Guitar vs. Piano: Which One Should You Choose?

If there’s one question I get from prospective students, it’s whether they should tackle the ivories first or learn to strum sweet serenades on the guitar. The answer is anything but straightforward. After all, both the guitar and piano are more than up to the challenge of accompanying a voice and conquering most genres. And yet, they are as different as spoons and pitchforks. So which instrument should you choose? Only a solid foundation in both piano and guitar can tell you for sure, but I’m here to help make your guess an educated one.

Learning Curves—Guitar vs. Piano

The guitar and piano learning curve look a little different. You could very well walk away with ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’ under your belt after your first piano lesson. In contrast, the only thing you’ll walk away with after your first guitar lesson is sore fingers. Guitar is uncomfortable at first. Between the sorta wonky wrist position and the hard-to-press strings, it’ll take about two weeks before you’re not shaking out your burning fingers every 5 minutes.

Cut to three months or so from your starting date. With practice, you have made steady improvement on the piano. You can play a handful of simple songs, but coordinating both your hands is a little like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time. It’ll be a while before you can comfortably accompany yourself.

After three months on the guitar, your fingers haven’t been getting sore for a while, and you’re equipped with a handful of chords. You can strum, with some confidence, a huge repertoire of basic rock songs, and at least 10 Bob Dylan songs. You’re not shredding, but you could do a campfire proud.

After about a year-and-a-half of diligent practice, piano and guitar start to even out again. You can pound out enough chords in C and G Major to play some of your favorite pop songs on the piano. Maybe you’ve got a sonatina or two under your belt. More intricate passages are still tricky and require time and effort. They always will.

After a year-and-a-half of furious practice on the guitar, you’re kind of bored with strumming, and you’ve moved on to lead guitar passages and fingerstyle. That can keep you busy for, oh, the next ten years. Intermediate to advanced guitar progresses in much the same way as intermediate to advanced piano.

Portability and Space

Let’s face it, this one is a no-brainer. A guitar is more portable and space-effective than a piano. Get an acoustic guitar, and you can take it almost anywhere. Get a piano, and you can barely take it up the stairs (with an army of burly gym rats). You can, of course, remedy the portability problem by getting a keyboard, but you’ll still always need a power source. This one goes to the guitars.

Start-up Cost

It’s true: guitars are less expensive than pianos, but a beginner guitar costs about as much as a beginner keyboard, and really, a keyboard is all you need to start out. Since there’s no need to break the bank buying the best equipment in the beginning, I’m going to give both instruments a point.

Theory and Aural Training

From my experience, it is easier to conceptualize melodies on the linear piano than on the nonlinear guitar. What do I mean when I say linear vs. non-linear? There is only one way to play each unique note or frequency on a piano. There’s only one middle-C, one C above middle C, etc. On the other hand, the guitar has around six ways of playing the very same pitch. When playing by ear on a piano, if pitch in a melody increases, your hand necessarily moves to the right. When playing by ear on a guitar, if the pitch in a melody increases, your hand might move toward the body of the guitar or to an entirely different string.

Now one for the guitars: I’ve found it somewhat easier to conceptualize harmonies and chords on a guitar than on a piano. This is because the piano is divided in a somewhat arbitrary way with black keys. It is fairly easy to understand music theory in the context of one key (C-Major) on the piano, but the way the keys are arranged obfuscates the fact that harmonic progressions are simply distances and relationships between chords. It’s easier to demonstrate these relationships with chord shapes on the guitar.

Accompaniment and Vocal Type

Piano and guitar are both quintessential for vocal accompaniment, but they lend themselves to different types of voices. Because they are loud and bright, pianos can sometimes drown out the beautiful mellower types of voices. Pianos sound great with voices that might be described as soulful, clear, salient, bright, or virtuosic. Guitars can accompany any type of voice, but acoustic guitars complement voices that might be described as darker, soothing, airy, or “folksy.”

16 Comments

  1. Great topic and article. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Kristen! We always love getting feedback. Let us know if you ever have a topic you want addressed!

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  2. Thank you for this post…I will pass this on to my young students who wonder if they should choose guitar or piano. You gave many things to consider!

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  3. Thanks for sharing such kind of useful topic

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  4. This was very helpful! Especially for someone who never studied music or an instrument, you really broke it down and addressed many of our questions. It was also encouraging for my eight-year-old son to hear that at the beginning guitar can be a little more challenging and therefore you don’t get that immediate gratification of being able to play even the simplest of songs at first.

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    • Thanks for the comment, Elaine, and good luck to your son! Just sticking with it is the most important thing.

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  5. ”That can keep you busy for, oh, the next ten years. Intermediate to advanced guitar progresses in much the same way as intermediate to advanced piano.”

    Finally I read this from someone who know’s what they are talking about. I am in the unique position of having studied both classical piano and classical guitar and I agree with what’s written above. The piano can get really scary after a certain point, but being an excellent classical guitarist isn’t easy either, in the same way as being an excellent pianist isn’t easy.

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    • Thanks for the feedback! That’s fantastic that you’ve studied both instruments so thoroughly.

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  6. very nice

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  7. Although I already play piano at a high level, this helped me in a certain sense. In my mind guitar seems like piano, with higher notes going right… etc. this really helped me understand the differences and realize that it won’t be much like piano at all!! Thanks 🙂

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    • Glad it was helpful, Anna! Good luck with everything!

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  8. Hello, just wanted to say, I liked this blog post. It was funny.

    Keep on posting!

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    • Thanks so much! Glad you enjoyed it.

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  9. This was a good read 🙂
    Having read this, I’m still not sure what I want to go with ultimately though.
    For now I’m learning the acoustic guitar but I’ve also enjoyed my brief moments on a piano (don’t own one currently).

    One main reason for me to move towards the piano instead of an acoustic guitar is that I really only play solo (never in a band) and I don’t have a singing voice (never tried and probably don’t have what it takes either, let’s be realistic here).
    As such Piano offers more options for me than the acoustic guitar (my guess – not sure if this is true?) which can only produce one of both at the same time (rhythm trough chords or melody trough notes). So when you are doing acoustic covers, players usually seem to rely on signing to provide melody.

    For me this is a major pro of the piano as with the same level of skill / practice, I’d be presented with a larger versatility than the guitar (without a band). Is that a valid statement or do you think I’m potentially missing on some guitar techniques that overcome this ‘issue’?

    Thanks in advance

    Kind regards

    Spie

    Reply
    • Thanks for the comment! There are some amazing guitar solos that use a fingerstyle technique, like this one by Chet Atkins, so that might be a cool thing for you to look into. That said, the piano is fantastic solo instrument, and it’s true that it tends to be thought of that way a little more than guitar typically is. Good luck with everything, and let me know how everything is progressing!

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