When I was a kid, my dad used to buy me Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars. He used to pay around 80¢ for one. When I was about 8 years old or so, we departed from our usual purchase location (the local grocery store) and went to a toy store franchise at the shopping mall. There, I discovered something quite wondrous.
You could buy a 10 pack of toy cars for $3.
I wasn’t ever that good at math, but even I could spot a deal that good! Besides, the paint jobs on these ones were loud and gaudy, and the chrome was extra bright! My dad tried to explain that maybe that wasn’t all a good thing, but I was hearing nothing of it! Since he is a softy, and I am stubborn enough to make most mules look like amateurs, I took home my $3 pack of chartreuse and day-glo orange, shiny, chrome embossed toy cars.
This was when I learned an important and formative lesson about value vs. price.
See, when I got home and ripped open the packaging, one of the cars fell to the floor, and immediately a huge chunk of paint came off. Next, I noticed that the decals on the cars were stick-on, as opposed to the painted details on the cars my dad usually bought. All of the windows were either black, or chrome, which hid the interior details from view, something I really enjoyed investigating. Little did I realize that there were no interiors at all, a cost cutting measure.
Much to my displeasure, I soon learned another unfortunate detail. The wheels on these bargain toys were complete crap, they didn’t roll well at all, and the axles were too thin, which caused them to bend very easily, rendering the toys useless to perform their main function; rolling across the floor in a straight line. Before two weeks were up, getting any of them to roll at all was a lost cause.
You probably understand where I am going with this – avoid bright shiny crap when buying a musical instrument, and pay attention to the details.
So, how do you spot quality when you know absolutely nothing about the instrument?
Here are a couple of things I look for when scouting for an instrument:
1. Does it perform it’s basic function well?
2. Is it a known brand?
3. Has that brand been around a while, and do they have a good reputation? (Ask around, and search online forums – people are usually willing to answer questions and give suggestions)
4. Do lots of people have this particular make/model of instrument?
5. Do they like it?
6. Is it something you would be proud to be seen performing with in a variety of contexts?
7. If it is a wooden instrument of any kind, can you see the actual wood its made out of, or has it been covered over by paint or some kind of plastic covering? If not, this is a great clue that what you are getting is probably pretty far down the food chain.
8. If it has hardware or moving parts, do they work smoothly and easily? Do they feel solid and well crafted, or flimsy and loose? If the parts are chrome, is the finish smooth and liquid, or can you see specks, flakes or sharp edges? These are all indicators that can clue you in to whether or not what you are looking at is a good product or not.
9. Is it easily tuned, and does it stay in tune? This means you will need to spend some time with the instrument, but it will pay off. If you can’t get it in tune, run away. If you can’t keep it in tune, it’s probably an inferior instrument, or may need considerable repair. If you are dealing with a sales person who won’t let you spend long enough playing the instrument to find out if it will stay in tune, thank them kindly, put the instrument back, and walk calmly out of the store.
Take your time. It really is worth it!