I’ve played the piano for years, and dabbled with the guitar briefly. So when I first started crafting this article, my gut response was that guitar is easier. To make sure my biases weren’t getting in the way, I asked my siblings, who have played both instruments for years, which they thought was more challenging.
So what’s easier to learn, guitar or piano? We agreed that the guitar is easier early on because it is less challenging to learn songs at the beginner level. That said, younger students (age 5-10) may struggle to grip guitar fret boards, and coordinate right hand strumming patterns; a piano may be better for them. And past the beginner stage both allow for almost unlimited growth and challenge.
In this article, we compare guitar and piano, analyzing how difficult they are to learn in areas such as layout, technique, and song learning. We’ll also discuss making the early stages of practice easy and enjoyable.
Side by Side Comparison
Easier for Learning Songs
In this context what I mean by “learning a song” is playing the chords of a song on your instrument so you can sing along.
By this definition, I’d argue it’s easier to learn songs on a guitar. Usually guitar students learn chords and strumming patterns quickly – maybe the first lesson or two. Many of the most familiar pop songs use a small selection of chords, so a beginner guitarist has the satisfying ability to learn many familiar songs quickly.
Furthermore, once you create a chord shape on guitar, you can’t play a wrong note because only the notes of the chord will sound. This gives you flexibility to strum or pluck any pattern. On the piano all notes are available to you at all times, so you have to do a deeper dive into theory to make smart choices.
A pianist could also learn chords quickly, however, usually teachers start them with theory fundamentals, such as learning the note names and playing scales, before learning chords. Once they start to learn chords it is difficult to make chord progressions sound smooth because they should use chord inversions or else it will sound clunky.
If pianists don’t learn chord inversions they may have to look at their fingers more than a guitarist because of large gaps between consecutive chords. Additionally, it is harder to play and sing songs on the piano because the piano is a larger and louder instrument.
This category swayed me to say that learning guitar is easier than piano. I see less barriers to creating music that “sounds good” on guitar. By “sounds good” I mean music that you enjoy playing for yourself or others.
The keys of the piano have a simpler layout than the fret system of the guitar. On piano, there are 7 white notes and 5 black notes per octave. The five black notes always follow the same pattern – a cluster of two notes followed by a cluster of three notes. As you move to the right the notes have a higher pitch, and as you move to the left on the notes get lower.
This makes learning your scales and other theory concepts quite easy. Notice how the notes of the D major scale simply follow one another from left to right.
The layout of a guitar is more complicated. While there are only six strings (a piano has 200+), each string can produce many notes.
As a result playing a scale on the guitar is a series of zig zags across the frets and strings, while playing a scale on the piano is a simple linear movement.
Because the guitar isn’t laid out in a clear, linear fashion like the piano, many beginner guitarists won’t have a clear idea of the individual notes they are playing but will instead learn chords as shapes. Below is an example of a D major chord shape.
So if you want to learn chords to your favorite song, the layout of the guitar will suffice. But if you are interested in classical music, or jazz improv, piano is easier to get started on.
Easier Beginner Technique
I define the early-beginner stage as the first month or two of consistent 15+ min daily practice. At the early beginner stage the piano has easier technique. Both hands use similar positions. And when you play a note it will sound cleanly no matter how you strike the key.
The guitar has more challenging technique at this stage.
- If you don’t press the strings close enough to the fret, they’ll buzz.
- Until you develop calluses, your fingers will hurt after several minutes of playing.
- There is extra coordination in plucking or strumming with the right hand while placing fingers with your left.
Mid-Beginner Technique and Beyond
It is too challenging to say which instrument has more difficult technique past the early beginner stage (so I’d welcome feedback in the comments). My thought is that at the most advanced stages on any instrument, your predecessors have beaten a path towards the upper limits of human ability. So any instrument you choose will be equally difficulty at the most advanced stages. (Actually maybe the organ is the hardest because those nasty foot pedals require full body coordination?)
Instead of claiming that one has more challenging technique, I’ll list the difficulties of each, starting with guitar:
- More subtleties in controlling sound. On the guitar you directly control the sound by strumming or plucking. This means there is a wider variety of sounds that can come out of a guitar. Sounds that range from a harsh metallic strum with a pick, to a soft arpeggio pattern picked by fingers, to a gentle touch of vibrato on a melody line. On a piano you indirectly control the sound; you play keys which set off a sophisticated mechanical system that ends with a hammer striking a string.
- Less help from gravity. On piano the weight of your arm helps you press down a key. On a guitar there is less help from gravity and more need to squeeze with your fingers.
- Bar Chords. In a bar chord the index finger presses down all strings, and the remaining fingers form a chord shape. Proper finger placement, and grip strength can take a while to develop.
The challenges of a piano:
- Navigating a large space. The piano is about 5 feet wide, the fret board is only a foot or two. Composers like to use the whole expanse of the piano, sometimes forcing musicians to make challenging leaps in split seconds.
- Both hands play notes independently. Your right and left hand can play any key on the piano, which means that both hands can engage extremely challenging finger work. On guitar the left and right hand are co-dependent in sound production; the left hand fingers and the right hand strums to produce sound. So only the left hand has challenging fingerings.
Easier for Children
My brother, who teaches beginner guitar and piano students, said he would prefer teaching young children (ages 5-10) piano. In the initial stages of learning guitar a child may dislike the soarness that results from pressing down strings, and coordination challenges as both hands do different tasks. On the piano, there is no finger pain and often students begin by playing melodies with only one hand.
If you are still interested in teaching your child guitar, try starting them on the ukulele; it is like a baby guitar with four closely placed and easy to press strings.
Easier to Self-Teach
My sense is that more guitarists self-teach than pianists. By just learning a couple of chord shapes and a simple strumming pattern guitarists can quickly play songs they recognize.
With piano the process is longer involving more theory, so it is helpful to have a guide.
Easier to Share Music with Others
It is easier to share music on a guitar because it is portable. You can take it to outside gatherings, or events in small spaces. Additionally, you can play guitar as conversation happens in a group setting.
Sharing music on the piano is more challenging; it is so large that it becomes the center of attention. You can’t wheel it into the center of a group and tinker around as conversation happens like your suave guitar playing friends.
Easier to Maintain
A guitar is easier and cheaper to maintain. Pianos hold thousands of pounds of tension in their strings. Guitars only hold several hundred.
As a result, technicians charge $100-$200 to tune your piano, while guitar players can tune their guitar in a matter of minutes.
Guitar vs. Piano – Easier Overall
Overall, because of the guitar’s portability, self-teach-ability, and ease of playing familiar songs quickly I’d argue the guitar is easier to learn – at least in the beginner stages.
That said, if you are not interested in singing songs with others, are more interested in classical music, or are interested in teaching a child, the piano may be the better option.
Should I Learn Piano or Guitar First?
If you are interested in learning both instruments and prefer pop music or casual playing, I’d recommend learning the guitar first. If you are more serious about music, I recommend learning the piano first. (Note: neither instrument is “more serious” than the other, this is just what I think would be most beneficial).
For the casual musician you’ll likely get quick results by playing chords and singing on guitar. Later you can dive deeper into theory when learning piano.
For the serious musician starting with piano offers several benefits. The piano sheet music can become extremely complicated. To cope with that, pianists begin picking out chords on the fly – not just notes.
In my college music theory classes pianists picked up on concepts quickly because they were already familiar with bass and treble clef and could recognize chords on sight. This knowledge will be invaluable as you approach learning any other instrument including guitar.
Easiest Instruments to Play
If you are not ready to commit to piano or guitar, you could consider some instruments that are even easier to get started on.
Voice – singing offers an intuitive way to make music. To see if you’d enjoy singing, pull up your favorite song right now and sing along to it.
Harmonica – the harmonica uses only a small selection of notes that sound good with each other. In addition, it is portable and cheap.
Ukulele – If you are not sure you want to commit to the guitar, ukulele’s are cheap, and easier to learn.
Drums – To see if you would enjoy learning drums, try some body percussion for a minute and see how it feels. It might feel goofy but I always enjoy it; even with this simple exercise there’s so much to experiment with. You can hit your chest, clap your hands, or slap your thighs. Check out “Stomp” for more inspiration.
Make Starting An Instrument Easy and Enjoyable.
On Find Your Melody I like to end my posts with one creative insight into enjoying music.
In the early stages of learning any instrument consistency is crucial. Without it you won’t get past some of the early challenges.
I’ve recently experimented with a practice motivation tool. I found two jars and placed chocolates in one of the jars and left the other empty. Once a day I allowed myself to eat a chocolate and put the rapper in the other jar.
This did two things:
- It made it easy to start practicing. Often it’s not that I don’t want to practice it’s that I don’t want to start practicing. But now when I have a half hour of free time and I don’t know what to do I think, “chocolate, I want chocolate!” and happily started practicing.
- It helped me track my progress. When I saw all those rappers in the second jar, I was pleased with how many days I practiced and wanted to continue the streak.
What are some ways that you make the early stages of learning a new skill enjoyable?