Pitfalls of giving musical instruments as gifts

Giving someone a musical instrument as a surprise is a generous and thoughtful idea. But getting it right can be tricky. Here are some things to consider:

  • For serious musicians, like a student studying with a private teacher, a college music major, or someone who does any kind of (semi-)professional playing, an instrument is a very personal choice. Even if you know what brand and model they have been eyeing, they will probably want to try several, since they all play a little differently. If they are a student, their teacher should also have significant input on any instrument purchase.
  • Nice instruments are expensive, and serious musicians invest in them as something they will use every day and possibly use to make a living. Certain instruments can cost as much as a very fancy car! So, if your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, it might make more sense to make a contribution toward an eventual purchase.

For beginners or more casual hobbyist musicians, their preferences might not be as specific or costly. But if you don’t have some expertise in musical instruments (more than Internet research can provide!) there are still dangers.

  • The very inexpensive “instruments” sold in big-box stores or online megastores are sometimes not really playable instruments but more like realistic-looking toys, despite what they say on the box or website.
  • Used instruments from classified ads or pawn shops may be in unplayable condition, in ways that aren’t obvious to an untrained eye, even an eye that is otherwise good with mechanical things, furniture pieces, etc.
  • If your idea is for a youngster to join up with, say, a school band program, that program might have some guidelines or requirements about what instruments are appropriate.
  • Information you might find on the internet isn’t a substitute for advice from a good private teacher, and music store employees may have motives besides helping you find the best possible instrument at the best possible deal.

If you are thinking about giving an instrument as a gift, consider these alternatives:

  • Buy a young recipient some lessons with a reputable teacher, and have that teacher work with you on eventually upgrading to a nicer instrument.
  • Ask the recipient what smaller-ticket, lower-stakes items they might need, like a new instrument case, strap, stand, etc.
  • Contribute toward (or fund outright!) a future purchase of an instrument to be selected by the recipient. A college-aged student might be gradually paying off the nice instrument they already have, and might really appreciate having it paid off in part or full.

Happy gift-giving!

2 thoughts on “Pitfalls of giving musical instruments as gifts”

  1. As a multi-instrumentalist and woodwind technician, I resonate with this. I regularly am presented with a clarinet-shaped object (or saxophone-shaped or flute-shaped) that “needs a tune-up” for the struggling young musician. While I have proven to myself that such instruments can sometimes be put into ‘barely adequate’ state of play, I would have to bill a customer 2-3 times the cost of their $79.95 clarinet (or similar).

    I have, however, made a reasonably nice business out of buying late model Vito/Leblanc clarinets through (the 7214, V40, 7242 models) and putting them in top playing condition, and charging $250 for the nice ones. I have a couple of my own that I use for outdoor gigs and “at risk” settings.

    This level of economy is much more difficult to achieve on flutes and saxophones, and virtually impossible on non-student woodwind variants (bass clarinet, double reeds, all manner of boehm flutes, etc…)

  2. I also don’t believe musical instruments should be given with any kind of obligation. “You have to play me a song!”
    Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s controlling. Yeah, I was given a guitar in lieu of mine being fixed. The new one came with the “Obligation,” and that its Name. Two years later, it’s been out of its case twice while the broken guitar still needs work but it stays out on display. When it’s fixed, it’ll go in the case and the new one will go in the back of the closet. It’s to late to give it back but maybe not to trade in. Doesn’t help that the Guitar Center guy had to “Show Off,” with it neither. I feel like it’s somebody else’s and in just holding for them.
    Thanks for letting me rant here. Hope it changes a few minds about peoples “Gifting,” expectations. Musicians aren’t trained monkeys and not all of us like to give impromptu concerts.


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