Performing music, one may play various musical instruments, the verb "play" not being followed by any preposition (play the piano, play the guitar, etc.), for example:

He plays the guitar superbly.

But what if I have a particular musical instrument in mind? Should I use a preposition "on" before it?

The examples:

The guitar he learned to play on was his brother's.

This is the guitar he used to play on when he was a teen.

Would this also be correct? Would the preposition "on" be compulsory, optional, or unacceptable?

  • 1
    I would say compulsory for the first one and optional for the second. Jan 23, 2017 at 10:25
  • @TeacherKSHuang: You are going to elucidate further, aren't you?
    – Victor B.
    Jan 23, 2017 at 11:08
  • The second one specifies "this guitar" and so I feel like "on" could be optional because I already know you're talking about "the guitar from which he acquired his guitar-playing skills" and not just "his guitar-playing skills." Meanwhile, the first is not as clear and so, for clarity, I would leave the "on" in. Jan 23, 2017 at 12:33
  • @TeacherKSHuang: "The guitar from which he acquired his guitar-playing skills". Wouldn't the preposition on work better here too? Aren't you going to post your take on the question?
    – Victor B.
    Jan 23, 2017 at 13:36
  • Yes, semantically, but to highlight the differences between the two phrases, I had chosen to use "from." Jan 24, 2017 at 7:44

1 Answer 1


We may learn (how) to play a musical instrument. When we learn to play an instrument, we acquire the skills to play a type of instrument.

He learned (how) to play the piano.

We may learn to play an instrument using a particular instrument of its type. We use the preposition on to refer to the particular instrument being played; it is the vehicle or platform on which the learning takes place:

He learned to play the piano on an old upright acquired from a speakeasy that was very popular during the Prohibition Era.

This is the piano he learned to play on.

P.S. Consider these sentences without on:

This is the piano he played.

This is the piano he learned to play.odd

The first sentence refers to a specific piano. It is easy to think of a real-world scenario where one might refer to the specific instrument:

This is the very piano he played in his Carnegie Hall debut. Bids will start at $250,000.

But if we refer to the specific instrument with learn, the listener may infer that there is something atypical about that piano which itself had to be learned, that the piano was in some way not representative of its type. That is not usually the case, but it is not impossible. Therefore, we cannot say that on is compulsory. But in most cases, the instrument is going to be representative of its type, and there will be nothing atypical about it, and if we don't want the listener to think there was something atypical, we would say:

This is the piano he learned on.

  • What is the question I did not answer?
    – TimR
    Jan 23, 2017 at 18:32
  • Are the example sentences grammatically correct? If they are, is the preposition "on" compulsory, optional, or unacceptable?
    – Victor B.
    Jan 23, 2017 at 18:38
  • I believe I've answered the question. If you understand how it works in my examples, you can apply the principle to your examples by analogy. If you think your guitar example is different in a material way from my piano example, please advise.
    – TimR
    Jan 23, 2017 at 19:39

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