hear myself getting better each time, but whenever I record it and play it back, I still cringe. Perhaps cringe a bit less than before, but still a pretty big cringe. I’ll spare your ears.

Nevertheless, it’s a lot of fun. I’ve hit all kinds of useful online resources for learning how to play. I’m now branching out from just learning “Clocks” and am attempting to learn from an old book that my wife has had on learning piano for older students, playing stuff like “Hot Cross Buns” and “My Darling Clementine.”

The best part? None of this cost anything at all. You can do this for free – a fun hobby and a learned skill that can impress others all wrapped up together. That’s the best kind of frugality.

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  1. April says:

    Wow. How perfect. Just yesterday I was trying to Google cheap ways to learn to play piano. I have a piano that basically gets ignored, although learning to play is on my list of things to accomplish.

    I used to pay for lessons long ago, but I never really stuck with it. I’d love to take lessons again because they are so helpful, but I’ve vowed not to do it until the credit cards are paid off.

    My hisband and I are considering going to one car because his was rear-ended and most likely will be totaled out. We don’t want another car payment. He works on Saturdays, which would leave me at home to entertain myself…I think I need to finally get serious about playing!

  2. Just a quick note on this:

    “If you’re just learning, a low quality instrument is a great place to start. You don’t need a $3,000 Fender Stratocaster to learn to play guitar – a low-end acoustic guitar will do the trick. You can move on to the Fender if you start becoming deeply passionate and deeply know the difference between it and the low-end acoustic that you learned on.”

    While it is true that you don’t need a $3000 guitar to learn on, don’t go for a completely bottom of the barrel instrument, especially a guitar (which I am familiar with; I can’t speak to keyboards or other).

    A guitar that is too cheap (as opposed to inexpensive) can actually be a detriment to learning. Poor intonation can make what you play sound bad, no matter how good you are getting. Discouraging. And if the strings are too high above the fretboard (mostly an acoustic tip), it can be too hard to play. Again, this can be frustrating.

    Which is not to say there aren’t inexpensive guitars that sound good. If you have a friend who plays guitar better than you, bring em along on your guitar hunting expedition. They will (hopefully) be able to do a couple simple things to check out what the guitar sounds like and how it is strung, and offer feedback. Or at least google “Choosing a guitar” to find out what you should be looking for in a guitar.

  3. Laura says:

    I’m spending some time to learn guitar. I’ve been given a guitar as a graduation gift and some videos to help out. It really is a a lot of fun learning something new. I won’t amaze anyone with my skill, but it definately relaxes me.

  4. Sara says:

    I’ve been saying I want to learn the harmonica for years. You know, the whole Steven Tyler thing… What I’m going to take away from this is that I can use a favorite song to inspire me. Even if I’m awful, I can use playing a “real” song to keep me goal-oriented while still learning the basics.

  5. Trent C says:

    Ha Ha…..”Hot Cross Buns, Hot Cross Buns.” That made me laugh out loud. I remember learning that song when I first started learning piano. Good luck and keep practicing!!

  6. jim says:

    I think learning to play an instrument on something more down to earth is a great idea, from both a financial and a learning perspective.

    I would warn against learning other things on your own if you plan to be doing it for a long time because you can learn bad form or bad habits that can be difficult to unlearn.

    This is a good idea for an adult learning to play an instrument though, I have many friends who have taught themselves the guitar (or rather, taught themselves a handful of songs).

  7. margo says:

    My hobbies run more to the “crafty” end of the spectrum. I knit (not the cheapest of hobbies), draw a little (I’m not particularly good), and recently I have been interested in learning a little “real” photography. But, I was wary of investing in a new camera. Photography can be a very expensive hobby!

    But, my in-laws had a perfectly serviceable 35mm Canon SLR lying about and decided to donate it to the cause. Now my only costs are batteries, film and developing, and if I decide I like it, I might upgrade to a digital camera and save on film and developing.

    I am considering taking a class, but right now am working with the camera’s manual and a book I picked up (relatively) cheaply.

  8. My wife bought a piano at goodwill for $2.99 !! Apparently this store wouldn’t accept pianos, but a lady just dropped it off. My wife overheard them trying to figure out what to do with it, and they told her she could have for three bucks if she found a way to move it. Tuning it cost another forty bucks, but still a great deal. And at that cost we don’t have to worry about our little boys being gentle enough with it. The trumpet I played in high school came from an uncle who played in high school, and then I passed it back to their kids after getting another trumpet from a different family member.

    So talk about your needs and keep your eyes open and you might get lucky.

  9. Frugal Dad says:

    I played piano growing up and still remember one of my recital songs from memory – The Theme to St. Elmo’s Fire. I played that and Fur Elise (which I don’t remember much of!). I’d like to get back into practicing, and hope to one day hear my kids play. Thanks for re-sparking an interest for me.

  10. James says:

    Here’s a tip from someone who’s been playing the piano for a few years–if you’re looking to find a cheap piano to play while you learn, borrow one that belongs to someone else. While you could pick up a cheap synth keyboard at radio shack, they keys are nothing at all like real piano keys. And since the feel of the keys and the way your fingers move across them is an important part of playing the piano, it’s something that could really hold you back.

    (“You” being used here as “you, the reader” and not necessarily “you, Trent” since I seem to remember that Trent has a real piano.)

    Incidentally, I have the accompaniment sheet music for Clocks–it’s not the easiest of songs for beginners, so don’t get discouraged.

    I’ll also echo April and say that lessons from a good teacher can be very helpful. It’s definitely an expense, but I know I’ve learned a lot from mine, after having started out trying to teach myself.

  11. Angie says:

    Ok, I see someone’s mentioned this above, but if you plan on playing an instrument and expect to be good at it, you cannot have an instrument that is in bad shape. You can find good quality instruments at cheap prices, yes, but don’t go for poor quality. Part of the success of playing an instrument is the quality of the instrument itself. I have learned this from band instructors in school. I played the flute primarily (and added additional instruments throughout the years), and have had both a cheap cheap flute and a very nice flute. My skill level didn’t change but I was much better on the nice flute. Just a word of caution. It’s ok not to splurge the first go around, but if you’re serious, look for a decent quality instrument the first time.
    It makes sense, if you end up giving up because you cannot play decent and quit, then paying for a cheap instrument was not a good buy in the first place.

  12. Tom Printy says:

    You tube is a great resource. I have been learning to play the guitar and found that You Tube had everything that I need. I found this resource so useful that I built a website to showcase these videos. Check it out at Learn2Strum.com

  13. Patrick says:

    I agree with the other Trent’s statement – if you get a guitar (or other instrument) make sure you get a quality instrument, not just an inexpensive instrument. I’ve played inexpensive guitars that sound great and cheap guitars that are so frustrating they aren’t worth having. If you have an instrument that sounds good and is easy to play, it is more encouraging for beginners and facilitates learning.

    That said, I love music and it is a *great* hobby and can be inexpensive – if you don’t go out and buy tons of accessories! I primarily just play the acoustic now, though I used to play a little bit of everything. I don’t play as often anymore and as a result I have a lot of unused gear (a couple electric guitars, some recording equipment, amps, processors, mics, etc.). I used them all frequently until a few years ago. I could probably sell a few items and make some cash… :)

  14. Dean says:

    It is never too late to learn to play an instrument. My dad, who is retiring in a few weeks at age 65, started to get into blue grass music and has started to learn top play the guitar. I have been playing for about 10 years and it is fun to help my dad learn and to reconnect via a common hobby.

    He lives in MN and I live in MO and we only see each other twice a year, but we talk to each other about the guitar and send each other web links or other guitar tidbits to help each other learn. Good times!

    I have a not so expensive guitar that my kids can “play” with too. I hope at least one of them gets interested enough to want to learn how to really play. Until then it is fun to see them mess around and watch as i play a few riffs they like to hear.

    YouTube is your best friende when it comes to learning the guitar. There are so many high quality and free videos to help you pick a guitar, tune it, maintain it and learn cords, riffs, or songs. Learning the guitar is hard work but it is so satisfying to be able to play a recognizable riff or song and maybe even write a few or your own. Good luck to all of you new guitar learners. Welcome ot the club!

  15. Greg says:

    I agree–find an inexpensive but not cheap quality instrument. If it’s junk, you won’t like to play it and won’t practice and won’t ever get any good. Like buying tools, cheap ones sometimes end up being more expensive in the long run because you end up paying twice. Once to buy a cheap one and then a second time when you replace the junk you bought with something better. Better to just bite the bullet once.

    Once you know how to play and have an instrument, it is cheap entertainment. I play bluegrass music and going to jam with friends is fun and (usually) completely free.

  16. Kathy says:

    I wonder if music lessons would be something that would lend it self to a barter exchange. I’m picturing a retired piano teacher who needed some light handyman jobs done or a college student with guitar skills who needed to some help editing a term paper. Of course, I have no idea how you’d hook up with these fantasy people-Craigslist maybe?

  17. Bandmomma says:

    There are many quality instruments that are inexpensive. However, a low quality instrument purchased on the internet can end up costing you considerably more in repairs(if the repair shop will even accept the instrument). Also, as it has been mentioned before, a low quality instrument will fight you back in many ways that will make playing difficult. I teach 5th and 6th grade band and have watched too many kiddos suffer on an instrument they purchased at unnameable big box stores. Do some research and find a suitable student instrument that will last.

  18. Andy says:

    Let’s see a concert. Have no shame. Video of you on a keyboard would be priceless. Maybe you’re the Ronald Jenkees of personal finance blogs.

  19. chris says:

    Nice Lost reference

  20. FFB says:

    I agree with the above that you don’t want too cheap an instrument. I play guitar and nowadays there are very inexpensive guitar packages out there. Unfortunately you get what you pay for. Many of these cannot keep tune for more than a minute. In learning an instrument it’s important to develop your relative pitch and this is very difficult when your instrument will not stay in tune. When shopping try to bring someone with experience along and listen to them play. Don’t trust the salesman at the store. They can have a tendency to be snobbish and talk down to you (I’m thinking of a place the rhymes with Glam Smash).

    A used instrument can be a great way to get a better instrument for less. My first guitar was used and it’s still one of my favorites.

    When I started I would buy guitar magazines that had tabulature to learn songs. It was a great way to get a feel for the songs. There’s a lot of places to get “tab” online too.

    Mmmm, drooling over the thought of a $3K Strat. Could I get a ’69 these days for that much? That would also buy a beautiful Martin or PRS.

    Good look with your piano. One thing that helped me tremendously with piano is picking up the rules of music theory. You may be able to find a theory book at the library. It may sound intimidating but if you can learn some basic theory it will help your piano playing tremendously!

  21. Jessica says:

    Although there are plenty of ways out there to learn how to play on your own, I think even a few basic set of lessons can make a big difference. For instance, you may be able to get away with improper/casual technique until you get to a certain level, and then it’s hard to unlearn your bad habits.

    Most community colleges have adult ed classes for piano and guitar-I know in my area you can do continuing ed course for $80 for a semester or 14 90 minute classes in a group setting. Most high school bands/orchestras keep a list of people who will give private lessons on an instrument, and if you contacted them they would probably give the information. Unless they’re world renowned and working with an orchestra, you could probably negotiate a fair price for a one or a few lessons. Or even barter with them!

    Lessons could also make a great gift if you know someone who has been dying to learn!

  22. Lucky says:

    If looking for a cheap guitar, don’t forget that almost everyone has one stashed in their house somewhere. Lots of people will be more than happy to give an instrument to someone who will actually play it.

    This is, incidentally, how orchestral musicians end up with instruments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s not because they make a lot of money, it’s because someone who DOES have a lot of money doesn’t want to watch a valuable instrument sit unplayed.

  23. Kell says:

    I can tell you first hand experience, once you start getting serious about learning the piano, it can become very costly. I am working towards my grade 7 exams and my current piano just doesn’t cut it for me, so I need to replace it with a high quality one. I can probably get away with spending AU5000, but that’s about as cheap as I can go. Also, you are expected to do hourly lessons per week when working towards grading, so for me that’s a cool $52 a week on lessons. Tuning every three months is around $120 (cause you play it so much) and then the technical books on top of that. If you want a cheap instrument, take up the guitar instead :)
    Although all that being said, if you are only doing it for fun, it’s not as bad as all that.

  24. Andre says:

    On your first point about “low-end” instruments it might be a good idea to clarify what you mean.

    I’ve been in and around music musicians and instruments my whole life, not to mention music lessons. If you start off learning on the lowest quality instrument possible, you’re much more likely to quit early on.

    You’re right, a Stratocaster Guitar or Steinway piano isn’t necessary for beginners. But if you start playing on a guitar you got for $40, chances are the guitar isnt going to last very long.

    Cheap instruments usually get naturally out of tune quickly, have bad tone quality or generally break down somehow earlier than an instrument should. Repairs for instruments are expensive (in some cases the same cost as repairing a car.)

    A good start for cheap but effective instruments are student models. While not free you can get a good student model Guitar or Keyboard for about $100 and horns for $2-300. If you take proper care of them they’ll last for years so you wont be needing to buy a new one over and over again (had my first student model horn for over 8 years.) Plus they have the advantage of having warranties where used stores don’t.

    If not into spending the money, like the people mentioned above, try and find someone with an extra piece laying around. Musicians with extra instruments tend to be pretty generous in sharing with aspiring learners.

    It’s definitely possible to find free or really cheap quality instruments as you mentioned above, but if you think you’ll really be investing your time into music, with low-end used instruments it’s definitely caveat emptor.

  25. Doug Ramsdell says:

    Everything that everyone’s saying about cheap guitars is true (maybe MORE so) for cheap woodwinds (clarinets, saxes, flutes). The super-cheap Chinese instruments that are being imported nowadays are impossible to keep in adjustment because the keywork is so cheap (most ethical repair people won’t touch them, because they can’t guarantee the repair will hold up). Learning an instrument can be frustrating enough in the best of circumstances; a cheap, badly-functioning instrument makes it SO much worse. Almost every wind instrument has a dedicated core of nerds supporting one or another online forums (I’m a clarinet nerd myself) and they are DELIGHTED to give good advice on brands of used instruments to purchase. Just do a little googling and you’ll find them.

    Another suggestion: When I first learned guitar, I took a group class, and with a good teacher, group classes are a reasonably inexpensive alternative to solitary practice–plus the scrutiny of the teacher keeps you from developing bad habits.

    Finally, having just re-learned (correctly!) the flute, I STRONGLY advise a crucial practice habit, especially for glass-is-half-empty kind of people: learn to recognize, and celebrate, every scintilla of progress you’re making when learning an instrument. Learning an instrument requires a lot of “try,” and nothing keeps the inspiration going like an awareness that, however slowly, you’re getting better.

  26. Although bartering for piano lessons looks good on paper, most teachers that I know would settle for nothing less than a ‘paid for’ lesson. Having said that, it doesn’t hurt to try, I suppose.

    Also, starting out on a low quality instrument is not a great idea. Always go a couple of levels higher than the bottom of the barrel, even if it means spending a bit more. Good or above average instruments provide more incentive to practice.

    I enjoyed yor post and you make some great points. Thanks for sharing.

  27. Michelle says:

    My fiance did the barter thing, he really wanted to learn bagpipes, he found an instructor on craigslist for cheap ($20 for 1hr lesson, plus he came to us). Since my fiance is a hairdresser, and the instructor needed monthly hair cuts, they just did an exchange and it worked for everyone :)

  28. Ginger says:

    Music (the making thereof) can be really inexpensive, or not. My DH is self-taught, both guitar (12 string, 6 string, and electric) and piano. Where we blow it financially, is on upgrades, like a digital Yamaha that broke down and we can’t afford to get it fixed. And music books. Music books everywhere. But we scavenge the thrift stores for used, NEVER buy new music books unless you are rich.

    We also got a ‘free’ piano from friends who are moving to Ireland. Check Craigslist and Freecycle for deals like that, but be prepared to pay several hundred dollars to have it moved.

    Trent, keep at it…I’ve been playing off and on for almost 50 years (yikes), never had lessons which held me back enormously, until I went back to school at the age of 40. Took Music Theory for 2 years, was almost over my head but it helped so much. I’ll never play Carnegie, but my DH now plays professionally, and makes good money at it. We both also sing and are practicing a set just for me. Practicing is free too!

  29. jana says:

    it is funny – i just came back from london whre i went for a coldplay interview (they are releasing a new record shortly) and the bass player said how many people were usin their music for various unexpected things (and also recording and sending the band various quirky cover versions:)

  30. billy says:

    With guitar and bass, buying a good-quality used instrument is a better choice than a new poor-quality instrument, because if you decide you don’t like it, you can resell it for pretty close to what you bought it for (sometimes more, even). Don’t buy a new guitar or bass without knowing what it’s really worth. Some research online and a look at craigslist can save you a lot of money. But honestly, when you buy a 200$ guitar, you’re out 200$ when it’s time to upgrade, since you’re unlikely to sell it for much, whereas if you buy a 400$ guitar and decide to upgrade a year or two down the road because the guitar isn’t meeting your needs, you can likely sell it for close to it’s original value (especially if you bought it used). Like a car, an instrument loses value the second it leaves the shop, but, unlike a car, it doesn’t neccessarily keep doing so every year.

    The great thing about many musical instruments is that if they’re cared for and well-made they can last pretty much forever. On the other hand, low-end models are eventually going to get discarded after their flaws get worse and worse.

    Self-teaching is kind of a toss-up, sure you save some money on lessons, but a few hours with a good teacher can save you years of confusion, as well as give you proper technique to protect you from problems like carpal tunnel or repetive motion stress. I’ve seen lots of amazing self-taught musicians (and Youtube is making it easier), and after I got past the basics with bass and jazz theory, I stopped taking lessons, but I think the teachers I’ve had have been very valuable to me.

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