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  • Writer's pictureCraig Birchfield

The Horror Story!!! Buying musical instruments online 5/23/2014

Cue in the big scary macabre organ music. In the 1960s I would watch a cheesy TV program in LA called Chiller that would show old Sci Fi and horror movies. The announcer would come on in his most ominous voice saying, “It’s time for…Chiller!” There would be a big organ hit playing some ghastly clashing chord and then the paint they used to write the word ‘Chiller’ would run down the screen. I loved that stuff. I heard a horror story today. A young man called me about upright basses. Apparently, he had ordered one on-line (probably through eBamazon) and it was a complete disaster. The lower half of the fingerboard was completely unfinished and actually square and not rounded. Of course, the bad thing about an upright bass is that it costs $150 or more in freight to send back since it won’t go UPS/FedEx ground and has to be trucked. Bummer.

It would at least be comforting to know that his was a unique experience but, sadly, it is not. I wish that I had one dollar for every horror story I’ve heard over the years about buying instruments over the Internet. At the very least I could buy a nice upscale dinner for my family with a generous tip. Whenever I mention stories like this I fear that people are thinking, “yeah, he wants to make a sale so he is embellishing this.” In twelve years of running my violin shop I have not heard a single, solitary story about the really great buy that someone got on a violin, viola or cello over the Internet and you know how people like to brag. I’ve heard big a bunch of them the other way around.

I wrote a blog post a while back called, “Why a cello is not like a toaster oven.” Toaster ovens are manufactured goods that are made in automated factories. The one that you buy over the Internet in probably just like the one that you can buy locally at Ace Hardware (one of my favorite stores), Target, Walmart, etc. Not so with a stringed instrument. They are usually quite raw when they come from the factory and require extensive set up and adjustment – sometimes a couple hours worth. Internet resellers rarely even open the box. They are playing a percentage that no matter how unplayable the instrument is people won’t send them back half the time. Add to this that typically more set-up is required for instruments in a lower price range. Also, there is a culling process that your local shop will do if the instrument has got significant problems out-of-the-box. We send them back to the factory. Most Internet resellers ‘just ship em’.

If you insist on buying a stringed instrument over the Internet at least read the reviews of the seller but even here there is a significant problem. Many on-line vendors spike their feedback with numerous bogus glowing reviews so be careful. Also, if they accumulate too many bad reviews they may just change business names and start with a clean slate. I also suspect that many instruments are purchased for children and though they may not be horribly bad and completely unplayable they are not properly set up and will be difficult to play. The child gets discouraged and stops playing and we blame the child. This happened to me. I tried to learn to play on a horrible stringed instrument when I was a young teen and blamed myself for my failure. Years later I learned how bad the instrument was.

One more plug for your local shop is that they will normally have a very fair trade-up policy which is pretty important if you have growing children or ever plan to move to a more advanced instrument yourself in the future. You also get local service, usually free if the instrument needs adjustment early on. Also, most shops provide a generous local warrant against manufacturer’s defects and will usually replace an instrument that develops serious issues within the warranty period.

So remember, don’t open the door if you hear scratching, don’t stop your car on a dark lonely road, don’t go outside in the woods if there is a full moon and most of all be careful of Internet deals on bowed instruments that sound to good to be true.

Keep practicing,


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