By Joe Blumenthal, NCMC Board Member
I’d like to offer the benefit of my 42-year career in selling musical instruments to readers who are interested in buying one. My advice will be different for beginners and for more experienced players, so this post will be for beginners*.
If you are a beginner, by far the most important thing is to buy an instrument that is properly set up to play. Just to give one example, if your guitar or violin has strings that are too high off the neck, you’ll find it a struggle to push them down, and it will be impossible for you to play in tune. Learning to play is difficult and takes a lot of practice; if you have to fight with your instrument to get a decent sound, you are more likely to get discouraged and give up.
As a beginner, you will have a hard time judging whether or not your instrument is properly set up, so you’ll need to rely on the expertise of others. If you go into a music store that has a good reputation and a service department, you can have confidence that your instrument will be ready to play; and if there’s a problem, you have someone who will help you fix it. A used instrument can be just as good to start on as a new one, and if it’s in a store, it’s likely not to give you problems. If you want to buy a used instrument from a friend, or at a flea market, it would be wise to have your teacher or an experienced friend come along to help you judge its condition.
Many people are tempted by the convenience and the low prices to be found on the internet. There are two things to watch out for, though. First, there dozens of off-brands and counterfeit brands to be found on line, and they often just don’t work. But even with a new quality brand name, you will often find that it needs to be serviced before it can play well, and that can eat up your savings pretty fast.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say “my kid’s only a beginner, he doesn’t need something fancy or expensive”. However, in the long run it’s much better to spend enough to get a quality instrument that can be properly set up; the cheapest ones out there tend to discourage a beginning musician. Your teacher or a reputable retailer can advise you on how much you need to spend. One of the best ways to start is with a rental/purchase plan; you’ll get a quality instrument but you won’t be stuck with it if things don’t work out.
In general, how an instrument looks shouldn’t be a major consideration, but if having something that looks cool will help motivate practice, then I’d say as long as it plays well, go for it. If it has dings or scratches, don’t worry; they won’t affect the tone or playability.
*Please note that Joe will be following up with another post about buying a musical instrument as a more advanced player. That post will appear next month.