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General hints for buyers

Everyone loves a bargain, though more often than not we're simply relieved not to have bought a lemon. Musical instruments are among the most difficult of purchases to make given that it's not unlikely that the purchaser has absolutely no idea whether the goods they're purchasing actually work or not.

There's nothing to beat having an expert on hand - perhaps a teacher, or a friend who can play - but you can certainly improve the odds by arming yourself with a little knowledge before you shell out your hard-earned cash.

Most people feel safest buying brand new instruments from a shop. All good and well, but not all shops are created equal and even the most clueless person is quite entitled to set up shop and claim to be entirely knowledgeable about matters musical.
So choose your shop wisely. Ask around, trust to your instincts, get a second opinion.

Secondhand instruments are where some very real savings can be made - but this is weighed against the fact that you're buying used goods - and there may not be any guarantees. There are two ways to get a bargain here; get lucky, or get wise.

A third option is to rent. Many shops now hire out instruments on a termly basis. This is by no means a cheap way of buying an instrument, but it does help to limit your investment should things not work out the way you planned. Some shops even rent out ex-rental instruments, which can save a bit of money. However, this option looks increasingly less appealing with the advent of extremely cheap and playable instruments from China.

So how do you know what to buy?

Traditionally instruments have been categorised into three sections; Student or beginners' instruments; intermediate or semi-professional instrument, and full-blown professional models.
The difference between the models (apart from the price) is down to the quality of manufacture and the instrument's ability to do the things asked of it. Having said that the boundaries are far more blurred these days than they've ever been, and it's not uncommon to find many a professional player using intermediate or even student quality instruments with apparent satisfaction.

Of course, in theory you ought simply to buy the top of the range model and have done with it - but then at that level the instruments are very individual creatures, and just because an instrument costs X-thousand pounds doesn't mean that you'll like it once you're good enough to appreciate what it can do.
So there's some sense in starting off with a cheaper instrument and only upgrading when you're sure of the direction in which your playing will go.

Whatever you do, don't skimp. I realise that instruments represent a significant investment for many parents - but a cheap one is a false economy. A reputable make will more than meet the student's expectations, and in the event of a lack of success it'll hold a better resale value. If you buy badly then everyone loses. An extra twenty or thirty pounds can make the world of difference.

Mind you, the borders between 'cheap' and 'nasty' have become rather muddied recently, with the advent of the aforementioned remarkably cheap but serviceable instruments coming out of mainland China.
In brief, it's now possible to buy a thoroughly usable instrument for a fraction of the price it used to cost - and that has serious implications for the structure of the student instrument market.
See the article on Ultra-Cheap horns for more information.

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