What you should know about inexpensive internet instruments!

Like anything else in this world, you get what you pay for, and if an instrument from Joel Smith Music has a List Price of $700.00, and you find a similar instrument on the internet or in a pawn shop that has a List Price of $150…..there are some very important reasons for that price difference.

I (Joel R. Smith, owner of Joel Smith Music) have been an instrument repairman since 1983, and I have worked on instruments that cost well over $10,000, and worked on many (sadly) that only cost $100-$200 Brand New. Below are some of the issues, and problems I see on a regular basis with these inexpensive instruments.

Engineering & Design

The engineering and design of these instruments are often very flawed or shabbily done. Many times a company attempts to copy a successful design, but doesn’t succeed.

Tuning issues, both how well the instrument plays in tune with itself, as well as in tune with the rest of the band are the most typical problems. With many of these instruments it is impossible to play them “In Tune” with the rest of the band.

Another issue with Engineering & Design is that many inexpensive instruments is the “fit” of the keywork and parts of the instrument. Instruments should not have any “looseness” or side-to-side play in the keywork or parts. Specifically in woodwinds, this looseness cause pads to not consistently cover the tone hole, causing playability problems. Inexpensive instruments are actually designed to fit loosely together, so the assembly of the keywork can be done quickly (and much less costly) in a factory setting.

Quality of Materials

Quality of materials is another big issue with inexpensive instruments. One of the ways they keep the prices so low, is to use inferior materials in the manufacture of the instrument. Here’s just some examples of what I’ve seen:

  1. Plastic (instead of wood) Violin Pegs – Plastic pegs break easily, and slip horribly
  2. Soft cast metal  versus Forged Metal Keys – keys that bend too easily won’t stay properly aligned, also key breakage becomes an issue. (if one of these keys break, they cannot be effectively fixed)
  3. Little or no plating on brass instrument valves/slides – The plating  (if any) wears off quickly , allowing the valve or slide to begin to corrode, causing sticking problems.
  4. Extremely thin finish or plating on exterior – Many of these instruments look great out of the box, but very quickly the finish or plating begins to wear/flake off.
  5. Breakage of things that shouldn’t break – I’ve seen things break on these kinds of instruments that I’ve never or rarely seen break on quality made band instruments. (this becomes huge as parts typically aren’t available…..see below)

Quality of Workmanship

Many of these instruments are just thrown together as quickly and cheaply as possible. Numerous times I have had one of these instruments brought in to the repair shop with-in hours or days of delivery and the instrument will not play properly.  Trying to “fix” these becomes virtually impossible, or would be extremely costly.

Replacement Parts

Or I should say, lack of Replacement Parts. Most band instruments are unique in their design and parts, and while there is sometimes inter-changeability of parts, many times there is not. Replacement Parts for these instruments are just not available most of the time.

Learning how to play a band instrument is hard, even when the instrument performs properly, learning how to play when the instrument does not function consistently becomes even harder, if not impossible. Many times I have seen students become frustrated and quit band…not because “they” couldn’t do it, but because the instrument they are trying to learn on, wouldn’t allow them to play and learn properly.

Country of Origin has really nothing to do with this issue, it’s more of an issue of how much time and effort a company puts into the design and manufacture of the instrument. So when the deal seems to good to be true…..it probably is.


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