The New Instrument Dilemma: Renting vs Buying

Feb 3, 2015

With January come and gone, many New Year’s Resolutions have already gone with it. Some for decent, rational reasons, most not. And while making music a bigger part of your life is a fairly common resolution, it also happens to be one of the more common ones to fall by the wayside. There are many reasons for someone to not follow through; learning to play music is often a much more time consuming activity than people realize at first, some people decide quickly that the instrument they thought they were interested in is just simply not for them after all, but usually the biggest hurdle is the price tag associated with an playing music. It can be quite a shock to actually see how much the instrument alone will cost, let alone any lessons.

On the surface this may seem like a perfectly rational reason to decide not to learn to play, but that just may not be the case. The simple fact is, in most cases, you don’t absolutely have to purchase your instrument. Many locations all over Canada will happily rent instruments to those interested in learning. That being said, sometimes it is well worth it to make the investment yourself, and buy. The trick is knowing the difference, so this week we’ll take a look at the pros an cons of buying and renting musical instruments.


Renting may seem like the most obvious option, for a few big reasons. First and foremost, you are not shackled down by the often huge price tags associated with musical instruments. Even the smallest of band or orchestra instruments can represent a large monetary commitment, which can be extremely scary, especially if you are not sure you’re going to like the instrument. Renting offers a certain amount of flexibility that buying does not, and many parents of beginner musicians take this route because there is so little risk involved if their child decides to quit or switch instruments. In most cases rental agreements are simple verbal contracts, so returning the instrument early, or trading it in for a different one is as simple as coming back in to the shop and having a brief conversation. It also means you aren’t stuck with trying to figure out how to sell an unwanted instrument, or let it collect dust.

Another benefit of renting is that you get to mostly avoid any maintenance or repair costs. Every instrument requires the occasional bit of maintenance, and every once in a while, something gets broken and needs to be repaired. Rental agreements often include this sort of work, usually because the store owns the instrument and wants it in good working order, but in the end it amounts to less of a headache for you.


With all the cost saving pros associated with renting, you may be thinking that’s the way to go. But hold on a minute, we’re not quite done yet. It is true that most rental agreements roll the costs of repairs and maintenance into the price, but if you’ve rented through a school or school program, getting those repairs done when school is out can be difficult.

Another big pitfall that comes with renting is the actual rental agreement. As I said, many are just verbal contracts, but many places will try to entice you with “rent-to-own,” or “equity buildup” arrangements. These may look appealing on the surface, but beware! In most cases you end up paying a significant amount more in rental fees than the instrument is actually worth. But the amount you pay isn’t the only reason to think about avoiding these arrangements. Initially, you or your student will be playing on an instrument that is perfectly suitable for beginners, however as time goes by and your skills improve, you may need to move to a higher quality instrument. This is not something you can do easily in a “rent-to-buy” arrangement.


Okay, you know that you’re going to be playing this instrument for a while into the future, you know you want to make the investment. Let’s look at buying your instrument. Actually purchasing an instrument is a pretty large commitment, but regardless of who actually spent the money, that commitment can translate straight through to the student as well. Whether you are buying for yourself, your child, or whoever, making that commitment shows that you are confident that whoever is playing will learn and develop into a musician. This confidence boost is fantastic for learning, encouraging the beginner musician to make the most of the expense, even if the beginner is you.

And speaking of the expense, in the long run it will be cheaper than renting. Accepting that a decent quality instrument is going to cost a pretty penny, you can still find quite a number of them at relatively inexpensive price points if you shop around a bit. Student quality instruments often run at or around $500, and higher quality used instruments can be found for $1000. If you can find a good quality instrument it can pay for itself very quickly.

While shopping around you may be tempted to look online at sites like eBay. This is great for finding more inexpensive instruments, but there is one final pro to think about, and you can only get it from a physical brick and mortar store: a warranty. Buying online might be a bit cheaper, but if you purchase your instrument in person you will have the added advantage of a warranty, and an honest, well informed idea of the kinds of repairs and maintenance that should be done in the near future.


The biggest problem with buying is that you probably don’t really know what you’re looking at. And that’s okay, as a beginner you really shouldn’t, but the instrument you end up with may not be of the best quality. When it comes to band or orchestral instruments, you really get what you pay for. Say you’re looking for an alto saxophone, and you find one under $1000. You might get excited by this, but if it isn’t a name brand you could end up with an instrument that produces poor sound quality, bad intonations, or flimsy keys and mechanics. The best way to avoid being ripped off like this is to make sure the store has a return policy, then have a professional try out the instrument for you.

But say you’ve done your due diligence, checked out the brand, tested the instrument, and your confident in your choice. The next problem with buying is that your repair costs are no longer included. Repairs can be expensive, especially if you are purchasing a used instrument, and if a student is not careful, those costs can snowball quickly.

In the end you simply have to try to use your best judgement when deciding on renting or buying a musical instrument. Generally speaking, it’s best to start with renting. This allows a student to try out an instrument with very little pressure to stick with it if they don’t like it. It saves money during the first months or year, while keeping you in a low risk situation. Once a commitment has been made to the instrument, however, it’s usually better to return the rental and spend the money to buy one. After a year or so, with continued interest and practice, making the investment will save you lots of money in the long run.