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Tips for Purchasing a Musical Instrument for the Non-Professional

As I mentioned earlier, I finally picked up the Martin D-15 acoustic guitar I’ve been planning to buy since August last year [1]. Here are some tips if you’re thinking about buying a musical instrument.

electric guitarFirst, 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 [3] and Guitar Center [4]. 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 [5] and sticks from Vic Firth [6].

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.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Tips for Purchasing a Musical Instrument for the Non-Professional"

#1 Comment By Anonymous On February 20, 2007 @ 5:15 pm

Good choice on the D-15, I actually prefer the sound over the more popular DM. How much did you get it for?

There’s a place down in San Diego called Buffalo Bros where you can buy a guitar and come back anytime and trade up for a new guitar and only pay the difference. Pretty nice policy that they’ve been doing for 25 years.

#2 Comment By Anonymous On February 21, 2007 @ 2:00 am

In addition, if you know a bit about what you want, hit pawn shops – can get some great deals on musical instruments there.

#3 Comment By Luke Landes On February 21, 2007 @ 8:50 am

Pawn shops should be a choice only if you are not serious about getting the best experience out of playing music. The chance of getting an instrument in excellent condition is pretty low. It’s kind of like buying a mattress. Used instruments have had “intimate” contact with other people… and if you’re getting one from a pawn shop, you have no idea how many other people have been putting their lips or hands on the instrument.

Savvy: I got the D-15 for about $800. The market price used to be a bit lower several years ago, but higher demand (it’s a good instrument) and lower supply have caused it to increase a little.

#4 Comment By Anonymous On February 22, 2007 @ 8:07 am

If you’re looking to buy a violin / viola / cello then buying used is actually a good way to go, especially for a kid as people grow out of theirs.

Also, lots of people upgrade once they get good, so you should be able to get a reasonable instrument for a beginner second hand.

With string instruments (not electric) the quality of the instrument doesn’t really change over time and there isn’t much you can do to wreck it that won’t be obvious when you look at it.

#5 Comment By Anonymous On February 23, 2007 @ 10:39 am

RE: Angela: With string instruments (not electric) the quality of the instrument doesn’t really change over time…

This is not true with solid top guitars. As solid top guitars are played, the tend to develop a fuller, mellower sound. It has something to do with the wood molecules becoming “aligned” to the sound vibrations and the stress placed on them by the strings.

If you have a laminate top guitar (formed from many different layers of wood pressed together into a single sheet), it won’t. The addition of a solid top is actually one of the common price point breaks on guitars.

Certainly, you should never buy a guitar with a harsh sound, counting on it to mellow, but to be strictly accurate…

And I can’t agree with Flexo enough about auditioning instruments. When I bought my Taylor 414-CE, I auditioned EVERY Taylor within my price range at two different Guitar Centers, as well as about half the Martins at the first one. Even within the same model, tone will vary from instrument to instrument: my 414-CE sounds great (to me, at least), the one on sale across town was a bit too trebly.

If you’re bringing an experienced player (that you’re comfortable with) also consider having them audition the instrument for you. Years ago, when my Dad decided he didn’t want to be the only person in the family who couldn’t play guitar, he dragged me to the music store with him. He tested out the guitars for feel himself, but had me play a variety of styles so he could focus on the tone of the instrument.

The same even goes for things like pianos, where a subtle difference in the weighting of the keys came make a big difference in playability.

#6 Comment By Anonymous On February 25, 2007 @ 12:47 am

hm hm hm.. Dunno what I think of this as I look at a piano my sibling and I have not played seriously since we were 8. (over 20 years ago) It’s a nice second mantelpiece on which my mom places figurines.

Oh yeah, and that flute I played for 5 years with school ensemble orchestra and marching band. Hm. Well I guess those were good years and worth the money, but again, I haven’t really touched it for 20 years. (DANG FLEXO! WHEN DID I GET SO OLD?)

I ended up bartering the flute for some massage therapy treatments from a friend of mine who just finished her CMT. She plays it more than I ever would and that makes me, her and the instrument happy.

String instruments are ok to buy used I think since nearly all my violinist friends play instruments older than we are. One girl’s bow is actually worth more than her violin, which reminds me to say that your instrument should be insured if it’s of value. Her bow and violin were valued at around $10K. Losing it in a fire would have sucked.

It’s best to inherit an instrument from a family member or friend. (I say this as I think of my deceased grandfather’s cherished violin and the endearing, but annoying way he would play it at 8am on a Saturday to wake us all up.) There are certain older construction methods used by luthiers which make better sound than buying new stuff. Learned this about Gibson mandolins from a friend, and I think that holds true for say… Stradivarius vs Yamaha.

As far as mouthpieces on woodwinds, I’m not sure what you mean. Technically flutes are classed as woodwinds, and you could theoretically sterilize a flute with an alcohol swab. You must mean something like clarinets and saxaphones. Or do I have that wrong?

#7 Comment By Anonymous On February 21, 2008 @ 11:25 pm

I just paid what was a lot of money (to me, anyway) for a tambourine to be
sent to my daughter for Valentine’s Day. I ordered it from Musician’s
Friend on February 9. I paid extra for expedited shipping. I AM SO ANGRY!

Musician’s Friend:
1. Sent the package via USPS parcel post (the cheapest, slowest service possible) rather than FED EX Second Day Air.
2. Sent it to the WRONG PERSON (using my name rather than my daughter’s) (And will the mail room at my daughter’s dorm figure that out? Fat Chance!)
3. Gave me an invalid tracking number, apparently just making one up.
4. When I asked about the invalid tracking number, said that USPS sometimes just “recycles” tracking numbers. That is a LIE!
5. Said that maybe they will give me a refund IF I SEND THE PACKAGE BACK. But I don’t have the package! (Given the switching of names, the fact that my daughter and I have different last names, and the vagaries of a college mail room, I’m willing to bet that I’ll NEVER have it. Nor will my daughter!)
6. Certainly the opportunity for the once-in-a-lifetime little Valentine’s Day surprise is over forever.
7. This is my daughter’s picture. Shouldn’t she have had a tambourine for Valentine’s Day?

Be careful when using Musician’s Friend. Find an honest, reliable company.

#8 Comment By Anonymous On March 9, 2016 @ 9:34 am

I think your best advice is to take an experienced player with you when buying an instrument. They will be able to tell you all you need to know about which instruments you should buy. As a bonus, they are not salesmen and won’t push the most expensive item on you. However, I do disagree with your comment about not buying used. I think it is fine if you are a beginner. You can always get a better instrument later.

#9 Comment By judy wilson On October 13, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

I liked your tip for “auditioning” when looking for a new instrument for my son to play. Testing out instruments that are fresh from the factory will let me know that it’s in good condition. This would be a good way to find out if my son is drawn to one instrument compared to another, so this seems like a good process for him to go through before he decides on something he would like to play.