Photo: Chase Bliss
Buying a gift for a musician can be stressful, especially if you’re not a musician. But it doesn’t have to be!
When I was a teenager, I was obsessed with guitar gear. My folks did their best to keep up with what I had my eye on, and they would usually just ask me for a list of options. This is a practical approach, but it takes away some of the magic of gift-giving.
Ideally, you should surprise that special musician in your life with something they might have not prioritized in their own shopping. Look for items that might add that one weird sound that makes a track stand out, or is just fun to play around with.
That’s why we’ve put together a gift guide that should put a smile on the face of that special gearhead in your life. We haven’t focused on recommending entry-level instruments or high-end prize items here. That stuff can be very personal for a musician. Sure, every guitarist could use a stocking full of extra strings, but do you even know what gauge of string they prefer?
In short, the perfect gift for a musician is unexpected and sparks joy. I either own or have used almost everything included below and there’s not a loser in the bunch.
Toys and Accessories
Stylophone Pocket Synth – $34.95
Released in 1968, the original Stylophone was one of the first portable synthesizers made available to the public. The latest models don’t rock the boat. You still use the attached stylus to play notes on the tiny metal keyboard and it still produces a limited number of thin, buzzy tones.
But this cheap little guy has been used on professional recordings countless times to add some weird background texture or carry a simple melody. Stylophone will be the first to tell you that David Bowie used it on “Space Oddity” and that’s exactly what you should tell the person who opens the gift and seems a little confused.
Photo: Teenage Engineering
Teenage Engineering Pocket Operators – $49-$99
If you’re looking for one perfect stocking stuffer, you can’t go wrong with a Pocket Operator. The simple build quality of these devices keeps the price on the affordable end but they can be very powerful.
In brief, Pocket Operators are little instruments that look like calculators. Some of them come with a prepackaged set of sounds and offer the ability to create and trigger musical loops. They can also work together in order to craft more ambitious compositions or play live shows. I know a touring musician who uses a setup of these and a tiny mixer as his only live gear.
But I promised this would be a simple guide, and there are so many Pocket Operators to choose from. Don’t worry, just buy the PO-33 K.O! It’s a tiny sampler that can record and sequence any sound you want to record. You can’t go wrong with any of the models, but that one offers the most flexibility.
Mogami Gold Instrument-10 – $68
We’re not going to get too deep into basic accessories, but I do want to note that buying instrument cables is not as simple as it seems. A cheap cable will often come with bad sound quality and a short lifespan. That doesn’t mean you always get what you pay for. Monster Cables spent years bilking people into believing they were worth extraordinary prices before pivoting into the junk brand that it was from the beginning.
Mogami cables are solid and respected by sound engineers. But yes, they are a little pricey.
Fender’s Mustang Micro – $119
The Mustang Micro is a great little practice amp if you want to use headphones. (Or if you really want that guitarist in your life to wear headphones.) It has a decent sound, 12 different amp presets, 12 built-in effects, and can sync with Bluetooth to play along with recordings.
It’s essential for people who travel a lot, but the fact that it doesn’t require any extra cables makes it a must-have for lazily playing around the house.
Moog Theremini Theramin – $399
It’s probably a little unfair to put a Moog Theremin in the toy category. It’s a full-blown instrument and there are people who dedicate their lives to mastering its intricacies.
But anyone can turn on a theremin and start playing immediately. You just wave your hand around the antenna and adjust for the sound and tone you want. It’s like playing a singing saw in the air.
The Theremini also includes a lot of features to quickly get you up to speed on controlling pitch and understanding scales.
Photo: Z. Vex
If you want to buy a basic effects pedal for delay, chorus, reverb, etc., any of the classic Boss units will do you fine. But we want to get weird.
The Z. Vex Fuzz Factory is my favorite effects pedal that I own. It’s very over-the-top fuzz for guitars but you can use it with other instruments as well. I’ve run synths through it just as much as a guitar.
It’s hard to explain why it’s so good, but just understand that it can do any fuzz sound you like and it’s incredibly touchy. The controls make no sense. Some settings will produce no sound at all, others will give you harmonic-rich feedback from the gods. It’s a tinkerer’s delight.
The bad news is the original Fuzz Factory is currently sold out. The good news is that Z. Vex started making a “vertical version” that has all the same components with a different layout and a cheaper price. By all accounts, the vertical model is exactly the same, it’s just not made in the U.S.A.
Even if the person you’re shopping for has every stomp box under the sun, they probably don’t have anything like this.
Photo: Chase Bliss
Chase Bliss Habit – $400
The easiest way to understand the Chase Bliss Habit pedal is to watch a video of someone using it. At a fundamental level, it’s a delay/echo effect and it can handle those duties as well as most.
But Chase Bliss prefers to call this stompbox a “musical sketchpad” and a “compositional delay.” Its real power comes from the fact that it’s constantly recording everything you play to a 3-minute loop. That loop can be accessed, edited, and manipulated at any time. The idea is that it’s a pedal for noodling around and going back to save the best bits that pop up.
There’s a lot more to this thing, I haven’t even talked about the 16 dip switches on the back. Basically, any musician who likes adventurous effects or is struggling in a creative rut will find something to like about the Chase Bliss Habit.
Photo: Chase Bliss
Shure SM57 and SM58 – $89
These aren’t the best mics money can buy, but they are tried and true. All you really need to know is that SM57 is considered to be better for recording intruments and the SM58 is more for vocals. But the fact is either model can do both.
Logic Pro – $199.99
If you are buying for a musician who wants to start recording themselves, I can’t recommend Apple’s Logic Pro software enough. It’s a professional quality studio at a dirt cheap price. It’s very intuitive, easy to navigate, and powerful as hell.
The one caveat I’ll say is that musicians who use software to play live in real time tend to prefer Ableton Live ($449-$749). Logic Pro added a “Live Loops” feature a couple of years ago that makes real time performance easier but Ableton has a headstart with compatible peripherals and is just generally more flexible.
Bottom line: If they just want to record, Logic Pro is great.
LANDR subscription – $20/month or $150/year
If your giftee is already deep in recording, a LANDR sub might help them take their production to the next level. The service offers a suite of tools for musicians including plugins, collaboration tools, and a networking platform. But the primary reason to use it is for it’s AI-powered mastering tools.
Mastering is considered the dark art of the recording world. It’s the final process before a record gets pressed and streamed. I do not understand it and it costs a lot of money to hire a professional.
LANDR has not managed to put those pros out of business but for 20 bucks it does a great job of balancing the sound across different systems and generally making recordings “louder.” A person can use top-notch gear with flawless technique but if a recording hasn’t been mastered, it can easily still sound like a home demo.
Samplers and Drum Machines
Screenshot: XLN Audio
XLN Audio XO Drum Machine – $129
I’ve never used a drum machine like the XO software. If you make beats, you probably have thousands of samples on your machine. Typically, you’ll set a channel to be the kick drum by clicking through a library of kick drum sounds. This is tedious and repetitive.
XO displays your sample library as a sea of colored dots that are arranged by similarity. Scrolling over a dot plays a sample. Swiping your curser across the dots plays the samples rapidly in a very satisfying rush of sound.
There are lots of other clever search tweaks and the editor is well designed. In my book, it’s the best non-hardware drum machine you can get.
Roland Aira Compact T-8 – $200
Not everyone wants to use a mouse with their drum machine. The tactile feel of hardware can provide inspiration to make up for its lack of flexibility. For entry-level beatmakers, Roland’s Aira Compact T-8 packs in a bunch of classic sounds from its legendary ‘80s drum machines with some modern conveniences tacked on.
It’s a simple machine that will be producing beats within minutes of pulling it out of the box.
Roland SP-404MKII – $555
Here’s another example of Roland doing a modern riff on one of its classic machines. In this case, the SP-404MKII updates the SP-404 sampler that’s been used by some of the biggest names in music.
Of everything on this list, I would say that this is might be the riskiest item to buy on a whim. Almost every musician could use a sampler, but not everyone wants to. My recommendation would be to only go for this if the person you’re buying for has explicitly said they want a sampler or if they’re the type who is always drumming on a desk and would appreciate some durable trigger pads.
That said, this is a well-made sampler with plenty of features at a very reasonable price. It’s just way too much money to throw away on a guess.
PreSonus Eris E5 – $200 (for pair)
If your special musician is in need of some speakers, do not opt for some sort of Bluetooth-connected consumer device. They need wired monitors that don’t color the sound very much. If the monitor’s tone is “neutral,” the final mix is more likely to be consistent across a wide range of audio devices.
The PreSonus E5 monitors aren’t studio grade but they’re some of the best you can get for the price. They sound good, have some extra shielding to cut down on hiss, and offer some knobs on the back to adjust the acoustic tuning.
(Also note that wherever you buy monitors, you should double-check that you aren’t just buying one unit when you intend to buy a pair.)
Yamaha HS5 Powered Studio Monitor – $400 (for pair)
These monitors are twice as expensive as the ones from PreSonus. But if you have the extra cash, they’re worth it. There’s nothing wrong with the first recommendation but Yamaha’s HS5 monitors will carry you through a professional recording journey longer before you start itching for an upgrade. Plenty of professional studios have these bad boys sitting around alongside monitors that cost thousands of dollars.
Sennheiser HD280 Pro – $99
Every producer needs a pair of wired over-ear headphones. There’s a loss of sound quality with wireless headphones and it’s essential to test several different audio outputs when mixing or mastering. Sennheiser’s HD280 Pro cans won’t break the bank and are widely respected across the industry.
Photo: Gizmodo/Andrew Liszewski
Nothing Ear (stick) – $99
For more casual listening or composing, there’s nothing wrong with a wireless pair of earbuds. On the cheaper spectrum, we found Nothing’s new Ear (stick) buds to be extremely impressive and comfortable.
Photo: Gizmodo/Andrew Liszewski
AirPods Pro – $239 or Pixel Buds Pro – $185
If you have a little extra dough to spend on some wireless buds that feature high-quality sound and noise-cancelling, we recommend two options that should please most people. The AirPods Pro can work with Android devices but are a must have for anyone in the Apple eco-system due to their seamless pairing abilities. For Android users, the Pixel Buds Pro are a bit cheaper and offer fantastic sound quality. You can read our reviews here and here.
Synths and Keyboards
Arturia Modular V3 – $149
I understand that it’s a little underwhelming to unwrap a gift that’s just a download code, but software synths are an incredible bargain. The Arturia Modular V3 is based on the original Moog Modular synths that would normally cost thousands of dollars in hardware form.
There’s a steep learning curve for mastering this beast, but anyone can get started sculpting sounds in a matter of minutes. I’ve spent the more time with this synth than any other item on this list and can say it’s an art form unto itself. It’s incredibly easy to get lost for hours crafting new patches and building the biggest sounds you can imagine. No synth freak would be disappointed.
Arturia Jup 8 – $149
For musicians who are less interested in avant-garde soundscapes, Arturia’s Jup 8 is a beautiful retro software synth that delivers a wide range of ‘80s and ‘90s tones. This synth is based on Roland’s Jupiter 8 which was used on records by artists like The Cars, Kraftwerk, and Tangerine Dream. But there’s one song that perfectly describes the vibe this thing will bring to a kit: The X-Files Theme Song.
Photo: Modal Electronics
Modal Electronics Skulpt SE Synth – $219
Moving into hardware synths, the Skulpt SE Synth is a tiny portable unit that has a lot of power under the hood. Yes, it’s housed in a flimsy box and the keyboard is laughably bad but it has lots of knobs and produces great sounds.
What’s most important is that it has midi in and out ports as well as an app to control all of its parameters. It checks the box for a synth to take on the go and do a little tactile tinkering, but it can also easily integrate with your virtual instruments seamlessly.
It’s also cute.
Casiotone CT-S1000V – $450
This is our pick for a basic keyboard. Maybe you just want to learn to play the piano and have some extra sound options, this guy will take care of you and comes at a reasonably affordable price. The built-in speakers sound pretty great and the selection of acoustic tones are excellent.
That’s not to say it’s best in class for a midrange keyboard but the Casiotone has one fun trick up its sleeve: It sings. Well, it can kind of sing. You’ll have to play around with the tones and parameters to get everything to your liking, but using the included app you can literally type lyrics and hear them performed to the melody of your choice. There are 22 included voices with a good bit of room to tweak and refine the final output.
The only caveat I’ll add is that the keys aren’t weighted so not every beginner will want to start here. But it covers the basics and will put a smile on your face.
For the keyboard freak who has everything, ROLI’s Seaboards open up a lot of new possibilities. It allows the player to go beyond the simple strike velocity that controls a typical keyboard’s expressiveness by using pressure sensitive keys and “5D technology.” The results are more like playing a woodwind instrument. Here’s a video demonstrating how the addition of press, slide, glide, and lift inputs can open up new sonic possibilities.
Unfortunately, there’s no guarantee that pre-orders of the RISE 2 will ship before the holidays and the RISE 1 isn’t currently being manufactured. The good news is there are plenty of used units available on eBay and since it runs on the expensive side, a discount is more than welcome.
Photo: Teenage Engineering
Teenage Engineering OP-1 – $1,399
It’s small. It’s weird. It’s difficult to use. It very expensive. And it’s beautiful. The OP-1 is a portable synth for power users.
Since it was introduced in 2011, Teenage Engineering’s little monster has become a legend and picked up endorsements from countless celebrities. The tiny interface means navigating between its various functions is a pain in the ass but it also keeps you focused on the task at hand.
With affordable, desktop-based recording systems, you can literally do anything. That can lead to creative paralysis. The OP-1 has a very idiosyncratic system that pushes you to make deliberate choices each step of the way.
That’s not to say that it’s limited. It’s a synth, drum machine, sequencer, controller, and sampler all crammed together. It even has an FM radio tuner for grabbing random samples out of the aether. You could theoretically record a whole album on this device without touching another piece of gear. Just think of it as more of a throwback to the days of recording on an old 4-track tape machine—a time when you add to think methodically about bouncing tracks and using your resources sparingly.
No one will ever feel let down when unwrapping an OP-1.