Sparklers, the sun is shining, sheer fabrics are back, and we will all soon be hopping through the forest with feathers in our hair under an eternal sunset, if clothing catalogs are to be believed. But what shall the soundtrack to this epic journey be? Why not the ambiance of your own folk music-making? Below we detail the hottest olde timey instruments favored by some of the great contemporary folk bands, and signpost the easiest ones to learn. If you pick up the banjo now, you could be playing with Marcus Mumford by the time you’re 40!
Autoharp: Known to insiders as the “stringed motherboard,” the autoharp combines the angelic charm of a heart-shaped dream catcher with the industrial charm of a weaving loom. If you want to weave MUSICAL BEAUTY, that is. The perfect pocket-sized harp for a giant, or satchel-sized harp for a regular person, the autoharp is actually not a harp, but a zither, and also doesn’t automatically play itself, like one of those ghost pianos in the shopping mall, but requires a fairly dexterous human to operate. Listen to an autoharp played by First Aid Kit.
Melodica: Long considered the flute of garbage can orchestras, the melodica combines the simple majesty of a mouth organ with the melodic possibilities of a keyboard, with the tone of a human yelling like a goat yelling like a human. If you can play a recorder, or have failed at piano, this is an excellent entry level folk instrument for you. Listen to the melodica in this cover of the Jurassic Park theme song.
Banjo: Like a guitar, only with a prime number of strings—one for each finger and thumb!—this difficult instrument isn’t for the weak of hand. Clawhammer is one way to play bum-ditty, and a quite good descriptor for the price banjo playing will have on your forearms. Another way to play is fingerpicking, which is like a high-difficulty game of whack-a-mole between your fingers and the strings. Hoo, boy! Treat tired muscles with liberal application of flannel. Listen to banjo played by Mumford and Sons.
Ukulele: Originally designed for baby John Denver’s baby-hands, the ukulele has been subsequently embraced by adult musicians poised precariously in convertibles, on rocks, on beaches and in gauzy montages. It’s just a lot easier to carry a uke than a guitar while skipping through the woods. It also makes you feel big and strong to hold a guitar in your hands as if it were no bigger than an English muffin. Very beginner-friendly! Listen to ukulele played by The Staves (and watch a tree play a guitar in the music video).
Washtub bass: Ah, the washtub bass: the perfect instrument for beginners or purists who dislike anything too complicated or “branded.” You won’t find a washtub bass at your local Pearl Izumi shop. Rather, you must forage for a piece of string, stick and washtub on your own, piecing them together yourself, like a light saber. Then assume a spot on a pedestrian mall in Austin, Burlington, or Portland, and play, play, play, while chewing a piece of straw. Listen to a washtub bass played by this band, possibly called Pickin Grin. Overalls optional.
Piano accordion: Like bagpipes, but suitable for date situations. In recent years, piano accordions have enjoyed a resurgence, as hipsters discovered the “food trucks” of keyed instruments: a mobile organ that pumps gas in and out to make wonderful, wonderful music happen wherever people are content to sit on garbage bins and eat paper plates. More portable than a piano, but less portable than an invisible piano, the piano accordion is also a great training device for hikers looking to complete the Appalachian trail with a pack on their chest. Listen to a piano accordion played by Beirut.
Mandolin: Can-dolin or can’t-dolin, there is no try-dolin. Like a banjo only without the cachet of Kermit the frog, the mandolin is a perfect accompaniment to Shakespearean sonnet or dramatic reading of an Urban Outfitters catalog. It’s a tricky instrument to learn, but again, a good size for skipping through the forest. Listen to a mandolin played by the Tallest Man on Earth.