Buying a Musical Instrument: Tips for New Players

You are never too old to learn to play a new instrument! However, buying a musical instrument can be a little intimidating, especially if the instrument you are considering is new to you.

There are nearly as many reasons for buying a musical instrument as there are instruments to be bought. However, buying an instrument  for the first time can be a little intimidating, especially if the instrument you are considering is new to you.

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Maybe your oldest is starting 5th grade band.

  • Maybe you’ve decided that you are finally going to learn guitar.
  • Maybe you played tuba in high school, but in your heart, you were a cellist.
  • Maybe you dream of starting a ukulele band with your grandkids.

Sure, if you take up the guitar at 50, you may never play like Carlos or Stevie or Eddie, but you don’t need to – neither do 99.9% of the working musicians out there!

Whatever your motivation, when you are buying a musical instrument, there are a few important things to consider.

Before you buy a musical instrument

When you are choosing a new instrument, especially as an adult, consider how it will fit into your life.

Where do you want your music to take you?

My formal musical education began with piano lessons in the first grade, followed by many years of flute lessons. I’m grateful for the experiences, the learning, and the perspective those instruments gave me, but while I genuinely enjoyed playing the flute, and deeply regret never applying myself to the piano enough to become proficient, I’ve never been passionate about playing either one of them.

Ever since my childhood days at Camp Namanu, singing with others – whether in choir or around a campfire – has been my Happy Place. But you can’t play the flute and sing at the same time. You just can’t. (OK, maybe you can, but it isn’t pretty.) And lugging a piano into the woods is just silly. In short, neither the flute nor the piano was taking me in the direction I wanted to go.

So a decade or so ago, I decided to start learning stringed instruments. Now I pick a nice little autoharp, and have taken up the ukulele. The mandolin and guitar are on my to-do list for the next decade, and after that, who knows!?!

The point is, those instruments take me to the places I want to be: sitting around a campfire with my friends and family, singing and playing music into the night; accompanying my sweet husband when he sings with that amazing voice of his; teaching my grandkids how to play.

How to Buy a Musical Instrument {Tips for 1st-Timers}
#lifegoals ✔️

Is the musical instrument you are considering a good fit for you?

When it comes to instruments, there are a number of size-related issues to consider.Does it fit your body?
Many instruments, including most string instruments, come in a variety of sizes. If you are buying an instrument for a child, be sure to consult their music teacher or the music shop owner to be sure that the instrument is appropriately sized to them.

Does it fit your living space?
This might not be an issue if you want to play the the flute or ukulele, but if you live in a studio apartment and you’re looking at trying out an upright bass, you’re going to need to consider where you will keep your instrument when not in use.

Does it fit your budget?
As you probably know, musical instruments vary dramatically in price; based on age, quality of materials, workmanship, brand, and a half-dozen other factors. Even the base price point on some beginner instruments can be staggering. Consider too the cost of upkeep, because musical instruments do require maintenance, new parts, and repairs.

FUN FACT: Eric Clapton’s custom Fender Stratocaster, known to the world as Blackie, sold at Christie’s in 2004 for $959,500, to raise funds for his Crossroads rehab center. (And no, you probably won’t ever play like Eric either, but that’s OK.)

When you are ready to purchase your instrument

I asked my local music shop owner, Jack, what he thought was the biggest mistake people make when buying instruments. Without hesitation, he replied, “Buying online.”

Buying a new musical instrument is a little like buying a horse: there are good ones and not-so-good ones, and it’s tough to tell the difference simply by viewing pretty pictures. Moreover, many people who sell them (both horses and instruments) on places like Craigslist will tell you all kinds of crazy stories to get you to buy what they’re selling.

If you know a lot about the type of instrument you are buying, purchasing online may not be as big of an issue; but for the novice, making a purchase this way can be disastrous.

Start at Your Local Music Shop

If you are lucky enough to have a locally-owned music shop in your town, my best advice is to get to know the people who own it. Make it your first stop when you are considering buying an instrument. Make a point of getting to know the person behind the counter.

From personal experience, I can affirm that if music is a part of your life in any way – even if it’s just because your kid has decided she wants to play clarinet in 5th grade band – a knowledgeable music shop owner is going to be a real helpful person to know.

Because you know what? Your kid is going to drop that clarinet, or pop that guitar bridge, or drive over that trombone case the day of the spring band concert, and Jack (or whoever is behind that music store counter) is going to be the guy who bails you out. So be a pal – get to know Jack.

Like buying a horse (or a car, if that’s more your speed), buying a musical instrument is a tactile experience. You need to see it in person. Feel the weight and balance. Allow your senses to inform you about the quality of materials and workmanship. Test the action of the strings and/or keys. Listen to the tone, and feel how the highs and lows resonate with you. Experience the instrument with your whole self.

I must have tried out at least ten different ukuleles before I bought my new uke. I chose it because the sound was just a little “sweeter” than any of the others, and it just felt right. Once you’ve played for awhile, you’ll find that when you are considering a new instrument, it’s a little like getting a magic wand at Ollivander’s – the instrument chooses you.

Take a Friend

If you are a novice to the instrument, or new to playing music in general, it is helpful to take a friend with some experience with you if possible. A seasoned player can discern quality differences in an instrument that you might not even know to look for.

Can you tell which one of these trumpets is the better instrument just by looking at them? Which one plays more smoothly? Which one sounds sweeter? [Answer: No. No you cannot.]

Consider Buying an Old and/or Used Instrument

Many music stores, and especially locally-owned ones, carry used instruments for sale or on consignment.

Quality can vary wildly depending on when and by whom the instrument was made, and a high price and shiny exterior are not not always indicative of quality. As an example, my original hand-me-down Armstrong student flute (which is older than I am) is a far better instrument than many of the intermediate level flutes being manufactured today.

Take a Test Drive

Most stores that sell musical instruments also rent them, and renting is a great way to find out if you (or your kiddo) really love the musical instrument you’ve chosen. If you don’t love it, you can always take it back and try something else.

How to Buy a Musical Instrument {Tips for 1st-Timers}

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How to Buy a Musical Instrument {Tips for 1st-Timers}
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