Musicians buy gear. The value of gear is expressed in terms of price for performance–what you pay versus what the stuff does, how well, and for how long. Either lowering the price, or increasing performance (if the increase is actually usable) increases value. I offer up a few ideas on how to save money on gear below. I’ve used all of these techniques with success, and they may be useful to you too.
1. The easiest way to save money is to buy rarely or never. Ask yourself whether you really need whatever it is you’re about to buy. The best reason is that you’re going to use it on paying gigs (ideally better-paying gigs; otherwise why are you upgrading the gear?) for sure–in other words, that the gear will earn its keep. Another good reason is that you need better gear because you’re a better player than you used to be. The worst reason is that you want to buy something that does what something else you own does already. When you have five delay pedals and two reverbs, you’re not making things easier for yourself, and you’re definitely not saving money on gear. (Professional recording engineers may have three different reverbs, but nobody else should.)
2. Figure out what you really want the thing to do. If you’re thinking about a delay, for example, what sounds do you expect to make with that delay? Where do you intend to use it–on stage or in studio, for example? More and more devices now are purpose-built, and more money spent on a device built for a different purpose than yours doesn’t necessarily get you closer to the sound you were really looking for, so figure out what the box has to do to give you that sound. At the very least, be able to name artists who are getting the sounds you want, even specific songs, so a sales person will be able to figure out what gear matches to those sounds. If the songs you plan to reference are in any way obscure (meaning that a 25-year-old salesman won’t have heard it, or can’t dial it up immediately on the Internet), bring copies of the songs with you on an mp3 player or something.
3. Research the gear. Go to harmony-central.com and read the user reviews. Go to Musiciansfriend.com or Guitarcenter.com and do the same. Find out what the stuff costs new, and what a factory second costs. You can’t know whether a deal is a good deal until you know what an ordinary deal looks like.
4. To save the most money, buy used. I recommend that you buy used from an online dealer like guitarcenter.com to reduce risk to an absolute minimum. The slight premium you pay for a 15-day warranty is worth it if you don’t want to take a chance on getting stuck with gear that’s broken or just doesn’t make a sound you like. Wait until the gear you want shows up in good or better condition at a 50% discount from new, then buy, fast. I’ve bought gear on eBay when the price was right and the seller looked okay, but I generally prefer guitarcenter.com both for price and piece of mind.
5. The next least expensive option is to buy a factory refurb or factory second. These can be glitchy–somebody returned it for some reason, and the reason 1) may or may not be consequential to the device functions, and 2) may or may not have been addressed before it went out for sale. But factory refurbs and factory seconds generally offer full factory warranties at a 15-20 percent discount over new, and usually they work well. When they don’t, you use the warranty, which I’ve done at least once.
6. The rarest circumstance, but one of the big opportunities, occurs when a manufacturer upgrades its product line, and immediately sells off any inventory remaining from the previous line. Discounts of 50 percent on new gear in the box are not unusual in this situation. However, for you to take advantage of it, you need your wish list to be up to date, and you need to know what stuff will work for you; if you need a reverb, for example, and some manufacturer starts selling off their discontinued reverbs, you need to know whether those devices are going to do the job you want them to do. Go back to step 3 (research the gear) before proceeding in that case.
7. If you’re in it for the long haul, buy stuff that will last. When you’re just starting out, there’s no point buying top-of-the-line gear. Once you know you’re going to be in it for the long haul, you still may not buy top-of-the-line, but don’t buy the cheapest stuff out there. A five dollar harmonica might be okay for a few weeks, but you’re going to need something better as soon as you decide that you really want to play the thing.
Final comment: the process described above is time-consuming the first few times you do it, and it’s time spent not playing music. One very good way to save money on gear is to not buy it very often. When you buy, look for a piece that sounds good to your ears, fills a clear need, and is durable. In other words, get more mileage out of every purchase, and don’t make many.