All about musical instruments - menu page
So you want to learn a musical instrument? We advise you what instrument to play, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know about instrumental tuition

About Pay the Piper
Why play an instrument?
What instrument
to play

How to buy an instrument
Other costs
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How much progress
will I make?

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Upgrading your instrument
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Pay the Piper


Buying an instrument


First, do you really need to buy one? If you're only just starting and don't know yet whether you're going to make a success of it, it seems silly to spend a lot of money if you don't have to.
If you're going to be taking your lessons at school, check and see if the school or the local Music Service can lend or rent you an instrument - they often do. The instrument may not be brand new, but at least if it goes wrong it won't be you that has to pay for the repairs! And don't forget that once you have decided that instrumental music is for you and that you are ready to buy your own instrument, you may be able to do so through the school or Music Service who can obtain instruments VAT-free and often at a substantial dealer's discount too. They are able to do so because "curriculum tools" (i.e. things you use for your work in the school's "offered curriculum") are not liable to VAT. As your school has decided to "offer" instrumental tuition as part of its curriculum (the fact that it is not available to every single pupil in the school is irrelevant; not every pupil takes A-level Maths, but it's still part of the school's curriculum) then provided you are young enough that you will be using the instrument for some years to come, the school does not have to charge you VAT.
If borrowing an instrument from the school is not a possibility - perhaps because you are going to take private lessons - then consider renting an instrument from a shop. This is an expensive way to get an instrument, but it's very convenient. The advantages are that you get a good instrument in excellent repair - it will probably be brand new - and you don't have to pay for its upkeep. Also if it's a string instrument that comes in different sizes, most rental schemes will automatically provide the next size up when you're ready. As a rough guide, expect to pay about £15 or £20 a month for a clarinet, flute or trumpet, and £25 a month for an alto saxophone.
String instruments
It is particularly important to avoid buying a string instrument. You'll probably be starting on a small size instrument - perhaps a quarter or half size - and you'll soon grow out of it. If you've bought it in the first place, you may find it quite difficult to sell again.
The usual thing is to borrow or rent a small "student" model violin. One well-known make is Stentor. These instruments are not the greatest quality and therefore don't have a wonderful sound, but they are tough, cheap and perfectly adequate to begin with.
If possible, delay buying a string instrument until you are ready for a full-size instrument (three-quarters if you're playing the double bass). Then, read our page on "upgrading your instrument" for some useful advice. In general, if you can only afford a very cheap instrument (say, £100 - £250 for a violin or viola, £400 - £600 for a 'cello, £600 - £1,000 for a double bass) then second-hand is better although it's harder to find one and then make up your mind - you'll need some reliable and informed advice from your string teacher. This is because new instruments in those price-ranges will not be of good quality but second-hand ones might be. Above that, there are some new instruments that are very good and might be worth considering if the idea of buying second-hand worries you.
Woodwind and Brass instruments
Student-model woodwind and brass instruments are more expensive than similar violins and violas, and about the same as 'cellos, so again it's worth trying not to buy if possible. Schools and Music Services often lend instruments.
There are more companies offering rental schemes for woodwind and brass instruments than there are for strings, though you should shop around. What you don't want is a rental scheme that is really Hire Purchase under a different name, so that if you decide you don't like playing the instrument you are still strapped into buying it - probably at a high cost. It is possible to find shops that offer genuine rental schemes, where if you don't want to keep the instrument you can return it and there's no further obligation on you. One idea which is sneaky but economically practical is to rent for a year or so until you are sure you wish to continue, then return the instrument to the shop and buy your own through the school or Music Service, thus saving yourself the VAT.
If you decide to buy straight away, take the advice of your instrumental teacher, and buy new rather than second-hand. Second-hand woodwind and brass instruments can be perfectly good, but you don't have the expertise to sort out the wheat from the chaff and at the very least you can expect to need a full overhaul by a specialist repairer before you can be sure the instrument is ready to go.
New student-model woodwind and brass instruments are a safer bet; there are very few bad ones on the market, and they come with a guarantee and the normal after-sales service. By shopping around it is often possible to find retailers offering "special prices" that are considerably lower than usual - for instance, one retailer was recently offering brand-new £399 flutes for only £299. But once again, don't forget the possibility of a VAT-free purchase through your school or Music Service which might be cheaper than any "special offer".
If you are able to establish, with the help of your instrument teacher, what make and model you want then don't be afraid to buy by post or through the internet. Instruments from well-known makers are highly standardised, reliable and well-made, so you know what you're getting.
In our pages on individual instruments we give a rough guide to prices. These are not the RRPs but the cheapest prices, including VAT, that we could find by searching the net - you should do the same. We also suggest some good makes of instrument. As a rule, Yamaha woodwind and brass are always good but a bit more expensive than some other, equally good, makes.
You should visit the website of John Myatt Woodwind & Brass - which is excellent and packed with every kind of information for woodwind and brass players. It has a useful section on caring for your instrument.
Another very good supplier of woodwind and brass instruments is Dawkes Music. They have some of the cheapest prices around, and an excellent rental scheme, available by post or carrier all over the country.
We recently (September 2005) updated our guide prices, and were surprised to find how little prices had risen in the two years since "Pay the Piper" began. Some instruments have actually got cheaper! In part this may be due to competition from specialist internet retailers like SigNet and Thomann. We particularly like SigNet who offer some of the keenest prices around on many instruments.
Local "general" music shops can't usually match the prices of the big dealers, but they can offer friendly personal service which is not to be sniffed at when you're diving into the unknown! One shop that is run by a real musician and has served us well over the years is Balaam's Music. They have a good rental scheme for woodwind and brass instruments.