We are all in different musical situations. For some, their instrument is a tool to help them make money. For others, their instrument is a beloved hobby, a leisurely pastime, or a distraction from their normal life. Others might not be professionals yet, but they are SERIOUS about improving and sounding good. For many, their instrument is just something they are beginning to explore. They may not even know if they’ll stick with it just yet!
We are all in different financial situations. There are hobbyists who aren’t hurting for money and just want to buy the best instruments money can buy. There are professional musicians who make money playing music but may not be able to afford the best quality, but they are discerning and need something highly functional without the premium price tag. There are beginners who want to explore something fun and just want something inexpensive but that still plays okay; something that allows them to try something new. There are serious students or hobbyists who need an intermediate instrument, but don’t need a full-blown professional rig. There are also some discerning professionals who are willing to spare no expense in search of the perfect tone.
I don’t pretend to know your situation, but here are some things to consider:
1) Your Instrument Does Not Make You a Better Musician
Not really anyway. Perhaps you’ll practice more if you just had that Steinway Concert D piano. Perhaps you would fight your slide less with a Rath trombone. Maybe you’ve been coveting the tone of a vintage Gibson L5 guitar. Maybe your tone would improve with a Mark VI saxophone or an Inderbinen Wood Flugelhorn. Maybe you desire that mid-Century Martin Committee trumpet sound.
All of these are phenomenal instruments. But are they necessary? You will still sound like you on any of these instruments, but maybe with a better tone and a better action. These are tools that will help you, but they won’t turn you into something that you are not. Practicing your current instrument makes you a better musician, not researching gear and then buying a new instrument.
Always remember that it’s the player, not the gear, that really makes the music.
2) You Can Find a Good Instrument for Less
I wholeheartedly believe that for most jazz instruments and amps, you can find an acceptable instrument or piece of gear for $300-500 if you know what to look for. Sure, it won’t be the best instrument out there, but it’ll do the job. It may be used, and it’s tougher for bassists, pianists, and probably saxophonists. However, I still think you can find a decent piece of gear in the $300-500 price range, whether you’re looking for a guitar, a trumpet or trombone, a PA, a guitar amp, a studio microphone…or whatever.
You can ALWAYS spend more and the quality will go up, even significantly…but you’ll always pay a large premium for gear that is maybe 10-25% better. Keep that in mind. There’s plenty of professional musicians who don’t have the best equipment, but they find something that functionally works for them. Maybe they’ll start saving up for better gear along the way, or maybe not. There’s something to be said for using the same instrument for years.
There are many people who are hobbyists and may never take their instrument out of the house, but they can afford the best gear that money can buy. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, they’ve earned their money!
3) Professionals Have Played on Worse Gear
Gerry Mulligan reportedly played on a student model bari sax (if someone knows more information about this please feel free to comment, I’ve been curious about specifics on that piece of jazz folklore and haven’t been able to find any!) I’d be willing to bet that whatever instrument Louis Armstrong played on in the 1920s was inferior to even some of the student model trumpets and cornets of today. Charlie Parker sometimes played on a white, plastic saxophone because it was what he had available at the time. It didn’t really matter. These cats still sounded amazing! A rank beginner, serious hobbyist, or even a professional can pick up a far better instrument and still not be able to duplicate what these guys could do on a student horn.
Maybe the expensive gear is worth it to you. Great! Buy it. But if we accept the idea popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in something, then I think most of us would agree that it’s better to spend 10,000 getting better at your instrument instead of spending 1,000 hours playing and 9,000 hours researching gear. It’s a funny concept, but it does happen!
In general, I recommend purchasing the best instrument you can afford, taking into consideration how much you are going to be playing and your level of ability. A novice does not really need a professional instrument, though they should have something nice enough that they don’t have to fight their instrument. A poor quality instrument or an instrument that really needs work can make playing a drag. An instrument in poor condition can even cause novice players to form bad habits trying to compensate for problems with their instrument, like a super high action on the guitar, a dented trombone slide, or maintenance issues with a saxophone. An instrument in poor condition makes it more difficult to learn, but unfortunately, a novice may not know the difference because they haven’t played enough instruments to know how things are supposed to work. You always want your instrument to be in good shape. You want to play your instrument rather than fight it!
A professional is more discerning and knows the difference between the various choices available to them. If they can afford the more expensive instrument, it’s often worth the money. However, the Gibson L5 or Selmer Mark VI dream instrument is not always the best choice for the situation, even for many professional musicians. The best quality instrument is not truly necessary to get the job done in many cases.
I recommend buying the best instrument for your budget, taking into account your level of playing, the amount of time that you’ll use the instrument, and whether or not you’ll be making money with your instrument. Also, take into account whether the increase in quality TRULY makes a difference for you and whether that justifies the extra cost.
Let me illustrate these principals with some examples from my own life. Piano is my primary instrument, though I actually play several other instruments. I’ve spent a lot of money on various keyboards over the years because I’ve needed them for many of my gigs. I’ve had several less expensive prosumer keyboards that ended up dying on me after a year or two of constant gigging. Less expensive keyboards haven’t held up for me.
So, now I have two great keyboards, and I choose the correct axe for the gig. My choices are my Korg Kronos and my Hammond SK2. I’m a discerning player, and I care about tone, so it was worth it for me to spend approximately $3,000 on each of these keyboards. Unfortunately, keyboards depreciate in value, unlike acoustic pianos and certain vintage guitars. If I didn’t have a significant number of gigs, it wouldn’t have been worth the money, but since I’m making money with these instruments, I wanted to go with quality instruments with convincing keyboard patches.
If the gig requires mostly piano or rhodes, I’ll take the Korg. If it is primarily an organ gig, I’ll take the Hammond. The Kronos is better at most things, but the Hammond was built specifically to be an organ clone. Even though my Kronos has a better organ sound than most keyboards, the Hammond keyboard is so much closer to the real thing (though I’ll be the first to admit that NOTHING beats a real Hammond B3!)
Even though I love these keyboards, I would not recommend those keyboards to most people, unless they are regularly working as a keyboard player and really need top-notch keyboard sounds. Those instruments would be overkill and unnecessary for most people who just need a keyboard because they need a decent piano sound.
IF NO ONE CAN TELL THE DIFFERENCE, THEN WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
This question sounds like an ironic joke, but when it comes to gear, this is a serious question! I know several pro guitar players who play on guitars in the $500-800 range. They aren’t the best guitars on the market, but they definitely get the job done, and that’s what really matters. Spending an extra $2,000 just isn’t worth it for them because there is a diminishing return for the extra dough, getting a little extra quality while spending a lot of extra money.
Similarly, sometimes people will ask me what keyboard to buy. Before recommending anything I’ll ask a number of questions about what they need it for, what sounds they will be using, how experienced they are (if I don’t know already), and how much they will be using the equipment.
Yes, a premium instrument will sound better. But you’ll pretty much sound like yourself no matter what instrument you are playing. You can become a better version of yourself by practicing, playing in groups, taking lessons, listening…and the gear may not matter THAT much. If you’re picky, spring for the more expensive instrument if you need it and can afford it. But, if you don’t have the money to buy an expensive instrument, take solace in the fact that paying for a better instrument isn’t the same as paying your dues.