By Jonathan Lay, updated November 30, 2021
Birthdays, holidays, graduations, retirement, friendship — you probably have someone in your life that you want to give a gift to. If they are musicians, or you want to encourage them to be musicians, then you might be stumped or only have a vague idea of what would make a good gift for them. Here’s a gift guide to inspire your thinking, especially if that musician in your life is interested in playing tunes with other people.
Here’s a strategy for cruising the TrailJams website for inspiration:
- Look through this Gift Guide for ideas
- Look through the Resources page. It has details on recommended resources for learning and playing tunes, and links to sources.
- Look at the Tune of the Week selections. Each Tune of the Week page has links to recordings and other resources for learning the tune. Consider giving an album, a book or a subscription to one of the resources.
- Where you can, spend your money where it will do the most good for musicians and your community. Buy locally if you can: support local musicians, music instructors, music venues and stores, and music and cultural organizations. If you are shopping on the web, see if you can buy from a seller that you want to encourage to stay in business — such as the specialized smaller sellers of music, musical instruments, or music-making accessories.
- Consider making a contribution in your friend’s name to one of organizations or musicians you’ve found on this site. You could pay for a subscription to online instruction. Or you could contribute to a Patreon or PayPal account on behalf of your friend.
- With the supply-chain problems we are going through at the end of 2021, this may be a good year to buy some music instruction or digital goods for your friend rather than physical items.
Books and Associated Recordings
These books make great library companions for tune players and learners. Read more about them in the TrailJams Resources page.
- Books – The Portland Collection (3 volumes)
- Audio – A Portland Selection (companion recordings to The Portland Collection)
- Book – The Fiddler’s Fakebook, by David Brody
- Book – Learn to Play Irish Fiddle, by Tom Morley
- Book – Irish Music 400 Traditional Tunes, by Stephen Ducke
- Book – Complete Irish Fiddle Player, by Peter Cooper (Mel Bay Publications)
- Online Academy of Irish Music — Instruction on traditional Irish tunes and how to play them on a variety of instruments. Subscription.
- FiddleVideo — Instruction for playing traditional tunes on fiddle. A variety of genres taught by several instructors, including excellent Irish tune instruction from Kevin Burke. Subscription.
- Peghead Nation — instruction in old time, Irish, swing and more for a variety of acoustic instruments. Subscription.
- MandoLessons — Baron Collins Hill — this is a great place to start for learning mandolin tunes and technique. Baron Collins Hill provides all of his instructions for free, but you can buy buy the downloadable audio tracks, individually or as a whole set, from the MandoLessons pages on BandCamp. A whole downloadable set could make a good gift. You can also find his albums for sale on BandCamp and through the MandoLessons website.
- Electronic Tuner — tuners have become so inexpensive that many serious musicians have several and consider them essential. D’Addario’s micro tuners are a particularly good value, and small enough that you can leave one clipped to each stringed instrument. (They work for stringed instruments like fiddle and banjo because they sense the instruments vibration. They do not work for wind and reed instruments — for that you need a tuner with a microphone.)
- Armless Chairs — for playing many instruments, including guitar, banjo, mandolin, accordion and concertina, a chair with no arms is best. For indoor use, such as in your living room or studio, there are many choices for comfortable chairs that have good back support but no arms. For outdoor use, such as for music campouts or for TrailJams events, it gets trickier to find chairs that are comfortable, sturdy, don’t wobble, and don’t sink into the ground. A three-legged camp stool, such as the GCI Outdoor Quik-E-Seat Chair from REI gives a reasonable blend of good features. A simple lightweight folding chair, like the Gunde folding chair from Ikea works for some, though they tend to wobble on uneven ground and the solid plastic seat and back don’t breath, so are not ideal for warm summer days.
- Wheels & wagons: if you are trundling instruments, chairs, and possibly little people for any distance, you might appreciate some wheels. Consider a folding wagon, like the Macsports Wagon Classic. You can find a bunch of folding wagon choices with an online search. They are about the size of the old steel Radio Flyer wagons that you might have had as a kid, but folded up they fit into a small space in your car.
Gifts for Beginning Musicians, Beginning Tune Players, and Children
In some ways it is easier to choose a gift for beginners than it is to choose for more mature musicians. Beginners haven’t developed strong preferences that require you to have intricate knowledge to choose something that they will enjoy. And there are beginner-level instruments that won’t break your budget. (Of course, there are also cheap, poor-quality instruments that will discourage budding musicians too.) Here are some modestly-priced instruments that can give some musical satisfaction on their first day of playing.
- Tin Whistle (Pennywhistle) — Tin whistles, for beginners, can be inexpensive and relatively easy to get started playing. It is a great instrument for playing traditional Irish tunes on. You can play a lot of tunes, and develop a lot of skill from a $15 or so tin whistle. Tutorials books, videos, recordings, and online instruction are readily available. If that small gift plants the seed of interest, you can later make gifts of higher-quality whistles in other keys. The Generation brand pennywhistle (“Flageolet”) in the key of D, is a good one to start with. You can find them at many music stores, and either the brass finish or nickel finish is fine. Some tips: (1) you can use hot water to soften the glue that attaches the plastic mouthpiece to the metal barrel of the whistle, and with possibly a little bit of sanding to remove glue you can make the whistle tunable. (2) Whistles can easily be played badly and loudly — it takes effort to learn to play a whistle well, and patience to endure hearing the early efforts. (3) There is no end to how well a whistle can be played, and there are whistle players who delight the world, and high-quality whistles worthy of master musicians.
- Harmonica — For somewhere in the range of $12 to $50 you can get a new player’s first harmonica. A basic diatonic harmonica in the key of C is a good choice to start with. A Hohner Special 20 is a satisfying instrument in the $50 range, but you can easily find a lower-priced instrument for a child to start with. Often you can find a package that has a harmonica and a tiny book for getting started. You can be playing simple tunes, with harmonious chords on the first day of playing. And there is plenty of room to grow — harmonicas can be played at master level for blues, American, and Irish/Celtic music. Some tips: (1) Lower-priced (toy-grade) harmonicas may not be tuned well, and their reeds may not work well, which can be frustrating. (2) Serious harmonic players often have many harmonicas — on the one hand, that means the total cost of the set can be quite high. On the other hand, that may leave you with gift inspiration for the next fifty years.
- Ukulele — Ukuleles are fun, can be inexpensive, and within an hour of tuning up the instrument you can be playing simple 3-chord accompaniment to a familiar song. Beginner-level ukuleles, such as those made by Kala or Cordoba are priced at around $75 for soprano instruments. Soprano is the smallest-sized and most common ukulele. Ukuleles range in size from soprano at the small end, through concert, tenor, and baritone models. Soprano instruments are a good place to start for a first ukulele — they are low cost, compact, and sized well for small people. Tenor size is very popular for professional players. Baritone models produces a lower tone that is more mellow than soprano instruments, and easier to hear for people who have some high-frequency hearing loss. Some tips (1) An electronic tuner is an important accessory for playing ukulele. Alternatively, you can get free or low cost tuner apps for phones and tablets. (2) Strings break. You should buy a package of extra strings to go with the new ukulele. (3) If you do want to play traditional fiddle tunes on a ukulele, you can install a set of Aquila (part 30U) strings so that you can tune a soprano ukulele like a fiddle or mandolin. They are available from many music stores.