I was in middle school when I first discovered my stress-release superpower. Whenever I got made fun of for my hair gel or my white Chuck Taylors (apparently mine were the girls’ version, even though Chandler from Friends wore the exact pair I did), I’d descend into my suburban basement. Shimmering atop the checkered carpet was a black Pearl drum kit. On stressful days, I’d plug my headphones into my silver Phillips boombox, pretend the lights had just come up at a huge stadium, and wail out a take of The Beatles’ “Help” while pretending to be Ringo. I’d emerge from the basement feeling better.
For obvious reasons, I’ve found myself pounding away on my drum kit more and more in recent days. It helps me feel connected to a world I am privileged enough to mostly see through a computer screen. It reminds me that we will always create beautiful things to support our struggles, empower our actions, and to aid in mutual catharsis. Regardless of why you pick up an instrument—or what instrument you pick—my two decades holding drum sticks has taught me one thing: Learning to play music will do you good. In the words of fellow WIRED writer Jess Grey, “It’s the closest thing to learning magic in real life.”
That’s why we’ve put together a collection of gear that will help you in your quest to master an instrument. We’ve got metronomes, mics, tuners, and a whole lot more. Already own this stuff and want to get playing? Check out our other guide, which covers the best sites, apps, and Youtube channels (many of them free!) for learning music.
Skip below if you already have an instrument. Otherwise, here’s a list of our favorite affordable instruments to get started with music.
Aspiring drummers don’t need to drop hundreds of dollars on drums and cymbals, or electronic kits, to get started. Simply buy a practice pad like this one from Evans and start banging away. It’s not quite as satisfying as blasting out beats on a regular drum kit, but practice pads are used by both pros and beginners alike for speed and dexterity training (and silent Netflix practice time). Everyone starts here!
If you don’t already have a keyboard, my favorite recommendation for new players is to get a MIDI keyboard. They plug into your computer and run on USB, so you can use them to control a myriad of different sounds and apps. If you’re looking for a teeny-tiny one, I have (and love) the Akai LPK25 for quick practice sessions and recording synth pads. If you’re actually trying to learn to play piano or keyboard properly, I like this semi-weighted model from M-Audio, which feels more like an acoustic instrument under your fingers.
Fender Guitar or Bass
There are many iconic guitar brands, but the one that was first to sell a solid-body electric guitar still remains my favorite. It’s not just because Hendrix, Clapton, and Buddy Guy all played Fenders; it’s because they still offer fantastic value. An affordable Mexican-made Fender or Korean-made Fender Squier like this one is a great first guitar, because it offers excellent playability and value. You can easily find them used on Reverb, Craigslist, or Facebook Marketplace, and they hold their value. Buy a used Fender now, and unless you treat it like total crap, you can probably sell it for what you paid for it if you decide to quit. You can’t go wrong, but the four most iconic models are the Stratocaster, Telecaster, Precision Bass, and Jazz Bass.
Another fun way to learn about keyboards and electronic music is to build your own instrument. This synth kit, developed in partnership with Korg, allows you to snap different modules together to build various sounds, helping teach you how to use different filters, waves, and other synth secrets.
These are the first gizmos and gadgets you’ll want to snag if you’re starting to learn music more seriously at home.
The first thing you’ll need is a good way to keep time. Practicing with a metronome (the ticky-tacky-sounding thing you might recognize from atop your grandma’s piano) helps you learn faster and more accurately. There are great free apps for your smartphone, but if you’re looking for a physical metronome, my favorite is the Soundbrenner Core. It’s essentially a smartwatch with a big buzzer that you attach to your arms or legs during practice. Instead of hearing the beat, you feel it! It also comes with a built-in tuner and a decibel meter to warn you when things are too loud.
You can use a phone app, but many people prefer the reliability of a real tuner. For guitars and string instruments, I like the Snark Super Tight. They’re the industry standard in clip-on tuners. For wind instruments, I like the KLIQ MetroPitch, which also has a built-in metronome.
At first, you can use a desk or any other flat surface to hold music, pens, and other tools while you practice, but you’ll soon want a proper music stand. I like this one from Gleam, which comes with two spring-loaded arms to hold open books or keep your music on the stand on a windy day.
A pair of cheap earbuds is OK to start with, but it’s worth getting yourself a decent pair of wireless over-ear headphones like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT if you’re getting serious about your tunes. They sound great for listening, have a Bluetooth connection for modern smartphones, and also double as excellent studio headphones for at-home recording.
You probably won’t be ripping up the stage anytime soon, so the best amplifier to buy for your electric guitar, keyboard, or bass is one that won’t wake the neighbors. There are cheaper options I like, but I recommend the Roland Micro Cube. It can be powered by batteries when out and about (great for backyard practicing!), and it’s even got a few built-in effects for when or if you start thinking about guitar pedals.
Don’t hurt your ears! Music can be really loud. Anything over 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing damage. Either practice at normal volumes or use a pair of earplugs. There are many that claim to cut all frequencies evenly (so that your music sounds the same). None of them totally nail the sound of listening without plugs in, but my favorites are Earasers, which come with nice little clear-plastic pulls that make them really easy to take out, as well as a case that you can attach to your keys.
Stuff to Stockpile
When you’re a burgeoning music student, you’ll learn quickly that stuff will break. Here are some smaller items to stock up on just in case.
Drumsticks are very personal and come in many shapes and sizes, but it’s good to start with an old standard: the 5A. These are about as close to a “medium” as exists in the world of drumsticks—you’ll find professionals playing them in all genres. As far as brands are concerned, I’m partial to Vater and Vic Firth, but you really can’t go wrong. Grab a couple of pairs to keep on hand—they have a tendency to disappear just when you need them.
If you’ve got an old ratty guitar, chances are it could use new strings. I like to buy strings in bulk, because they’re the one part of a guitar that needs regular maintenance. If you’ve just picked up a new guitar (or still have the hangtags from the one in the closet), check what strings it came with and keep using those—that’s likely what it’s set up to use. Otherwise, it’s good to start with “medium” strings. I like these D’Addario strings for electric guitars and these Ernie Ball strings for acoustic, but there are tons of other great options. Worried what strings to use? Check out this cool guide from music retailer Sweetwater.
If you’re learning a string instrument, you’re gonna want a lot of picks on hand. The best way to find which ones you like? Get a fun multipack like this one from Fender ($12). It’s got three different sizes and all kinds of colors. You’ll find your favorite, and then have some “emergency” picks in other sizes around.
For woodwind instruments, you’ll need reeds. Lots of them. We like Vandoren Reeds. They’re a little pricey, but they’re the best. For something cheaper to practice on, you can go with Rico. Having a reed break in the middle of a session is a buzzkill. Have extras on hand so you can easily switch them out.
Capos let you play standard fingerings higher up on the guitar, making it easier to change keys. You’re gonna lose one, so you may as well buy two to have a backup. I’m a big fan of tension-adjustable options like the Shubb C1 because it lets you adjust how hard it is clamping the fingerboard of your guitar, for perfect buzz-free sound.
If you’re playing an electric instrument, it’s good to invest in some quality instrument cables. These Kirlin cables are excellent quality and come with a limited lifetime warranty. Be sure to keep your cables wrapped and off the floor as much as possible. The best way to make them last is to treat them kindly.
It’s worth having some basic tools on hand to perform any maintenance you might need on your instrument. This musician’s tool kit from Ernie Ball is a good all-in-one option for many, with all the tools you need to set up or repair a guitar or bass. Otherwise, it’s good to have a set of hex keys, a drum key, and some screwdrivers on hand.
For Electronic Music and RecordingPhotograph: Novation
Interested in playing music digitally? Here are some basic tools to get started making and recording tunes.
My favorite tool for making demos or doing other basic recordings is an iPad. There are tons of great apps, and you can even plug in external microphones and interfaces to capture higher-quality audio. I also like that I can pull up charts and notes digitally, to help keep demos and practice sessions organized. Which one to buy is up to you (we have an iPad guide), but I’ve been using an iPad Air and I love it.
You can use an iPad, smartphone, or another tablet to make and record electronic music, but the vast majority of software for music production is still made for traditional computers. That’s because they’re a bit more powerful, letting them do even more with your sounds and handle larger recording sessions. Here’s a list of our favorite laptops right now. I’d suggest getting one with 16 or more gigabytes of RAM; recording software eats up a lot of memory.
The Novation Launchpad pairs with recording software to let you do everything from playing melodies to triggering samples, making it a central tool in the arsenal of many electronic musicians. It connects to your computer via USB, at which point you can assign its various pressure-sensitive pads to control nearly anything you like, from individual beats and sounds to entire musical arrangements.
Maschine Micro Mk3
The Maschine Micro is a compact sampling controller that pairs with fantastic software to essentially give you the 21st-century equivalent of the drum machines that classic hip-hop producers began using in the early 1990s. You can chop up your own samples or use any from an included vault that’s got 1.6 gigabytes of sounds. You can use the Maschine with its own software or as a plug-in with any popular recording software. There’s no excuse for bad beats other than your skills; this is the same tool used by many of your favorite hip-hop producers.
Whether you’re after better-quality demos or a higher-fidelity Instagram stream, get a decent phone microphone like the Shure Mv88 or MV88+. The MV88 works great if you have an iOS device (it’s a Lightning-only device), but the MV88+ has become a favorite of mine lately because it comes with an included tripod stand and its USB-C cable works with Android devices like the Google Pixel (though the MV88+ isn’t compatible with all Android devices).
If you don’t want to mess around with a smartphone or audio interface, a great portable recording option is the Zoom H2N. It’s a simple portable recorder that offers pretty remarkable fidelity, especially for recording things like lessons, live performances, or rehearsals for later critique.
The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 is the perfect starter interface if you’re thinking about using actual microphones to record at home. It’s got two inputs and easy-to-use controls and software, and it even comes with download codes for a few different digital audio workstations (DAWs) like Pro Tools and Ableton Live Lite, so you can get an idea of which recording software you’d rather use before spending big bucks on one.
Credit: All the credit of this post goes to Wired.