As I mentioned earlier, I finally picked up the Martin D-15 acoustic guitar I’ve been planning to buy since August last year. Here are some tips if you’re thinking about buying a musical instrument.
First, if you are buying an instrument for your son or daughter just starting out, you may find out later that they want to switch to another instrument or the teacher recommends one that might fit the student better. You may also find out before long that they have no interest whatsoever.
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The music stores will try to push a “rent to buy” program in which you pay a small amount every month until you’ve paid off the entire cost of purchasing the instrument. In most cases, this is not a good deal. The stores will make sure you pay more than what the instrument is worth. If you’re buying an instrument for a young beginner, see if the school can loan an instrument or try to find a family or friend who would be willing to part with a used instrument. Don’t buy a used instrument, especially if it is a wind instrument.
If you’re buying an instrument for yourself, and you’re a beginner, take a more experienced musician with you. The most important point is to try a number of brands and models to find an instrument you feel comfortable with, but if you’re not quite the most talented yet, but a helper will be able to provide unbiased opinions.
While you are trying out instruments, a process known as “auditioning,” ask for instruments fresh from the factory. In many cases, instruments that are displayed on the floor have been out for a while and may have passed through hundreds of hands.
If you want to buy online, you have no way of auditioning the instrument. I highly discourage buying an instrument online. Even if the online retailer offers the Best Return Policy Ever, it will still be a hassle.
Here’s a little about price.
There is only one “price” you’ll need to know about once you decide on the brand and model. Ignore the “manufacturer’s suggested retail price.” This number is usually highly inflated to provide the false sense of a bargain. When I was in college, the professional model clarinet made by the manufacturer called Buffet had a MSRP above $4,000.
Ignore this price. The manufacturer sets another price: the lowest advertised retail price. Retailers are not allowed to advertise the instrument for less than this price. Again, when I was in college, the Buffet R-13 model was advertised for no less than $1,600. This sounded like a great deal.
In fact, most musical instrument stores have a “price match guarantee,” where they will offer to match a lower price advertised by any other retailer. Of course, this is a joke as the manufacturers control the advertised price. This may work out in a few cases in which a manufacturer lowers the advertised price, but don’t count on this happening.
Most people will simply pay this lowest advertised price, think they got a great deal thanks to the bogus MSRP, and move on with their lives. You cannot hand over cash or a credit card without negotiating. The music stores have a third price for their inventory, the market price or “street price.” This is the only price that matters. Depending on market conditions, this price will move up and down, and may differ between retailers.
You will have to negotiate with your salesperson. It helps to subtly let the salesperson know that you understand that the lowest price guarantee is a joke and you were hoping they could come down on the price. I’ve also found that it doesn’t pay to press your luck. The first offer is usually the lowest they will go when you’re dealing with major stores like Sam Ash and Guitar Center. Salespersons are trained to recognize the savvy shoppers are don’t want to screw around and miss the sale.
What about the extras they push?
Sometimes your instrument comes with additional accessories or replaceable parts. Some of the originally included accessories should not be used if you’re looking obtain the best sound and comfortability. You should seek the best sound and comfortability because doing so will raise the enjoyment you gain from playing an instrument. Here are some examples.
* Guitars: buy a set of good strings. If you’re new to playing, get recommendations.
* Wind instruments (brass and woodwinds): buy a good mouthpiece. The mouthpieces included by the manufacturer will usually be a poor choice. A good store will have a wide selection and allow you to audition mouthpieces.
* Woodwinds: buy a box of good reeds.
* Drums: get a set of batter heads from a brand that specializes like Remo and sticks from Vic Firth.
Follow these tips and your enjoyment of music will last longer. You’ll find the right instrument for you and you’ll know you got a good deal.
Updated October 21, 2015 and originally published February 20, 2007.