Buying an Instrument
Once you've decided what instrument you'd like to play, the next step is to acquire it. While it's true that some people have started out on a borrowed or rented instrument, you may find that having your own will help you stay committed.You (Sometimes) Get What You Pay For
You can find a playable guitar or keyboard for a beginner for under two hundred dollars, but how do you know what playable is when you don't play? If you plan to buy a better instrument, sometimes a little thing like the year, color, make, or model can mean a difference of thousands of dollars on otherwise identical instruments. What may appear to be a brand-new, top-of-the-line instrument might fall apart in a year, while that beat-up old thing in the corner might still sound great when your great-grandkids play it. The absolute best way to get what you need and avoid getting ripped off is to take along a friend who is an experienced player and knows about the brands, styles, and prices of the type of instrument you're looking for.New versus Used
A new instrument is like a new car: It looks new, it smells new, it shines and sparkles. It also costs a lot more. But electronic keyboards become obsolete after a few years. Parts become harder to find and the new models always have more options. Pianos last longer, but they only have one sound. Besides, do you really want to carry a piano around? Your best bet is probably either a new keyboard or a gently used one that is less than five years old. Have a keyboard-playing friend explain features like onboard sequencing, sampling, FM synthesis, and the various forms of MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) compatibility. These are all things you'll want to know before you buy.
If you get one of the cheap stick-on pickups or the kind that fits in the sound hole, you will not make a lot of friends out of writer's night hosts. Most of these are very low output and hard to dial in. Instead, opt for an under-the-saddle system with an active pickup. You'll spend a little more, but it's well worth it.
Unlike most computers these days, a good guitar when properly maintained can last well over a hundred years. An acoustic guitar made with good wood and a lacquer finish starts to sound better as it ages, usually hitting peak tone at somewhere between fifteen and fifty years of age. On the other hand, substandard wood, cheap machine heads, poorly aligned bracing, bad glue joints, and a host of other things can render a seemingly perfect, brand new guitar unplayable within a year or two. For these reasons, a used guitar is often the best way to go. Features to look for include an adjustable truss rod in the neck and a solid (not laminated) top. Features that are nice to have but not crucial (because they can all be replaced) are a porcelain or bone saddle and nut, strap buttons at the tail and heel, and tuning gears with a ratio of at least 16:1. If you have the money to invest and want to start with a really good guitar, some of the brands most often used by professional songwriters and musicians are Martin, Takamine, Taylor, and Gibson.
You will probably want an electronic pickup in your acoustic guitar that allows you to plug in for live performances. If the instrument you want doesn't have a pickup, you can buy a good one for about $150 (including installation) in most places. Some pickups are simple affairs that you just plug into and let the soundman worry about the rest. Others have built-in volume and tone controls, equalizers, and other fun toys. The 2001 models of some companies began including built-in tuners.Where to Look
New instruments can be found in music stores and mail order catalogues like
If you don't know a lot about the kind of instrument you intend to buy, be very careful about buying used instruments or any instruments sold by mail-order or through online stores and Internet auctions. With some of these buying methods, you may be agreeing to take merchandise without warranties or return options.
Instead of getting the cheapest possible instrument, one that may sound horrible and be difficult to play, your best bet may be to get a good one that will leave you some room to grow. It's awfully hard to get motivated to practice on something that even a pro couldn't get a good sound out of.
This doesn't mean that you need an expensive, professional-quality instrument to get started, but you'll probably want something that you can still use a year from now without being distracted by the playability problems of a shoddy instrument. When you do your shopping, have that same friend play the instruments you're serious about buying. Listen to how they sound. Ask your friend which ones play well and which are good deals for the price. Buy your friend lunch and make an afternoon of it, trying out several instruments in different locations before making your final decision. A little extra time spent on finding the right instrument can save you a lot of time and money in the long run and make the experience of learning to play a lot more fun.