Instrument Selection

By Reginald Williams

For many parents, buying an instrument for a child can be an intimidating process, and unless one is armed with the proper information, costly mistakes can be made. We trust that the information provided here may be of value in taking some of the mystery and risk out of that experience.

If properly selected, a child’s first and subsequent instruments should give great pleasure while continuing to hold their value. In selecting an instrument, sound, condition, playability, workmanship, and appearance should all be carefully considered. Furthermore, the resale policies and repair capabilities of the shop from which you purchase should also be carefully considered.

Condition, Condition, Condition. The first criteria in selection should be condition. In real estate the rule is location, location, and location. No matter how much you like the house, don’t buy if the neighborhood isn’t good! In stringed instruments, no matter how much you like the sound, don’t buy if the condition isn’t right. Professional repairs that can be guaranteed to hold up can be extremely costly. Furthermore, instruments that have obvious repairs can be very difficult to resell, even at significantly reduced prices. Avoid instruments with cracks, especially in the sound post and bass bar areas, or on the back and ribs of the instrument. Unsightly blemishes are not nearly as serious as cracks. Unless everything else is right about the instrument, they are usually best avoided, however. Meanwhile, there are many aspects of condition that can only be judged by a professional. If you are not buying from a professional, be sure to have it checked over by one. (Would you buy a used car without having it checked over by a mechanic?)

Appearance. While instruments are meant to be played, some children may be strongly turned on or off by the appearance of an instrument. Most parents and teachers would probably agree that trying to force a child to play on an instrument that doesn’t appeal is most likely to be counterproductive. That said, we still feel that the condition, playability, and sound of the instrument are ultimately more important than the appearance.

Playability. Playability is something you may have difficulty judging. Your teacher may be able to be of assistance here, as can a caring professional. For the musician, this means ease of tuning, ease of fingering, and comfort when holding the instrument. These factors are greatly affected by the quality of the “set-up” as we refer to it in the trade. Pegs must fit properly and be properly lubricated. The angle of the neck coming into the instrument must be exactly right, and the bridge must be cut properly to match. The fingerboard needs to be calibrated exactly and planed properly. Otherwise, certain notes will buzz or always sound out of tune. The chinrest should fit and feel comfortable. The outcome of buying an instrument and asking a child to learn on it without having these things attended to may well be compared to that of trying to teach a beginning rider to ride a bicycle with a chain, brakes, and pedal assembly that aren’t properly adjusted. The child may just give up in frustration believing he or she, not the instrument, is the problem.

Sound. How much do we pay for good sound? There is healthy sound, just as there is healthy food. Trained musicians and trained stringed instrument professionals usually agree on this matter. A healthy sound is one that is balanced and even from string to string. It is a sound that flows smoothly under both light and heavy bow pressure, and generally one that responds easily, allowing the player to readily produce both soft and loud tones at will while maintaing an appealing qualilty. These things can be judged more or less objectively by any teacher and by many students, even beginners in some cases. If you are not comfortable deciding whether the sound of an instrument is healthy, you should not hesitate to ask for your teacher’s advice.

Ultimately, your goal should be to select an instrument that is pleasing for you to listen to and easy to play. To select the right instrument, a number of different instruments in the same price range should be compared in a quiet place that is comfortable for you. Most professional string shops understand that it may be necessary for you to take an instrument out on trial and to get your teacher’s opinion before you can buy with confidence. You should not feel it inappropriate to inquire as to the possibility of taking an instrument home for a few days to try it out before purchasing.

Nobody can dictate to you what good sound is any more than they can dictate what good flavor in food or good taste in art is. The work of a local artist may appeal to you more than a Salvador Dalí painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but if you pay more for the local artist’s work, you will no doubt regret it later. You may like hamburgers better than French food, but you shouldn’t have to pay more for the hamburger. Just as with art and food, there should be a trend towards better and better sound as instruments get more expensive. But your taste will not always agree with the market, and since there is no right and wrong in taste, you may benefit from taste which doesn’t agree with the market.