Ask any professional musician what started their love of playing, and you’re likely to hear a story about their first instrument — a guitar discovered in the attic, a recorder given as a birthday present, an older sibling’s unused keyboard.
Music magnate Evan Rubinson calls these items “gateway instruments” and sees them as the key to developing a long-term relationship with music.
Gateway instruments provide fledgling learners, whether children or adults, a straightforward path to playing music. Most gateway instruments are simple and fun to play, which lies at the heart of their appeal. The low barrier to entry allows novice musicians to quickly reproduce recognizable songs or tunes without months of practice, Evan Rubinson explained.
“Ukuleles are the easiest instrument in the world to learn, in my opinion. They are very easy for children or newbies to pick up and be able to really find success with pretty quickly,” he said. “It’s just four strings, so it’s approachable. The chords are easy to learn. And without a lot of time, you can play tunes you’ve heard on the radio or that you already love, and that feels very rewarding to new players.”
Rubinson has been in the industry for decades, overseeing well-known brands in the music space. Now, as the CEO and founder of ERA Music Brands, he’s working on launching new lines of instruments. One of his first will include ukuleles and acoustic guitars, which are intended to be gateway instruments.
“We find a lot of success in that, as a newer brand with newer products, ukuleles and acoustic guitars are a great segue into the broader marketplace,” he said. “We typically will price our ukuleles starting at about $79 on the low end, which is a great place for beginners or people who want to try a new instrument. It’s a great place to start. But then, for people who stick with [it] and want something nice, we go up to about $499 for ukuleles on the high end.
“Those ukuleles will have some amazingly valuable tone woods. They have extra features, like a bevel and a slight cutout where your arm would fit to make it a little bit more comfortable for someone to play while they’re sitting down. They also have abalone inlays and some juiced-up components that are a bit more desirable and a bit rarer.”
When a neophyte begins their musical journey with an easy-to-play and inexpensive instrument like a ukulele or recorder, it builds the confidence that can spur them to tackle more intricate songs and different instruments.
“A lot of people start off on the ukulele and some of them continue on and only play ukuleles and become famous off that, but a lot move on to other instruments,” Evan Rubinson shared. “But you can also take a gateway instrument and add it to your repertoire after you’ve already become proficient in something else. A lot of those people who play ukulele use it as a learning mechanism, or they play it on the side when they don’t want to play acoustic or electric guitar.”
A low price point also helps greenhorns take a chance on gateway instruments because the initial investment is low. For children who have never tried to play an instrument before, it’s a great introduction to the rigors of practice.
“If your first instrument is something very hard to play, like a five-string banjo or an oboe, it can be easy to get discouraged. You might begin to think that you’re just not cut out to play music,” Evan Rubinson pointed out. “But if you start with a harmonica, where you can pretty much instantly begin to make music, you develop a relationship with that instrument much more quickly.”
Gateway instruments aren’t just for children; they make superb starters for older beginners as well. The benefits of learning to play music at any age are well documented. They include lowering blood pressure, improving long-term memory, and sharpening mental alertness, all of which are extremely advantageous for older adults.
The reason many adults hold back from trying out a new instrument is usually mental, Evan Rubinson said. Many inexperienced musicians have to overcome internalized myths about music playing or performance, and easily playable instruments can be instructive to demystifying the process.
“There’s a long-held idea that people must begin music lessons early or else they’ll never master an instrument, but that’s not true at all,” he said. “Now, that doesn’t mean you can pick up a violin at age 50 and play for the New York Philharmonic, but adults can become excellent musicians even with a late start. And one of the best ways to begin is by choosing an instrument that allows you to develop quickly.”