Thursday, April 9, 2015

Instrument upgrade: How, when, what, should I be looking for?

This turned into a rather long and involved post. I encourage everyone to read the entire thing, but if you are looking for a specific instrument, I suggest using CRTL+F on your browser to find the instrument you are looking for. Enjoy!

Good afternoon musicians!

At some point, as we all grow in music, several questions must be asked:

  • When should I upgrade my instrument?
  • What instrument should I get?
  • How do I go about getting the instrument that I want?
The answers to these questions can vary from instrument to instrument, and differ in circumstance. Below I will attempt to address some of the things that all advancing musicians should consider, and then some instrument-specific details to worry about.

When should I upgrade my instrument?

What instrument should I get?
These questions are difficult, only because it ends up being the most personal of the questions we ask. The simplest answer is that you should upgrade when you feel as though your current instrument is no longer meeting your needs, and you should upgrade to an instrument that meets your current playing needs.

Whether those needs involve an overall sound, or something specific you wish to be able to do, only the person playing can say with any small amount of certainty that a new instrument could be helpful.

Here are some instrument-family specifics:

Orchestral Strings:

You lot have the easiest time at first, because you start out needing a new instrument as you grow bigger. Once you reach that full size, the timing becomes more difficult.

Many students use their student-level full size instrument through high school, and for many music becomes a hobby after that, and so a new instrument may not be necessary ever again.

For advanced students, or students wishing to make a career playing music, I would suggest you upgrade to a better quality instrument as soon as you are financially able, and as soon as you are able to locate a good, quality instrument.

Here at the store, we have several fine intermediate/step-up level instruments available for advancing young musicians. If you are looking for something on a professional level, I would consult your private teacher, or a local university string professor.

When looking for an advanced instrument, handmade instruments are usually higher in quality, both in the materials selected, and the care with which the instrument is put together.


Many brass students move up to their step-up instrument at the beginning of, or halfway through high school.

Trumpet players will be advised to look into a Silver plated trumpet, usually a Bach TR200S or the Yamaha YTR-5335GSAL or similar.

Either of these fine step-up instruments will serve throughout high school. If continuing in music, many trumpeters seek out the ever popular Bach Stradivarius, which is considered one of the, if not the top, pro level trumpet. At the very least it's name is recognizable and popular.

Trombone players will be looking for a trigger trombone to move up to, which adds more notes in the low range, and offers not only a larger bore (and rounder sound) but the trigger also offers more note playing alternatives. Many trombone players stick with a Bach trigger trombone, but there are many out there.

French Horn:
French horn players should move into a double horn at their earliest convenience. Yamaha makes some great intermediate horns, and having the double horn makes it much less difficult to play high notes, as well as rounding out the horn sound.

Baritone and tuba players should consult either with their band directors, or the local college professors, if they are looking to purchase their own instruments. Even at the college level, school will provide these larger instruments as long as they have enough to cover everyone, but if you are more advanced, or wish to move past playing your instrument in college, a pro-level horn is a necessity. Unfortunately for tuba players, pro-level tubas vary greatly for a number of reasons we won't get into here, but suffice it to say, you should consult with your professor to find the best tuba for your situation.

The biggest thing to remember when stepping up in brass instruments, is that the higher quality horns usually have a larger bore, which may require a new mouthpiece. This will feel odd at first, but will help to develop a more mature sound to help keep advanced players sounding fantastic.

Don't get rid of your student horn if you can avoid it though! They are fantastic for marching band!


Woodwind players also tend to move up throughout high school, or into college. Consult with your band director if you are interested, or wondering if they think you should move up.


The student brands that make great flutes, Gemeinhardt and Yamaha, also make decent step-up instruments. Also at the intermediate level, you will find that the Amadeus line by Haynes is very well-recommended.

For flutists, you should look for an open-holed flute, with either an inline, or offset G key. The difference is mainly in comfort for your fingers, so you should try to get your hands on the instrument if you can.

A foot with a low B will also be beneficial in the long run, but may not be necessary. When in doubt, ask your private teacher, band director, or the local University's Flute professor for guidance.


Clarinet players should look to move up to a wooden flute. Buffet, even after being bought by Conn-Selmer, still offers some great wooden clarinet models.

Be careful with all wood clarinets, as they are able to crack in conditions that are too dry. In order to maintain the humidity levels for the instrument, keep your instrument in a safe, cool, not too dry place, and in the winter, leaving a french orange peel in your case can combat cracking.


If you are looking for an intermediate-level oboe, the best thing you can do is research, research, and research. You will definitely want a wooden oboe, and take care with humidity and temperature as oboes are much more likely to crack than clarinets.

Most oboists will swear by Lorée oboes, and unfortunately for prospective buyers, oboes hold their value very well when taken care of, and are usually the most expensive woodwinds aside from bassoons. It is best to consult your private teacher or the local University Oboe professor for help finding a quality instrument that will suit your needs.


Bassoons are somewhat of an enigma to me compared to many of the other instruments on this list. Off the bat, I can say that Fox bassoons are rather well-regarded, but beyond that, I encourage you to again, talk to your private teacher or a local University professor for specific guidance on what to look for.


Okay, so, saxophones are kind of my thing (if you hadn't known that already) so hold on to your hats.

First, my personal experience:

I was one of those kids who knew fairly early on that he wanted to do something with music for the rest of his life. Because of that, my mother and I decided that we should skip over intermediate saxophone land, and hit a professional model right away. For us, it was a money-saver, and since I still play to this day, 12 years after purchasing that horn, I would say it was money well-spent.

Now, if you do not know if you will play this instrument beyond college, an intermediate model will be just fine. I highly suggest putting your money into an Alto sax, as they are the least expensive, and most schools will have tenors, baritones, and sopranos available (at the college level) for you to use. It could be worth it to invest in your own mouthpiece for the larger sizes, however.

Brand-wise, the most popular and well-reviewed horns are Selmer, Yanigasawa, and Yamaha, usually in that order. Selmer has been the big name in saxophone for years, but recently Yanigasawa, a Japanese saxophone company, has been taking over a little bit. Yamaha, like with many things, makes a really decent instrument, especially considering they make practically everything.

No matter what horn you end up with, I highly suggest making sure you have a High F# key, as well as the hardware on your F key to push the G# key closed more easily, for a better seal (and for some advanced sax techniques that utilize pushing down extra keys to change the pitch or tone of a note).

If you do not know what lies ahead, an intermediate model will be great to last you for the rest of your life, but if you want the edge in quality, spring for the pro model.

For any woodwind instruments larger than these, similar guidelines should apply, though you still want to consult someone before grabbing a Bass Clarinet, or a Soprano, Tenor, or Baritone saxophone.


Good news percussionists! Except for a snare to practice at home, and the various mallets and sticks needed, you don't usually have to provide most of the needed equipment. For those of you who like to practice at home, finding various instruments can be useful, but aside from a drum kit for your band, you should only need to invest in quality sticks and mallets, unless you want to be/need to be the person who provides an awesome triangle, tambourine, or other accessory instrument.

If you are looking for a drum kit, do your research, and attempt to try out a few. The best-sounding kits will all have shells made of the same wood, and then you just need to take care to adjust tensions, and put quality heads on them.


For guitar upgrades, I suggest doing your research beforehand. Ask around on forums and ask other guitarists about instruments that usually put out the sound you are looking for.

For many players, looks and sound can go together, but for others, they can be very separate entities. The most important thing when looking for a new guitar, is knowing what sound you want, how much of that sound can come from your amplifier (for electric) and how much of that may come from pickups in the instrument.

Most music stores, ours included, will offer a variety of instruments at different price levels. Figure out what your price point is, and what kind of sound you are looking for, and go from there.

If you are playing mainly for yourself, having one guitar available is probably enough, but if you are in a band, you may want a couple of instruments. The reasons for this vary from group to group, and from person to person based on the funds available, but aside from the guitar-collector bug that goes around, multiple instruments can offer multiple sounds and setups, just like amplifiers.


Bass purchases can follow the same thought lines as guitarists, but many bassists go for one bass that sounds good, and can then be modified through an amp or effects to suit their needs. Granted, not all bassists operate that way. The biggest concern for bassists is pickup arrangement, and how many strings you need. Many bassists work well with a 4-string, while other absolutely need a 5. 6-string basses are not as common, but still have their uses. Research which one may be best for you, and start from there.


It used to be that having a piano in the house was fairly common. People would use it as a place to meet, play, and enjoy some time with family and friends. Nowadays, with fewer folks learning, and not as much space available for instruments, most people overlook the idea of having a piano in the house.

I suggest, for the best use of a piano, getting the highest quality, 88-key piano you can afford and fit into your space. Many electronic pianos are of a high enough quality to learn piano on, and they come in a variety of price points that should make it easier to bring a new keyboard into the house.

Acoustic pianos are always going to sound better, until speaker and sample technology is further improved, but the electronic ones that exist now are pretty fantastic. We work with KORG, which is one of the big names in electronic pianos, and they have a fantastic selection for anyone looking to add a compact, but great sounding piano to their home.

For any keyboard, look for weighted keys, and make sure you play the instrument to test out sound response, and how well the keyboard sounds overall.

You may be able to get by with a smaller-sized keyboard, but the majority of smaller instruments do not have the high quality of samples that come from 88-key instruments.


As long as you have the passion, and the drive to better yourself as a musician, and as long as it doesn't send you spiraling into a mountain of debt, upgrading your instrument can provide several benefits:

  • Higher confidence in playing
  • Larger, rounder, higher quality sound
  • Faster response to note changes
  • Longer-lasting (as long as it is well-maintained)
  • Greater ease in playing extreme ranges (very very high, or very very low)
  • They usually look much cooler than student or beginner level instruments
How do I go about getting the instrument that I want?

If you are wondering how to find the instrument that you want, and I didn't mention it above, do research, and ask people more experienced than you for their opinions. Although you may not end up agreeing at some point, folks who have been playing for many years are a great place to start for guidance.

Do your research, then ask your local music store (like us!) what they have available, or what they may be able to make available to you. The biggest thing with any new instrument, once you have an idea of what you are looking for is: TRY THE INSTRUMENT OUT BEFORE PURCHASING.

You will have no idea if the recommendations are right for you until you can play an instrument for a little bit, to see how it responds. We DO NOT suggest purchasing an instrument unless you get to try one out at some point.

My last bit of advice in this long-winded post, is to always keep practicing, and making yourself a better musician. No matter how great your instrument is, it will only marginally improve the quality of sound you put into it. Be aware of your technique, and strive to always better yourself to get the most out of your instrument upgrade.

We can always help in this endeavor, so make sure you check with us when looking to upgrade and we will see what we can do for you!