Which Instrument Should My Child Start On?
There are lots of opinions on this one. For various reasons, piano, violin or guitar come up most often as good starter instruments. These are all fine to start on, but I don't think it matters very much. I'd rather have kids pick the instrument that excites them. In answer to those who say a child should start on this instrument or that, remember that the music backrounds of great bluegrass players are as different as can be, and as you might expect, many of them started directly on the instrument that made them famous. My advice? Don't overthink this issue.
Having said that, here's my take on the pros and cons of the bluegrass instruments:
Mandolin: These have the advantage of being small, but they do require a little more left hand strength generally than guitar. But with very careful setup, including light strings, it should be fine. I've started quite a few kids (including my son) on mandolin as early as age six and at that age, with some practice, they usually don't have trouble pressing down the strings. One trick for this, should it be an issue, is to tune the instrument a whole step flat for the first few months, which will reduce the string tension quite a bit. If for no other reason, I think mandolin is a good choice because so it's so much less common, which can make a kid feel special.
Guitar: It's easy to get smaller guitars these days, so size isn't an issue. I start my kid students on steel string guitars and they do require some finger strength, but if the guitar is carefully set up and has light strings, most six year olds, in my experience, can learn just fine. One trick I use is to keep a capo on the guitar, so the reach down the neck isn't as far. I've had young students keep a capo on the 4th fret of a Baby Taylor guitar for a year before removing it or moving it back to the second fret.
Banjo: Smiliar issues as guitar, except finding smaller instruments is harder. But most important is light weight, since banjos can be very heavy. The Deering Goodtime banjo is a good beginner choice because it's light and they come set up easy to play. Banjos do have long necks which can be hard to reach down, but like guitar, a capo at about the fourth fret will shorten it so that most any kid can reach fine. Banjos are generally easier to press the strings down than a guitar, but still they must be set up carefully to be as easy to play as possible. And like mandolin, I think banjo is a good choice because there are so few kids playing it.
Bass: This instrument is more physical than the others, and should probably not be started before about age ten or so. It's best to go with a half size bass until a child is 13 or 14, depending on their size and strength. Bluegrass bass is more physical than the other instruments, but conceptually it is easier to play. This is a good choice for a kid who isn't going to dedicate as much time to practicing but still wants to be part of the bluegrass scene.
Fiddle: This is often the instrument of choice for kids. They do come in small sizes, they can be started through the school orchestra program and they do not require much strength. On the downside though, they require a fair bit of coordination and the sounds of a beginner are more harsh than the other bluegrass instruments. Personally, I think fiddle is a great choice for a dedicated student, but the other instruments usually sound better in the beginning. Since mandolins and fiddles are tuned the same, they use the same left hand fingering and many players double up on them.
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