Play guitar, or play the guitar (piano, violin, trombone, etc)?

sus4

Senior Member
Japan - Japanese
Hello,

The below is an excerpt from Wikipedia, but the use of the indefinite article before "guitar" confuses me.

"Whitley learned to play a guitar at a very young age, and became involved with a regional television show when he was eight years old."[ref]

Isn't it supposed to be "the"? As far as I know, "the" must be placed before the name of an instrument. (Except when you say something like, "I want to buy a new guitar.")

Also, I've noticed that some people omit "the" and simply say "to play guitar." Is there any difference between "to play the guitar" and "to play guitar"?

Thank you.
 
  • I agree with Panj that "play a guitar" is strange.

    In BE we would say "play the guitar".

    "Are you musical at all?"

    "Yes, I play the piano, the guitar and the violin."

    However I have a "very English" man friend who is a jazz pianist and classical violinist.

    Ask him what he plays and he will reply, "I play piano mainly and, when the mood takes me, I play my violin."

    He plays the piano in "classy" public venues. His repertoire is not limited to jazz, he plays "easy listening" music too. He is always introduced with the words, "Please give a warm welcome to xxxxx who will entertain us on the piano."

    This amuses me enormously as I expect to see xxxxx performing handstands or conjouring tricks while standing on top of the piano. :p

    It's just my mad sense of humour. Please don't let this confuse you.




    LRV
     

    sus4

    Senior Member
    Japan - Japanese
    Thank you, panjandrum and LRV, for answering my question.

    I could be wrong, but maybe the writer wrote the bio with different kinds of guitars in his mind? Keith Whitley played bluegrass and country, which rely on stringed instruments like the acoustic guitar, resonator guitar, steel guitar, and bass guitar (and mandolin and banjo).


    Perhaps it's safe to say "play the guitar"? I'll wait for more comments.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Oh dear, now you've added lots of different types of guitar the picture becomes more confusing.
    He plays bass, I play rhythm, Joanie plays lead - no the.
    (In each case I could add guitar at the end, still no the.)

    But still no a:)
     

    mariposita

    Senior Member
    US, English
    In OP's context, I would say play the guitar. But I can think of other contexts in which I might use play a guitar.

    The book teaches students how to play a guitar.
    To play a guitar, students need to build up the strength in their hands.
     
    The only time I would possibly use "a" would be in a sentence such as -

    "Bert was a loveable old tramp who earned a little money each day. He would sit and play a guitar outside The National Gallery."

    or

    "Our Wayne wants to be a rock star. What a laugh! He tried to play a guitar which we bought from a friend, but he was hopeless."


    Maybe I'm going "off context". :(



    LRV
     

    ilikeenglish

    Senior Member
    South Africa
    Hello,

    There is a rule saying that, when people want to say "play a kind of musical instrument", they should use the article "the" before the instrument, such as "play the violin/ piano" etc.

    But I find on the net there are examples of both "play the guita" and "play guita".

    Why is that? Which expression occurs more often? Or which is more standard?

    Thank you in advance!
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    (It's "guitar", with an "r" at the end.)

    I have no proof for this, but I tend to think that musicians are more likely to say "play guitar" and non-musicians are more likely to say "play the guitar."

    If I'm speaking to someone in another band and they ask what I play, I say, "I play keyboards." If I were asked by a non-musician what I play, I would say, "I play the piano and synthesizers."

    I don't know if it's simply a shortcut or a way of identifying yourself as a musician to another musician, but saying it without the "the" is very common among musicians.
     

    aqueoushumour

    Member
    English England
    I always put 'the' in front of the musical instrument. I play the guitar. (guitar has an 'r' at the end.) It doesn't sound right without the word 'the'. It's possible they miss it out in america but I'm not sure.
     

    Brioche

    Senior Member
    Australia English
    Americans frequently say "I play piano".
    BE speakers usually say "I play the piano".

    You will never be wrong if you say "the piano".
     

    ilikeenglish

    Senior Member
    South Africa
    "Play guitar" is even put in an on-line grammar exercise.
    I wonder how I can explain this complexity to the students. They may feel confused.

    Some rules are often out of date. I do feel a little fooled by the kind of teaching I received before.

    Besides, I feel that "the" sounds good between "play" and "violin"/"piano", but a little awkward between "play" and "guitar", maybe this is also another reason why people in some places violate this rule?
     

    Brioche

    Senior Member
    Australia English
    I always say "the" with an instrument.

    The first time I heard someone say "play piano", I though "piano" was some sort of card game.
     

    ilikeenglish

    Senior Member
    South Africa
    This website is designed by two English-natives, but they seem to be in Japan now, in a Japanese university. No detailed address is shown. The whole webpage is 99% in English.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I am a guitarist.. (really!)

    I play guitar
    I play the guitar

    I'm always around other musicians and trust me, both are used about the same.
     

    ilikeenglish

    Senior Member
    South Africa
    Sorry, I think some friends who have posted above have already answered this question. So the answer is yes, "the" can be removed in oral English now, right?
     

    JamesM

    Senior Member
    I am a guitarist.. (really!)

    I play guitar
    I play the guitar

    I'm always around other musicians and trust me, both are used about the same.

    I think it also depends on context, don't you, Alex_Murphy? I think people tend to say "I play guitar in a friend's band" more often than "I play the guitar in a friend's band". The second one sounds like there is only one guitar in the band. :)
     

    Nunty

    Senior Member
    Hebrew-US English (bilingual)
    I think it also depends on context, don't you, Alex_Murphy? I think people tend to say "I play guitar in a friend's band" more often than "I play the guitar in a friend's band". The second one sounds like there is only one guitar in the band. :)

    I think this is it! "In my younger days I played guitar and sang in a band." This is a true statement, by the way. It would not occur to me use the definite article in that sentence.

    However, if someone were to ask me if I play a musical instrument, I would say "I play the guitar". On the other hand, if I were being specific, I would say "I play classical guitar."

    I do agree, though, that in most case if we add the definite article we won't be wrong.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    It works for nearly all instruments yes

    I play bass, I play drums, I play guitar, I play violin (in a....)

    Generally, it's best to use "the", if it was just a statement.
     

    Thomas1

    Senior Member
    polszczyzna warszawska
    He loves playing violin.

    I’ve spotted this one today in an English test, does it sound okay to you? I have some doubts as to its correctness since I expect the the in front of violin.:confused: What do you think?

    Tom
     

    Thomas1

    Senior Member
    polszczyzna warszawska
    Thomas, the expression is 'to play the violin'.You're right.
    Thanks, Margo16.

    Yep, I suspected that. Although, I still have some doubts since I got many hits on Google. I wonder if this can have something to do with AmE vs BrE.

    Tom
     

    Mlle Smith

    Senior Member
    US, English
    Thanks, Margo16.

    Yep, I suspected that. Although, I still have some doubts since I got many hits on Google. I wonder if this can have something to do with AmE vs BrE.

    Tom

    You can say this either way...

    He loves playing violin...

    He loves playing football...

    It's simply a very general way of saying a person enjoys playing violins.
     

    Thomas1

    Senior Member
    polszczyzna warszawska
    I must have got old, then. I was taught to use the with musical instruments, and we were even corrected for not using it. Well, language is alive,
    and it keeps on perplexing me all the time. :)

    Tom
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    He loves playing violin:cross:

    1000% disagree, as Thomas said "playing the violin"
    Someone who said "He loves playing violin" I would look at quite odd, as probably it's an odd dialect from another part of the UK that I am not used to (like people who say 'two pair') etc.
     

    jazyk

    Senior Member
    Brazílie, portugalština
    Thispdf file says to play violin is correct and common in American English, which makes me think it's a BrE vs. AmE thing. Go to web supplement.ps in the link.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Yes, if followed by "in a..."
    But as a statement by itself (for me) absolutely no way.

    "Hey, I play guitar" - fine
    "Ok that's good I play violin" - not fine

    I don't know what the rule is but in a statement stating you just play an instrument, with violin at least it sounds wrong to me.

    Maybe it is a BE thing, or maybe even a ME thing.
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Why would "I play guitar" be OK by itself but "I play violin" wouldn't be?
    It clearly marks the speaker as AE, of course, but it seems to be the normal AE usage for all instruments.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Why would "I play guitar" be OK by itself but "I play violin" wouldn't be?
    It clearly marks the speaker as AE, of course, but it seems to be the normal AE usage for all instruments.

    I don't know! I really don't, as I said it is probably a ME thing, I'll shut up in this thread now!
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    Why would "I play guitar" be OK by itself but "I play violin" wouldn't be?
    It clearly marks the speaker as AE, of course, but it seems to be the normal AE usage for all instruments.

    Not really. "Normal—or the normal—AE usage" for many instruments may be either with or without the article, but some instruments do seem to take it most of the time. I'll go through a quick mental list, starting with the instruments I've played, and then any others that seem best one way or the other...


    The clarinet, but...
    bass clarinet and contra-bass clarinet sound better without the article! Don't ask me why. I don't know. Contra-bass clarinet players have their preferences.

    The bagpipes

    Bassoon

    The trombone


    Drums
    Percussion

    Most stringed instruments are AC/DC...just as comfortable with and without "the".


    Here is a less musical parallel construction:

    I hate washing dishes.

    Would a BE speaker always say, "I hate washing the dishes"?
     

    AngelEyes

    Senior Member
    English - United States
    Alex,

    I don't mean to seem like I'm attacking you, but I'm surprised you find it odd to say:

    I play guitar.
    I play violin.
    I play piano.


    Ask a student what instrument he's learning in high school and, in AE, he's likely to say: "I'm learning saxophone."

    Ask him what he plays in the marching band, and he'll probably say, "I play trumpet."

    All extremely common in the Midwest.:)

    By the way, what's ME?


    AngelEyes
     

    panjandrum

    Lapsed Moderator
    English-Ireland (top end)
    Not really. "Normal—or the normal—AE usage" for many instruments may be either with or without the article, but some instruments do seem to take it most of the time. [...]
    Curious. I don't suppose I'd have noticed AE-speakers using the article, only the article-less versions.
    I hate washing dishes.
    Would a BE speaker always say, "I hate washing the dishes"?
    Either would be OK, though I think the second would be more natural.

    (I thought ME was Mars English.)
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    It actually was just the pronoun "me" - but I'm glad you two have used your creativity skills to turn it into something relavent! Congrats!

    Would a BE speaker always say, "I hate washing the dishes"?

    We normally say "doing the dishes" - "Alex go do the dishes", etc, though if I had to chose a more common one with "washing", I'd say with the article.

    I don't mean to seem like I'm attacking you, but I'm surprised you find it odd to say:

    I play guitar. - I have no problem with this as I personally "do play guitar"
    I play violin. - This I don't find "odd" - just weirdly incorrect
    I play piano. - This sounds ok and acceptable to me, though I'd prefer "the"

    Ask a student what instrument he's learning in high school and, in AE, he's likely to say: "I'm learning saxophone."

    Possibly! I'm from England and I think there is an AE/BE difference in preference, I'm just so "used" to my preference I tend to assume everyone else is wrong.

    So much for me shutting up:p
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    Results 1 - 10 of about 1,410 for "play the bass clarinet".
    Results 1 - 10 of about 4,660 for "play bass clarinet".
    -------------
    The above results were produced with no domain limitations. Below are the .UK results:

    Results 1 - 6 of 6 for "play bass clarinet" site:.UK.

    Your search - "play the bass clarinet" site:.UK - did not match any documents.

    My deduction from all those data— There are few people in the U.K. writing about
    their experiences playing that marvelous instrument.

    On a mistaken hunch I tried the E-flat version...


    Your search - "play the alto clarinet" site:.UK - did not match any documents.

    Your search - "play the contrabass clarinet" site:.UK - did not match any documents.

    Your search - "play the contra-bass clarinet" site:.UK - did not match any documents.


    In desperation....

    Results 1 - 10 of about 2,660 for "play the trombone" site:.UK.
    Results 1 - 10 of about 19,600 for "play trombone" site:.UK.

    and with no domain limitations...and deducting the .UK results....
    Results 1 - 10 of about 36,600 for "play trombone" .
    Results 1 - 10 of about 49,240 for "play the trombone" .

    Conclusions: Ralph Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst would be proud of the brass band tradition in the U.K.
    Trombone players in the U.K., all speak AE.


     

    Mlle Smith

    Senior Member
    US, English
    1000% disagree, as Thomas said "playing the violin"
    Someone who said "He loves playing violin" I would look at quite odd, as probably it's an odd dialect from another part of the UK that I am not used to (like people who say 'two pair') etc.

    Yes, it might be...when I mentioned the assumptions I would have if someone spoke this way, one of them was that they were probably from an aristocratic family (yes, I would assume certain things if someone used a certain syntax!)...of course this is determined by the ENTIRE manner in which they speak, but I suppose that goes without saying.

    I tend to appreciate when Americans in particular use "older English"...I LOVE to say "thrice", although I've NEVER heard another American (or a Canadian, for that matter...not that I've met many) use the word "thrice".

    People tend to think you're snobby in the US if you speak in this manner...or pretentious. I tend to think the person is simply educated and I just LOVE it. ;)
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    I see google is now the new omnipotent power here at WRF, I am wondering why Holst and Williams would be proud the trombone players speak AE, as I remember reading they were all pretty big English patriots.

    Let me ask you all if you think any of these are ok:

    * I play Harp
    * I play Flute
    * I play Horn
    * I play Organ
    * I play Lute
    * I play Oboe

    ? I know some people will probably pedantically agree just for the fun of it, but the rest of you, would you honestly say any of them?
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    I see google is now the new omnipotent power here at WRF, I am wondering why Holst and Williams would be proud the trombone players speak AE, as I remember reading they were all pretty big English patriots. You've missed the point. They both composed standards for brass bands, as well as works arranged for other ensembles. It's a trombone against woodwind quip. Go shave reeds for a while and it will be clear.

    Let me ask you all if you think any of these are ok:

    * I play Harp
    * I play Flute
    * I play Horn
    * I play Organ
    * I play Lute
    * I play Oboe

    Depends, as do so many things, on context. I might say, "I play [flute, horn, baritone, cornet...] in the marching band. Otherwise, I would use the article "the" for each of them.





    ? I know some people will probably pedantically agree just for the fun of it, but the rest of you, would you honestly say any of them?
    Some people will phrase questions pedantically to try to embarrass or intimidate the respondents into blowing sour notes.
     

    Alxmrphi

    Senior Member
    UK English
    Oh I've got to say I've never laughed so hard at an undeserved joke, "blowing sour notes" hahahaaha~!!

    Depends, as do so many things, on context. I might say, "I play [flute, horn, baritone, cornet...] in the marching band. Otherwise, I would use the article "the" for each of them.
    I totally agree with this, I think it's ok to omit "the" when you say "for/in a/in the/..." etc, just as a single statement of fact I don't think it's right.
    My god could we finally be on the same page about something??! ( honestly no sarcasm here)
     

    Orange Blossom

    Senior Member
    U.S.A. English
    I
    Let me ask you all if you think any of these are ok:

    * I play Harp
    * I play Flute
    * I play Horn
    * I play Organ
    * I play Lute
    * I play Oboe

    I would say any of these provided I was skilled at the instrument.

    My mother played organ.
    Paul O'Dette plays lute.
    Martha Burwell plays harp.

    That said, I would never say "playing violin" or any other instrument. With the -ing added, you must have the article.

    Orange Blossom
     
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