Product Reviews

The Best Gear to Learn Music Like a Pro

There are many iconic guitar brands, but I still recommend a Fender as a first guitar. It’s not just because Hendrix, Clapton, and Buddy Guy all played Fenders; it’s because a Mexican-made Fender or Korean-made Fender Squier is affordable, sounds great, and holds its value. If you buy a used Fender and don’t treat it like crap, you can probably sell it for what you paid for it. The four most iconic models are the Stratocaster ($230), Telecaster, Precision Bass ($480), and Jazz Bass ($230).

Photograph: Soundbrenner

These are the first gizmos and gadgets you’ll want to snag.

Metronome

Practicing with a metronome (the ticky-tacky-sounding thing you might recognize from atop your grandma’s piano) helps you develop muscle memory and keep your pace consistent through a piece of music. Mechanical metronomes ($17) work fine, and so do free smartphone apps, but my favorite is the Soundbrenner Core ($229). You attach a buzzer 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.

Tuner

You can use a phone app, but many people prefer the reliability of a real tuner. For stringed instruments, I like the Snark Super Tight ($14), which is the industry standard in clip-on tuners. For wind instruments, I like the KLIQ MetroPitch ($28), which also has a built-in metronome.

Music Stand/iPad Stand

You can use a desk or any other flat surface to hold tools while you practice, but once you learn how to read music properly, you need a music stand to read as you play. I like this one from Gleam ($26), which comes with two spring-loaded arms to hold open books or keep your music on the stand on a windy day. You might also want an iPad attachment ($32), if you’re reading sheet music off an app. 

Headphones

Photograph: Audio Technica

A pair of cheap earbuds is OK to start with, but it’s worth getting a decent pair of wireless over-ear headphones like the Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT ($230) if you’re 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. 

Practice Amp

Photograph: Roland

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 ($165). It can be powered by batteries when out and about (great for backyard practicing), and it’s even got a few built-in effects if you start thinking about guitar pedals. If you’re a bass player or keyboard player, the Roland Cube will also work until you decided to get something a bit fancier.

Earplugs

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 ($40), which come with little clear-plastic pulls that make them really easy to take out, as well as a case that you can attach to your keys.

For Electronic Music and Recording

Photograph: Novation

Interested in playing music digitally? Here are some basic tools to get started making and recording tunes.

Digital Recording Software

One of the longest-standing nerd debates is about which recording software is best. Studio people will tell you Avid’s Pro Tools is best because it’s the industry standard. Home producers will tell you Apple’s Logic Pro or Presonus’ Studio One are better because of their drag-and-drop interfaces. Beatmakers will tell you Ableton Live is the only way to go. Honestly? These days you can’t go wrong. All well-known digital recording software is pretty fantastic. I suggest trying some of the brands listed above, all of which have free software samples so you can test the waters before you buy.

Laptop or Computer

Photograph: Apple

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. I’d suggest getting one with 16 or more gigabytes of RAM; recording software eats up a lot of memory.

Audio Interface

Photograph: Nigel Matthews/Focusrite

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($170) 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 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.

iPad

Photograph: Apple 

My favorite tool for making demos or doing other basic recordings is an iPad. There are tons of great apps, and you can 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 ($539) and I love it.

Novation Launchpad

The Novation Launchpad ($200) 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

Photograph: Lauren Joseph

The Maschine Micro ($269) 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.

Smartphone Mic

Photograph: Shure

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 ($135) works great if you have an iOS device (it’s Lightning-only), but the MV88+ ($215) 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).

Recorder

Photograph: Amazon

If you don’t want to mess around with a smartphone or audio interface, a great portable recording option is the Zoom H2N ($170). It’s a simple portable recorder that offers pretty remarkable fidelity, especially for recording things like lessons, live performances, or rehearsals for later critique.

Shure SM57

Photograph: Shure

An icon of studio and stage, the Shure SM57 ($99) works well for vocals, instruments, and essentially anything you want to capture. This dynamic mic is a studio stalwart for guitars and snare drums, but you’ve probably heard it on nearly every instrument on various recordings. They’re relatively cheap, they take a beating, and they’ll last forever. Make your first “real” mic an SM57; you won’t regret it. 

Mic Stand

Buy a crappy mic stand and it will last you a couple of months. Buy a decent one, it’ll last you a lifetime. My favorite starter stand is the tripod microphone from On-Stage ($38). It’s well-made and comes with a telescoping boom arm, which means you can place the mic exactly where it needs to go, making it easier to play with a guitar.

Photograph: Vic Firth

When you’re a burgeoning music student, you’ll learn quickly that things break. Here are some smaller items to stock up on just in case.

Sticks

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. I’m partial to Vater ($8) and Vic Firth ($10) brands, 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.

Strings

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-gauge strings. I like these D’Addario strings for electric guitars ($8) and these Ernie Ball strings for acoustic ($6), but there are tons of other great options. Worried what strings to use? Check out this cool guide from music retailer Sweetwater.

Picks

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 this fun Fender multipack ($14). It’s got three sizes and all kinds of colors. You’ll find your favorite, and then have some emergency picks in other sizes around. 

Reeds

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 D’Addario Rico Reeds. Having a reed break in the middle of a session is a buzzkill. Have extras on hand so you can easily switch them out.

Capo

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; the Shubb C1 ($16) because it lets you adjust how hard it is clamping the fingerboard of your guitar, for perfect buzz-free sound.

Instrument Cables

If you’re playing an electric instrument, it’s good to invest in good cables. These Kirlin cables ($14) 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.

Tools

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 ($40) 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.


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