Learning to play a second instrument is a great thing to do. Your guitar knowledge gives you a head start with your second instrument, but also the process of learning the second instrument feeds back into your guitar playing and overall musical knowledge.
The second instrument for a lot of guitarists is piano, for many reasons – It’s a common instrument to learn, a lot of homes have a piano or keyboard around to start with, and it’s a very accessible instrument in a lot of ways because you hit the key and you get a nice sound. There’s no struggle through violin bowing techniques or trumpet blowing methods!
Playing a bit of piano is going to help your guitar playing a huge amount. Most of the ways it’ll do so relate to music theory, arranging and your versatility as a musician, and I’ve listed 5 of the most important ones below. Good luck, and enjoy!
1 – Music Theory
Music theory can be easier to get your head around generally if you know the basics of the piano. This is for two main reasons.
Firstly, on the piano, notes are simply called their names. An ‘A’ note is just called ‘A’, and a ‘C#’ note is just ‘C#’. Often with guitar, notes are described in terms of what fret and string they’re on i.e. ‘7th fret, 4th string’. This is OK, and makes sense in relation to how guitar tabs work, but it leaves a gap between this and understanding music theory. That gap is describing notes as their note names, and in piano you have to do this.
Secondly, the nature of the piano is that the notes are laid out in a linear, sequential fashion. The notes go in one straight line from low to high. So it’s easier to see the distance of an interval, or jump straight to playing any two notes together, or see where one octave ends and the next begins. With guitar this isn’t always so straightforward, as you can play the same note pitch in multiple places. On the piano, there’s only one place to play each note.
2 – Chord Knowledge
This one builds on the previous point. On guitar, you learn chords as shapes that you memorize. And again, that’s fine and has important uses. When you begin to learn chord shapes all over the fretboard, every possible chord relates back to a C, A, G, E or D open chord shape, so it’s really important that you have learned those shapes, as patterns or configurations, so you can use them to understand other areas of the fretboard.
The bit that’s missing there though, is knowing which notes make up which chords. Yeah OK so a C major chord obviously has a C note in it, but what other notes? When learning the C major chord on the piano, you don’t start with a shape, you start with the knowledge that a C major chord consists of the notes C, E and G. Again, because on piano, the notes are simply called their note names, it’s basically impossible to play a chord without knowing what notes are in that chord. The same principle applies to scales too of course. On the piano these aren’t learnt as a shape, but a sequence of notes. You can’t play it without knowing which notes are in it!
3 – Understanding Chord Inversions
A chord inversion is a chord with its notes re-ordered i.e. Containing the same notes as the chord usually does but in a different order.
C major = C E G
C major 1st inversion = E G C
C major 2nd inversion = G C E
Although all 3 of these options are C major chords, can all be used whenever a C chord is needed, and are similar in sound, each has a different character to the other two, and will trigger different aural and emotional responses in you. Try cycling through the 3 options and analyzing the sonic differences, then be sure to relate them back to playing guitar too, of course.
Once you understand chord inversions you may then choose to deliberately employ one of these variations at certain times in your playing, either to generate the sound it gives, or to minimize movement from one chord shape to another.
4 – Learn About Bass
Playing the piano you have an entire hand dedicated to bass. This sometimes means playing a bass note under a chord, and other times means playing a chord under a melody. What this teaches you could take you one of two ways.
On one hand you’ll begin to learn how the sound and feel changes as your chosen bass note changes. When you compare playing a bass note of, for example, the root note, 2 octaves below the melody, to a bass note of the fifth, one octave below, the resulting overall sound is very different.
On the other hand, it’ll also teach you about bass guitar parts, which will be very useful when trying to write for your band, recording a song on which you’re doing all the instrumentation, or trying to learn to play bass guitar in its own right!
5 – Your Versatility & Skill Set
This final point – on your versatility and skill set as a musician – is another one that breaks off into two different paths.
Firstly, if you record music on a digital audio workstation (DAW) i.e. Logic, ProTools, Ableton etc., using a midi keyboard to input parts in your arrangement, then knowing your way basically around a keyboard is invaluable. The software provides you with the sounds of the synths, strings and drums, but the ability to then play in parts is a great time-saver, and good for feeling like you’ve created and played your song, rather than just typed it into a computer.
Secondly, thinking ahead to what many of you will be aiming for – a career as a performing musician, at an audition a guitarist who can also play keyboard/piano will always get the gig over one who can’t.