Thoughts On Multi-Instrumentalism

One Man Band

Photo by Pauleon Tan

Q: What is your opinion on playing multiple instruments (for example double bass or piano) versus focusing on one instrument? I noticed a double bass in the background of one of your recent videos and wondered what your thought process had been when deciding to take up a new instrument.

A: I was primarily a drummer until college, so from my view, having an understanding of other instruments (and therefore other instrumentalists) can only make you a better musician.

Of course, if you want to be a “beast” on any given one, you will need to dedicate yourself to one instrument. But I know players who can play any number of instruments extremely well. This includes instruments that aren’t closely related, like saxophone, drums and guitar.

I did just recently get an upright bass, and it’s kicking my butt. It was a two-fold decision. I’ve always thought that playing and understanding the upright approach, feel and sound would make me a better overall bassist. I also recently found out that I was going to inherit my father’s upright bass, which he played in Stan Kenton’s band. This was the fire I needed to make the leap and work at it.

My one regret is that I never took to the piano. I think it is a crucial instrument to understand for composition as well as developing an understanding of harmonic devices. Just the ability to see how scales lay on top of each other in a linear fashion is a major step. At this point, no matter how I try, I feel like I’d have a better shot becoming an Olympic gymnast than I would a decent piano player. Boy, I wish I had taken that up when I was a kid, though.

So, yes, my answer is that you should very much explore any and every instrument that interests you. You should also make sure not to spend less time with your primary instrument (unless it becomes your secondary instrument).

I think that learning to play the drums and/or percussion very directly helps you to be a better bass player. Learning the piano will help make you a better musician. Guitar is a relatively easy leap that can reap great rewards as well. Any instrument that you develop a functional ability on will make you a better player.

The only caveat is time. If you only have an hour a day to devote to music? You don’t have the time. But if you love it, you’ll find time.

Readers, what other instruments do you play, and how do you think it helps you? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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Share your thoughts

  1. Manuel Lara

    I play bass, keyboard and guitar :)!

  2. I picked up the upright at the ripe age of 57 and it is still kicking my butt :-)

  3. Though I’m not a professional musician, from my experience, I must say that playing multiple instruments has helped me improve my harmonic understanding. It also has opened my perspective to exploring new approaches to my bass playing.

  4. Drums then bass for me, definitely helped to learn the bass as well as become a more sympathetic drummer.

  5. For me jumping between guitar & Bass isn’t hard; but when I switch to keys or drums My other skills decline.

  6. I’m not a professional, but I have some experience to share. Started on drums in 2nd grade, but only lasted a year. Started on guitar in 5th grade, lasted forever, drum lessons helped me move ahead faster. Started on piano in 7th grade, already knew how to read music, so again, moved quickly. Started on saxophone late 8th grade, but was better than most of my high school bandmates, due to other instruments. Of course, time commitments are the big question, but I think every musician should at least learn some keyboard or guitar. They are cheap, popular, easy to find info on, and great for learning theory, voicing etc.