I was taught that when we want to say "produce sound on a musical instrument", we should always use the definite article before the instrument ("play the guitar/piano/violin").

I did research on this, and I got the expected results from the dictionaries I use:

Jean plays the guitar and her brother is on percussion. Cambridge Dictionary - guitar

He learned to play the clarinet at the age of ten. Cambridge Dictionary - play

He taught himself to play the violin. Oxford Dictionary - play

(particularly, they all pertain to the skill these people possess)

Then I came across this thread. There, some people said "play guitar" is more common in the USA while "play the guitar" is BrE.

One trustworthy American English dictionary provided the next examples:

Howard Roberts played guitar and Schuur sang and played a Fender Rhodes piano. vocabulary.com - guitar

I never thought about combining it with drag, ’cause to me, well, drag queens don’t play guitar. vocabulary.com - guitar

Moreover, I generated the ngram graph and noticed that the expressions using the are way more popular than those without the article:

the ngram graph

Now I am confused about which one is correct and whether they are both acceptable.

  • The context could be improved by supplementing the source of your dictionary quotes and specifying what dictionary you extract those sentences from.
    – Eddie Kal
    Sep 8, 2018 at 13:16

1 Answer 1


There are a number of ways to refer to a thing not as a particular instance but as the prototypical entity, as the class to which individual things of its type belong. Among them are the zero article and the definite article.

Did you look in the dictionary?

That idiomatic use is not referring to a particular dictionary (M-W, Cambridge, Longman's, Oxford, whatever) but to the resource in the abstract, the prototypical notion of it, the book that everyone knows.

There are sometimes dialect preferences for the one or the other:

They took him to hospital. BrE

They took him to the hospital. AmE

These are therefore equally viable expressions of the fact that you can play that kind of musical instrument:

I play the guitar.

I play guitar.

Another use of the prototypical meaning is when a musical group, a band, typically includes a guitar. In this meaning the sense borders on that of a role.

He played guitar for that band at Woodstock.

He plays washboard for the Slow Pokes.

And then we have the related phrases that ultimately derive from this idea of a typical role:

They sang backup.

He rode shotgun.

He flies copilot for Qantas.

  • +1 for including the last part. There are several existing discussions here and elsewhere on this same topic, but nobody talked about role. Sheds new light on an old topic. "Shotgun" and "backup" in your examples sound adverbial.
    – Eddie Kal
    Sep 8, 2018 at 14:23
  • @Eddie Kal: I am reluctant to classify backup in sings backup as adverbial. I'd rather say it is a "role complement" or something like that, for if backup and shotgun are adverbial then is washboard also? He flies copilot for Qantas.
    – TimR
    Sep 8, 2018 at 14:31

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