In this article, I am going to take a look into the challenges of playing these two extremely popular instruments. Is a guitar an easier instrument to learn compared to the piano or is it the other way around? Does the style you play in effect the learning challenges for one instrument more than another, or are the technicalities equally baffling?
Guitar vs Piano
Perhaps the first aspect of these two instruments to remark on is that they can both produce a sound from even the most inexperienced fingers. A single touch to the piano key will bring forth a tone that’s (hopefully) in tune, and the pluck of a guitar string will also allow its natural sound to be released. There is, however, quite a difference in the techniques required to play the instruments to a more recognisable standard. Even though the production of a note is relatively easy it is worth remembering that even a single note can have different colours and tones when plucked or struck with differing force. It is the ability to create these subtle difference on both instruments that marks out the master of the instrument.
Focusing on the guitar for a moment, the hands of the player have quite separate functions and positions in the instrument. Usually, the dominant hand of the player is the one that plucks the strings of the guitar whereas the other hand holds down the strings. This can present a problem for left-handed guitarists who either have to find an instrument that is purposefully built for them or re-string their instrument to allow them to play left-handed. Paul McCartney is just such a left-handed guitarist. There six strings on a standard electric or acoustic guitar each of which can be played alone by plucking or in groups, again by plucking or strumming. The strum can be performed from the top string down or from the bottom string up depending on the composer’s intentions.
Classical guitar players are sometimes taught to utilise certain fingers of the right hand for certain strings on the instrument. The thumb for example often covers the top two/three strings whilst the remaining fingers other three strings. According to various sources, the little finger is seldom employed when covering the strings except for more extended technical passages. Note, the little finger of the left hand (assuming a right-handed player), is very much needed to form chords or to perform larger leaps on the guitar.
This in itself presents a technical challenge as each string has a different sounding open note and therefore a different range too. For example, the standard tuning of a guitar is as follows: E – A – D – G – B – E with the last E tuned an octave above the first, giving the approximate range of each string a little over two octaves. This means that the guitarist has to know which string to begin a melody on depending on its starting and ending note, as well as the particular tone of the string. The conundrum is doubled in a sense when the performer needs to play a chord or at least a couple of notes together. Here the left hand (assuming a right-handed player), must hold down the correct notes of the chord on the fretboard and coordinate this with the pluck or strum of the right hand in order for the notes to sound.
For the piano player, there are different hurdles to jump. Today, the piano has a range of seven and a quarter octaves; or 88 notes, some black, some white. Each octave contains the same notes but it can appear to be a bewildering array of possibilities when you first see a piano. This full range is covered by the pianist’s hands with the left hand approximately covering the notes from the lowest to middle C, and the right hand covering the remaining span.
On the guitar, the movement from fret to fret alters the note by one semi-tone, either up or down. On the piano, the movement from black to white note does not always correspond which makes the process of learning scalic patterns tricky at first on the piano. Professional instrumentalists on both instruments I have heard describe the memorisation of patterns very important to fluency on both instruments. The difficulty for the guitar player though is that their instrument is as a 90-degree angle to their line of sight. The pianist, on the other hand, has the keyboard straight in front of them. Watching fingers when playing is often frowned upon by teachers of these instruments but the option of having one’s fingers even in peripheral sight is sometimes useful.
There are additional technical considerations that make a comparison of the instruments interesting. On a guitar, for instance, the performer can slide between notes (glissando), bend notes, vibrato, and produce harmonics, (either natural or false) together with other techniques that are particular to string instruments. A piano is technically a string instrument too, but for the fact that its strings are contained in a resonant box, and fixed to an iron frame.
The pianist can only, under usual circumstances, play the instrument using the keys on the keyboard. (Some more contemporary works do call for the pianist to play inside the piano, to great effect). This is some respects limits the scope of expression for the pianist in a way that the guitarist does not, or at least opens expressive possibilities to the guitarist that are not directly available to the piano player. Even though a seasoned piano player can conjure the most expressive and emotional sound from the instrument, the guitarist can bring a more vocal level of expression to their performance. This has been used to great effect in with many electric guitar solos across all popular genres.
As a guitar player, especially if you are working with an acoustic instrument as opposed to an electric one, is ‘sustain’. The natural sustain and decay of any note on a guitar is considerably shorter than that of a piano. Remember, the piano has a sustain pedal especially for this purpose whereas the guitar must rely on its own acoustic properties in conjunction with the space you are performing in. This creates a challenge for the guitar player who wishes to create a convincing legato or smooth phrase or change imperceptibly from one chord to another without an intrusive pause that spoils the flow of the music. The pianist, on the other hand, is able to assist their pursuit of the perfect legato phrase by using the sostenuto pedal. This can, in turn, lead to some terrible overpedaling in an attempt to cover weaknesses in technique.
It is also worth considering that the less experienced guitarist playing a melody and an accompaniment can be challenging. The guitar player needs to be able to be dexterous enough to bring out the melody by slightly emphasising the stroke of the string whilst maintaining a clear accompanimental figure on the other strings. For the pianist, often melody and accompaniment are in the early days of learning, separated between the left and right hand; the right with the melody, the left with the accompaniment. As the pianist progresses, the options can become increasingly complex with melodies in both hands or even flowing across from one hand to another. The same is true for guitar in as much as more complex pieces also demand that the player is able to play more than one melody as well as an accompaniment.
Acoustic guitars are most frequently played with fingers. Guitarists will often grow the fingernails on one hand in order to more easily pluck the strings. On the electric guitar, it is more common for performers to use a plectrum which is a device used to play the strings and is most usually made from varying thicknesses of plastic or occasionally metal. The use of a plectrum is a very different technique to the ones commonly employed by classical guitarists.
Dynamically, both instruments have the potential for a broad range of volumes that performers can use to bring expression to their performances. The classical and acoustic guitars are not what one might consider to be loud instruments and often an ambient amplification is used to lift the sound of a solo or group of guitarists. In contrast, the concert grand piano can be heard over a full symphony orchestra and offers an even greater range of dynamic options.
In terms of repertoire, the guitar and the piano have a wealth of material to enjoy, especially if you take into account the electric guitar and popular music too. Each instrument is equally capable of playing classical music, jazz, blues, pop to name but a few. The guitar has a different heritage to the piano and is an older instrument by far. Flamenco is a unique and percussive style of guitar playing originating in Spain and requires very specific and unusual techniques.
It is an enormous challenge to learn to play an instrument to a high standard and the guitar and the piano are no exception to this rule. They are both individual and beautiful instruments capable of immense expression, each with a rich cultural heritage and a wide repertoire of compositions to explore.