What are the Best Instruments for Songwriting and/or Beat Production?
If you write songs (or want to start), then learning a musical instrument will exponentially improve the process. The question then becomes: what instrument should I learn? For those who want to compose songs, the selection of instruments is quite narrowed down…it has to be something you can play while singing, so obviously woodwinds are not ideal. Today I’m going to offer some advice on which musical instruments are the most helpful for singer-songwriters.
- What are the Best Instruments for Songwriting and/or Beat Production?
- The 3 Key Components of a Good Songwriting Instrument
- Polyphonic is the Way to Go
- Commonplace and Convenient
- The 4 Best Instruments for Songwriting or Beat Producing
- #1 – Guitar (Acoustic or Electric)
- #2 – Piano or Keyboard
- #3 – Ukulele (Especially for People with Small Hands)
- #4 – MIDI Controller (Especially for Beat Producers)
- Other Articles to Consider
The 3 Key Components of a Good Songwriting Instrument
I believe an instrument for a songwriter or beat producer should match three basic requirements, which I will explain in detail in the follow sections. Those three basic requirements are that the instrument is:
Polyphonic is the Way to Go
The best instrument for songwriting should be polyphonic. Polyphonic means the instrument is capable of playing more than one note at a time. That way, you can form full chords on it, or play the melody and harmony at the same time. I’m not trying to insult any monophonic instrumentalists out there, but trying to write a pop song on just a harmonica is not exactly efficient.
Commonplace and Convenient
An ideal songwriting instrument should also be commonplace and convenient to play.
By commonplace, I mean it should be widely available with a variety of price ranges. Sometimes entry level players need entry level prices. An instrument should also be common enough that you can easily find learning resources for it.
By convenient to play, I mean the instrument should be easy to get to and quick to start making noise when you need it. It probably also needs a volume control so you don’t get complaints from neighbors.
The 4 Best Instruments for Songwriting or Beat Producing
I’ve composed music for 15 years and I play a multitude of instruments (including all the ones on this list to some extent). So while this list may just be my opinion, I’m quite sure it’s an opinion shared by a majority of musicians. If you want to write music in pop, rock or hip hop genres, one of the following four instruments will likely be your best bet:
- Guitar (acoustic or electric)
- Piano or Keyboard
- MIDI Keyboard
#1 – Guitar (Acoustic or Electric)
Guitar is easily the most common polyphonic instrument in America (if not the world). It is chromatic and can voice chords in any key. A guitar can weigh as little as 4 lbs and be packed in the car, slung on your back, and taken just about anywhere. It’s a versatile chordophone, used in a myriad of genres from folk to death metal. Guitars are also dynamic: they can be played very softly or strummed quite loudly.
There are easily thousands of different guitar models on the market at any one time, and even more models on the used market. Guitars can cost as little as $80 or as much as $80,000. Unlike most instruments, including others on this list, electric guitars can be extensively modified to suit an individual player’s preferences.
Who Should Play the Guitar (Based on Genre)?
Try an acoustic guitar if you play the following genres:
- Indie pop or bedroom pop
- Alternative or adult contemporary
- Folk, Celtic, or Bluegrass
- Country or Western
- Alternative hip hop
Try an electric guitar if you play the following genres:
- Any kind of rock
- Pop, powerpop, indie pop, pop rock, pop punk
- Emo, midwest emo, twee pop, jangle pop, dream pop
- Jazz, chill hop, lo-fi hip hop
Electric guitar brands I personally recommend:
- Harley Benton. This is the house brand of Thomann Music in Germany, which is essentially Europe’s version of Guitar Center. They are very cheap Chinese imports but are usually very good value for the money, often on par with the instruments made by Squier. They also have a better left-handed selection than Squier! My go-to electric guitar is an ST-20 with some mods.
- Squier Guitars. A subsidy of Fender Guitars, usually made in China or Indonesia. Lower prices but often a great value. The Stratocaster and the Telecaster are classics for a reason. With the current market prices post-pandemic, I would not personally spend money on a name-brand Fender when a Squier can get you pretty close.
- Fender Guitars (if you buy used at least). Secondhand Stratocasters are a dime a dozen on marketplaces like Reverb or Ebay. I’ve owned a Made-in-Mexico Strat and it sounded fine, I just don’t like the radius Fender uses on it’s necks.
Acoustic guitar brands I personally recommend:
- Harley Benton. Some of their acoustics have great specs and great reviews for the money. But avoid the sub-100 dollar instruments if you can; the Custom Line series with solid wood tops is where you should look (all of the custom line acoustics have a model name that starts with “CL”, such as the CLA-15, CLP-15, etc.)
- Taylor Guitars. The Taylor GS-mini is one of the best-selling acoustics on the market in recent years. They have relatively narrow nut widths for an acoustic guitar which will complement smaller hands.
- Sigma Guitars also known as AMI Guitars. This is another German company that imports Chinese models to their specs. They make copies of Martins and Gibsons, obviously at lower prices.
#2 – Piano or Keyboard
Just after the guitar, piano is both a well-known instrument and a popular one. A piano is also chromatic and has a much larger range than the standard guitar. It’s also used a vast array of genres and works well for solo performance.
However, I placed piano as number two on this list because they are not quite as convenient and affordable as a guitar. Pianos, or their electronic counterparts keyboards, sent to be quite big and bulky. An acoustic piano can weight anywhere from 300 to 1,200 lbs! A digital piano or keyboard synthesizer may still weight around 20 lbs. In comparison, the heaviest guitars I know of top out around 12 lbs.
For the most part, a piano is an instrument you set up once and leave in that spot. If it’s an acoustic model, you’ll also need a professional piano tuner should the need for string adjustments arise. Regardless, the rising availability of digital pianos is making it easier for bedroom artists to pick up the piano (not literally, of course) on a budget.
Synthesizers are similar to digital pianos, but instead of emulating the sound of a traditional grand piano, they generate their own electronic tones that you can shape to meet your needs. Since the 1980s, synths have exploded in popularity and show up in many genres of music.
If you want the practicality of a keyboard instrument but in a smaller package, lower price, and greater range of sounds, then skip down to #4 and check out MIDI controllers instead.
Who Should Play the Piano (Based on Genre)?
Try an acoustic/digital piano if you play the following genres:
- Pop, indie pop, baroque pop
- Jazz, soul, R&B
Try a synthesizer if you play the following genres:
- Synthpop, eletropop, retropop, hyperpop
- Synthwave, dreamwave, retrowave
- Dream pop, dream wash, ambient pop, bedroom pop
- Lo-fi, electronica, dance pop, house
- Hip hop, cloud rap, trap, trap pop
I can’t offer any recommendations on piano or synth brands, as I’ve never owned one myself.
#3 – Ukulele (Especially for People with Small Hands)
While it is sometimes overlooked due to it’s size, the ukulele is nowadays an actual contender for budding songwriters to learn. It’s similar in size to a guitar, but much smaller and possessing only four strings. Ukuleles also use nylon rather than steel strings like a guitar, so they are a bit easier on the fingers. However, the range and versatility of the ukulele is limited by it’s short scale length and thin, plucky tone. That never stopped artists like Israel Kamakawiwoʻole, Olivia Rodrigo, or Tiny Tim from using it though.
Ukuleles come in four primary sizes, from smallest to largest: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone. The size you pick is mostly up to personal preference; but the larger the ukulele, the louder and fuller it’s going to sound.
Who Should Play the Ukulele (Based on Genre)?
Try a ukulele if you play the following genres:
- Indie pop, summer pop, surf pop, bedroom pop
- Folk, world, fingerstyle
- Lo-fi, chill hop
Ukulele brands I personally recommend:
- Flight. This company produces lower-end import models but they generally get pretty good reviews. I’ve tried one out before and had no serious complaints about the instrument.
- Anuenue. This is a company based in Hawaii that offers mid-priced to high-end ukuleles and offer several models with solid tops. I personally play an Anuenue model T3.
- Kala. This is likely the biggest company manufacturing ukuleles, mostly entry-level import models. However, they certainly fit the bill for someone wanting a beginner instrument and their reviews are usually good. Being a larger company, they are likely the most available (i.e. easy to find) of any brand in the USA.
#4 – MIDI Controller (Especially for Beat Producers)
A MIDI controller is not, in and of itself, an instrument. It does not make any noise itself. Rather, you need to plug it into a computer and load a software synth or virtual instrument (VST) in order to generate noise. A MIDI controller is simply a plastic keyboard that lets you control the notes, velocity, and other various effects of a software instrument. However, the MIDI controller is an absolutely quintessential tool for any bedroom producer. It allows you to compose melodies and harmonies just like you would on a piano, but play those notes through any virtual instrument your heart desires. It also allows you to record those notes straight to MIDI in your recording software, which means you can endlessly edit them on the fly if something needs fixing or you want to experiment with what you wrote.
Double Duty for Mixing and Beat Making
MIDI controllers can also act as a physical control pad for your DAW’s virtual mixing knobs; you can manually tweak volume levels, velocity curves, synth envelope filters, and more using one of these bad boys. You can also compose and automate your drum kit with them. MIDI keys are an all-in-one composition and production tool for songwriters and beatmakers. Not to mention they are cheaper, lighter, and more flexible in tones than a piano would be. Yet you can use the same techniques for learning MIDI keyboard as you would a real piano or synthesizer.
If you want to write your own instrumentals at home, especially in a tight space, a MIDI keyboard will provide you with more bang for your buck than a full-sized piano or synthesizer.
If you record music using a laptop and like to work in various locations (at school, at home, in hotels while you travel, whatever) then the smaller size of a MIDI controller may be ideal. The downside is that you will also need a soft synth or VST on your computer in order to get noise out of the MIDI keyboard, but some decent ones can be found for cheap or free to get you started.
Who Should Try a MIDI Controller (Based on Genre)?
Try a MIDI controller if you play the following genres:
- Pop, indie pop, bedroom pop, hyper pop
- Synth pop, synthwave, retrowave, dreamwave
- Dream pop, lo-fi, chill hop
- Hip hop, cloud rap, trap, emo rap
MIDI Controller Recommendations
MIDI controller brands I can personally recommend:
- M-Audio. For $120, you can get a 49-key M-Audio controller with basic control buttons or a 32-key mini controller with dedicated drum pads and mixing faders as well. M-Audio is a well-known brand that’s been producing popular entry-level equipment for years. I personally own an M-Audio Oxygen 49-key and I used it extensively on my first four orchestral albums.
- Nektar. For the same price as the M-Audio options above, you can get a Nektar Impact LX25+ with 25 keys, drum pads, and mixing faders. This is the controller I personally use at the moment with my current desk setup. I’ve never had an issue with it.
If you’re a songwriter looking to write your own music for your lyrics, then learning an instrument will dramatically improve your composition skills and likely save you money in the long run (compared to buying beats for every song you write). Your best bet is to buy something capable of playing chords (polyphonic instruments like chordophones) and with a large collection of learning resources available.
Other Articles to Consider
Thanks for reading! If you found this information helpful, here are a few more articles for your perusal: