This is a golden era for musical-instrument shopping. Whether you play the guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele, kazoo, or any other instrument, there’s an unprecedented range of new and used options at all prices available in brick-and-mortar stores or online at the click of a button.
But there’s a flipside to all this abundance. With so many options, shopping for a new instrument can feel like an overwhelming prospect. And as much a boon as the internet is for your musical needs, it’s also full of pitfalls and scams. Here are a few tips to help you navigate the different marketplaces, so you can make the smartest choices when it comes to purchasing your next instrument.
It might seem like a quaint notion given today’s big-box and peer-to-peer retailers, but mom-and-pop music shops can be a terrific option for musical-instrument shopping. The stores tend to offer stress-free quarters for auditioning instruments, and are often staffed by musicians who are passionate and knowledgeable and can help find what’s best for you. Another advantage to shopping at a brick-and-mortar store is that you get a better sense of an instrument by having it in your hands rather than by watching someone play it in a video demo. With the exception of electronic musical equipment and recording gear, there can be subtle variations in instruments—enough that, given two identical models made alongside each other in a factory, you might prefer the sound of one over the other. Shops often have more than one instrument of the same model, so you have the benefit of comparing them in person.
Still, mom-and-pop stores are not without potential problems. For example, a shop without your best interest in mind might steer you to an instrument that’s been sitting on display for a little too long. So, if you’re a beginner, bring along a more experienced musician if you can, to avoid being convinced to buy an instrument that’s not right for you. Also, you should hear a guitar from a few feet away, like an audience member hears it, so an instrument-playing companion can also help in that regard.
There’s usually wiggle room on a store’s asking price, so it’s best to come prepared to do a little haggling. Be sure to do your homework, so you know what the instrument you’re interested in typically sells for. And don’t fall for the MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price) or list price—you should expect instrument retail price to be at least 20 percent below that, often with additional wiggle room.
If the dealer won’t budge on the asking price, ask if they can throw in something extra—for instance, an extra set of strings, picks, capos, a strap, cable, or any other essential accessories you’ll need for your new instrument.
It’s possible that after you’ve sealed the deal and taken an instrument home, you may find yourself not bonding with it. If you’re not totally sure about a purchase—or even if you are confident that an instrument is right for you—be sure to inquire about a return policy before you complete your purchase. A good shop will let you return or exchange an instrument, usually for a nominal restocking fee, within 14 to 30 days, as long as it’s in the same condition as when it was sold.
The same strategies are useful when shopping at a chain music store. Just remember to go in as savvy and prepared as possible, so that you’re best equipped to leave with an instrument that you’ll bond with. In the larger stores, it’s possible to feel paralyzed by the large selection, but the flipside is that there often is so much choice. You will find that some big stores make deals with specific instrument companies that allow them to charge less for many models they carry, but the down side of that could be an over-eagerness to push a particular brand. Again, it pays to be as informed as possible before you set foot in the store. Going online and looking at the store’s inventory is a good place to start your research with regard to selection and pricing.
With so many options, shopping for a new instrument can be overwhelming
Ordering online can be a terrific way to shop for an instrument, especially if you live far away from a good shop. The internet is filled with retailers, large and small, that offer drool-worthy pictures along with audio and video demos that let you get a sense of particular instruments. But, as with an internet date, it’s easy to build up an instrument in your mind—only to have it fall short of your expectations when you encounter it in person. And there’s the aforementioned variation between supposedly identical instruments—you might love your friend’s resonator and order the same model, only to find it not as satisfying to play.
This is where the store’s return policy is especially important. Bigger retailers such as Sweetwater, Sam Ash, and Guitar Center have reasonably hassle-free return policies, but before you put an instrument in your virtual shopping cart, read up on any fees you might incur in sending it back. The cost of return shipping is usually deducted from your refund, and on a heavy item like a guitar or amplifier, this can easily be $50 or more. Then there are miscellaneous fees that can crop up, so know that before you complete your purchase.
Ordering online from an auction site such as eBay or an online marketplace like Reverb is another great way to score a musical instrument. It’s possible to get a good price on a used, vintage, or even a new instrument from an individual seller, without the overhead of a professional dealer. And you have a chance to email the seller with questions about the item.
Some of sites can attract the occasional unscrupulous seller, so caveat emptor: If a listing seems too cheap to be true, and includes few pictures of an instrument (or uses stock art), then you have reason to be dubious. Always comb through a seller’s feedback to make sure the person seems forthright, and use discretion in dealing with sellers who haven’t gotten any feedback.
It’s a good idea to feel out a seller by asking questions that only someone with the instrument in his or her possession could answer, and by requesting specific photos that aren’t included in a listing. Some sellers might even be willing to demonstrate an instrument via a Skype chat. As a rule, steer clear of buying from anyone who seems evasive about your questions, or is flat-out unresponsive, and, as when buying from any online source, it’s probably best to avoid buying from someone unwilling to do returns.
Instead of a check or money order, purchase an instrument with a PayPal or similar account, which offers good protection in the event you fall prey to a fraudulent seller. If, for instance, you shell out a bunch of cash for a guitar that never arrives, PayPal has a protocol that will result in a refund for you.
Craigslist is another popular online option for buying instruments, but there are prudent safety steps to take when buying an instrument there. Be sure to meet a potential seller in a public place, and bring along a friend if possible. Know the correct specs of the instrument you’re shopping for, so that you’ll be able to tell whether you’re looking at a lemon. This is particularly important for vintage instruments, which can have unoriginal parts that adversely affect their value, or worse, unobvious structural damage.
If you can’t seem to find, say, a stock guitar that suits your fancy, then you’re in luck. While there was a time when your choices were basically limited to a few large makers, there are now many skilled luthiers building custom guitars in a staggering range of styles, from re-creations of prewar classics to the most modern interpretations.
Many luthiers have websites with pictures, videos, and sound clips of their instruments, but the best way to find a builder and commission an instrument is to meet in person. You get to experience what a particular luthier’s work feels like in your hands.
Perhaps most importantly, the instrument maker can watch you play and suggest some specs that might best serve your style and musical genre.
Instrument shows and events can offer the opportunity to meet and play the wares of many luthiers under the same roof. A few of the larger events are the Woodstock Invitational Luthiers Showcase (held in upstate New York each October) and the Santa Barbara Acoustic Instrument Celebration. There are many smaller gatherings around the country, too, often hosted by local shops, so ask around—you might be surprised to find one near you.
If you encounter a luthier whose work speaks to you, you can start a conversation that may result in the creation of your dream instrument, custom-made to help you capture the music in your mind.
This article originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.