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

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Upgrading your instrument


We've given a rough guide to the cost of various instruments on our Instruments pages. These are the costs for a good student instrument, which will be entirely adequate for several years. Sooner or later, though, you or your teacher will start thinking about something of better quality - by the time you reach about Grade 5 or 6 you will begin to feel the need for an instrument that produces a finer tone, and this can be very expensive indeed.
String instruments
Among the orchestral string instruments - violin, viola, cello and double-bass - it is very common to go for a second-hand instrument. Frequently these provide much better tone than new ones (although a new one from a really good violin-maker can be excellent - at a price), and also offer better value for money. Good quality hand-made string instruments (so not the basic factory-made student instruments, adequate though these are for their purpose) will actually increase in value as they get older, and it is possible to spend anything from £500 to well over £1m - if you've got that kind of money!
They can be a good investment, therefore. Professional violinists, for instance, think nothing of paying five-figure sums, and even their bows will usually be in four figures. Instruments up to 200 years old can be lovely, and not ridiculously expensive. The silly money usually applies to those instruments over 300 years old, especially those made by the famous makers such as Stradivarius, Amati, Guarnarius and so on. But this is the real world - forget them. Incidentally, some older instruments have a label inside with the name "Stradivarius". This either means they are supposed to be a copy of a famous instrument, or the maker was trying it on! This is very common and doesn't matter at all - even if the instrument is a sort of fake it can still be perfectly good and worth buying if you like playing on it.
There is little or no danger in buying an old instrument. String instruments are based on primitive technology and have changed very little for several hundred years. String repairers are incredibly skilled and not too expensive, so almost any damage or deterioration can be made good. Don't buy one with obvious signs of woodworm, though! Just what makes old string instruments so good is a mystery - some say it's the secret ingredients in the varnish used in the past, others think the wood is actually changed in some way with age and frequent use, and most players agree that a string instrument does improve as you use it. Almost all agree that a really fine old string instrument can be a delight to play and hear, and a valuable possession to love and treasure. We know a young violinist who talks to hers!
Finding one is the problem. Very few local music shops carry stocks of older string instruments, so you need to find a specialist dealer which might mean traveling a long way. Your teacher may be able to point you in the right direction, or search on the Internet (try asking your search engine for "uk+violin+dealers"), or in the British Music Yearbook (published by Rhinegold). All violin dealers also sell violas; many sell 'cellos; some sell double-basses. There are not very many specialist cello or double-bass dealers, although they do exist.
Decide how much you wish or can afford to pay, and ask to be shown several alternative instruments. It is normal to be allowed to take one or more instruments away for a couple of weeks so you can try it out and ask your teacher's advice - if the dealer won't let you do this, find another dealer!
In making your choice the most important factor by far is - do you like playing the instrument? It's going to be a big part of your life for years, so any other consideration is minor by comparison. If you don't like playing the instrument more or less straight away, forget it however good other people say it is. Even if it's in poor condition, string repairs are not very expensive. Strings, pegs, bridge, tailpiece etc. are easily replaced, and so is the case. Bows are another matter, though - it's possible to pay just as much for a really good bow as for a violin! You are more likely to buy a brand-new bow than a brand-new violin at this level, and once again the only important criterion is - do you like using it?
Buying a second-hand string instrument from a private seller is also a possibility - perhaps through personal contact, or through your teacher and his or her contacts, or from an advertisement - but in this case you will need to take advice. You don't need advice about whether to buy it, as this depends on whether you like it or not. But you certainly should find a dealer or repairer who can look at the instrument and advise you how much you should be paying for it.
Woodwind and brass instruments
In woodwind and brass the situation is rather different. Most people do not buy second-hand when upgrading their instrument, but go to a reputable maker and simply buy a more expensive and better quality instrument. And the silly prices that can apply to the very best violins certainly don't apply here. If you have reached about Grade 5 or 6, think in terms of less than £1,000 for your next flute, clarinet, saxophone, trumpet or trombone, a little more for an oboe or a horn, and perhaps twice or three times as much for a good tuba or bassoon.
Go to a good dealer, take their advice, try the instruments out in the shop and see what you like playing most. The dealer may sometimes allow you to take one away for a trial, but this is less common than it is with string instruments. As with the cheaper instruments, once you have made a choice you can buy with confidence as there is little or no rubbish on the market.
If you are thinking of buying second-hand, make sure that the instrument is by a reputable maker and don't buy one that is more than fifteen or twenty years old. Even so, it may require an overhaul so get a repairer to check it out for you. Also, make sure you get the instrument checked by a more experienced player - you don't want to buy one that has an unusual key- or valve-system, or that is in an odd key like a C clarinet or the highly specialised "Bach" trumpet, by mistake.