Buying New or Used Instruments

The correct number of instruments to own is n+1. While the minimum number of instruments one should own is three, the correct number is n+1, where n is the number of instruments currently owned.Velominati, the principle of bike ownership

In my teenage years, I owned a rather nasty looking horn that I bought from a particular used instrument shop in Clarke Quay area. Here’s how bad it was: It sounded so badly that when I brought it to the band practice, I couldn’t tune it properly with the rest of the band, the valves were leaking, intonation was bad. Some notes are perpetually flat by 30 cents, others notes using the same fingerings are sharp by 20 cents on the tuner. $350, so it was. But hey, having an instrument is better than not having one right?

One day, after saving enough money through part time work selling luggages and apparels, I decided to buy my first brand new horn. Oh my God, what a difference it made to my playing experience.

While used instruments are a good buy for some people, new instruments are a great choice for others.

Here are a few things I debated before choosing between a new or used instrument:

Cost. In most circumstances, new instruments cost more than used. But over the long-term, not that much more. In fact, there are some instruments that appreciate in value over time. (Think Mark VI Saxophones, Rauch horns). How much budget do I have for this hobby that doesn’t generate any form of income for me? This is probably the most important question to answer before any instrument purchase.

Resale value. Initially, I didn’t have this consideration at all. After all, I would probably just play whatever instrument I got for as long as I can instead of selling it. I was so wrong about that. Having an instrument with good resale value can considerably decrease your total cost of ownership, should you decided to sell it in the future.

Reliability. Above all, I wanted to get an instrument that wouldn’t break down easily. Imagine having constantly to deal with the clanky valves or a vibraphone with electrical issues. I am busy as it is and I want to avoid instrumental repair issues as much as possible. However, that doesn’t mean to say a used instrument cannot be equally reliable or more reliable than new instruments.

Junk or not. Buying an instrument takes an enormous amount of time. How well maintained are the key mechanisms and the valves of the used instrument? I planned to have this instrument for many years and I didn’t want another piece of crap (at least that was my thinking then, until the n+1 theory came about). Often than not, buying a used instrument includes factoring a budget for overhaul. As a result, this baseline requirement reduced the disparity between new and used prices. In other words, I wouldn’t save a million dollars getting a used instrument because I wanted a pretty good instrument, regardless.

Age of used instrument. One way to check would be to refer to the serial number of the instrument. If the instrument is older than you, you will probably have to think twice about buying it. Of course, it doesn’t mean a relatively new used instrument is better either. There are claims that the golden years of a bassoon is around the 5th to the 7th year. For professional brass players, the valves tend to wear out after the 3rd year. 

Previous owner. Does it matter whether the used instrument was previously owned by a beginner student or Arnold Jacob? How would that affect the instrument in all aspects? There are rumours of instruments taking after the player’s “blowing characteristics”. To what extent does it affect the new owner?

Advantages of Buying New Instruments and Old Instruments

New Instruments

Customisation: Chances are, you can customise a new instrument just the way you want it, or at least have the dealer search for one with the right combination of options such as material, design, and resistance etc.

Brand New Feel: A new instrument hasn’t been in any mishaps, hasn’t been mistreated by unknown evildoers, doesn’t smell funny, has seen no wear or tear, and comes with a clean history that includes only being checked and tested at the manufacturer.

Warranty: Most manufacturers provides new instrument with warranty. When required, you can send it back to the dealer or manufacturer to rectify/replace the instrument.

Innovation: The newer the instruments, the more modern the innovation that’s packed inside. Removable leadpipes, reversed leadpipe, detachable bells, adjustable barrels, stopped valves, adjustable braces, additional trill keys, etc.

Financing: Some dealers offer financing packages or hire purchase packages on new instruments. If you do not have budge for the ultimate instrument yet, remember to plan your finance first, check your deals before buying. The cheaper instrument might not turn out to be the better deal in the long run.

Maintainence: Some new instruments, mainly those from specific dealers, craftsman or custom shops, include free scheduled maintenance for a certain amount of time. This built-in cost saving should be considered in the final price analysis if applicable.

Used Instruments

Price: Comparing apples to apples, a used instrument is going to be less expensive. The relative advantage of the used instrument price can also allow a buyer to step up to a nicer model. For example, instead of an intermediate model new instrument, the same budget might be sufficient for a professional model used instrument.

Depreciation: Most instruments lose value with each passing month, but the steepest decline happens right away; some models can lose 20 percent or more of their value in the first year. With a used instrument, resale price is pretty stable.

Care: There’s also no need to worry about the first ding or dent in the lacquer or plating because chances are the instrument’s previous owner or owners took care of those for you.

Heritage: There are some instruments with specific historical value and quality concerns. The Elkhart Conn 8Ds are one such examples where the used instruments produced before the shift to Texas and Ohio are still very much preferred.

Some new instruments, mainly those from specific dealers, craftsman or custom shops, include free scheduled maintenance for a certain amount of time. This built-in cost saving should be considered in the final price analysis if applicable.

In conclusion,

  • The reasons to buy new or used instruments aren’t the same for everyone;
  • Depreciation is the single largest expense of instrument ownership, if you have the tendency to sell the instruments you buy;
  • Used instruments in general require more tender loving care, as well as time and money.

Unfortunately there is no one-size-fits-all answer. There are sound reasons to buy new and sound reasons to buy used.

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