Where to buy a guitar, mandolin, banjo, ukulele …?

Where should you buy your next guitar, mandolin, banjo or ukulele or …?

Here’s the choices:

  • Guitar ShopLocal Musical Instrument Store. I always feel good about supporting a local business. But your town instrument store probably has a limited selection instruments. It probably only carries mass produced instruments and yet may not carry the top names (Gibson, Martin, etc.).
  • Regional High End Music Store. You’re lucky if your local store carries hand made quality instruments or is an authorized distributor for Gibson, Martin, Taylor and the others. Still, you might have such a store with 25 or 50 miles and the trip could be worthwhile. Their prices are likely higher and they may not have a good selection of instruments in the lower price ranges.
  • Big Box National Chain Music Store. These stores are a mad house on weekends. My wife refuses to go into them with me. They have a huge selection of instruments including well known names and the prices are generally about the same as online. But they have none of the quality instruments from smaller luthiers. They also probably don’t have the better quality imported brands (e.g., Eastman Guitars and Mandolins). Until recently, they didn’t have any on site service. That is changing for some locations.
  • Large Online Discount Musical Instrument Store. Find the most popular brands and instruments online. You can’t try them out first but you generally have a liberal return policy so if you don’t like your purchase or it isn’t setup correctly, you can return it. You pay return shipping but you’re not stuck with a bad instrument.
  • Specialty Online Music Store. These may or may not have a brick and mortar presence somewhere. But they specialize in one type of instrument or style of music. They are passionate about what they do and want everyone they deal with to have the same passion. That means they need to excel on service. They setup new instruments so they play perfectly and so you’ll fall in love with your new instrument.

The choice of where to buy your next new musical instrument often isn’t consciously made. You might make a decision just on price. The best prices are usually from large music stores with online ordering. Then again, sometimes you just happen to pass a music store and an instrument catches your eye. You go in and fall in love and must have that instrument now. It’s more difficult to argue with falling in love but neither decision may be the best in the long term.

Earlier this year I purchased a new mandolin. I’ve owned a mandolin for decades but I would never claim to be a mandolin player. However, I was going through a phase where I wanted to start playing again and wanted a better instrument. The mandolin choices in most local music stores were very limited. The instruments were either too inexpensive or too expensive.

The best acoustic instrument store in the area didn’t have any mandolins for less than about $500. If you are a professional or even a serious amateur this is cheap. You can easily spend thousands on a good mandolin. F-style instruments cost more. But I’m a casual player and it’s not my primary instrument. I wanted a better quality A-style mandolin with solid wood top and only wanted to pay a few hundred dollars at most.

Kentucky mandolin

I ended up getting a nice Kentucky mandolin on sale from one of the big online stores. Big online store do not include an instrument setup in the cost. When I received the instrument, even lowering the bridge thumbscrews as far as I could did not allow the action to be setup optimally.

Although I’ve lowered the bridge on flattop guitars, the mandolin bridge needed to be sanded to fit the curve of the arched top. I ended up paying for a setup from a local shop. They did a great job on the setup and my mandolin now plays great. The setup cost nearly a$100. Even with the cost of the setup, I got a deal. However, this may not always be true.

Many local shops only have a technician stop by once a week and they may only be trained for the more common setups. Setting up a solid body electric guitar, even adjusting the truss rod, is fairly straight forward. But these same technicians may have little experience on classical guitars, ukuleles, banjos or mandolins.

I am currently researching ukuleles. Where should I buy? Online I get a fair selection of mass produced ukuleles, a great price but no setup. Locally, some stores will be able to provide some setup but will it include leveling the frets if needed, lowering the nut as well as the saddle or changing the nut and stringing from high G to low G tuning? The selection of instruments is not very good from most of my local stores. The highest quality imports are not sold at the stores closest to me.

I can find a better selection of quality, handmade, solid wood ukuleles at the better local stores. There are only a few of these stores within a fifty mile radius. But can I find a good selection of the better quality imports in the price range I’m willing to pay?

There are some specialty shops online that include a setup in the price. These stores specializes just in mandolins or just in ukuleles. The owners are passionate about the instrument they support and want you to enjoy the instrument as much as they do. Therefore they make sure all the right things are done so you get the best instrument before they ship it to you. This might be the best compromise. But it will probably be on an instrument I’ve never tried.

Part of the quandary for me is that I do not have a problem paying extra to support good service and a local business but I cannot find a local business that provides the services I need nor the selection of products I can afford.

Here’s what should be included on a good setup (note that this may not be the order in which the steps are performed):

  • If the instrument has a truss rod, check the relief and adjust if needed.
  • Check the action at the nut and lower the nut if needed.
  • Check the action at the bridge and lower the saddle if required.
  • Put on fresh strings of the desired gauge. These should be the brand and type you intend to use. On a ukulele, you should be offered a choice of low G or high G tuning so the nut can be adjusted for the string width of the G string.
  • Check for string buzz and if found, check to see if frets are level. Level and crown the frets if required.
  • Check the intonation. If the instrument has a floating or adjustable bridge, correct the intonation.
  • Finally, there are the personal preference adjustments. You should be able to, within reason, get the action set to your preferences. If you are an aggressive player you probably need higher action. If you play mostly finger style as I do, you might prefer a low action setup.

I’ve sometimes had arguments with the service department technicians who refused to lower the action to the low end of what most manufacturers and experts agree is acceptable. I understand not lowering the action beyond this because it increases the chance for string buzzing. But I’ve been playing guitar for over fifty years and know I have a light touch. I also know how low Gibson, Martin, Frets.com and others recommend the action be set and my request fell within this range.

The bottom line is that it is more difficult than ever to find a good selection of quality beginner or low cost amateur musical instruments that includes basic setup. Where do you go and what do you do? Local music store? Big online discount store? Specialty online instrument store?

I wish the choice could be the local music store but I believe the future is specialty online stores.

Online Specialty Shops (some examples)

Mandolins

Ukuleles

All instruments

One of my favorite online instrument stores is Elderly Instruments. Their store is located in Lansing Michigan. They setup most instruments they sell but check the description online or call them. Some of the less expensive items are sold “as is”. Still, you can find a number of inexpensive instruments in every category that they will setup before shipping to you.

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2 comments

  1. Hi Dan,
    I was checking out the hits to our website and noticed quite a few came from the link on your blog. So, I wanted to check it out. Nice informative article! Yes we are passionate about ukuleles and we go through everyone of our instruments to set them up for optimal play-ability! Thanks for your support for us small specialty shops.
    Hey if you’re ever in Atlanta please stop by and visit!

    Happy Strummin’,
    Mike McQueen
    UKE Republic

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