Learning to play a musical instrument is challenging enough.... finding a quality instrument shouldn't require a PhD or a second mortgage on your home! Our Guide to Selecting a Woodwind Instrument should answer most of your questions and help you choose a horn that will give you years of enjoyment and satisfaction.
Should I rent an instrument? It depends. If you or your child are not sure you're going to stick with an instrument, then renting for short time might be a good idea. It buys you time to see if you enjoy playing and want to continue. Be sure the rental plan allows you to opt out after 3-6 months with no penalty. That's usually enough time to decide. Beyond that, renting makes very little economic sense. Most rent-to-own plans amount to little more than high interest loans. Very high interest. And the purchase price of the instrument is the retail list price. That's the highest price you can pay. You will do better by buying an instrument outright. Once you are sure you want to play, get out of that rental plan!
Should I buy a new or a used instrument?Again, it depends. If money is no object, then run right out and buy the horn you want. Use the information on brands, below, to help you make your choice.
If you're on a budget, and most of us are, then buying a quality used instrument is definitely the way to go. A woodwind instrument is a machine. Some of the parts (pads, corks, felts) wear out and can easily be replaced by good repair person. As long as the structural components of the horn (body, keys, screw and rods) are in good shape, it can be made to play just as well as a new one. You'll save hundreds of dollars on the purchase price by going with a used instrument that's in good playing condition. But be careful! There's a lot of junk out there...
What brand should I buy? Today's market is flooded with inexpensive woodwind instruments from China. They're available in big-box department stores, music stores and online. They seem like a great deal. A brand new clarinet for $79.00? A saxophone for $229? Why not? Here's why not. These instruments are flimsy and poorly designed. They will never play in tune because the tone-holes are put in the wrong places. The keys are made of extremely soft brass and bend easily, throwing the instrument out of adjustment. The pads are ludicrous; made of cheap materials and impossible to seat. We do not work on these instruments because they are more trouble than they're worth. DO NOT BUY THEM.
Instead, focus on name brand companies that have established reputations as makers of quality student instruments. One company that excels in this regard is Yamaha. Whereas some companies specialize in flutes or saxophones, Yamaha has a great track record with the entire woodwind family. Like many Japanese products, they're well made and hold up over time. They play in tune and are ergonomically designed. We especially like their saxophones (YAS-23 alto, and YTS-23 tenor).
Other brands worth considering are:
SAXOPHONES 1. Selmer/Bundy. Bundy used to be the student line of the Selmer company, one of the finest makers of woodwinds. The Bundys play OK, but are awkward to hold. Selmer now markets a line of instruments under the Selmer, USA brand. 2. Vito. Buy only the ones marked "Made in Japan". They were made by Yamaha and are identical to Yamaha saxophones in nearly every way. Don't bother with the other Vitos. 3. Conn. Conn was once the premier American maker of saxophones. The company was bought and sold too many times to keep track of, and their quality suffered. Some of their older, vintage horns like the Chu Berry, 6M (alto) or 10M (tenor) are great instruments to begin on if they're in proper playing condition. The more recent Conns (the "shooting stars" models) are made in Nogales, Arizona. They're adequate but of middling quality. 4. Keilworth. Made in Germany, Keilworth makes great professional level saxophones. The ST-90 is their student offering and is a very nice horn. 5. Jupiter. A bit on the flimsy side, but many of them play quite nicely.
FLUTES Student flutes are made of brass and plated with either nickel or sterling silver. Some good flutes to consider: 1. Yamaha. Easy to play, nicely designed, good quality. What more do you want? 2. Gemeinhardt. For many years Gemeinhardt has been the standard bearer in student flutes. Solid, American craftmanship. 3. Emerson. Made by Emerson DeFord. A very decent, well made flute. The earlier ones were made under the DeFord brand, and can be reconditioned to play pretty well. 4. Bundy/Selmer. Like their saxophones, the Bundy flute was the workhorse of American made student flutes. There are loads of used ones out there to be had pretty cheaply, but you'll spend a bit putting them in proper working order. Newer models are under the Selmer, USA nameplate. 5. Artley. Artley was another American maker of fairly dependable student flutes. The company is now defunct, but there are plenty of used ones still in circulation.
CLARINETS All student clarinets are made of plastic, as opposed to professional models which are made of Grenadilla wood. Some beginner clarinets to consider: 1. Yamaha. Once again a top pick, for the reasons stated above. 2. Selmer/Bundy. Very decent clarinets. There are many old Bundy's out there. Newer models bear the Selmer, USA nameplate. 3. Buffet. Buffet is perhaps the greatest maker of French clarinets in the world. The company also produces a student line, which is made in Germany. A very nice student horn. 4. Vito. This is the student line of the LeBlanc company. Leblanc, along with Buffet and Selmer, makes fine French clarinets. Some of the Vito clarinets were made by Yamaha and are stamped "Made in Japan".
You should also consult with your music teacher to see if he or she favors a particular brand or model. Learning to play will be easier if you're not fighting the instrument. Your teacher may have valuable insights.
How do I find a good used instrument? There are several sources for used horns. Ask your friends and neighbors. They may have clarinets or flutes that their kids played in school but gave up on. Check local tag sales or church bazaars. Classified ad newspapers will often have them. But keep this point in mind! Always arrange for the sale to be contingent on an inspection by a qualified repair person. That way you know what it will cost to have the horn brought up to playing condition. Nearly all instruments purchased this way will need repair. For some, it's a few minor items and the cost is quite reasonable. For others, it could mean a complete overhaul, an expensive proposition. It's better to know before you complete the deal. At Tim Moran Woodwinds, we're happy to inspect your prospective purchase and give you an evaluation of its condition and an estimate of the cost of repair. There is no charge for this service.
Another source for used horns is eBay, but here, again, caution is in order. The problem with online auction sites is that you can't clearly see what you're bidding on. You depend on a fuzzy photograph and a description written by someone you don't know. The potential for abuse and fraud is enormous. I know, because I've purchased horns on eBay. They rarely arrive exactly as described and they all need work to bring them up to playing condition. Some sellers will allow a return if you're not satisfied, but it can get complicated, and expensive. Be very careful!
A third source for quality used instruments is a reputable dealer with an on-site repair facility, like Tim Moran Woodwinds. We know woodwind instruments inside out, and we maintain high-quality pre-owned horns in stock. Prior to sale, all instruments are dis-assembled, cleaned, and then re-assembled. We replace any worn pads, corks or felts; lubricate and adjust the mechanism; and play-test the horn to make sure it is working properly. Our certified used instruments come with a full one-year warranty. If anything goes wrong with the instrument during the first year of ownership, we'll fix it. In our shop. Right away. You don't have to send the horn off to Elkhart, or Japan for warranty work. That's peace of mind! Please take a few minutes to browse our selection of quality used instruments. If you don't see what you're looking for, or have a question, contact us. We'll do our best to help you out. We love what we do; helping people find the right tools for musical discovery!