Dedicated to helping others learn, play, compose and record music. Updated Mondays.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Protect Your Ears!

As a musician or a producer of music, your ears are your most valuable asset. If you're hoping to make a sustainable living from music and you damage your hearing, then you've lost your livelihood. The ear is such a precise, complicated and delicate assembly line of organic machinery that it is impossible to repair damage caused by exposure to loud sound. It's really strange to me that I'll meet people who do nothing to protect their ears and think that they are somehow immune to damage. I wish there was some way I could put this gently, but there isn't, so here goes: That is dumb. If you think that you can expose yourself to loud sounds and not get hearing damage, you are dumb. In addition to being dumb, you will be near-deaf by age 40.

Hearing loss is not necessarily a naturally occurring problem. Healthy people in societies that have less modern technology and less noise overall can experience perfect hearing all the way through old age.

If you've spent an hour at a noisy restaurant or bar, where you had to raise your voice to talk, then you've permanently damaged your ears. If you've spent an hour at a large concert or a dance club, then you've permanently damaged your ears.

Let's get a little more detailed. According to Stanley R. Allen, author of Audio in Media, any sound at 80 decibels or louder can be damaging to your ears, depending on how much time you spend with it. If you play an acoustic guitar at a normal volume, you are being exposed to 80 decibel level sound. Any sound at 150 decibels is instantly damaging. For perspective, a rock band generally plays at 130 decibels. If you're listening to a live rock band for more than a few minutes, you will permanently damage your ears.

You might remember that back in 2001, radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who had become deaf in one ear and near-deaf in the other, underwent cochlear implant surgery. This surgery is only for the super-rich and because of its primitive ability to pick up sound, can really only help you hear speech, not music. Anyway, my point is that Limbaugh claimed that his hearing loss was from an autoimmune disease. But really, this guy talked (loudly) on the radio every day, with headphones on to hear both his own voice and the scratchy sound of opinionated callers. Hearing loud vocals on headphones is roughly at a level of 100 decibels. We know, without a doubt that being exposed to that much noise causes permanent hearing damage. Autoimmune disease? You can be the judge. Most aging rock stars won't admit it, but they are probably deaf or near-deaf. My Audio Engineering teacher was the only one in his band to wear earplugs at their performances, and he is now the only one of the group who isn't deaf or near-deaf.

Now, I'm not telling you that you can't play your guitar just because it is at 80 decibels. In modern society, it is almost impossible to completely prevent hearing loss. Instead, simply be smart about your exposure. Always wear earplugs to concerts and at a loud workplace. You have no reason not to. Don't whine about how they're uncomfortable to wear. If you get well-made ones, their actually quite nice. I always use the AO Safety brand of disposable foam earplugs, because they are so comfortable I don't really notice them when they're in. Plus they cover the frequency spectrum pretty evenly, so you can still hear a band clearly, just slightly quieter than normal.

The mindset you should have is this: if you are going to damage your ears, make sure it's worth it. Protect your ears when you don't need to hear all that sound, so that you have more time to damage them when you actually care about what you are hearing. As one who wants to make and appreciate music for the rest of his life, I absolutely can't afford to damage my ears. If you love music and want to enjoy it for the rest of your life, you can't either.

Here are some other sound levels that you might find interesting:

Average conversation: 60 decibels
Busy street: 70 decibels
Crying baby: 90 decibels
Electric guitar amp at level 10 roughly six feet away: 110 decibels
Standing next to a Jet Engine: 160 decibels

Source: Audio in Media, Stanley Allen

Monday, January 28, 2008

Andy McKee Inadvertently Invents a New Instrument

Have you seen this video? This guy is an incredible musician and is far more talented than I can hope to be. Because of the unusual way that he plays, it may be easy to simply write him off as a talented but gimmicky performer. But to do that would be ignoring the deeper implications of his playing style.

I'm not really sure if Andy invented his technique, but my observation here is purely theoretical anyway. Let's imagine that Andy McKee becomes incredibly famous. His music somehow becomes amazingly popular. It doesn't even have to be in his lifetime. Maybe 100 years from now, a prominent musician discovers his music and decides to learn the technique and share it with the rest of the world. Either way, when someone gets famous, others will imitate. Now say others try to play in his style. At first they will simply be called copycats, but as time wears on more and more will be adding their own style to Andy's original technique.

So regardless of how it happens, let's say that the Andy McKee style of playing has been popular for about 10 years. Big guitar companies like Fender and Gibson release a special model of guitar built specifically for that style, to cash in on it's popularity. It might have pads for hand percussion in specific places, or it will be shaped slightly different to allow more freedom of movement when playing (you'll notice that Andy's guitar is somewhat precarious resting on his right knee instead of his left). This new guitar type further legitimizes and solidifies the playing style. As years and years pass, more modifications and revisions will be made, until one day the Andy McKee style guitar will look very different from a standard acoustic, and will probably have it's own easy-to-say name. This is roughly how all instruments come into being; by evolutionary process.

Thus, you see that Andy McKee is inadvertently creating a new instrument. Or maybe he's doing it deliberately, I don't know the guy. He is a true musical pioneer, and there's a small chance that the scenario I described will actually happen. And now you can say you were there at the beginning.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Don't Find Inspiration: Create It.

(Though this is the Makeshift Musician blog, the lessons in this article can generally apply to anyone trying to find creative inspiration)

How does a music writer come up with ideas for songs? Some artists continually create for years and years and show no signs of stopping. This used to baffle me. How can they keep coming up with new content without burning themselves out?

I know that there are many artists who will tell you that creativity can't be turned on like a faucet. They say that one shouldn't be pushed to be creative. Let me clarify something for you. This kind of thing is spoken by people who don't have the strength of character to understand how much can be achieved by one individual. Random, unplanned inspiration is a very real thing and can yield fantastic results, but it isn't the only thing driving creativity. Two other things that will drive you to fantastic creative heights are experimentation and goal-setting.

Goal Setting:

In the world of evolutionary theory (bear with me here), some researchers have developed computerized artificial life simulators. These pretty much simulate, from the bottom up, simple organisms with the ability to gather food, reproduce, pass on their DNA, and mutate it a little each generation. Researchers running these programs found that if the little computer beings were given an abundance of food, they would continually eat and reproduce, but even after thousands of generations, they would never evolve. They just kept eating what they had, and slacked off like college seniors. When the researchers took away most of the food, however, the beings immediately started evolving. Once sustenance became difficult to gather, the organisms had to continually become more creative with methods of achieving their goals. Think about it: if all life on earth was given infinite amounts of food right from the beginning, it would have no reason to evolve beyond single-celled organisms, and then we wouldn't have any art at all!

Now that I've alienated all the religious-types here, I'll say that this is a good analogy for your own creative output. If you just wait for inspiration to strike, you won't be continually challenging yourself to make better music. If you make yourself write every day (or almost every day), then you will soon be forced to come up with new stuff. Eventually, you'll drain your comfortable, routine way of making your art. It will become insufficient for new creations and you will be forced to think differently about composing. Your easily reached ideas are no longer abundant, so just like those little computer creatures, so you have to be adventurous and evolve.

Set a goal for yourself to write music for a couple hours every day, or to have two or three new songs a month or, if you're really ambitious, a new song every week. I think eventually your own output will astound you. When I was just writing for myself, I always thought I was running out of ideas pretty quickly. After working on my first soundtrack, I've found that constantly writing music and having no choice but to make new ideas has produced the best stuff I've ever written. Plus all that practice just makes me better anyway.


Aaron Marks, in his book The Complete Guide to Game Audio, told of a really cool exercise for game musicians that I want to relay and expand upon here. It goes kind of like this: Write down every musical genre you can think of, each on a separate small piece of paper and then put them all in a bowl (or for maximum fun, put them in a top hat). Then pick out two at random. Now you have to make a song that falls into both of those genres. You might get stuck with "Bluegrass Metal", "Tribal Pop", or even "Surf Rock Polka". This is a glorious and fun way to make you look at things differently.

Now for some of us with limited music resources, or those of us who tend to stick with one genre, this might be unfeasible. In that case, just take one random genre from the bowl and try to incorporate that into your next song as best you can. If you play nothing but piano and you pull out the "Metal" card, well, tough luck. Better try and figure out how to get the 'feel' of heavy metal while still maintaining the beautiful sound of piano. Think of the new genre you might invent!

My point is that experimentation automatically inspires creativity. If you play guitar and sing, try getting a cheap pair of bongos (I got mine for $50) and record that with your song, or find a friend who's willing to accompany you on them. Don't just have it play in the background of your existing songs, though that is fun too. Try writing a new song where the bongos are really prevalent. You'll be surprised at how versatile you really are.

If you constantly challenge yourself and experiment with new ways to make music, you will never have to fear your creative well drying up. In fact, don't even think of it as well. Your creativity doesn't come from a single small source. Think of yourself as exploring the world, discovering new and unusual sources in your travels, leaving the unadventurous behind at their single, quickly depleting creative source.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Introduce Yourself to New Music Genres

I read once on that whatever music a person listens to when they're around age 18 will be roughly what they listen to for the rest of their life. I don't know how much truth there is to that, but if you make your own music, or even if you don't, it would be a good idea to break that stereotype right now. When I was 18, which I admit wasn't all that long ago, I was listening to a lot of electronic stuff, like Orbital, Aphex Twin, Radiohead and Squarepusher, along with the occasional game soundtrack and bluegrass CD. Honestly, I was very limited in my interests. As I got more and more serious about composing, I felt I had a responsibility to start learning more genres.

I am so glad I started branching out, because now some my favorite artists are Queen, Kansas, Camille-Saint Saens, Eumir Deodato, the Beatles (yeah I know, late start), Chuck Berry, Tito Puente, Run DMC, Bach and Chopin, to name a few. I knew next to nothing about them, say, 5 years ago. It's quite a variety, and one that I wouldn't have if I hadn't made a conscious effort to listen outside my musical comfort zone.

It's easy to avoid actively discovering new genres when you think you have no idea where to start. But I'm not letting you have that excuse. First, pick a genre that seems at least a little appealing to you but you don't know anything about it. Then do one of, or both of these things:

1. Ask a knowledgeable friend about the genre. You'll be surprised at how excited they'll be to assist you in your initiation. They'll point you to some of their favorites, and when you know a particular CD is their favorite, you're more apt to pay attention.

2. Use the ever popular Internet solution. I usually try looking up the name of the genre in Wikipedia. Wikipedia writers (Wikipedians?) usually make a list of prominent artists in that area of music on the main article. That's a perfect place to start. Plus you can learn about the history of the genre.

There's just too much fantastic music out there to simply ignore it. Anyone who says there isn't any new music out there obviously isn't creative enough to discover things on their own. Get new albums, put them on your mp3 player and randomize your playlist so the new stuff mixes with your old stuff and listen away. Listening to new music enriches your musical mind and can give you an infinite number of new ideas to work with. You will be a much more intelligent musician.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Introduction to Multitrack Recording: Part II

Part II: The Definition of Multitracking

(for Part I, click here)

You've been patient, so here it is. Multitrack is a recording technique where you record one thing (like a guitar) then rewind the tape, play it back, and record something else (like singing) onto a different tape while the first one is playing. That's it. Since the tapes are perfectly synchronized using some sort of wacky voodoo magic, you can play them back and it sounds like one recording. You can keep doing this with as many instruments as you want as long as you have enough tape (or hard disk space in our makeshift musician case). The advantage of this is that you can now, most importantly, change the volume level on each track individually without affecting the other tracks, and keep doing it until it sounds perfect. You could also record multiple tracks at the same time, like at a live show. Multitrack was invented by the legendary Les Paul in the 40's. He had a device that could sync up eight different tapes so he could record eight separate parts.

"I still don't get it. What's wrong with just using one microphone and just having the band play? They sound better when they play together anyway, right?" you ask. Man, you're a tough crowd. Even if you want to record all of them at once, you still need different microphones to record each band member. You know, the microphone in front of the singer isn't really going to pick up the drums that are fifteen feet away, is it? But that is an issue for a different blog post.

So here's the process:

Let's say you have a drummer named Judy and a dude who plays guitar and sings named Michael Douglas. Before coming to the studio they've memorized the song that they want recorded. First we record Judy's drumming onto a track. Now we have the drum part for the entire song recorded. Next we rewind back to the beginning of her tape and give Michael Douglas a pair of headphones and stick him with his guitar in front of a mike. Listening to the drum part Judy recorded earlier on his headphones, he plays the entire guitar part as if she really is playing drums along with him, and we record it. When he's done he whines about needing a break because he's an artist and he needs to recharge his chi or something. So now when we rewind and play it back we hear both the drums and guitar, and it sounds like they're playing together, even though they didn't. It's like magic!

After probably an hour Michael Douglas gets back. We put him in front of a mike, again with headphones on, and while using the already recorded drum and guitar part as a reference, he sings his vocal part. Now that we're done (and Michael Douglas is just so tired from a rough day of work) we can get to the fun part, which is mixing. Did the drums end up a little too loud compared to the other parts? Well, if we recorded everything at once on a single track, we would be stuck with them unless we wanted to record everything over again. Since we recorded them on their own track though, we can just turn the volume down on 'em. Then we keep tweaking things like stereo panning, equalization, (yet another topic which I'll get to), and effects like reverberation (kind of like echo), until the song sounds perfect.

Every album you've ever listened to, unless it is very old or explicitly a live performance, is made in this fashion. Listen to your music intelligently and you might be able to pick out each track yourself. Listen to how each song is carefully arranged and mixed and you'll have a much better appreciation for the studio process and musicians in general.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Gain the Confidence to Compose Music

I think that the biggest barrier that keeps most people from composing is a lack of confidence. I've even met very talented musicians with confidence issues. Mostly though, I've heard people say they can't write their own music because they don't know enough about music theory. That is a big, fat load of bull. I'm here to tell you that you can make music to call your own. Don't listen to what other people say. If you can hit some notes on a keyboard, or you know some chords on your guitar, then you can write music. I started composing music before I knew anything about theory or recording, but through making music I learned just about everything I know today.

By the way, when I say 'composing' or 'making music' I'm not necessarily talking about busting out sheets of blank musical staffs and diligently writing down all the notes of your masterpiece. I might as well tell you to get one of those ruffled shirts and a jacket with long tails before you sit down to compose. There is nothing wrong with writing music using that method, but don't let anyone tell you that that is the only way to compose. If someone did tell you that, they're lying, and it is your civic duty to light their pants on fire the next time you see them. If you somehow make a sound that is uniquely yours, you just composed something. See? Easy!

So lets just assume that you've agreed to go ahead and start composing music. Depending on how you want to do this, you could read my articles Picking out an Instrument and/or Make Your Own Recording Studio. Once you either learn to play an instrument at least a little or have an awesome small home studio ready for input, or both, you can come back and REALLY soak in this article.

I know I was encouraging you a few paragraphs ago, but lets just get this out of the way: the first songs you compose probably won't sound so great. Learning to make your own music is just like learning to play an instrument; it doesn't sound all that great in the beginning, but that's because you're new and practicing. When I started making music on my computer, my rhythm was terrible, sound quality was bad, and everything was in C Major only because I couldn't figure out how to use those little black keys. I even still have some of these old pieces on my website, which you can listen to when your starting out, so that your own music can at least be better than something.

The important thing to remember about composing is that you need to compose! Compose and produce and perform your music all the time. No one needs to hear your first recordings besides you. I guarantee you'll be surprised with the results of at least one of your first few efforts. It'll sound way better than it should, and you'll look back when its done and think "Wow, that's actually not completely terrible!" One of my first songs ever was this. When I wrote it I still knew nothing about music theory and had only written a couple of songs before it, it's a very simple and repetitive song, but it does convey a feeling and is relatively polished. I was as surprised as anyone when it was done. Once you've made your new song as good as is reasonable, record it if you can, then leave it and start a new one. The more you compose, the better you will get at your technical skills and your technique.

There's a voice in your head, we all have it, that says to you "You shouldn't even bother, whatever you make will sound really bad. And what if someone else hears it? That would be a nightmare! Just give up now and watch reality shows instead. I love that one with the clown and the cheerleaders." The most important thing you can do for your composing and maybe for your whole life is learn to ignore that nagging, doubting voice in your head. When is the last time you ever thought, "Wow, thanks self-doubt! I almost did something new! That was close!"

Once you've started composing and have successfully tuned out ugly self-doubt, then there is absolutely nothing in the way of making some fine music that others will actually enjoy. If someone like me, with so little real training and even less natural talent, can do it, then so can you. Send some of it my way when its done.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Make Your Own Recording Studio

Update: While this a great article to get you started with building a studio, MM now has a more comprehensive and detailed guide that you can read here.

Have you ever tried recording anything with that little plastic microphone that came with your computer? Ugh, yeah, you'll never do that again. It sounded like an ancient record player getting beat up. Don't let that keep you from ever trying again though. Most people would love to record but don't have the slightest idea how to get started. 20 years ago recording was exclusive to professionals with tons of money, but now with a little bit of cash, it's actually relatively simple to build a studio for yourself.

You can have some of the most fun you've ever had just by recording your music. Even if the idea has never occurred to you, you should consider trying it. Recording yourself playing and then hearing it play back is an extremely rewarding experience. You can then share it with your friends or relatives, keep it to yourself, put it on the web, or work towards an awesome record deal.

There are four basic components you need to have a sweet recording studio: A computer, an audio interface, a microphone, and multitrack recording software. Then just grab your instrument of choice and you're ready to make music and fight off groupies.

Computer - If you already have a computer and it was built sometime after, say 2001, you're probably good to record with it. Just remember that the more power and storage space you have, the better. If you can, use a Mac. They're easy to operate and they come with recording software called GarageBand built in. That's right, get a Mac and you've acquired two studio components instead of one. I switched to a Mac a few years ago and I'll never go back. Make SURE you have or can get a FireWire port (sort of like USB on steroids). You'll need it for the next item:

Audio Interface - This is like a computer sound card, only for cool people like us. The one that comes with your computer is probably good enough for movies and spreadsheets, but it doesn't have a real microphone jack or any sort of audio inputs built into it. M-Audio has a line of audio interfaces which I recommend, the most basic being the Solo. It allows you to either hook up a microphone or something like a keyboard or bass guitar to your computer. It sells for $200, which is a small price to pay for some of the most fun you'll have in while.

Software - You need software so that your computer will know what to do with all this sound you're making. If you don't want to spend anything, there's the totally free Kristal, a fantastic piece of software for the price. If you have a Mac, you already have GarageBand, a perfectly usable program that's user-friendly just like all Apple products. If you want something a little more beefy, try out Cubase, ProTools, or Cakewalk. These cost money and professionals use them, (I'm a Cubase fan myself) and while people will tell you one is better than another, they all pretty much do the same thing. Learning to use recording software effectively will take some time, but it's really no harder than learning Microsoft Excel or something equally unexciting.

Microphone - Seriously, just get a Shure SM-57. It's the standard by which all other microphones are judged. It sells for a hundred bucks. You really only need one microphone to record just about anything, and the SM-57 can do both vocals and acoustic instruments without a problem. Also get a stand for your microphone and a fifteen foot cable.

You also should have a room in your home that is relatively small and quiet in which to set all of this up. You probably already have a keyboard or guitar or something you'd like to record. If you don't, then check out my article Picking up an Instrument. If you're a member of the 21st century, you've already got a computer, so your spending is around $350 to $450 to make your studio, which is still less than a PlayStation 3 or a swanky plasma TV. What are you waiting for?

Related Articles:

Monday, January 7, 2008

An Introduction to Multitrack Recording: Part I

Part I: The Problem with Recording Sound

You may see me mention multitrack software a lot on this blog and you may be wondering what it is. Most peoples' idea of studio recording is a band setting up in a room and then playing while a couple of microphones stand in front of them, taking it all in. You just play the song and yer done! Actually, the process of recording just one song with a full, lets say rock band can take anywhere from one day to an entire week or more, not counting post production editing. The problem with recording is that microphones just can't hear as well as our ears and brains can.

Between your ear and your brain is a fully automated mixing console called the spiral ganglion, which will go so far as to turn down what it believes to be background noise before a signal even gets to the brain where it is processed even more before you even perceive the sound. Microphones don't have this, and that is why old recordings from the 30's or earlier, which really were just a microphone directly recording to LP or cylinder or wax paper or whatever those primitive people used, sounded so bad.

Fallen asleep yet? If you haven't, you'll now get the idea that the point I'm trying to make is that because microphones are such inefficient gatherers of audio, we need more technology to get a recorded song to sound more like a live one. Multitrack recording is a completely necessary part of music production. In Part II I'll tell you exactly what multitrack recording is.

(Part II is now available! Click here.)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Picking up an instrument

Deciding to learn a musical instrument could be one of the best decisions you'll make. But if you don't know anything about music and don't have someone who can help you, trying to decide may be difficult. What if I pick out an instrument and hate it afterwards? What if there are some hidden downsides? What if it doesn't attract the opposite sex like I'm hoping for? For that matter, how do I start without looking like a total knob?

You could go to a local music shop and look around, but those places can be intimidating and occasionally irritating. There's always some random guy there playing bass guitar like he's Bootsy Collins just to show off and, with luck, you'll see my favorite music store patron: the guy who subjects everyone else to the only song he can play over and over. It's usually better to go when you already have a pretty good idea of what you want. Let's go over some instruments so you can know what each offers.

By far the most popular instruments are guitar and piano. This is for a good reason. Their strength lies in their versatility. With a guitar you can easily play just about any song you've ever heard, once you know your chords well enough. The piano was originally built as a composing tool, and was therefore made to be adaptable as well. Lets look at it in more detail:

Pros - It's light and easy to take with you. There's already a ton of literature at music stores and all over the internet. If you want to learn any song, all you have to do is Google search for the song name followed by the word 'tablature' or 'tabs' and you're done. The guitar can cover just about any genre imaginable, from obvious ones to folk, rock and country to other stuff like classical or blues.

Cons - Well, you're fret fingers are going to look ugly after a while, but such is the fate of all string players. Seriously, getting a guitar is a great idea, especially if you don't really know what to get.

I recommend getting an acoustic guitar to start with, instead of an electric one, because it covers potentially more genres and you don't have to lug around an amp everywhere you go. Those things are like bricks suffering from obesity.

Pros - The piano is versatile just like the guitar, and like the guitar, there's been plenty written out there about learning to play. Probably the best thing about learning the piano is that you will automatically learn a lot about music theory in general. Like I said before, it was built as a composing tool, so it's pretty much a mechanical representation of the musical staff. You have no choice but to learn to read music by playing. Also, if you want to make music using a computer, piano knowledge is a must. And hey - playing piano is just classy.

Cons - You can't take it with you. Until someone invents the telescoping keyboard, (I just had an idea...) lack of portability is the biggest disadvantage for the pianist. Getting a real piano is prohibitively expensive and decent electronic ones are pricey also.

Don't think that if you're starting out you should only get either a guitar or piano, though. If they sound kind of dull to you, or you just want to play something unusual to make a unique impression, you can choose several other instruments.

Some instruments work better on their own than others, however. Though learning any instrument is a good idea, something like a piccolo, which was designed to be part of a larger orchestra, just won't be much of a hit at parties. If you want to share your music with others, generally something with a lot of range is better. Here are some more unusual ideas for something to play:

Cello - The cello is a favorite of many and has an incredibly expressive sound. There aren't enough cello players in the world and it's a crying shame.

Banjo - I've been slowly learning to play the banjo myself, and it's a lot of fun. While there isn't much out there besides folk and bluegrass to learn from, I believe the banjo has the potential to play other genres as well. It has a very unique sound that is pleasing to the ear when heard live.

Marimba/Vibraphone/Xylophone - These have many of the same advantages and disadvantages as the piano, since they're structured similarly, but you can make an entirely different impression when playing.

Saxophone - The saxophone has an amazing dynamic range and can play very softly or extremely loud. Once again, it's very expressive and though its generally used for jazz, it has a lot more potential.

Violin - A classic and elegant instrument. It is good on it's own and can accompany in many other styles. By the way, the fiddle and the violin are the same thing; it's all in how you play it. If you like folk and classical music, this is a good way to go.

Harmonica - The ultimate cheap, portable instrument (besides your own voice, of course.) If you happen to be a blues fan, than there's no reason not to start learning.

There are innumerable other instruments you can learn. Things like bass guitar, drums, flute, or horns are great things to learn, but if you're not planning on playing as part of a larger group, you might not be as satisfied with the results. The instruments I've recommended above all sound great both by themselves and when accompanying others. Now, there are people who can make any instrument sound great by itself, so if you're set on playing bass like that guy from Primus, don't let me discourage you.

Once you know which instrument you want to get, it's helpful to simply go to a music store and tell a friendly employee what kind of instrument you want and the amount you're willing to pay for it. In my experience, they usually know what they're talking about and will point you in the right direction. Then you'll be on your way to being the coolest person at social gatherings.