Buying a musical instrument for the first time can be a daunting task. Each instrument is surrounded by its own vocabulary and mythology, and unbiased information is hard to find. This series will provide straight-forward advice for anyone looking to buy their first (or first “real”) keyboard, bass, guitar, or drum set.

Where should I buy?

1. Your Local Music Store

If you have a local music shop with honest and knowledgeable help that is well-stocked, has a reasonable return policy, can perform repairs, and offers fair prices, buy there.  Unfortunately, if this is your first purchase, it may be hard to discern the answers to many of these questions.

If possible, ask a teacher or other music professional for advice.  But you should also educate yourself and do some research before stepping into the store.  For pricing, know this:

Nobody should pay the list price for a musical instrument

When a new model is introduced and is in high-demand, some dealers may try to sell at list, but instruments are typically discounted 25 to 40% from the suggested retail price.

Most manufacturers set a Minimum Advertised Price (MAP) for their dealers, which limits the price that can be advertised.  The MAP may is usually 33 to 40% off the list price, though dealers can (and do) sell for less.  Check online before you head out so you know the MAP (or “street price”) of the product you are shopping for.

2. National Retailer or Chain Store

You may not have a local music shop, or they might not carry what you are looking for.  Is it bad to buy from a big chain?  The answer depends what is available in your town, and how well a particular store (local or national) is run.

Many of the arguments against buying from national chains are more religious than fact-based, but if your faith shuns the big boxes, then be true to your guitar god.

Some of the advantages: they usually have a good assortment of instruments in stock, often in multiple colors and finishes, and generally have decent return policies.  On the other hand, there is commonly high turnover, the staff can be indifferent, and it can sometimes get too loud to think, or too busy to find help.

Avoid retailers who only sell musical instruments seasonally or as a small side-line business.  Their pricing usually won’t be great, the staff may be uninformed, and it’s unlikely that you will be able to get help, parts, or repairs if needed.

3. Online Retailer

There are plenty of online retailers, and for most instruments they carry remarkably similar collections at near-identical pricing.  This should not be the first choice for most first-time buyers, but if you know exactly what you want, and you can only find it online, be sure to choose a dealer with good shipping and return policies.

Online retailers can be used to find the street price for most instruments; are a good source for information and comparisons; and may also provide customer reviews.  Although the reviews can be helpful, don’t be put off by one or two bad reviews among several good ones — some people are just never satisfied.

You should probably ignore reviews from people who have never bought or used the product they are reviewing.  Some reviews become a forum for zealots to preach about (or curse) their chosen (or enemy) brand.  Others just give people an opportunity to waste your time:

Man, these are great sticks. I don’t own em, and I haven’t played them, bit I like them.

~Posted by StratMan420

An advantage of buying online is having the product delivered to your home, especially if it’s a particularly heavy or bulky item.  The big disadvantage is the inability to actually put your hands on an instrument and hear it, particularly if it is one that is prone to variations in production.

[Affiliate Disclosure:  MMT has affilliate relationships with several online retailers, including, Guitar Center, Amazon, Best Buy, and Musician’s Friend.  See About Affiliates for more information.]

4. Craigslist, Classified Ads, and Used Equipment

For most people these days, classified ads means Craigslist, and this is where we start talking about used equipment.  If this is your first purchase of a musical instrument, Craigslist is probably not the best place to start.  But if you do want to shop for used gear, enlist the help of a knowledgeable friend to help you evaluate the ads and equipment and be sure to follow the guidelines to avoid scams.  The most important rule:

Deal locally with folks you can meet in person

If a Craigslist purchase turns out to involve shipping, Western Union, escrow accounts, or other complications, run away and don’t look back.

Although there are deals to be found on Craigslist, they are probably best left to experienced buyers.  For your first instrument, it’s better to work with a dealer who can offer returns and other help if needed, and to buy equipment that is sold with a warranty.

5. Online Auctions / Ebay

Ebay is the last place you should go to look for your first musical instrument.  Although you will see new equipment advertised, the deals are no better (and often worse) than what you will find at reputable online retailers.

There are several potential problems with buying used equipment on Ebay.  Unlike Craigslist, you will usually not be able to hold or hear the instrument.  After the agita of the auction, and assuming you won, you will have to complete the transaction according to the rules of the seller, then wait for your package to arrive.  And since most Ebay sellers are amateur shippers, there is always a chance that your equipment will arrive damaged.

What should I buy?

MMT recommends that you buy brand-name equipment at a price that is appropriate to the level of commitment you (or the recipient if it’s a gift) have to the instrument.  It varies by instrument, but there will be a minimum amount you should spend to make sure the player is not discouraged.

Why “brand-name”?  Several reasons — first, you can expect to get quality that is commensurate with the amount paid.  It will also ensure that you can find replacement parts when repairs are needed, and have a higher resale value when it’s time to trade-up.

How do you measure the level of commitment?  The best way is to first take lessons with a qualified teacher using a borrowed, rented, or school-provided instrument.  If that’s not possible, then be honest with yourself.

Do you (or they) show a lot of enthusiasm for new things, then kick them to the corner after a few weeks?  Or have they already shown their commitment by drumming for hours each day on a practice pad, or composing music on a toy keyboard?

The rest of this series will look at popular instruments and give specific advice on how much to spend and what to buy.  Happy Shopping!