Musicians often branch out to a second instrument after they have put in the time to understand and play one well. It’s common to want to play any instrument you pick up, and if Music Theory and standard notation are all the same, then theoretically, you should be able to.
In a way, this is true, but ultimately you’ll have to put work into both instruments because they’re structured differently despite the fact many of the musical principles can be applied to both of them in essentially the same way. Put simply…
You can learn to play piano and guitar at the same time, but it’s a lot easier to learn only one. That said, once you have a solid understanding of one, you’ll have a better idea of how to proceed with the next. Either way, you’ll need great time management skills.
If you want to learn both, there is a pragmatic way to go about it so you don’t get overwhelmed and give up on both. It’s very easy to stop learning another instrument because it takes too much time to learn both, or it is just too hard. This article will help explain how to learn both and why it’s possible.
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Why You Can Learn Piano and Guitar at the Same Time
1) Standard Notation, Music Theory, and Music Are Universal
When you learn music theory, you are learning about the common relationships between the notes. That is pretty much what music theory is, not an instrument or how to play an instrument, only the relationship between notes in general.
So, it’s not a bad idea to put in the time to learn theory because it relates to all music and will help you navigate any instrument easier. For instance, looking at a piano, the keys are set up like a spreadsheet, the notes are in order of the intervals of the C Major scale. You can see the intervals right at the tips of your fingers. Once you know the white keys, the black keys are the next step.
Looking at the fretboard of a guitar, you can then envision six rows of keys stacked up on top of each other. The intervals are still the same, ie, major thirds, minor thirds, diminished 5ths, etc, so all you have to know is what the names of the strings are and the semi-tonal differences between the frets.
Looking at a chord on the piano, say a D major 7th chord, if we know theory, we know it will have four notes because it’s a D Major triad with an added 7th. On piano, you will play (almost) any combination of D, F#, A, and C# as long as D is the tonal center.
To find this on the guitar you will have to also find any combination, but vertically, because you can’t play two notes on the same string at once. In other words, you can learn piano and guitar simultaneously, mainly because music theory and standard notation are the same, regardless of what instrument you’re playing.
You won’t have to learn different theory for different instruments; you’ll just have to know where to find the notes on each instrument. That said, piano and guitar have some similarities that will help you to learn both easier. If you start on either one, you’ll see that the frets and keys line up the same notes, but the piano is one long succession of notes versus the guitar being 6.
You’ll also notice that scales have the same intervals, they are just either linear on piano and vertical on guitar. An easy way to learn both simultaneously would be to play a chord on the piano and then outline the chord with your fingers on the guitar. Finding each note, transposing them from a horizontal pattern to a vertical pattern. A lot of them are moveable on both instruments, so they are easy to memorize.
How to Learn Piano and Guitar at the Same Time
1) Carve Out Time For Each
Time management is essential if you want to learn anything, and a little bit of time goes a long way. The standard timeframe for practicing anything is about an hour a day. Of course, it’s not exactly easy when you already have a lot going on, so if you have to, you can break it up into smaller bite-sized pieces.
Taking a mental break is also important. Having an hour between subjects or separating them into different parts so the day will also help beat overstimulation. Take breaks if you want to put in a lot of time practicing, playing can get addicting once you start unraveling things, but just be mindful of how you practice.
Thirty minutes of mindful practice is much better than 3 hours of note repetition – also called noodling. And really this is the most important part of this entire article. Carving out 1-2 hours a day, 30 minutes for guitar and 30 minutes for piano, or 1 hour for each, is how you learn these two skills. Time management is where it’s at like I said in my other article on learning to play the piano by yourself.
If you want to learn how to play the guitar and the piano in conjunction with some music theory studies, here are my recommendations:
I’ve written about and mentioned these books many times in other articles because they were really helpful for me in learning music theory once I got serious about it. These are the basic rudiments of theory so a lot can be learned here, however, there’s a lot more to learn from there on in. These two books are a great start.
If you are going to learn theory, I would ensure that you always get a book with an answer key or an answer book because then you’ll know that you’re actually getting things right.
B) Mastering the Guitar (a series that starts at 1A – also from Amazon)
– this entire series can keep you busy for several years
When I took guitar lessons as a kid these were the books that I used, although, I started at 2A because I learned with another book before then with a different teacher. Those were the days.
2) Get A Teacher for Each (or 1 for both)
Finding a good instructor is a great idea, no matter what skill level or what instrument you are playing. As a matter of fact, you want to have a trainer or an instructor in pretty much anything that you do, not just with playing an instrument.
The instructor can help you with a lot of things like proper hand positions and rhythm. An extra set of eyes and ears will help guide you through something you can’t hear or understand as a beginner. That said, having an instructor isn’t 100% necessary.
With the help of YouTube and books, you can achieve a lot. In the case that you want something to replace your teacher, PianoForAll is probably the best thing you can get for the money because it’s like an E-Book that includes a ton of video lessons.
I’ve written about it before in my guide on the best way to learn piano for music production, but it’s worth saying again that this E-Book/Video Course combo is particularly good at teaching concepts in an applicable way.
JamPlay is my favorite program for the guitar that’ll fast-track your learning in record time. It’s not a bad idea to spend about an hour a day on each program for an extended period of time. If you stick to these programs, they will work for you.
They are set up to guide anyone, no matter their age or familiarity with playing music is. I like JamPlay because they have Emil Werstler on there whose playing I particularly like, and if you use the coupon code “1buck” here on their site, you get the first month for just one dollar.
3) Work On Your Beginner Techniques While Watching TV
When you learn the basics of guitar or piano, there is more repetition and memorization to the learning process, so it’s easy to practice these while doing something leisurely. You could just work on things during commercial breaks and, after a few shows, be a lot better than when you sat down.
That said, this isn’t the best type of practicing because it’s not focused practice. This is more like noodling, but the fact of the matter is that noodling is often great for memorization. Just the other night I was watching Resident Evil: Apocalypse and I played the same song probably 100 times.
When I get up the following day, I pretty much had it memorized. Once the song has been memorized, particularly the notes, you can then get more focused on the rhythm, the quality of notes, and how everything sounds through an amplifier during focused practice time.
4) Learn the Same Songs on Each Instrument
Learning the same songs on each instrument is a great way to identify the similarities and differences between the two and how particular concepts are applied. As a result of this, a student can learn the nuances of a musical principle and how it looks in a number of formats.
One example that I find interesting is how extended chords look on the piano. On a guitar, chords have a clustered feel to them in the sense that all the notes must be played in one part of the neck with the exception of the open strings.
But on the piano, a person has two hands and they can both be positioned very far apart from each other. This means there is more range melodically, but it also gives you an idea of how certain intervals look and sound.
5) Apply the Same Concepts to Each Instrument
Related to the previous point, a chord progression looks very different on each instrument, but understanding how they are played on both is very helpful. A simple three-chord progression is easy to play on any instrument, so that would be an excellent place to start.
The concepts in music theory connect the same way on each instrument, so it’s easy to compare the two once you start to understand the different instruments. One example would be to see how a simple triad looks like on the piano, and then what happens when you add the 7th to it, such as the C Major 7th, for example.
On the piano, this is an incredibly easy concept to grasp because you can clearly see the numerical difference between the notes, ie, counting from the root, the third, the 5th, and the 7th. But on the guitar, it’s a little more challenging, unless you’re moving from one fret to one fret on the same string, rather than from string to string.
The way a major triad is constructed is only different in shape on each instrument but still made of a root note, the third, and the fifth degree. You can find this chord on both the guitar and piano easily but as I said earlier, it’s easier on the piano.
6) Focus On Achieving a Goal
To make it easier, establish a goal for both instruments and stick to it. Your goal could be one hour of each instrument a day, no matter what you are learning. I do this in a number of ways which is not only by carving out time specifically for something in my schedule, but I make various songs and techniques a goal.
I’m currently working on Emanuel Herdberg’s “Bebop Blues” on the guitar and I’m trying to memorize Frank Gambale’s Chop Builder which is around 20 sheets of music. The Chop Builder is for technique and “Bebop Blues” is more for playing music and general enjoyment. You can see the sheet music for Chop Builder down here in the image below:
Find what goals you want to achieve on the instrument and then stick to them. If you’re just starting out on the piano, maybe your goal is to learn how to play “Pop Goes The Weasel” or “Happy Birthday,” and you could learn how to play both of these songs on the guitar.
Or you could write up your own syllabus to follow, breaking things down into digestible pieces. You could make your own syllabus over time, but I think a better way to approach it is with a program like the aforementioned PianoForAll or with Guitar Tricks/JamPlay.
Important Things to Note
1) Some Instruments Are Easier to Learn Together
Learning the piano and the guitar together is a great choice and I couldn’t recommend it enough, however, there are some other instrument combinations that are easier to learn like guitar and bass. You could learn both of these together because many of the techniques are identical or incredibly similar. Just some food for thought.
Recommended Gear For Learning Piano and Guitar
- This is great for learning general music theory
- Also take a look at this Music Theory website.
- Complete the whole series up until Book 2C
- Finish the series to Level 3
What Should You Learn First?
There are a lot of recommendations here, so here is how I would approach it.
Piano For All + Mastering the Guitar 1A
Once you’ve completed these two, go to Step 2.
Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course Level One + Mastering the Guitar 1B
Once you’ve completed these two, go to Step 3.
Alfred’s Basic Adult Piano Course Level Two + Mastering the Guitar 2A
Once you’ve completed these two, go to Step 4.
At this stage, you should know if you plan on continuing or not. You can then start to go through Mark Sarnecki’s Complete Elementary Rudiments if you want to learn theory.
Also, you can supplement your learning with Guitar Tricks and JamPlay. Additionally, you can continue working through these book series all the way to the end. Mastering The Guitar ends at 2C I believe, and Alfred’s Piano Course stops at Level 3.
Another extremely important point to mention is that all of this should be done in the backdrop of spending hours noodling around on the instrument. By “noodling,” I mean that most players will mess around on their instrument constantly, either by learning new songs, riffs, melodies, and so on.
In other words, you have your official and structured studies which is what I just showed you, alongside your unofficial studies which are more fun and recreational. If all you do is study hard, you may lose your passion for the instrument.