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

LV4-26

Senior Member
Play a guitar is certainly not the most standard option but when I first read it here, I realized it had a familiar ring to it. I now know why.

Here's a real-life example where you can hear all 3 of them, i.e. the / ø / a
It's from the Beatles Live at the BBC.

"I'm Ringo and I play the drums" "I'm Paul and I play a bass" "I'm George and I play the guitar" "I'm John and I, too, play a guitar. Sometimes, I play the fool!"
Two more with ø
John : No, I play harp on this song! I play harmonica on 'Love Me Do'!"
 
  • cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    What's the correct form? with or without "the"

    I don't believe that there is a single "correct" form. This thread makes clear that there are
    differences in broad patterns between AE and BE, lots of exceptions based on context, and
    personal stylistic preferences. If a grammarian were to attempt a 'rule' for this, it would be
    wise to consider it for what it may be worth, and then be guided by your ear and by context.

    I play bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet, the B-flat variety that looks like a large chunk of
    plumbing, but I don't know how to play the marimba.

    In the sentence above, I used both forms, with and without the article. I am comfortable that
    I have violated no grammatical rule worth knowing about. I could just as well reverse things,
    saying 'the bass clarinet' and 'don't know how to play marimba', and I think the sentence would
    still be as correct as the other form.
     

    MadelineLynn

    Member
    Germany, German
    Hi!
    I've been reading all your replies to this question. I have been confused about this myself.
    Some of you guessed that "to play guitar" is only used in American English. But I keep thinking about the song by Radiohead (a British band), "Anyone can play guitar". I know you shouldn't look for perfect grammar in song lyrics but still, it seems to me like it should be an acceptable expression?
     

    mariposita

    Senior Member
    US, English
    It seems to me like it should be an acceptable expression?

    Yes, it is acceptable and perfectly grammatical in American English (I won't speak for any other dialects). If you do a search for "how to play the guitar" and "how to play guitar," you will find over twice as many hits for the latter. It's a very common usage.
     

    river

    Senior Member
    U.S. English
    Milton Preves, former principal violist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, always said, “I play the fiddle.” He would not have been caught dead saying "I play fiddle." Incidently, "I play piano" means "I play softly."

    Back when I studied music at Loyola U., I never heard anyone refer to his instrument without the article.
     
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    JamesM

    Senior Member
    Back when I studied music at Loyola U., I never heard anyone refer to his instrument without the article.

    You mean, like this:

    http://www.saya.com/profile.htm
    She showed great musical ability at an early age, learning to play piano by ear when she was only five. In high school, Saya first began playing jazz piano. Her passion for jazz brought her to New Orleans in 1992, where she received a music scholarship from Loyola University.

    http://www.rassonbetyonan.com/studentspotlight.html
    (student at Loyola University)
    I hope to break some ground. While learning to play piano, I don’t remember looking up to any Assyrian musician but Rabi Rasson.


    I think it's a matter of personal preference. Some people consider it unacceptable; others do not. The level of musicianship, the type of musical background,or even the school attended does not determine which way it will be spoken or written, in my opinion.
     

    cuchuflete

    Senior Member
    EEUU-inglés
    To each his own. Grammar and style vary with performers.

    Here's an excerpt from an interview with Stanley Drucker, who has been Principal Clarinet with the New York Philharmonic for many decades. He uses the article at times and omits it at others.

    "In addition to other prominent people, Rudolf Serkin was teaching the piano. In the woodwinds they had Marcel Tabuteau, the great French oboist, William Kinkaid teaching flute, and so forth," say Drucker."
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    I am American, and have always lived in Arkansas, just south of the middle of the USA. I and members of my family have always said "play the piano" though other families say "play piano". It still sounds peculiar to me without the, like a game being played.

    I might say "play Beethoven" or "play bass" or "sing bass" but not "play guitar" except for pretending to be a guitar.

    Does anyone say "he played a tune on piano" or "I love that riff he plays on guitar"?
     
    "Play the guitar" is a perfectly common phrase in AE.

    "Play guitar" is also heard, although it is not quite as common, and it would more commnly be heard in these contexts:
    In our band, we each play several instruments. John plays drums and piano, Mark plays guitar and bass, Luke plays trumpet, trombone, and sax, and Matt plays glockenspiel, marimba, and xylophone.

    In my free time, I like to play rugby, write poetry, play guitar, and swim.
     

    kcampbell

    New Member
    USA English
    Hello,
    I'm an AE speaker and I play clarinet. Returning to the first question in the thread, I wanted to say that to play 'a' guitar doesn't sound strange to me in the context given. I can't give a grammatical defense for it, but it seems to fit in with a certain style of narrative you hear now and then, as in the following examples. "Jim is a great guy. He can play a guitar, tell a joke and make a good omelette." And, "He plays a mean guitar", or "He sure plays a mean pinball." Of course, if you simply want to report that someone learned to play the guitar, 'a' wouldn't be appropriate.
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    I think, if you are referring to a specific instrument, then "a" is appropriate.

    "He played a guitar at the YMCA the other day. He also played a flute, a trombone and a nose harp."

    If you are talking of the class of instruments that is the guitar, then the "the" is required.

    "Does he play many instruments?"

    "Yes, he plays the guitar, the flute, the trombone and the nose harp."




    Do you play the piano?

    Yes, I play a Steinway.
     

    nichec

    Senior Member
    Chinese(Taiwan)
    Ha! Now I am confused. I play some instruments (don't you dare start laughing now :cool::D), and I always say "I play piano", "I play guitar"......etc.

    I play a guitar--sounds like I play with "a guitar" (to me) :D

    I play the guitar--worse, sounds like I have to play "that guitar" :confused:
     

    cycloneviv

    Senior Member
    English - Australia
    Hmm. I think I say "I play the 'cello", but I think I also say "I play piano".

    I'm a bit more likely to say "I'm a 'cellist and I can play the piano, but not as well." Strangely, I would use "the piano" in that sentence.

    It's all very confusing!
     

    Packard

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    Hmm. I think I say "I play the 'cello", but I think I also say "I play piano".

    I'm a bit more likely to say "I'm a 'cellist and I can play the piano, but not as well." Strangely, I would use "the piano" in that sentence.

    It's all very confusing!


    That is because you are referring to the class of instruments that are pianos.

    If you were discussing your piano, or a piano at as specific location, then "a piano" or "the piano" (at that location).

    "A member of the audience got up to the stage and played a piano."
    "A member of the audience got up to the stage and played the piano."

    Both are correct in this instance. This is not the concept "piano" but an actual instrument.
     

    wolfbm1

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Hello.
    I've read this thread with great interest. So far, I've understood that the British speakers normally use the definite article before the name of an instrument.
    I was viewing a sample of unit 11 from the course of British English "Straightforward Beginner Student's Book" published by Macmillan Education. On page 96, there is a list of action verbs: type, walk, sing, swim, dance, drive, run and play guitar.
    Students are supposed to match the verbs to appropriate pictures, one of which shows a man holding a guitar and playing it.
    I wonder why there isn't an article between 'play' and 'guitar' if the normal phrase is "play the guitar".
    If I am asked to name an action in a picture or an action which is being mimed, than I'm supposed to say 'play guitar', and when I'm asked to make a statement then I'm supposed to say: The man in the picture is playing the guitar. He can play the guitar.

    If somebody was miming a person sitting in a car and turning the steering wheel, would it be O.K. to say 'drive car' if I wanted to name the action?
     

    Chasint

    Senior Member
    English - England
    ...
    If somebody was miming a person sitting in a car and turning the steering wheel, would it be O.K. to say 'drive car' if I wanted to name the action?
    Not in real life. I suppose that it is okay for an exercise in a book.
     

    wolfbm1

    Senior Member
    Polish
    There is an additional matching exercise with nouns which collocate with the verbs in the list. The nouns are:
    an email, a song, a car, a race, a piano. Now I would have to keep the indefinite article and write the following answer:
    write an email, sing a song, drive a car, run a race, play a piano. Or, should it be 'play the piano' this time, because we need the definite article before the name of a musical instrument.
    Edit: There is another exercise on page 98 of the sample with the following expressions:
    have a shower, talk on the phone, drive, play guitar, type. A student's task is to make sentences in the present continuous while listening to appropriate sounds. This time the correct answer for 'play guitar' is: They are playing guitar. (There is a picture of an event during the Glastonbury Festival on that page.)
     
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    wolfbm1

    Senior Member
    Polish
    Not in real life. I suppose that it is okay for an exercise in a book.
    It could be that I made a wrong conclusion. One can respond to a mime of an action with words 'play guitar' or 'play football' but with different verbs one should say 'drive a car', 'sing a song' or 'run a race'.
     
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    wolfbm1

    Senior Member
    Polish
    I've done some additional research about the use of articles. Michael Swan in Practical English Usage on page 64 says that although the definite article is often used with names of musical instruments, it is also "often dropped when talking about jazz or pop, and sometimes when talking about classical music.
    This recording was made with Miles Davies on trumpet.
    She studied oboe and saxophone at the Royal Academy of Music."

    Could it be that when we mean all the instruments in particular category we can either use the definite article or drop it?

    Edit:
    It looks like it. In the corresponding unit (11), in the workbook for that course (see post #66), on page 49, there are two exercises where the verb 'play' and the noun 'guitar' are used together again.

    In exercise #2, the definite article is dropped (students write questions using the words in brackets):
    "2 'I want to be in a rock band.' (you / play guitar)"

    (The correct answer is: Can you play guitar?)

    In exercise #3 on the same page, the definite article is included (students complete the sentences with can or can't):

    "Ana Lucia (4) .................. play the violin, but she (5) ................. play the guitar."

    (The correct answer is: 4 can, 5 can't)
     
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    Bagsensei

    Senior Member
    Japanese
    Hello, everyone.
    a. I played guitar
    b. I played the guitar.
    Can they be used interchangeably?
    I always used "b" but found a chant done by a native speaker says, "I played guitar."
    Thanks!
     

    Junwei Guo

    Banned
    Chinese
    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.
    What do you mean by "just a statement."?
    Both "I play guitar in a band." and "I play the guitar." are statement sentences, aren't they?
    Could you elaborate on it?
    Thanks!
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    What do you mean by "just a statement."?
    Both "I play guitar in a band." and "I play the guitar." are statement sentences, aren't they?
    Could you elaborate on it?
    Thanks!
    Junwei Guo, it's been nearly a year since Alxmrphi last visited the forum - you may not get an answer:).
     
    [This question has been added to a very extensive thread discussing the same topic. Please read down from the top. DonnyB - moderator]
    Hello everyone,

    Is it correct to say play piano, or play guitar instead of play the piano, play the guitar ? Is there any difference of meaning or circomstances?
    Thank you!
     
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    splash_

    New Member
    Russian
    Seems like it's a matter of a specific dialect as well as personal preferences. Anyway, I found it interesting that in German most of the time you'd say 'Ich spiele Klavier' (I play piano) without an article.
    I think that it can have something to do with the idea behind the word. Although in this case it's just a simple direct object of a verb (syntactically), there's something about it...

    Like, 'I play football'. I believe you don't usually use article here, since you don't actually do something with the 'football' object (in the material sence). 'Football' here is an activity actually. The same with 'I play solitaire'. But guitar/piano/etc are real objects. So, when you say 'I play [the] guitar', on one hand you refer to an activity (unless 'the guitar' is a name of some song). On the other hand, 'guitar' is a real material object. I guess, that might be the reason why using or dropping 'the' article seems fine.

    When describing roles of band members you usually keep in mind what they do (activity), that's why it might be natural to say: 'In my band I play guitar, and Tom plays bass'
     

    Forero

    Senior Member
    Yes, "the piano" and "the guitar" are real instruments. Also, playing an instrument is very different from playing (at) a game.

    Also consider the difference between speaking English and speaking in English.
     

    jimreilly

    Senior Member
    American English
    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 don't think either is wrong or right, but "the" is certainly more common in my experience. But I would always says "he plays a mean guitar" (a slangy way of saying he plays very well) but never "he plays the mean guitar".
     

    splash_

    New Member
    Russian
    Comparing this stuff to German is really interesting.
    For example, the default sentence pattern in German requires an object (or objects [DAT and ACC]) to follow the verb, while verb complements are put in the end. However, in 'Er spielt sehr gut Tennis' (He plays tennis very well) 'tennis' is not considered as a direct object of the verb, but rather as a verb complement. Thus they consider 'play tennis' as one solid idea. I think something similar is happening here with 'play guitar' being one idea rather than separate verb 'play' + 'guitar' as a simple direct object.
     

    natkretep

    Moderato con anima (English Only)
    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    In BrE, you generally use the definite article with a musical instrument: Jane plays the violin.

    You omit the article when you are talking about someone's role in a band, orchestra or any musical group: Jane plays second violin in the chamber orchestra. Jack plays bass in the church band.

    You can also omit the article when it is an object of study: Jane studied violin in the conservatory.

    With differences even within English, I think a comparison with German will not take you very far.
     

    splash_

    New Member
    Russian
    You can also omit the article when it is an object of study: Jane studied violin in the conservatory.
    Well, I like comparing languages. I even compare Russian and Japanese though it's hard to imagine more different languages ))

    < Comment about German removed. Cagey, moderator >

    I think the idea behind omitting the article is the same in both languages. When you're talking about role it's not just a separate verb anymore, it's an idea of "playing guitar" as a whole action. Like you can't answer to "What does he do in your band?" just "He plays" or "He plays an instrument". Well, you can, but that's not what is expected from you, unless you're Leslie Nielsen )
     
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