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Should I buy or rent a student instrument?

buy or rent

“Should I buy or rent a student instrument?” As the owner of Centreville Music Shop in Centreville, VA, USA, I encounter the customers who have this same question every year. I have run the business since 2007 but it is not easy to answer this “buy or rent” question. Please read this edit and make your own decision.

Drawing from my experience of selling and renting a variety of musical instruments and accessories, I want to share information about renting and buying and about the best student-grade instruments in the industry to help the parents who will decide to buy. The information about the instrument will focus on student instruments, as my experience is limited to being a small music store owner dealing mainly with beginner to intermediate levels.

I won’t provide rankings like some review sites; instead, I’ll list the best models and accessories known in the industry to help parents of young musicians or those starting to learn an instrument without prior knowledge. Let’s start with the instruments young musicians typically use in school music classes.

Buy or Rent?

Nearly all parents of young musicians and beginners face the question, “Should I buy or rent?” Renting is an affordable and attractive way to try an instrument without a significant upfront investment. Most rental programs in the USA have no obligation to buy, allowing renters to return the instrument after the rental contract term ends.

Renting is a preferable choice for stringed instruments as students often outgrow them within a year or two. However, when a student uses a full-size instrument, it may be more cost-effective to buy instead of continuing to rent for several years.

While most rental programs offer a rent-to-buy option, these programs differ, and customers may not be aware of the variations. Many rent-to-own programs only credit 12-24 months of rental fees or allocate only 50-80% of the fees towards the purchase. Consider violin rentals, where students often start with a ½ or ¾ size. Most kids may not reach full size before the initial 12-24 month rental term concludes. It’s crucial for customers to be aware that rental credits may cease after the term, and continuing to make payments may not contribute to eventual ownership.

The cost of renting can be much higher than purchasing an instrument outright, sometimes exceeding 100% more than online stores or even the same store’s in-person prices.

In conclusion, renting is an excellent choice for most beginners. Still, after a year of trial, purchasing may become a better option, especially if the student is committed to playing for more than two years.

Where to Buy?

The ideal way to purchase a musical instrument is to do so from an offline store after physically testing the instrument with someone knowledgeable about it. While this may not be feasible for professional-grade instruments, professionals always test instruments before purchasing.

If a student has a private teacher, going to the store with the teacher to choose an instrument, if the teacher is willing, is a good option.

Music stores come in various categories, such as piano stores, wind instrument shops, guitar shops, violin shops, and general music stores. I will focus on violin shops, wind instrument shops, and general music stores.

Violin shops, often owned by luthiers, individuals with expertise in violin making, are the most knowledgeable about stringed instruments. They offer better setup and service for beginner instruments, albeit at a potentially higher cost. Wind music stores, with their repair facilities, are suitable for renting or purchasing wind instruments. General music stores, while common, may have a smaller stock and less specialized instruments.

Local or Online Stores for Rent or Purchase?

Avoid renting from online-only

rental companies. Searching for “online instrument rental” may yield results from various online rental companies. However, these companies lack the capability to provide unforeseen services or regular instrument checks that local stores can offer.

Online rental companies might offer free shipping, but this is insufficient for a musical instrument rental. Customers may need to pack and ship the instrument back to the company, dealing with minor issues that local stores could easily address. The costs are not significantly different, and better deals can often be found in local stores.

While purchasing instruments online is a viable option, it’s essential to note that local stores are better for trying out instruments. Online retailers, however, offer free shipping and returns, providing a wide selection for comparative pricing. Online musical instrument stores are suitable for beginners and intermediate students, with prices often consistent due to the Manufacturer’s Minimum Advertising Price (MAP) policy.

How are Cheap Online-Only Brand Instruments and Accessories?

String Instruments: Many cheap instruments sold by online retailers often exhibit quality issues and are brought in for repairs or upgrades. Instruments priced under 60% of major manufacturers’ student models are generally of poor quality.

These instruments, especially violins and violas under $250, or cellos under $600 often have problems and defects. They may use cheap strings, low-quality wood, and plywood bodies, resulting in poor tone quality.

Even if made of solid wood, these instruments may produce subpar sounds. Setup problems, unplayable bows, and warping wood are common issues.

Repair costs for these cheap instruments can surpass the instrument’s price, making renting a better option. However, a few string instruments available online are set up well with good tone, and I will list these acceptable instruments.

Woodwind Instruments: Similarly, student saxophones, clarinets, and flutes purchased online, particularly from the popular brand Cecixxx, often have low quality. The market price for these instruments is under $200 for clarinets and flutes and under $400 for saxophones. Issues with keys made of soft metal are common, leading to frequent repairs. Some flutes and clarinets may be repairable, but technicians are often hesitant due to the soft keys. Saxophones under $400 are popular but face similar problems with soft keys.

It is advised not to buy these cheap flutes and clarinets, as they may result in more expenses than buying from major manufacturers.

Are Online Musical Instrument Stores Good Places to Buy?

Some online stores, such as and, are the online counterparts of major instrument retailers. Others, like, are online-only stores and good places to buy student instruments.

However, instruments available only on,, or from individual sellers are generally of bad quality. These instruments lack repair parts, are made of subpar materials, and demonstrate poor craftsmanship.

If you are willing to pay slightly more than the cheapest models, one can find better-than-average quality instruments online. I’ve encountered instances where instruments purchased on Amazon, such as the Jean Paul saxophone, exhibited higher quality than major online instrument retailers’ own brand instruments.

How Are Big Online Instrument Retailers’ Own Brand Instruments?

Some online retailers have their own brand of student-grade instruments, often sourced from manufacturers rather than having an in-house development department or factories. While these instruments are usually subpar, they are better than the cheap instruments from individual retailers.

What About Major Brand Models Available from Online Retailers Not Specializing in Musical Instruments?

Major brand student models available on are generally genuine. Some may not be intended for the US market and lack a manufacturer’s warranty but are returnable for free. However, some professional models sold online may be counterfeit instruments. A significantly lower price compared to other sellers is a red flag. The same applies to accessories like violin strings; if the price seems too cheap, they may be a counterfeit.

If you’re considering renting, we may be your best choice. Take a moment to weigh the pros and cons of our rent-only plan without an option to buy. Our rental prices are significantly lower than those of our competitors.

Buy or rent decision after a school year trial is the best option…

Should you decide to make a purchase after the initial 10 months of renting, we offer a special discount on any instrument we have in stock or can order. Opting for a rent-to-own program might entail a much higher price than buying upfront.

For those looking to buy a student instrument, the models listed below are recognized as some of the best in the market. In fact, some are available at prices lower than those found in the internet market.

Before making any purchase, please inquire with us to see if the instrument can be acquired through us.

The provided links will lead you to safe and reliable online marketplaces. Here, we’ve compiled a list of highly recommended student instruments endorsed by string teachers, band directors, and private instructors.

Thank you for reading “buy or rent a student instrument…”

Jin Sung Kim / Owner Centreville Music Shop

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