If you've read this site for any length of time, you know that I just as interested in making music yourself as I am in finding excellent and cool music for kids. Singing hymns, singing in other groups, playing ukulele, getting ukulele lessons from Dan Zanes -- yeah, it's all a part of a musical life.
So with holidays associated with gift-giving coming up, I've decided to put together a list of instruments that would cost you roughly $100 and allow a family of all ages and sizes to make music together. Now, don't get me wrong, it's perfectly OK to make your own instrument -- I've been known to make my own drum set -- but over time I've noticed that our kids (or we adults) don't tend to use those paper-plate shakers. It's a useful process to know how to make those sorts of things when you're 3 years old, but I also think it's important to have high-quality instruments.
What have I excluded in putting together this list?
1) A place to store all this stuff: We have a couple of big, lined wicker baskets we got from Target that, if I recall correctly, probably cost around $10 each.
2) Accessories: Depending on what you get, you may need (or want) to get tuners, mallets, or bags.
3) Songbooks: This topic deserves a whole separate post on its own. You don't need a songbook, but there are times -- more often than you think -- when you will realize you know exactly one line of a song and that's all. Or need chords to go along with the words.
4) Books on making music: I'd recommend Nerissa & Katryna Nields' All Together Singing in the Kitchen, particularly if you've not made music before yourself, but there are obviously many ways to learn how to play just about any instrument.
5) Large, expensive instruments: Pianos are great, but even the cheapest piano on Craigslist will spend your entire budget. Full-sized guitars or Loog guitars will also generally exceed the $100 limit. My goal with this list is to get your family enough musical diversity to get y'all to the point where you want to learn to play the piano or guitar or violin or drum set.
To make my $100 limit more practical, I aimed for a $90 list of instruments on Amazon, giving you room, therefore, for shipping costs, pricing variability, or, should you decide to shop at your local music store (also a good bet), sales tax and local pricing variability. If you want more than the Basics, I've made a few suggestions for Extra instruments should your interest or budget allow.
Ready? Good, let's begin.
Let's start out with rhythm instruments, which you can almost not have enough of. They'll probably be the first instruments infants and toddlers gravitate to -- what is a baby rattle but a simple shaker? -- and even the person who considers themselves most out of musical practice can handle these.
** Shakers ** ($12)
Egg shakers: 2 @ $2 each -- high quality plastic ones are fine. We've got one of the more expensive wood ones and find them to be way too quiet and mellow.
Animal shakers: Set of 3 for $8 -- You don't strictly need these, but we love the way they look. They look like toys but feel comfortable in the hand and make a satisfying sound.
Maracas: $5 for a mini-pair (essentially egg shakers on a stick) or $7 for a bigger pair.
Rain sticks: You can spend anywhere from $5 for a very small one to more than $50 for one that will be taller than your kids. Stand them up straight, and let the beans or rice inside float down and make a soothing rain-like sound. They're not for making symphonies, but they're pleasant to listen to
** Bells ** ($7)
Jingle (cluster) bells: $7 -- gives you the jingly sound
Wrist jingle bells: $3 -- toddlers too young to carry around cluster bells for an extended period of time will probably like these, which wrap around a wrist and fasten with velcro.
Tambourines: I've never been a big tambourine fan, but they make a jangly sound that can be popular with some kids. We have a Jambourine that is a bit small for adult hands, but just right for kids.
** Drums/Sticks ** ($17)
Rhythm sticks: 2 pairs @ $2/pair = $4 -- In each pair there's one with ridges and one smooth. Use them together to make a guiro-like sound. Use the 2 smooth ones you'll have as drum sticks. (Or don't, depending on the rules of your household.)
Lollipop drum - Lollipop drum: $13 -- this makes a nice, satisfying sound, but not too loud of one. Unless it's repeated over and over and over. But, really, if you're going to have a drum, this is a nice, portable one to have.
Bongos: We really liked these First Act Bongos, but they appear to have been discontinued. These Remo bongos appear to be of similar quality and price, so they may be a useful substitute. We liked the sound that the First Act bongos made but the one drawback to any bongo (or just about any drum without a neck strap) is that you can't walk around the house with them. Which is why I went with the lollipop drum above.
Triangle: $4 -- They're OK. They make a nice clear sound. But you better be prepared to find replacement string to serve as a triangle holder or your kids will wail away at the triangle... while holding onto it with their fist. Tends not to work out so well that way.
Now that you've got a rhythmic base, let's get some melody in there. Well, in a lot of cases, it won't start out as melodic -- or at least practiced -- at all. But it's important to have some notes.
** Wind instruments ** ($14)
Harmonica: $5 -- you can get a kajillion different harmonicas anywhere, and just about any of them will do. I don't suggest getting a "kids" version of a harmonica (First Act has one, for example) -- just get 'em the real thing. Cheaper and better.
Recorder: $5 -- again, there are a lot of them out there. Here's a recorder that seems to have earned good ratings.
Kazoo: 2 @ $2 apiece -- Don't bother with cheap, plastic ones. Spend $2 (or $3) to get one (or two, actually to get one of slightly higher quality.
Slide whistle: $2 -- I find slide whistles somewhat annoying. But the kids like 'em a bunch. Definitely not required, and it'll be way beyond the ability of most kids to make anything remotely resembling a melody. But that's your (and my) problem, not theirs, 'cause to them, they're just making music.
The math wizards among you will see that we've spent $50 thus far for 13 instruments (assuming that a pair of drum sticks counts as one). We've got $40 left, and while I've got some suggestions, how you choose to spend these last $40 depends is dependent in part upon personal preference and your family situation. If you just have one child, you may find it easier to buy one nice musical instrument. Or you may want to be able to play with your child -- instead of getting one slightly nicer ukulele, you may choose to get two super-cheap ones. It's up to you. So consider these last suggestions mix-and-match.
** Other instruments** (Up to $40)
Ukulele: $38 -- Ukuleles are easy to hold. While I was favorably impressed with a First Act Discovery guitar (for the price, anyway), I find ukuleles easier to play, easier to hold, and just more friendly. We bought a Makala ukulele for Little Boy Blue earlier this year and he's played with it more than the guitar. It's no Dan Zanes ukulele or Loog guitar, quality-wise, but it's decent. If quality isn't an issue for you, you could instead buy two of these Mahalo ukuleles for a total of $44.
Accordion: $18: I know, the accordion sounds like a complicated instrument, but a dedicated elementary school student could master at least a few tunes fairly quickly. I really liked a First Act Discovery accordion, but it doesn't seem to be available anymore. You could try this Hohner toy accordion, but I offer no guarantees for its quality.
Xylophone/glockenspiel: There are so many ways you can go with this -- xylophones and mallets from Fisher-Price or Hohner, a xylophone/piano for toddlers from Little Tikes, or something a little more sturdy (and likely to be played by your kids after they've outgrown the brightly-colored plastic). In my experience, the wood ones are not nearly as bright-sounding, which may be a bonus for you.
Resonator blocks: We have an A and a D block, which sound pleasant played together or in sequence. Amazon only has a full set (for $55), but you should be able to find individual blocks for $10 to $15 apiece elsewhere.