It is coming up to that time of year where you might start thinking of purchasing a musical instrument as a Christmas gift. And why not? The gift of music is one of the most precious ones you can give to your children. After all, it has long been scientifically proven that playing a musical instrument has nothing but advantages (for those interested in learning more, please refer to this excellent article by Harvard Health Publishing, or read more about Music & Health in our own blog).

In today’s world, when purchasing anything at all, many people prefer to do so from the comfort of their armchair rather than driving into the city to visit a number of stores. Shopping online is a lot of fun, but it can be incredibly overwhelming as well.

Visiting a brick and mortar store to purchase a musical instrument for the first time is overwhelming enough, but this task becomes infinitely more difficult when you decide to shop online.

We know from experience that it is incredibly easy to lose a lot of money on “dud” instruments that are not quite as good as they seem. This article hopes to serve as some sort of a guide to navigate this confusing world. Of course we don’t claim to know everything, and as such, this cannot be taken as the be-all and end-all. It is simply a guide.

Step 1 – Prepare and research.

Before you go online, do as much research as you possibly can. Here are some pointers to consider:

  • Do you want to purchase a brand new instrument, or a second hand one?
  • Sort out your budget: what is the absolute maximum you can afford to spend? When you are purchasing an instrument, spend as much as you can afford. It is incredibly tempting to purchase one of the very cheap instruments that are offered by the thousands on various online platforms. Trust us when we say that in most cases, this will cause you more headaches than you can imagine.
  • Remember that instruments need to be serviced every 12-18 months to keep them in optimal playing condition. A service on a student level instrument with a reputable repairer would generally cost you anything between $150-$350 depending on what instrument you play (and sometimes more for complicated or larger instruments). Purchasing an instrument for $200 that then needs a $300 service should tell you something.
  • Ask your instrumental teacher what they recommend and what you need. Which brand, which model, which features? Beginners don’t generally need an instrument with all the bells and whistles. Also ask your teacher which brands to avoid at all cost. You will thank them later. They know what works and what doesn’t.
  • If you don’t have a teacher (yet), find your nearest reputable musical instrument repair technician and ask them. This is a very good idea, as you will need their services at some point in the future to keep your new instrument in good working order. They often have a very different view on what constitutes a good instrument. Teachers will be more likely to look at such qualities as tone and intonation, whereas technicians will be more likely to look at build quality, parts availability and other technical aspects. Combine the two, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to look for, and what to avoid at all cost.

Step 2 – Check out some listings.

Don’t be tempted to purchase the first instrument you see!

Visit some brick ‘n mortar stores and see what they have, or go online and search specifically for what you have been recommended. When you search online, avoid searching on just one platform (such as eBay, Amazon or Gumtree), and avoid looking only at “the big guys”; a lot of smaller stores have very attractive offers, and will offer you a personal service that you won’t get from very large discount stores or online auction sites. Check out especially the music stores near you, as you will most likely have to deal with them at a later stage. If you don’t live in the big city, your local store may not stock the instrument you are looking for. In that case, keep an open mind and see which online stores will offer you the best service: free shipping, a special discount,…

Nearly every music store, large or small, will have an online store these days. Save links to the listings to quickly find the listings you are interested in at a later stage.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Is the instrument you are looking at a new instrument or a second hand instrument?
  • If you are purchasing a second hand instrument, has the instrument been serviced recently? If so, what was done exactly and by whom? If not, keep in mind that it will be extremely likely that you will need to get the instrument serviced after you receive it, and that this carries a cost as well.
  • Is the instrument being sold by an individual (private sale) or by a music store?
  • Does the seller have any reviews? If so, are the reviews predominantly positive or are there more negative ones than one should expect?
  • If the instrument is being sold by a music store, what can you find out about this music store? Do they have a repairs department?
  • Is it possible to try out the instrument before purchasing it, either at the business premises or at the sellers’ home?
  • Does the instrument come with a warranty? If so, find out how long the warranty lasts, what is covered by it, and what isn’t.
  • Can you return the instrument if necessary? What are the conditions relating to returns?
  • Is it a genuine instrument of the brand you are looking for, or is it a fake? Do not be fooled; there are many online sellers who claim to sell “the real thing”, when in reality they are incredibly good at placing an almost identical logo of a reputable brand on a very cheaply made instrument. If in doubt, ask your teacher/repair technician! And if it sounds too good to be true (e.g. a brand new Yamaha flute for $250), it probably is not true.
  • Remember that for any product sold by a business, you have certain rights and guarantees under Australian Consumer Law (read more here). If the business you are purchasing from is not willing to uphold these guarantees, avoid purchasing from them (it is in fact against the law for them to not uphold these guarantees, but that doesn’t mean they are necessarily honest).
  • Do the photos in the listing show enough detail? If not, ask to see more photos. If the seller isn’t willing to do this, s/he’s probably hiding something. With second hand instruments, sellers regularly omit parts of the instrument on photos – if this is the case, ask for a photo of the part that isn’t showing, or avoid purchasing it altogether.
  • If you are looking at second hand instruments, very carefully check for damage: are there any cracks in the wood, are any parts missing, is the instrument intact, is the case intact? If in doubt, ask the seller to show you more detail.
  • Save the links to the various listings you have found, and ask your instrumental teacher/repair technician to check them out for you (some may charge you a fee to do so, others will offer that as a free service – like us!)

Step 3 – Narrow down your findings and test play.

Try to narrow down the list of instruments you have saved. Some things to consider:

  • Is the instrument a genuine item (again, we can’t emphasise this enough)?
  • What is the best price you have found for this particular brand and model? If there is a big discrepancy in prices, ask yourself the question why. Are the instruments really identical, or are some perhaps a slightly different model? Or is one of them perhaps a fake?
  • Can the instruments you have shortlisted be serviced in your local area? Not all repairers are able to work on every single brand. Check with them!
  • Does the seller seem genuine, and are they quick to offer assistance if you ask for it?
  • Set up a time to test play the instrument (if possible). Take your time to do this. If the seller is genuine, he/she will give you all the time you need to ensure you are happy. If possible, take your teacher with you and get him/her to play the instrument as well.

Step 4 – Purchase the instrument.

Time to bite the bullet! You will have a fair idea of what you like and don’t like by now. Double check all the important details, such as price, warranty, inclusions/exclusions, etc. Hopefully you have found yourself an instrument that will serve its purpose well.

The dangers

Danger #1: The fakes

It is almost incredible how many fake instruments are floating around. Below is the Yamaha logo; one is real, the other is a fake. Can you tell which is which?

Danger #2: Unknown brands

A lot of the instruments that are being sold online carry brand names that are not well known. This is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as you know what to look out for. A few things to investigate:

  • Where are the instruments made?
  • Has the seller personally tested the instruments (or had them tested)?
  • Are spare parts available? (a lot of the unknown brands are  made cheaply overseas and are literally throw-aways: when they break, that’s the end of it).
  • Are the vital components used in the instrument (e.g. pads on woodwind instruments and valves on brass instruments) of an acceptable quality? For woodwind instruments, are the pads from a reputable manufacturer or a “cheap-and-nasty” version?

We carry our own branded instruments too. Our brand name Syrinx is not necessarily well-known (yet) but we are proud to say that we:

  • researched and thoroughly tested every single Syrinx model in-house;
  • offer a 2 year warranty on all Syrinx instruments;
  • carry spare parts for all Syrinx instruments;
  • use quality pads in woodwind instruments (Pisoni pads on saxophones and flutes and synthetic Valentino pads on clarinets), and
  • offer a return policy on all Syrinx instruments.

Danger #3: Rainbow colours

You have probably seen many online listings for instruments in every colour of the rainbow: red flutes, blue saxophones, green trumpets,… You name it. They sure look funky and different, and children just absolutely adore them. Just be aware: the colour coating is incredibly thin, and scratches/flakes extremely easily.

Danger #4: Issues with pitch, etc.

Here at Leisure Coast Wind & Brass, we have looked at quite a few of the cheaper online instruments, to establish what they are all like and to avoid making the same mistakes with our own housebrand, Syrinx. Apart from some serious mechanical issues, the most prevailing issue with the cheaper instruments being offered online was that a lot of them simply do not play in tune.

You might say that that is not a great issue when you are purchasing an instrument for a beginner, as “beginners often do not play in tune anyway”. Look at the bigger picture though: one of the most important skills to teach young musicians is to listen to themselves and to develop a “musical ear”. It is important for them to learn to recognise that they are not playing in tune. Pitch awareness is a vital skill when playing music with someone else. If the student is given an instrument that cannot play in tune, simply because it was built so poorly, it is not going to help them to develop this super important skill.

To summarise this article, it comes down to a few things only:

  • Research
  • Common sense
  • Asking questions
  • Trust your instinct

We hope this has been of some value to you. If you have any questions, or if you are looking to purchase an instrument online and want more help, we are always happy to offer you advice. After all, we want musicians to succeed, not be set up for failure. We can be contacted here or you are welcome to visit us in store at 141 Kembla Street, Wollongong.