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How to choose the right music instrument for you

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In a music instrument marketplace flooded with high-quality options, determine your needs, do your research, and trust your gut.

When it comes to purchasing a new music instrument, the possibilities can feel overwhelming. No matter what your instrument, choices abound. Guitars come with endless variations in tone, hardware, shapes, materials, and design; new keyboards can offer enough features and innovations to fill textbooks. For so many other categories of music instruments, the vast list of purchasing options is long.

With so many instruments to choose from — new and used — how do you find the one that’s right for you? Here are some tips to get you started.

Get clear on your goals

Do you need your new bass to combine your favorite vintage pickup with a certain wood that you know will give you the sound you’re looking? Do you want your drums to be compact but have a big, aggressive attack, rather than a more nuanced jazz-kit feel? Does your new trumpet need to withstand the rigors of constant international touring and still come out looking and sounding fresh at each gig? Does your new amp need to fill outdoor venues with sound but be light enough for you to haul without hurting yourself?

Regardless of specifics, the more you can zoom in on your specific needs, the easier your search for a new instrument will be. Think about how you plan to use the new equipment the most and what qualities and features are the most important. There’s no need to purchase a synth that has deep programming capabilities you’ll never touch, and if a certain guitar is adequate for studio use but won’t hold up to your live-performance demands, look elsewhere.

The more clearly you can define what you’re looking for, the easier your search will be. And even if you’re extremely clear about what you do and do not want in a new instrument, chances are you’ll still have plenty of quality options to choose from.

Research for reputation, quality, and durability

Make sure to do at least a basic background check before settling on a new instrument. An Internet search can give you plenty of information on a particular product or instrument manufacturer, though be sure to look critically at the source behind any instrument reviews and be sure it’s reasonably independent and trustworthy. Better yet, tap your musical network. Talk to people who use the gear you’re interested in every day, and see what they love and hate about it. The more information and recommendations you can gather from the people who make their music with the gear you’re considering, the more informed your own choices will be.

Aesthetics matter

The look and vibe of your instrument can matter just as much as its build and mechanics, so consider how any individual music instrument appeals to you visually as well as musically. If you’re using the instrument in a live setting, remember that your performance has a visual aspect to it as well as an aural one; keep in mind the image and identity you wish to project from the stage and find an instrument that aligns with your artistic persona.

And don’t get boxed in by expectations. Just because you’re in a metal band doesn’t mean you can’t play a hot pink guitar with ponies and flower petals on it; in fact, doing so might make a more memorable impression than something predictably dark and aggressive. No matter your instrument or genre, be mindful of not just how your new instrument sounds but how it communicates visually to your audience and choose something that works for you.

New (or old) does not equal better

Beyond the fact that it’s shiny and brand new, is there any reason to buy this year’s wah-wah pedal as opposed to one that came out five years ago? Or are you writing off any guitars made after 1970 just because some guitarist you used to play with said vintage is always better?

The manufacturing details of certain instrument lines can change over time, and knowing the history can certainly help you pick the right gear for your art. Just remember that the newness or oldness of any piece of equipment does not guarantee its fitness to be your instrument and is secondary to how an instrument sounds, feels, and propels you towards creativity.

Don’t base your choice on price alone

Price can certainly be an indicator of quality, but spending a lot of money does not necessarily mean you’re getting the instrument you truly need. Similarly, shooting for the cheapest option you can find will not likely land you the axe that will best serve you in the practice room, recording studio, or performance space.

Figure out what a reasonable budget is for you and then look at all the options available. Independent of whether an instrument comes at the top, middle, or bottom of your price range, if it resonates with you creatively and your research comes up clean, you’ve found the right music instrument for you.

Don’t follow the flavor-of-the-month

Even if a brand-new micro-synth is being used by your favorite DJ and five keyboardists you know, it may not be the right choice for you. It can be easy to want new equipment just because everyone else has it, but try to cut through everything external and look purely at the instrument in question. Will it take care of your needs and inspire you to keep making music? If so, great. If not, look elsewhere and choose your own path.

Do what feels good

Picking a music instrument requires more than checking boxes or solving a mathematical equation. There’s a large component that’s irrational and has nothing to do with price or specs, brand or feature sets. The biggest thing to remember is that any new instrument should feel welcoming, excite you to engage with it, and inspire you to keep making music.

Whenever it’s time for me to purchase a new instrument, I do my best to spend as much time playing the different options as possible. I trust my gut and my hands, and I recommend you do the same. Whatever instrument keeps you wanting to play and explore is the one to take home.


rock rewindMichael Gallant is a musician, writer, and entrepreneur living in New York City. His debut album for the Steinway & Sons label, Rock Rewind, features solo piano reinventions of Pearl Jam, U2, Halestorm, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Radiohead, and more. Read his recent article for the National Endowment for the Arts and follow Michael on Twitter at @Michael_Gallant and Facebook.com/GallantMusic.


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