While visiting a friend recently, he showed me his new music room and pointed out a Guitar, which was a gift from his wife. He told me that it was a respected brand instrument and expensive, but he didn’t play it. When I asked why, he responded that he didn’t like the feel of it. This wasn’t an instrument that he looked forward to playing. Rather, he never seemed to play it and when he did, it was out of a sense of obligation. For me, the lingering question that I felt compelled to address for my friend and for others searching for an instrument for themselves is, “what constitutes a good instrument”?
There are many places to begin, so let’s start at the end. The right instrument for you is the one that feels good, is fun to play and hear and will go where you want to go in the creative process. There is no criteria above how an instrument feels for the player – this is the ultimate test. Now, if you have selected a number of options that fit, we can start to explore some of the more measurable characteristics. Many musicians will agree that a fine instrument is one that can be tuned easily and remains in tune. In contrast, no one wants an instrument that’s a beast to get in tune and won’t remain there for very long. Constant tuning of an instrument is a nuisance.
Of course, the sound of an instrument is of paramount concern, although a great sounding instrument that does not feel good to the player will still not inspire that player. What constitutes a “good” sound is subjective and will depend on the what the player has in their head, the music that they want to make and the type of instruments that will play with them. This consideration becomes more complex when you evaluate how an instrument resonates across registers of pitch and ranges of dynamics. Other variables such as the variety of types of strings, mouth pieces, reeds, skins, etc. have an additional impact. Is the instrument versatile in the sounds and colors that it will produce? Keep in mind that all instruments are capable of a range of sounds and it would be rare indeed to find an instrument that will give you the right sounds in every situation, which is why professional musicians who play in a variety of situations and styles often own multiple instruments. If you are going to own one instrument you will want it to be able to respond to you for the music that you envision making.
Your budget is often a major consideration. Some instruments can range in cost from hundreds of dollars to millions of dollars. Store bought and mass produced instruments can also have a broad variety of prices. First get an idea of what is out there, identify the price point where you want be and then compare and contrast your options. Sometimes you’ll need to modify your budget up slightly to get what you want. Over a lifetime of musical enjoyment, a difference of hundreds or even a thousand dollars will be negligible.
It can be a life-long quest to find that instrument that seems to play itself, that makes you feel that everything is effortless and excites you with its sound. Until you find that perfect musical partner, you will probably own other instruments. Maintain a high standard as you audition an instrument beginning with how it feels and sounds to you. You have to like the sound if it is going to inspire you to play, practice and create. The cost of the instrument and the brand can be an indicator of some aspects of their quality, but they have no relevance to whether or not the instrument is right for you!