If you were the parent of a teenager who’d just gotten their license, what kind of car would you want to get them? Odds are it would be comfortable, reliable, fuel-efficient and have a few nice features, but it would probably not be a brand-new Ferrari. The same idea applies to musical instruments, especially for beginners. If it’s too cheap it will probably be poorly made and get in the way of your progress and enjoyment; too expensive and it will become a $10,000 wall decoration if you don’t stick with it. How do you find the happy medium?
Quality and features
Sometimes two different instruments may look virtually identical, but one could cost twenty times as much as the other. You can help yourself by knowing exactly what you are paying for. Instruments can vary in price for many reasons: handmade vs. factory made; American vs. import; quality of materials; in some cases, resale or collector’s value. Other instruments may have certain features that don’t specifically effect the quality, but add versatility. Some violins, mandolins, ukuleles and other stringed instruments may be able to be plugged while others can only be played acoustically. Some bass guitars have 5 or 6 strings as opposed to the standard 4; some guitars have 7 or more strings. Some electric keyboards have the full 88 keys of a piano while others have fewer. In some cases the style of music you wish to perform may effect the instrument you buy: guitars designed for flamenco or classical are built differently from those made for folk or acoustic rock; bluegrass banjos are made differently from those used in dixieland jazz. Parents can use special features as a “carrot” with kids who want to play an instrument by buying a simpler model first and rewarding effort with a fancier one (“Oh, so you want to be a rock star? Okay, it’s a year of lessons on a used acoustic and then we’ll get you the electric.”)
Brands alone don’t always matter
One difference between musical gear and cars or clothes is that you are rarely paying for JUST a brand name. Some boutique manufacturers sell exclusively high end gear, but these are instruments that are likely to be only sought after by and sold to musicians who have been playing a long time and know very specifically what they want. Most major names have instruments at different price points, usually including a solid, inexpensive entry level option. It may be cheaper because it is made overseas or because the materials are inexpensive, but the quality is likely to be adequate for a beginner. Many online retailers have systems for customers to rate and review their purchases. Are the reviews of the instrument that costs more than your mortgage payment better than those of the budget model? What do buyers like better about the more expensive instrument? Are they factors that would make a difference for a beginner? If you plan on making a purchase in a store, you can take advantage of the wealth of real-world information online and research it. As with buying a car, knowledge is power when dealing with sales people.
Here are a few examples from the online retailer Musicians Friend, from January 25th, 2016 (subject to change, of course)
Trumpet, $129 (on sale, normally sells for $179), 4.5 out of 5 rating from 88 reviewers
Clarinet, $689, 5 out of 5 rating from 3 reviews
Violin, $269, 4 out of 5 rating from 14 reviews
Drums, $385, 4.5 out of 5 rating from 40 reviews (includes only the shells: no cymbals, hardware or bags. Most musical instruments will have accessories and parts that may or may not be included in the price.)
Soprano ukulele, $33, 4.5 out of 5 rating from 17 reviews (the most common kind of ukulele is called the Concert Ukulele, but there are several other varieties as well, including soprano, tenor and bass.)
Here are a few resources to check out for more ideas on purchasing gear. Happy buying!
10 tips for buying music instruments online (Making Music Mag)
Advice for buying new music gear (Teen Jazz)
5 tips for buying your first guitar (Guitar Friendly)