Shop for quality, not price with musical instruments

There is truth to the phrase, “You get what you pay for,” especially when it comes to buying music gear.

Like cars, instruments range in price, starting at entry-level and working up to professional models; much like Chevrolet has its Aveo, which starts at about $11,000, all the way up to the Corvette. Both will get you from Point A to Point B. And with care, the Aveo could last as long as the ’Vette and continue to provide reliable transportation. When buying cars and trucks, most people realize that an $11,000 car is not going to contain the same features that a $100,000 vehicle would offer. The same for musical instruments, correct? Sadly, no.

Most cheaply-made instruments often look as shiny and as attractive as their quality counterparts, and most of them will often perform just as well when they are new. After a few months, certain guitar necks warp, drum rims bend, trumpets rust, and banjos don’t seem to want to stay in tune. Sound familiar? Poorly-made “new” instruments often become “old” very quickly. Why, then, are so many sub-entry level instruments on the market today if it’s obvious most of them are inevitably going to break? The answer? Slick marketing!

It’s impossible to go into a music store without seeing signs like, “Electric Guitars $99!” or “Blowout Drum Sale! Full Kits $250!” Yes, even the music industry is guilty of baiting us in to spend money on poor-quality items the people selling them wouldn’t be caught dead playing.

For fun, I went to a large music retailer and made my way into the drum department. I asked a salesman if he could answer some questions for me. I didn’t tell him I have been playing for almost 30 years; instead, I told him I was thinking about “taking up the drums.” In the back of my mind, I knew he was either going to try to sell me an expensive kit that is way more than a beginner would need, or try to push me into a piece of junk and try to pass it off as the best thing since canned soup. I was hit with the latter. After about 2 minutes, he was rattling off brand names so quickly I couldn’t keep them straight, although I knew what he was doing. The oldest sales trick in the book is to sell the sizzle and not the steak, and this kid really thought he had one on the grill!

He pointed to a kit that was “on sale” for “only $250,” and, for some reason, he said nothing about the features of the set, only that it was made by one of the biggest and oldest drum companies in the world. I guess I was supposed to whip out my checkbook right there after I bowed down and praised him—and the king of all drum companies.

Instead, I turned toward a top-line kit, and asked him the difference between it and the $250 “Blowout Special” set. His canned response prompted a slight chuckle as he said, “Nothing really, just that the hardware is sturdier, and you are paying for the name.” He again didn’t mention that the $2,600 kit I compared the cheap set to was made of maple, had all die-cast hardware and was engineered by some of the most skilled drum makers in the world—and it was completely and 100 percent made in America. I guess he figured a guy “thinking about taking up the drums” didn’t deserve to know that.

Before I left with only a set of acoustic guitar strings, I asked my eager salesman how many of these $250 drum sets he’s sold. His response: “tons.” So again, they must be good, right? Wrong.

For a beginner, it’s very easy to browse through catalogs and be attracted to an instrument because it’s inexpensive and looks like very nice in the photograph. And it’s common for a new musician to be hoodwinked by a fast-talking salesperson who throws a bunch of industry names around. When examining the gap between junk and quality, most people will find it’s possible to drive a truck through it. Keeping a few tips in mind when it comes to buying musical instruments will help you find a quality piece of gear.

Don’t be fooled. A sound rule to live by is found in the cliché, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.” Think about it this way: if a top-line instrument costs around $3,000, how good could a $250 model possibly be?

Pay attention to resale value. Because beginners often cannot gauge their levels of commitment until they’ve been at it a while, it’s wise to provide them with an instrument that can be liquidated or traded in when the student either decides he or she does not want to continue, or needs to upgrade to a better model. Cheaply-made instruments do not hold value well. Instruments of this caliber are almost always advertised as “Blowouts” or “Hot Specials.” Shop based on quality and future value, not price alone.

Name does not mean quality. Even reputable musical instrument manufacturers have flaws. Some companies are very quick to exploit their names by stamping them on poorly-constructed instruments. Avoid this trap by visiting a local retailer with an experienced staff that knows which companies truly make quality gear.

Avoid being starstruck. Companies market instruments by paying celebrities to endorse them. It is common for advertisements of subpar instruments to include photos of famous musicians, claiming the star plays the piece of equipment on stage. Although it is true celebrity musicians endorse gear, they, however, never rely on sub-entry or entry-level instruments. They are fitted with custom gear, modified to their specific needs. You are shopping to fit your needs, not the needs of your favorite musician.

Consider secondhand equipment. If a solid instrument is taken care of, it’s possible for it to last a lifetime. Buying used equipment is a great way to own gear you may not have wanted to spend the money on when it was new. Purchasing used instruments will allow you to see firsthand which instruments do, in fact, hold their value. Many music dealers survive solely on their used equipment business. These are the retailers that tend to know what’s good and what belongs on the firewood pile. If you have budget constraints but still want quality, the used market is the way to go. If you are a beginner, check with a local dealer first. If they cannot outfit you, they will almost always direct you to reputable online dealers or what to look for in your local newspaper’s classified ad section.

Rent or lease. Renting or leasing music gear is often a safe alternative to buying, especially with band instruments and sound equipment. Many music outfitters offer safe and affordable rent-to-own and leasing programs that will also allow you to gauge your commitment level until you are ready to purchase the gear outright. When you rent or lease, you will, more than likely, be able to work closely with the dealer. Many programs include instrument maintenance and lessons.

Jim Hagerty is a contributing writer for The Rock River Times, covering the national, regional and local entertainment scenes. He is also the creator and editor of Streaks (, an arts and entertainment Web site, and the publisher of the North Central Illinois Edition of The Builder’s Journal. He can be reached at

from the April 18-24, 2007, issue

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