Instrument Guide

Some general things to ask when buying a musical instrument

Band, Music, Musical Instruments
  • Does your music teacher recommend any brands/models for you to learn on? The safe option is always to go with the established brands they are usually established brands for a good reason.
  • Can you have an instrument on approval from the shop?
  • Is there a rental scheme for instruments with the option to buy the instrument at a later date? (Check the A.P.R.)
  • Does the shop operate the A.I.P.S. VAT – free instrument purchase scheme for school children?
  • Is the “Take it Away” Arts Council England interest – free purchase scheme available in the shop?
  • Is there a practice/demonstration room in the shop?
  • Do the instruments get checked over (set up) before they are sold?
  • Check with the local retailer whether spare parts are readily available for the brand you choose.
  • Does the shop offer a free checkover after 6 months? Is it written down on the receipt?
  • Does the shop have a repairer on site (or nearby) in the event that something goes wrong?
  • What is their repair turnaround time?
  • Can the shop loan an instrument while yours is repaired?
  • Ensure there are no potential instrument health and safety issues e.g. sharp edges, poisonous substances. Check that instruments conform to appropriate EU legislation e.g. rules concerning nickel and nickel plating.
  • What sort of guarantee does the shop/manufacturer offer on the instrument? Get the manufacturer’s/distributor’s guarantee card stamped. If there isn’t a guarantee, get that fact written on the receipt. If buying on the internet make sure that the guarantees/repairs/return policies are all fully explained. Check that you are familiar with the distance selling regulations should you need to return the instrument for a full refund.
  • Insure your instrument. This may need a specialist music insurer (your home policy may not cover instruments).

Instruments (alphabetical)

The acoustic guitar is a highly popular starter instrument. It”s affordable, easy to transport, quiet enough not to disturb others during practice, relatively easy to get a nice sound, and doesn’t need any additional equipment like amplification.  It can also been seen as a more ‘serious’ instrument to learn on first if a child ultimately wants to play electric guitar, as the skills and techniques can be transferred.  There are two types of acoustic guitar; classical (or ‘nylon strung’) and ‘steel strung’ which is what is most often meant when someone refers to an acoustic guitar.  The classical guitar is often considered to be best for beginners as it uses nylon strings, which are much easier to play than steel – the lighter string tension makes it much easier to press the string down onto the fretboard to sound a note.

Acoustic Guitar Overview – WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. Guitars come in a variety of sizes and a full size one is generally suitable for ages 10 – 12 and upwards. Smaller sizes are available for younger students.

2. If you are a beginner ask the advice of your tutor and don’t buy the cheapest, spend a little more and get a quality one with a solid top if possible.

3. Take a guitarist with you when you go to buy it, someone who will be able to tell a if it’s a good one or not.

4. You should buy the guitar that plays, sounds and looks the best for you. The expertise of the maker and the degree to which an instrument is hand made are of major significance for the development of tonal quality.

5. Visit several music shops before you buy and find the salespeople who are enthusiastic and knowledgable. Ask to talk to someone in the shop who plays guitar.

6. Take your time, don’t rush out and buy the first one you see, you have to live with it for years so make sure it is the right one.

7. Buy guitar magazines that have reviews or get catalogues on the models you are interested in to research thoroughly.

8. If there is a music trade show or convention in your area visit it, as there will be a variety of products to see and there will be people there with a wealth of knowledge you can talk to.

Clarinet, Music, Melody, ClarinetsThe clarinet is a very versatile reed instrument, used in both chamber and orchestral music. It was Mozart’s favourite, and like the saxophone produced many great jazz players such as Sidney Bechet and Benny Goodman.  There are many different types of clarinet, but the Bflat soprano clarinet is by far the most common.  Cheaper clarinets are made from man made materials and are generally the best choice for beginners – more expensive models are made from hardwoods like ebony, and are suitable for more serious playing.  As a beginner’s instrument it is both quieter and less costly than the saxophone, and although the fingering is a little more complex, it is easier to produce a basic sound with. It is also lighter and more portable as the instrument separates into five smaller sections to pack away.  As with the saxophone, there are special reeds for the clarinet, and the same advice is applicable to this instrument. You will also need cork grease to connect the joints of the clarinet together.

Clarinet Overview  –  WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. The cheaper models are made of plastic or ABS resin which doesn’t crack, requires less maintenance and is lighter which makes them more suitable for children.

2.Wooden models normally sound richer, darker and warmer.

3. The key mechanism should be nice and smooth, it should not rattle and should make a good seal with the toneholes.

4.When trying out different clarinets it is advisable to use the same mouthpiece and reed, otherwise the different sounds may just be due to the different mouthpieces.

5. For smaller children, there are straps available that will help reduce the weight of the instrument and can reduce any chance of repetitive strain injury.

6.When purchasing the instrument, you need to purchase appropriate cleaning materials. Some clarinet keys have pads to seal the holes, these need to be looked after. A cleaning swab should be used to dry out the instrument and prolong pad life.

7. Quality clarinets have undercut toneholes.

Instruments, Music, Drums, GuitarDrums are the standard backing instrument in many genres of music including rock, soul, jazz and latin, and together with the bass guitar makes up the ‘rhythm section’. A typical drum kit comprises 5 drums: bass drum, snare drum and 3 toms; hi-hat, crash & ride cymbals and stands and pedals.

Playing cymbals wears out sticks quickly, so it’s a good idea to buy several pairs (5A is a good weight to start with), and if you plan to move your kit around, you will need a set of cases.  The drum kit can be loud although the sound can be damped considerably by using practice pads that are placed on the drumheads and the cymbals in a matter of seconds. They are not expensive.  An alternative is the electronic drum kit, which can be used with headphones and has been growing in popularity over recent years.

Drums Overview – WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. Value for money – check carefully whether the deal includes all stands and pedals (usual) and cymbals (usually only in basic starter kits).

2.Whether the kit comes boxed for self-assembly, or already built and tuned by the dealer (some good dealers will offer this service – tuning a drum kit is a skill which comes with experience).

3.Whether or not a height adjustable stool is included.

4.What the cymbals are made of (basic ones are brass, bronze is better).

5. How many drums are in the set (five is standard, and most tuition books are scored for five drums).

6. Quality of stands, pedals and drumheads, all of which can get considerable wear and tear.

The electric guitar is extremely popular and has recently undergone a major resurgence of interest due to the prevalence of guitar-based bands. In the past, guitar teachers felt that it was important to get good technique on an acoustic before playing an electric, but attitudes have changed, and as long as the correct tuition is given an electric is just as good a starter instrument.  Like the classical guitar’s nylon strings, the electric’s strings are much thinner, lighter and closer to the fretboard than an acoustic (steel strung) guitar’s, and so are less likely to discourage the sore-fingered beginner.

Most electric guitars do not have a hollow body to amplify the sound, and magnetic pickups are used underneath the strings which need external amplification, so you will also need a guitar amplifier and an instrument cable to connect it with.  Electrics are generally played with a plectrum and you’ll also need a strap. You can either buy all the components separately, or choose from the range of guitar packs now available which include amplifier, cable, strap and often tuition materials. These packages are ideal and tailored for beginners and take the stress out of buying. Don’t forget to protect your investment with a case.

Electric Guitar Overview – WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. If you are a beginner, ask your teacher’s advice and don’t buy the cheapest model – spending a little more will buy a guitar that looks, sounds, feels and lasts better.

2. Electric guitars (especially starter packages) are sometimes available in smaller sizes suitable for younger students.

3. Visit several music shops before you buy and talk to someone who plays guitar for the best advice.

4. Ask about the type and quality of woods used in the guitar’s body and neck.

5. You will also have to purchase an amplifier to go with the guitar so be prepared for the extra cost. Choose one with a headphone socket.

6. Most shops will offer a complete package to get you started that includes all you will need, check these out.

7. Take your time, don’t rush out and buy the first one you see, you have to live with it for years so make sure it is the right one. A good guitar will make you want to play it.

8. Buy guitar magazines that have reviews on the latest products and accessories or get catalogues on the models you are interested in and do some research.

Flute Player, Flute, Musician

The flute is one of the mostly frequently played woodwind instruments and the transverse flute is the standard orchestral design, so-named because it is held horizontally and air is blown across the mouthpiece rather than into it.
It is usually made from metals like nickel or silver, or sometimes hardwoods like Grenadilla. As a result of how it is played, the tone is much breathier and softer than the recorder, but it does need a lot more puff (air), so for younger children there are smaller flutes available.  These are approximately 7cm shorter than the normal flute allowing fingers to reach all the holes and pads easily. In addition to this they weigh less (approx. 325g) and are easier to play, requiring less breath than standard flutes.  Because of the special breathing, sound generation and fingering techniques required, it is best to get professional tuition and guidance from the outset, as is the case with all woodwind instruments.

Flute Overview – WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. Get the teacher’s advice before shopping, as they will have to teach the child and will want to be sure you are buying a good quality instrument.

2. Make sure you buy a flute of the correct specification. Closed hole keys ith an offset G, an E mechanism and a C footjoint is the most common in the UK.

3.There are different finishes of flute available. The most popular for beginners is a silver plated finish, comfortable to hold and easier to keep clean.

4.When buying the flute, ensure it has been checked and tested properly, as flutes have intricate parts which, if not set up correctly, can make it difficult to play. This includes making sure the joints are not too loose or too tight.

5. If the flute is for a small child, a curved head flute may be required to avoid strain issues with the player. Some curved flutes are also supplied with the straight head joint making the transition to a standard flute easy as the child grows. Check with the teacher if this is necessary and always follow their advice.

6. Buying flutes on the internet can end in disappointment.  Stick with a popular brand and make sure it is the correct pitch for the UK.  Buying from another country can also affect your rights in the event of a guarantee issue.

Music, Piano, Treble Clef, ClefThe electronic keyboard is a very practical and low cost way to start playing a keyboard. Many will come with basic keyboard skills instructions.  Whereas a digital piano will usually have a fairly standard and basic feature set, portable or ‘home’ keyboards come in a variety of different keyboard lengths and sizes, and generally include a host of digital sounds and accompaniment features. They usually have built-in speakers, and battery operation is common with smaller models.  These keyboards take full advantage of digital technology, providing autoaccompaniment features which quickly allow beginners to play pieces of music. Drum, bass and chord parts can be triggered, shaped and stored in memory using the left hand, whilst the right hand plays the melody. Schools often choose portable keyboards to provide entry-level instruction for young beginners, as immediate results can be mixed with basic teaching and act
as an introduction to the piano when it is felt that the child has reached a sufficient standard. Look for 2 headphone sockets so that a tutor can listen in as well!

Keyboard Overview – WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. 5 octave (61 black and white full size keys) keyboard. This length of keyboard allows full piano repertoire to be played and is ideal for the beginner. Don’t forget a height adjustable stand for the keyboard.

2. Full size keys. This means the keys are the same size as an acoustic piano.

3. Touch sensitive (also known as touch responsive) keys. This means that, like an acoustic piano, the volume of the notes is louder when the keys are struck harder.  Also known as semi-weighted or fully weighted piano-action keys.

4. Sustain pedal input. This allows connection of a sustain pedal, which enhances the expressiveness of the performance.

5. USB or MIDI connections to PC.  With ‘sequencing’ software installed within a PC, these connections allow players to record, store and arrange music within a PC environment.

6. Digital effects, such as reverb, chorus and delay enhance the overall sound of the instrument.

7. On-board song recording (or sequencer).  This allows players to record their
own performances and store within the keyboard. Many instruments offer ‘multi-track’ recording.

8. ‘Hybrid’ keyboards. These are keyboards that offer an extended range of keys (76 or 88 notes) which combine the functions of a keyboard with more piano like performance potential.

Saxophone, Played, Instrument, MusicThe saxophone was invented by the Belgian Adolphe Sax. Its sound is produced using a reed, and so even though it’s made of metal it’s also part of the woodwind family.Although it was adopted by some composers as part of the orchestra, it gained more popularity in military bands due to its big sound, and was later made famous by great jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.  The saxophone family consists of seven instruments, but the most popular beginner’s instruments are the alto and tenor saxophones. Due to the size and fingering, the minimum age to start learning is around 8 years for the alto and 12 years for the tenor.  As saxophone reeds are made of cane, they will wear and split with use, so it’s a good idea to buy a few replacement reeds as they are relatively inexpensive, and can be bought either individually or in boxes of 10. If you’re a beginner, then start with softer reeds marked from ‘1½’ to ‘2½’, which make it easier to produce a more even tone and pitch (‘4’ is the hardest type available).

Saxophone Overview  WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. Ask your tutor which brand or model they recommend you should buy, plus which type i.e. Alto, Tenor etc, as they are all different sizes. Also try it sitting down. Check to see if you can use the side and palm keys, so you can tell if you need a smaller one.

2.When you go to buy always take someone with you who knows instruments or plays them as they will be able to hear and see what the beginner does not. You will also be able to hear what it sounds like from a distance if they play it.

3. Remember that in addition to the Saxophone itself you will have to buy reeds and have the instrument maintained.

4. Ask the salesperson if you can have the instrument on approval or indeed if you can rent it with a view to purchasing it, or something similar, down the line.

5.When you have decided on the instrument you want, make sure you get that one and not one from the stock room, as all instruments have their own sound.

6. You must also make sure to purchase appropriate cleaning materials.  Like the flute, saxophone keys have pads to seal the holes. These need to be looked after. A cleaning swab should be used to dry out the instrument after playing to prolong pad life.

7. Make sure that you purchase a good quality neck strap which will help correctly support the weight of the instrument.

The modern 3 valve trumpet was first developed by Bluhmel and Stoelzel and is popular in school orchestras, jazz and brass bands.  The Bflat trumpet is the most common and so is the most sensible choice for the student or beginner. As with the flute, it requires good breath control.  Important accessories for the trumpet are valve oil and a cleaning kit to keep the instrument in good working order.  There are products available that can adjust volume levels of trumpets, such as mutes. There are even “quiet” brass instruments specifically designed for this.

Trumpet Overview – WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. The most common finish for student models is clear or gold lacquer.  The lacquer protects the instrument and is easy to keep clean. Unlacquered  trumpets will look ‘dull’ and have a matte finish. They are harder to keep clean. Some players prefer a silver plated finish. These have a smooth rounder sound and a more regular response throughout their range.  They tend to be more expensive and heavier. Plain brass and also nickel finishes are not recommended for health/legal reasons.

2. Beginner trumpets should be easy to blow and have accurate intonation. The trumpet’s bore size affects how resistant it is to blow. Most student trumpets have a medium-large bore.

3. The valve body is the heart of the instrument.  Best quality valves are normally of monel. If buying a second hand instrume t the way to check valve wear is to unscrew a valve top and let the valve come out about a couple of inches (5cm) and then try to move the valve sideways in the valve casing. If there is lateral movement (in other words if the valve ‘rocks’ from side to side), the valve could be worn and therefore would not be airtight.  Another way to check if the instrument is airtight is to put water
through it, and once there is enough water inside, hold it still and see if there are any drips. Possible leak points are joints, water keys and valves.

4. A good mouthpiece is very important. If you get the right one you can keep that mouthpiece with you as you progress up the grades.

Violin, Music, Fiddle, ClassicalThe violin is both a solo and ensemble instrument, and makes an ideal choice for a child who wants to join their school orchestra and play with other musicians.  Practising and performing in groups assists in learning an instrument more quickly, as more advanced students will help you. Although there are notable players in jazz and folk music, most music written for the violin is from the classical repertoire, and this should be taken into account when encouraging
a child to take up their first instrument, as they will generally practise harder when they enjoy the music they’re playing!  The size of the violin is very important. Unsuitably sized instruments will affect the student’s playing ability: too small and the student will be cramped, too big and the arms and hands will be over-stretched. As the child grows they will move up sizes until they reach full size. Ask your teacher or get “fitted” at your local music shop.  As a guide, a 4/4 violin is normally suitable for 9 years and upwards, a 3/4 for 7 – 10 years, a 1/2 for 6 – 8 years and 1/4 for 5 – 7 years.

There are smaller sizes below this for even younger children. There is also a range of sizes available for violas and double basses. In all cases expert advice is needed on the correct size for a child.

Violin & Bowed Overview – WHAT TO LOOK FOR

1. Condition of the Instrument: Violins are made of wood and it is important to examine the body of any violin, both new and old.  New instruments made from un-seasoned wood may have bulging ribs, heavily warped fingerboards, and possible shrinkage cracks. Tell-tale signs are in the neck and bottom rib (especially on ‘cellos).

2. Alignment: Check to make sure that the neck of the violin is set straight.  Make sure the bridge is centered between the f-holes, then sight up the fingerboard to see if it aligns with the bridge. If the bridge has to be off-set to one side to line up, then the neck is out of line (see bridge). If the neck is skewed, playing becomes very difficult as the strings will want to fall off the side of the fingerboard.

3. Fingerboard: The best wood for wear and fingering is ebony although other hardwoods are used. The nut which divides the strings at the top of the fingerboard must have equal string spacing and the grooves correctly cut for the type of string used. If changing from metal core to synthetic core strings, the nut grooves will need adjusting or broken strings will result.  The fingerboard should be slightly convex down the length to prevent buzzing.

4. Pegs: Usually made from ebony, rosewood or boxwood.  On in-expensive violins an “ebonized” (usually a fruitwood) peg can be used.  Whatever the material used the peg needs to turn smoothly and stay in place. A jerky turn will break strings, while slipping pegs obviously don’t hold pitch. Basses have machine heads because of the huge tensions involved.  Are they well fitted and do they turn smoothly?

5. Bridge: This should be tailored to each individual instrument.  Some important things to look for are:

  • Wood quality: A poor soft piece of wood will not offer enough sound resistance and will wear out quickly.
  • Is the bridge the right way round? (easy mistake to make).  The E string should be lower than the G, and the front of the bridge curves back (the back of the bridge is straight).
  • Is it in the right place? As a rule of thumb the bridge should be positioned in between the nick in the f-holes in the centre of the instrument.
  • Do the feet fit? (there should be no gaps under the bridge).
  • Is the bridge bending forward? The continuous tuning of strings can warp the bridge. If it bends too far forward it will want to fall over and may snap.
  • Is the height of the bridge right? This, and the height of the strings over the fingerboard are vital. Too high and the strings are very difficult to press down, too low and there is a chance the strings will buzz.
  • Profile or curve of the bridge: The profile should match the profile of the fingerboard. Too steep a curve and bowing becomes difficult; too flat and “double stopping” (playing two strings at once) can happen.

6. Soundpost: A small and IMPORTANT length of wood that sits vertically in the violin under the treble (E string) side of the instrument. Some instruments are delivered without the soundpost in (if so do not throw away) or if the soundpost falls down it needs to be in place before the instrument is played. Bringing the strings to pitch without a soundpost can severely harm the instrument. Its fitting and position  re very important and the tone can be adjusted by moving/re-fitting the soundpost (trained repairer needed).

7. Tailpiece: The tailpiece wood usually matches the pegs and chinrest. Some violins have a metal tailpiece with integral adjusters (do the small screws turn smoothly?) The choice of material will be influenced by the type of strings used. Most cellists now use a metal tailpiece or one with built in adjusters as standard. Basses do not need adjusters as pitch can be achieved by the machine heads.

8. Strings: There is a vast range of strings available. Most beginner instruments come with metal factory strings fitted. These are fine, but the quality of tone is limited. Upgrading to better quality metal strings helps both the tone and tuning. Other strings are made with a synthetic core or natural gut core, all usually wound with metal. Seek advice on the brand, tension and tonal qualities of your strings.

9. Bow: Bows come in sizes to match the instrument. Usually made from wood (or fibre-glass/carbon fibre). Choosing the right bow is important.  Check when you look down the length of the bow, is it straight?When you look side-on, does it have a camber? Does the bow feel right in the hand (if it’s too heavy it will be difficult to control, too light and it may jump about). Does it tighten up smoothly? (Too stiff and little hands will find it
difficult). For advice ask both your teacher and the shop.

10. Left-Handed Violins: Nearly all violins are right handed. Occasionally a left-handed violin is made if the student cannot hold the instrument or bow conventionally. Beware of so-called left handed violins as these are invariably right handed ones with the strings and bridge turned round.