Looking to buy a musical instrument? Hit the right notes with these tips from Chattanooga music shops

Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Ben Salter at Hixson's Giant Steps Music Corporation
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Ben Salter at Hixson's Giant Steps Music Corporation

Steve Daugherty, owner of Red Bank's Folk Music Store, likes to sit by the front door of his shop, playing a stand-up bass. He greets his customers by sliding the instrument their way and saying, "Can you hold this a second?"

Then he briefly wanders away to busy himself among his impressive collection of banjos, guitars, mandolins and mando guitars (guitars with mandolin necks).

"You have eight strings on a mandolin and typically five on a guitar, so you get a different sound," Daugherty says of the unusual instrument.

The goal, he says, is not necessarily to make a sale as much as it is to put instruments into hands and build a musical community.

When shopping for a new instrument, it pays to have a relationship with a local music store.

"We want people to become lifelong musicians," says Ben Salter, repair technician at Hixson's Giant Steps Music Corporation, specializing in orchestral instruments: saxophones, trumpets, trombones, for example. "We don't want people getting frustrated and giving up."

In the market for a new instrument? Here, Daugherty and Salter offer three points to consider before making a purchase.

Beware of (Most) Online Marketplaces

Online marketplaces have made it easier to find instruments, especially specialized ones like accordions or steel drums. But, Salter warns, "There's a lot of real junk out there on the internet."

Many instruments are made cheaply and will play for only a few months, he says. "If you see something online and you're not sure if it's quality, come to the store and show us the link. We can tell you honestly if it's a good buy or if you're getting ripped off."

Moreover, he says that most local music shops would probably be happy to help customers track down specialized instruments. For example, while Giant Steps doesn't stock accordions, "we do have an accordion contact we can put you in touch with," Salter says.

When all else fails, Salter recommends reverb.com.

"It's like an eBay specifically for music equipment, and, by and large, it's good quality," he says.

Do You Really Need a New Instrument, or Just a Tuneup?

Almost every day that he's open, Daugherty says a customer will come in with an instrument they've been told is broken.

"We find that more often than not, they don't really need a new one," Daugherty says. "The strings on their guitar might be old; the neck might need an adjustment. We'll just get a screwdriver out and have the thing set in less than a minute."

Giant Steps is also equipped to repair brass, woodwind or stringed instruments, covering anything from easy adjustments to complete overhauls, which Salter says make up the majority of their business.

Try Before You Buy

A new saxophone can easily cost $2,000, says Salter.

"We get plenty of adults who played years ago, gave it up and are now dipping their toes back in," he says. "It's a big leap of faith to spend that kind of money."

The same is true for school-age band students, a demographic comprising a big part of Giant Steps' month-to-month rental program. Beginner musicians can rent instruments such as flutes, clarinets, trumpets or bell kits for less than $50 a month. And if they become more serious about playing, Giant Steps offers an interest-free rent-to-own program.

The point, says Salter, is not necessarily to sell instruments but to support a person's lifelong love of playing music — a common thread among many local music stores.

"We want people in this for the long haul," he says.

Learn more at giantstepsmusic.com or on Folk Music Store's Facebook page.

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