If you or your child have just started taking lessons, or are starting soon, you've surely considered purchasing an instrument. There are so many options and opinions out there that it can be overwhelming! Reviews on websites like Musican's Friend, Guitar Center, or Amazon can sometimes give way too much information, or not the right kind, leaving you feeling more clueless than when you started!
Here are a few guidelines, which can be especially helpful to those of you studying guitar or piano, though other instrumentalists can benefit as well!
Acoustic vs. Electric
Do you want to go acoustic or electric? With guitar and piano specifically, and to a lesser extent some of the traditional stringed instruments like violin and cello, electric can provide a level of versatility that can be really fun to work with. Electric instruments can be amplified, allowing the player to plug in and play in a number of group settings very quickly.
Electric instruments are often smaller and easier to play, and more portable as well. This comes with a caveat though. Often, a number of accessories such as cables, amplifiers, and even pedals can be required for the musician to get the most out of the instrument. There is also the chance that expensive electronic components can get damaged over time, and these can be costly to replace.
How about acoustic? These instruments provide the immediate response that so many of us love. Want to play your piano? Sit down and go for it! Want to play guitar? Pick it up and strum away! No assembly required.
These instruments are often known for their warmer sound and for their lively touch. Acoustic pianos tend to age well when cared for properly, and they really resonate in a way that electric pianos can't. Acoustic guitars are incredibly portable and boast a rich tone that can't be mimicked by an electric instrument. Plus, who doesn't love playing guitar around a campfire?
Acoustic instruments can be a bit limited in their applications in the real world though, unfortunately. Acoustic pianos must be tuned at least yearly to keep a wonderful tone, and this cost of ownership should definitely be factored in as a yearly maintenance cost. They're also not terribly portable, so if you move frequently, this might not be the choice for you.
If you're in the market for an instrument, you're probably already thinking of where you'll keep it, once you bring it home. If you have a dedicated room or space in your house that can handle an acoustic piano, upright bass, or harp, go for it! I always advocate getting the best instrument you can afford and can reasonably house.
However, if you're in an apartment or if your space is otherwise limited, you may consider holding off on buying that baby grand until you have more space. Nobody wants to have to make the choice between having a mattress or an instrument!
If you're going the electric route, don't forget about the accessories that you'll need to purchase and store alongside it as well.
The last thing I'm going to mention here is the neighbors. If your walls are paper thin, you (and they) may really enjoy the flexibility of an electric instrument, which can be played with headphones on, so it's essentially silent. However, if you know your son or daughter is probably going to crank it up to 11, you might start with something a little quieter.
There are many affordable options out there for beginners. While I have said many times (once in this post even!) that you should purchase the best you can afford, I understand that most people want to determine if there is long lasting interest and drive to play before investing potentially thousands in a professional quality instrument.
This is completely reasonable!
For young pianists, many parents want to start with a keyboard. And while these are an inexpensive, portable, and space saving option, these keyboards often are outgrown quite quickly. So, while you may be able to find a $150 keyboard to get your child started, as soon as s/he begins trying to play songs that require more than the 46 keys on that instrument, you'll find yourself in the market once again.
Another side note about inexpensive keyboards is that they often don't have the responsiveness of a piano. The keys don't have any kind of hammer action and often feel "plasticky," making it very hard for beginners to master piano technique and intonation.
However, there are some really great stage pianos out there, with 88 fully weighted keys that feel and sound much like an acoustic piano, without taking up the same amount of space. I'm a fan of the Casio CDP 130 or CDP 135, which are essentially the same board. These really give you the best bang for your buck, as far as lower end stage pianos are concerned, and run about $300.
For beginner guitarists, there are many "package deal" options, but often these are very, very cheap, and are outgrown quickly. These instruments often have very cheap hardware. I've even seen brand new guitars from kits like this where the switches are corroded straight out of the box!
Often you'll have a lot of luck getting a used guitar from a local shop or from a friend. You can usually get a much better instrument for the price than what you could get new, and it will take longer to outgrow it.
If you're a beginner, there are many options that will serve you well. Whether you decide to go the acoustic or electric route, your private lesson instructor can often make some great recommendations, so don't be afraid to ask questions!