"Entry instruments" in Irish or other traditional music.

"Entry instruments" in Irish or other traditional music.

We often hear the term "entry instrument" used in relation to playing traditional music.
Unfortunately, I think this is a very misleading term and will mean different things to different people.

Obviously, we all have to start somewhere. However, there is a difference between starting to play music on a more forgiving instrument e.g. a mandolin as opposed to a fiddle or a tin whistle before taking up the flute and so on than deliberately choosing an instrument such as a bodhran, guitar (for chords) etc which will (some might assume) get you into the scene that bit quicker before you have learned enough about the actual music itself.

So, basically, I’m asking what the term "entry instrument" means to you? Is it a "short cut " or, as I would like to see it, a more accessible starting point on a fairly long musical journey?

Also, although everybody’s circumstances and experiences will differ, which instruments would you suggest a beginner should try first. My first obvious thought might be the tin whistle although it’s actually an instrument that I’ve never mastered myself.

There is also the argument, of course, that one should "know the music" before trying to play it which is quite valid if you are moving across from another genre. However, many young players are also still "brought up in the tradition" and their entry points will be that little bit different.

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I’m no expert, but FOR ME, I think there are a few “genres” of instruments (wind, string, percussion etc) and an “entry level” instrument is a particular instrument, in each genre, which is the most accessible instrument to a newbie that gets them playing a tune quickly.
This could be due to portability, ease of understanding, and (often overlooked) price.

So for me, for eg wind, a tin whistle is portable, easy to get a basic tune on and cheap, so counts as an “entry level” instrument, regardless of it taking a lifetime to master/being a core Irish instrument.

Re. your question on which instrument should a beginner try first. I think it’s important (money/time dependant) to try lots of them as some people will just feel an affinity to a certain instrument for some reason.

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Johnny Jay, I think you have essentially answered your own question. The term is being used in two senses.

As posters to another thread have pointed out, there are people who think they can buy a bodhran and after a couple of days can take part in sessions; by contrast, players of melody instruments will practice for months or years before being qualified to play in public. So a bodhran will give you a quick entry into ITM (assuming you are welcomed) and you can imagine you are equal with fiddlers, flute players, pipers etc., but it doesn’t really lead anywhere else; you will always be dependent on having melody players around.

There are instruments that do provide an entry in the sense that they are relatively easy to learn and play melody on, e.g. whistle. Playing a whistle can also assist in moving on to other instruments because you can concentrate on the fingering without having to worry about embouchure (flute) or keeping the bag under control (pipes). Similarly, many people who have learned mandolin fingering can transfer that skill to the fiddle, although I personally find fiddle a lot easier to play than mandolin.

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I think the entry instrument is whichever you happened to be playing when you got pulled into the music. I started playing tunes accompanying on guitar when I got dragged into playing with a fiddler in each other’s houses. It had always been rock or pop for me before then so it was a process of total reset and getting past the seemingly simple structures. Then I started playing mandolin because I wanted to play tunes as well. But I’d still say the guitar was my entry instrument. Or maybe my friend’s fiddle was my entry instrument. Or he was.

I disagree with needing to know the music before you start playing it a) you can’t know it till you are Trying to play it; b) you think you know it then you realise (repeatedly) you know bugger all; c) what put me off it till (nearly) forced to start into it was how I knew I was not brought up in the tradition - I grew up in Dublin and started playing with English people in Oxford; d) also, related thing: I still play tunes from wherever, not just Irish - I listen mostly to Irish but I am sure other people would say I don’t play properly Irish style, because I don’t know it well enough yet because I don’t have the mastery yet from not playing well or long enough to do so. Yet.

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Yes, "knowing the music" is maybe a bit of a big ask..
"Knowing your instrument" might be a better requirement but, even then, if Irish or Trad music is what you want to do from the outset then it’s a bit daft(I’d say) to hone your skills in another genre first of all. Of course, getting involved in playing the music is a different thing from imposing yourself in a session.

Borderer,
I agree with what you say and a lot depends on where you happen to be at the time in terms of instruments and experience. Like many, I moved from guitar to mandolin although I started the fiddle not much later. I found it much easier in the beginning to pick out tunes on the mandolin although, once you’ve been playing a while, the fiddle IS actually easier for many tunes as you have said.
Nowadays, I play both depending on the circumstances although I find some of my repertoire fits better on one instrument or the other. Also, although the instruments are of similar size, the mandolin is more "portable" in a sense and can be brought out with less attention and fuss. For instance, I might sit on a park bench, pub beer garden or similar and have a tune on the mandolin but I’d be less likely to do so with the fiddle.

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For exploring some tunes and how to play them a whistle served me fine. For getting familiar with a lot of tunes, the different sorts of tunes and ways of playing them I found it educational to put in time with …

… a bodhran and a lot of recordings. Having done that for months, not days, I found some places where it was appreciated.

It took years to feel I was doing something useful with the whistle, then flute, but by then I had been hanging round sessions listening hard for a long time.

Haven’t touched the drum for years though.

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To me when I hear "entry instrument" I immediately think of the tin whistle. It’s inexpensive, it is easy to get a sound out of, it can be plenty expressive and you can play the vast bulk of tunes on it. It’s really the only instrument I think of. That might partially have to do with being old enough to have grown up in the era when they still taught some basic music at an early level in school. I grew up taking simple recorder lessons in school. I know tin whistle was common in other places.

Additionally, almost all of the interviews I’ve ever read with Trad musicians who I admire contain some version of "I picked up a tin whistle we had lying around the house at age 5 or 6…" I feel that the tin whistle is a lot of peoples’ gateway into Irish music. Its simplicity allows you to start using your ear to pick out tunes and start playing along with others. But it can also be a "life-long" instrument in it’s own right.

I think bodhran is also tempting to someone new to the music who wants to get involved but doesn’t really understand the complexity of Irish Trad. I would never hand a bodhran to a child or new adult player and encourage them to start there. If anyone is remotely interested in Irish Trad, I would encourage them to get a tin whistle and try to learn some tunes…unless they are just in love with some other instrument and adamantly opposed to starting with the tin whistle. I think the things you learn on whistle can be applied to any other instrument at least in some respect. It gets your fingers working, it gets you working on timing/rhythm and is a straightforward way to ear-train intervals.

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I think it means "whichever instrument you long to play. I mean, my entry instrument was a piano, which carries an insane musical load. If someone could start on that, someone can start on anything. Plenty of wind or string players start on their instruments without going through anything else.

If you love a flute or a fiddle and dream of playing them, start on them. Don’t make yourself wait. The entry instrument for you is the one you long to play. I think the only time a small entry instrument might be appropriate is for a very small child who is too small to handle the one they really want just yet.

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Obviously entry instrument can mean whatever you start with, but like a lot of people I think whistle is the "classic" entry instrument. In particular it gives you an idiomatic entry to the music. Even if you’re a good player on another instrument in another musical style, fiddle, keyboard or Boehm flute for example, spending a bit of time on whistle will give a better start than immediately trying to re-learn your previous instrument in an Irish trad idiom.

And there’s a good chance whistle will "sound Irish" which is a great encouragement. We know what it sounds like when a violinist can’t resist thrashing through notation at high speed, because they "can"!

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The Jews harp or jaw harp, but can be a bit tricky on slow airs. Or you could try a comb and a piece of paper.

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Celtic Kazoo

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English is not my mothertongue, but to me «entry instrument» has a completely different meaning. I think of it as if you have decided you want to learn guitar, fiddle, box, bass or any other instrument you start seeking out good entry level instruments to buy. You dont go top shelf right from the start, but you want a quality instrument to learn on and eventually get a upgrade when you have comitted more to the instrument of choice.

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Yes, Ketil.
That is also another meaning of "entry instrument" which is quite common. Basically, an affordable version of your chosen instrument. e.g. a cheaper fiddle or even a "student" instrument for younger players. Or a second guitar or whatever.

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You definitely get the stereotypes of accompaniment instruments like percussion and guitar being thought of as easy introductory instruments where you can hammer away at a few beats or thrash out a few chords without having done a lot of homework, but that’s not limited to Irish music. That can be annoying, but sometimes that initial enthusiasm can be channeled into a lifelong love of the music with a few carefully chosen words of guidance (unless it’s just some drunken yahoo who grabs the ornamental bodhran off the wall and is trying to make themselves the center of attention, that’s a whole different case).

But by "entry" instruments, what I really think of is something accessible that will let a newbie get their feet wet without a huge financial commitment. And for that it’s really hard to beat a tin whistle. Even a cheap one can sound OK and is up to playing most of the common repertoire, the basic technique can be learned in minutes, but there’s plenty of room to grow. It’s also portable enough that if you to focus on another instrument, you can still toss a whistle into your bag or instrument case as a backup or for a different sound.

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For me, the entry was guitar, because I already played some, and it *seemed* at the time to be easy to pick up some chords and play along. But I was struggling with accompanying the music, and my teacher at the time taught me to flat pick a couple reels on guitar, so that I would know the tunes well enough to make better decisions about chords and where to make the changes. Well, THAT turned into an obsession with playing the tunes, which I found much easier! But playing melody on guitar isn’t particularly well suited to playing in a session environment, so for me it was a slippery slope through bouzouki, mandolin, and finally all the way into the gutter with banjo.

So there’s your answer. Banjo is the ultimate entry instrument into this music 😛 😉

Being a bit more serious, I also played some tin whistle. I played it for about a year (at the same time I was playing guitar and bouzouki). I would be hard pressed to play a whole tune steadily on a whistle anymore, but the interesting thing is that I still have dreams about playing whistle (and even flute, which I never played). As others have mentioned, a lot of people in Ireland start on whistle. It is sometimes played in school the way those in the US often had to play recorder in school. It’s inexpensive, portable, and ubiquitous. So +1 for the vote for whistle being a great way to get into the music.

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Back in the day, apparently "it was common practice for aspiring fiddlers to start out playing the cello for older fiddlers as a kind of apprenticeship before moving up to the fiddle themselves."

So, there you have it: cello is your entrée instrument.

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My entry instrument was of all things, hammered dulcimer, and it would probably still be hammered dulcimer if it wasn’t for that pesky Southwest Airlines gate attendant who wouldn’t let me carry on my little Dusty Strings D10, prompting the thought "I really should learn to play something smaller".

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It was HD for me as well - since it was harp tunes, airs, and laments that appealed to me first.

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Over here in The Netherlands, when I was a kid, the whole class (primary school) got offered to get a course outside of school for 2 years to learn the recorder. This is pretty much seen as a starter instrument over here. Keep in mind any traditional music ain’t really a thing here and at this stage it stayed with childrens tunes/songs.

After that we were invited to a music school in case you wanted to learn another instrument or continue with a more professional type of recorder play. They gave us the option to visit up to 3 different instrument introductions (you heard someone play it, you could hold the instrument yourself and try it to see if you could even make any sound). Ofcourse you were stuck with the instrument courses they had (for Irish the only close thing would be violin, guitar and boehm flute). I picked up the violin (hired with lessons) for a year because I liked André Rieu. They would only teach classical music and children music (still kid so got the latter) including optional orchestra participation. Ofcourse I was still young and didn’t like to practice much and dropped it after a year (because lessons are pricey). I don’t remember a single thing about how to play one anymore.

On secondary school we got a total of two years music classes. Here everyone got thought the recorder (from scratch) and a little keyboard and xylophone. The music was basically pop classics.

Now personally I think you can play any instrument as a first instrument as long as you want to play that something or have to play it from school. If you know how to read notes and how to play them on any instrument you can play anything. Tin whistles and Irish music I had never heard of till I heard Lord of the Dance years later. I know not really traditional or anything but it still opened up that world for me. So in my thirties I picked up a tin whistle and started to learn that (it helped that things are similar to a recorder ).

I did try a guitar (which is laying around in the house) as well but I wasn’t even able to make any note because I couldn’t figure out how the scale worked. Playing an inherited accordion went a little better but gave up on that because more and more buttons started to stuck inside and the size didn’t exactly fit (that accordion was stored in an "access to all climates" garden shed for idk how many years). But I do know theres many kids who pick up guitar as first instrument here. (Music schools where I live went non existing and on school it wouldn’t go further than singing anymore with maybe an occasional recorder and keyboard on secondary school in my area). And the only place I know where there are Irish sessions is a 45 minutes drive from me so I have never experienced any either (nor any lessons other than self study with some youtube, a tutorial book and this site).

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I played a bit of whistle, a bit of banjo, and improvised a lot of guitar/singing for years and years without ever thinking of myself as a musician.
My entry instrument, two and a half years ago, was an octave mandolin.

It was mainly the quality of instrument, as though it demanded to be played well, but also the fact that I started learning tunes by heart and posting vids of each tune onto the Song A Week social group at mandolincafe.com
Somehow it was a respect for the integrity of each tune, and the small part that each one plays in the tradition. This was the entry point for me into the music.

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@dutchie sorry to derail but a session at 45 minutes is nothing. Just saying, if you really wanted to, then one and a half hour travel time for a good session is a deal I’d take every day of the week.

Anyway, on topic. My entry instrument was the harmonica/bluesharp, which can be great in Irish music, but not necessarily an easy entry. You need to look into custom tunings, the harmonica requires quite a bit of maintenance. And many of the typical elements (like cuckoo notes) in Irish music are just very difficult to do on it.

It was a good entry though, as its basically one row of a button box.

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Cuckoo notes?

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Cuckoo notes are very prominent in fiddle playing, hard to describe but if you listen to Michael Colemans third part of Jenny’s Chickens you should get it.

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@gooseinthenettles - that’s "Jig-a-Jig", by East of Eden 🙂

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Showing your age there, Jim! 🙂

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For me, my entry instrument was a matter of practicality and dumb luck. Being a guitar player, I could never get a tune to sound or feel good enough on the guitar to pursue it. Then a friend who needed to borrow an amplifier left me with a mandolin for the duration of the lend. The small scale and the way the tunes fit across the GDAE tuning was perfect, and the picks, strings, and frets were all familiar territory. Shortly afterwards I bought a cheap fiddle, because after all, how hard could it be to use a bow? 😀

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"Showing your age there, Jim!"

@Nigel - aye reyt, nane o us ur gettin any younger 🙂

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jim Dorans I don’t understand Michael Coleman Jenny’s chickens = Jig a jig

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@goose

Haha! Kenny beat me to it. My only point was that the tune "Jig-a-Jig" by East of Eden was (in part) "Jenny’s Chickens".

The fiddle player was Dave Arbus, and he combined "Drowsy Maggie" with "Jenny’s Chickens".

I guess it seemed like a good idea at the time.

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John Hueston V Walt Disney

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Typo, Huston

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Hasn’t the whistle long served that role in Ireland?

When reading the short bios one sees on album notes they would often say that the musician "began on the lowly whistle at the tender age of ___ then at the age of ___ was felt ready to graduate onto the _______ ".

The whistle was always "lowly" and and regarded as a stepping-stone from which one "graduated" as soon as ready.

About "other traditional music" in Bulgarian music there’s a whistle-like instrument called Svirka that seems to have served a similar purpose:

"The name of the first instrument boys play, Ovcharska Svirka ("shepherds’ flute") indicates much about its function: related to the verb Svirya ("I play") Svirka might be translated as "plaything", a kind of musical toy. Its greatest virtue was its low cost. No-one seemed to care whether or not a boy eventually learned to play it.

With these playthings the children imitated the adult musicians and entertained themselves. Adults were not interested in the results and preferred that the play of children be kept outside the village beyond hearing range. Adults didn’t intervene, guide, or teach…the child learner was banned from the village until he mastered the instrument well enough to play correctly. Only then was he welcome to play with the older youths and adults in the village."

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In Highland piping there’s not really an equivalent to the whistle, an entry instrument that pipers, fluters, fiddlers etc all start on.

Instead Highland pipers are pipers from the get-go and as a child are given a child-size "practice chanter".

I just looked it up, a quality UK-made child-size practice chanter is around $50 US, far more than a whistle but far less than an uilleann "practice set".

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I’ve already said quite a bit on the bodhran thread, but for me that was my "re-entry" instrument after a long spell out of folk/trad music while having ear problems and bringing up children! I already played piano fairly well, and guitar - just enough chords to accompany myself singing. Then I got my first bodhran at age 50 - learned HOW to play it, started going to folk sessions, where I took both bodhran and guitar: absorbed a lot of tunes, picked up the rhythms, worked out how to play them.
But I did feel a burning need to play a melody folk instrument and went for the button accordion: I did love all those melodeons that I heard at English folk festivals (tho’ I know some people would disagree!) As a piano player, a piano accordion might have been a better choice, but I just preferred the button accordion/melodeon sound. When I went to buy my first one, the salesman asked me, "What sort of music do you want to play?" So, when I said that I lived in Scotland and would most likely be playing Scottish and Irish tunes, he advised me to buy a B/C rather than a D/G. My first box was definitely an "entry instrument" as per Ketil’s definition! It wasn’t long before I bought a better one, and sold off my "entry instrument" to someone who already played D/G but wanted to try a B/C. (he later told me he’d traded it in for a banjo!!) I still have the second one 15 years on, and play my bodhrans (now 3 of them!) much less than I used to, but I’d still say, "don’t knock the bodhran"!

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"As a piano player, a piano accordion might have been a better choice…"

That honestly baffles me, choosing the far more difficult path.

We have a woman here who has been a professional pianist all her adult life, but when she decided to play Irish music she got a B/C box.

A lifetime of keyboard fluency set aside! She could have jumped in right away playing Irish trad with polished technique, but instead spent years learning a completely foreign instrument.

It’s like the skilled Boehm flutists who take up Irish music. I tell them to learn the music on the flute they already play, and have them listen to Paddy Carty and Paddy O’Donahue. (Admittedly the transition from Boehm flute to simple system flute is far easier, being that around half the fingerings are the same.)

Perhaps there’s a value that I’m under-appreciating in entirely setting aside a non-Irish instrument and jumping into ITM with both feet, taking on an entirely new music and an entirely new instrument simultaneously.

I know a woman who plays Viola in an orchestra and also plays Irish fiddle. She said she never plays Irish music on the Viola, or orchestral music on the fiddle, that the two instruments and musics are completely separate in her brain.

I can relate a bit because I’ve played Highland pipes and uilleann pipes for over 40 years, but despite the Highland fingering and the operating of the uilleann bellows being completely autonomous I can’t do both things simultaneously! I just can’t play bellows-blown pipes that use Highland fingering.

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I had been playing a folk guitar for a couple of decades and a piano for about ten years when I made my first attempts to learn to play a jig or a reel. But I actually started learning ITM with tenor banjo, having purchased one as a birthday gift for my brother, who, unbeknownst to me, had purchased one for himself only a day earlier. My banjo was a no-name, entry level resonator model.

Years later I worked at the NYC Irish Arts Center, which has offered various instrumental classes for many decades. There, the tin whistle was - and I think still is - the most popular gateway instrument. It’s relatively inexpensive. It’s a melody instrument and ITM is melody music above all else. The whistle doesn’t take up a lot of space. I think the whistle actually make the player smaller, so you can fit a lot more students in a room. Being simpler to learn the rudiments of playing, the whistle might also allow more attention to learning to play "the music" earlier on. Industrial efficiency…

With my tenor banjo, I wore earplugs and stuffed the resonator with towels during the first couple of years while I worked to master the mechanics of playing. When I thought I had made some progress with that, I got a teacher to teach me to pull the music from the instrument.

A bouzouki would probably not be a good starting instrument. At some point I bought an octave mandolin for a bit of sustain. Slippery slope: I then bought a bouzouki for yet more sustain plus the octave-tuned lower courses. Then I learned to play erhu but not well, and I never brought it out in a session. But it’s a lovely, emotional instrument.

Feeling like the Irish was getting buried under all of that. I went back to tenor banjo for a time to regain some clarity and precision, and then tried to carry that clarity back to the octave mandolin. I eventually only used the bouzouki for band performances - and mostly for visual effect. Mites eventually got the erhu bow and I never got it rehaired.

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I baffle myself sometimes Richard, but no regrets re my choice of the B/C button accordion!

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I particularly agree with @fireaxe’s comment:

"If you love a flute or a fiddle and dream of playing them, start on them. Don’t make yourself wait. The entry instrument for you is the one you long to play."

I agree with everyone on the initial ease and low cost of entry on whistle, but to get okay on any instrument (whistle included) is a 3 to 5+ year journey. You could spend the same time developing a good embouchure on flute, or good intonation on fiddle, or good tempo and breath on the concertina, or whatever. Not that a whistle isn’t worthwhile, but it isn’t that much easier to play it well.

That said, whistle was my gateway instrument, and it taught me fingering, melody and articulations that served me well learning flute.

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I have read all the above posts with interest. Posts from wind, string and box players.
I wish to thank Mary McAleece for my introduction to music. I heard a tin whistle playing in the background on the radio as a Dublin resident was asked how she felt about the first female president of Ireland.
I went for the tin whistle I had tried to play and got my first tune, You Are My Sunshine.
No stopping me. Moved on to clarinet, saxophone and played in bands and small groups. Tried concertina and ukelele, gave up on guitar, BUT I still can’t play Irish music I would love to and still try. Being Scottish, I thought the transition would be easy, but, no!
Thanks Mary for helping me in to the fascinating world of music.
On Monday, a busker lent me his whistle and I played Irish Rover but didn’t get any money.

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To me, the term "Entry Instruments" is synonymous with Entry Level Instruments, ie, Beginner or Student Level. That’s what goes through my mind whenever I hear the term, regardless of the Musical Genre in engenders.
In all the 20+ years I taught on the side, very few students (or their parents) could afford a top line instrument, or where willing to invest that much at that early stage of music instruction.