I play both instruments – Guitar and Piano – and I love both of them equally. Naturally, there are times when I’ll focus more on one instrument than the other, but in general being able to play both the guitar and the piano is a very rewarding. In this article I’ll point out some of the differences between the two instruments, focusing less on the obvious ones, and more on the ones you discover only after a while. The things that make your approach towards playing those instruments different.
Linear vs. 2D thinking
So the first thing that is fundamentally different between the piano and the guitar is that the piano is completely linear, which means there’s only one way to play a given pitch. The guitar has multiple strings, and the way you usually play them is very non-linear, meaning – to play a higher pitch you don’t necessarily go up the fingerboard. To make things worse – there are multiple options to play a given pitch because the strings overlap in pitch range. From a pianist’s point of view, this adds an extra layer of complexity while playing, especially when trying to play sheet music. The flip side of that, is that guitarists often don’t see a burning need to learn sight reading. Though the ability to sight-read helps in understanding music theory and communicating with other musicians, guitar tabs – something totally unknown to pianists – are a far better way of describing how to play a song on the guitar.
Baby finger, baby finger, where are you?
Another major difference lies in the way you use your hands and fingers to generate sound. A pianist enjoys the full span of his two hands to play the keys, so he or she can not only play up to 10 different pitches at the same time, but also let the left hand play the lower registers (“accompaniment”), and the right hand play the higher registers (“melody”). Guitarists have much less flexibility in that regard, so they would typically either play lead or accompaniment, but not both at the same time. Also, with one hand responsible solely for strumming or picking, and the other one, usually with 4 active fingers only, fretting the strings – guitarists need to be very economical about their movements. As a result, there’s a lot of focus on geometrical patterns, or hand-positions.
Tone is king!
Tone variance is another big difference in which the piano is sort of limited. Granted, a digital keyboard can produce a wide-range of tones, but still, a guitar player has much more direct control over the tone he or she produces. Some of this comes from the ability to play a given pitch in different locations on the fretboard, but also by using various analog or digital effects. In addition, vibrato and string bending are two very common tone-shaping techniques that are only available to guitarists. This is what makes the guitar so suitable for lead roles. The flip side of that, of course, is that quite often guitarists are usually limited to playing either rhythm or lead, while pianists can play entire pieces.
Enjoying both worlds
Being able to play both instruments is a privilege, but if you’re not sure which one would suit you more you can always try and see for yourself. Find a teacher or get a book and start making some music with your guitar. If you don’t like it, try the piano! As long as you’re having fun and making progress there are no rules really!