questionswhat's the best musical instrument for a complete…

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Any traditional instrument will be loud. Maybe not "drum kit" loud, but in an apartment, even a harmonica will fill the room. Depending on the thickness of the walls, it may fill the neighbor's room as well. Something to think about there.

To avoid that, maybe you should try something that's electronic and can be used with headphones. Piano and guitar are the two that come to mind first.

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It totally depends on what you want to do with it in the end, but I've got a couple suggestions.
I'm a music student, going for my master degree in music (haha not that credentials really mean anything...), and I think that the piano is the best first instrument, and that's coming from a saxophone player. The guitar would also be another good option though. On the piano, your first note can sound good, whereas the violin for example takes years of practice for one note to actually sound good. There are all sorts of tutorials on Youtube on how to learn to play the piano, which would be ok for simple beginnings. Plus, depending on how nice of a piano/keyboard you want, you can start with $100 for a decent electric keyboard (no weighted keys, so no piano-like touch), or $500 for an awesome one (and on up into the thousands from there). And, with an electric keyboard, you can plug in headphones when you know your wife doesn't want to listen to you practice.

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I would also say guitar can be a good first option - it's definitely the easiest instrument to learn a song the quickest. Plus, there's lots of free tabs on the internet to learn all sorts of songs.

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All great answers so far, thanks!
It's sounding like electric keyboard and electric guitar are the two best options on the noise/playability front, and keyboard might be a bit better for long-term musical understanding.
I guess I'm now leaning toward a cheap electric guitar, mostly due to the badass factor that will hopefully be a motivation to practice (and for my wife to tolerate it).
Do you have any suggestions for starter guitars then? I saw this (http://preview.tinyurl.com/cheapoguitar1221) on a first search on Amazon. Also please let me know if this would be better as a new post!

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@luvche21: I taught myself to play guitar using all tabs online (I've played piano for several years) and can play about 50 complete songs now. Can't say that I learned much about guitar theory but I can rock stairway with the best of em!

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I'd go with a Ukulele, soprano sized for about $45 bucks. I use a Makala Soprano from Amazon.com and that's where I started from. I learned a song in a day (maybe less) just by watching YouTube videos and theres plenty of them out there (you could check it out right now to see if you can do it. Just search "ukulele tutorial" and have a look around).

It sounds great when played properly (which you'd probably will) and sounds even better when you change out the strings to Aquila Nylgut strings. It's really pleasing to hear and it reminds us of vacation and paradise. lol. I'm pretty sure your wife would love it.

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My suggestion for your first guitar is to set your budget, then go to a store and play a whole bunch and choose the one that feels the most comfortable. If it hurts when you play it, you won't want to play. (This is also one benefit of piano over guitar... no blisters/callouses). If the neck fits your hand well, and it's not too heavy, and it sounds good to you, you're more likely to play it. IMHO, that's much more important when you start out than spending a bunch of money on a "name brand" thing that you might hate playing once you get it home.

If you stick with it, you can upgrade later. I started out with a Peavey my parents got me at a flea market, and as I got more into playing, I upgraded a few times. Now I have a Charvel from 1988 that I love. I played on a boatload of guitars, and when I picked up the Charvel, I just knew it was the one.

Good luck!

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I played the viola for nine years, but I would not suggest it for an apt. or for being able to play in the short term. If you want to learn musical theory and be able to take your learning to future instruments, I would say the two instruments that you have chosen is likely best. My biggest "hole" in my musical knowledge has to do with the playing of chords and switching keys since on a viola (violin, cello, bass, etc...) you only play one note at a time (sometime two)... piano and guitar is all about playing multiple notes at the same time though.

- my two cents worth, I'm asking five cents to subsidize increasing labor costs.

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I would recommend a classical guitar and a cheap "casio" keyboard. A classical guitar because the nylon strings are easy to press down and have wider spacing. A cheap keyboard for learning basic chords and scales.

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Acoustic guitar to start small, then electric if and only if you like it.

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For the sake of ensuring you have fun before you give up in frustration, I'll put in a good word for the harmonica. If you can breath, you can play. You can get a good one for about $20 without even trying, and if you drop a few more dollars on a beginner book, you can be playing all sorts of simple tunes in just an hour or two. It wasn't long after I started that I was playing Beethoven and the Hallelujah Chorus just for kicks.

As for sound issues, you can play a harmonica as quietly as you want. If you really don't want to be heard or bother your neighbors, the super handy thing is that you can take the instrument anywhere without any trouble. I still buy carpenter jeans specifically so I can slip a harmonica into the side pocket and always be ready. Handy little things, harmonicas.

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@davidschronic: Sweet. Tabs are the way to go if you want to teach yourself how to play. I've learned a fair bit from tabs. Dust in the Wind is still my favorite to play, plus, it makes me feel cool.

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@theant: I was SO excited to read you play Viola! I do as well! This sounds so nerdy but had to post. Usually you hear "I play Violin"

As far as the question, I would say if you are going to learn to play the guitar, it might be a better option to actually "learn" the music you are playing. My husband can play a little but he has no idea what notes he is playing. You will be able to broaden your horizons more if you actually learn notes and what musical composition is about. You might also find it more enjoyable and lead you to other instruments of interest.

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Get a Uke!

I just started and it's SO MUCH FUN! you can get a pretty-good sounding beginner's model for 30-45$, and it's easy to start. It's super low-intensity, and if you play the wrong note it doesn't sound that awful.

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I'm a horn player, and I'll go with the uke and/or guitar.
Nobody goes camping, pulls out a horn or sax or piano, and plays folk tunes.
They are way portable, they play chords, they can be quiet or loud if'n you want, and people like them.
Plus they're popular. By that I mean they are plentiful, and if you don't like this instrument or that tutorial or those lessons, there are scores more to choose from.

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@deraj828: +1 for harmonica. They are cheap and you can learn to play basic blues riffs in a day.

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Cowbell! We need a little more cowbell.

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@awl85:
I agree! We need more Cowbell! It's becoming a lost art.
Long Live Blue Öyster Cult!

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electric keyboard. Headphones keep the noise down, you'll learn a LOT about music that way, and even the first note sounds fine. Just make sure to work your way up through some program or take lessons, it's not an instrument you can really pick up on your own. You'll need help with it, but there's something special about being able to plonk down in front of a keyboard and pound out a tune that people like.

You'd be surprised, but there are pianos and keyboards everywhere.