Whether searching for your first instrument or your tenth, this article provides advancing musicians with the knowledge they need and an instrument evaluation plan that includes a check list to ensure your success.
Unfortunately, in today’s marketplace there are conflicting messages that make it difficult to know which instrument is right for you. Don’t worry, we cut through the noise, focus on the things that matter and make sure your search for that next special instrument is a rewarding and fruitful experience.
Many of you have found your way to this article because you submitted an instrument questionnaire form telling us a little about what you are looking for in your next instrument. Based on your responses, we were able to present three instruments that you should try. You also received (or will soon receive) a few short email messages that very briefly describe what is contained in this article. If you have not completed this questionnaire and would like to receive our suggestions and messages to help you succeed in you next instrument purchase, please <click here for a personalized list of the three instruments we think you should try>.
The journey to find your prefect “partner” is sure to explore a wide range of instruments. Each instrument displays subtle differences and presents itself in a variety of ways. We have found that the difference between each instrument can generally be broken down into three categories: Tonal Quality, Playability, and Character. Although simple, the way these categories express themselves and interact with each other in an instrument will make the difference in whether or not it is right for you. Your ideal instrument should embody traits that complement your chosen playing style while teaching you how to improve your playing.
Please note: This article is a comprehensive overview that is intended to provided advanced and advancing musicians with everything they need to help them select their next instrument. If you are a beginner, student or intermediate level player many of the ideas and concepts explained here may not yet apply to you. We are developing another version of this article that will be more helpful to you at this point in your journey – Coming August 30, 2021 with its associated instrument evaluation check off list.
Let’s get started!
Tonal Quality: Overview
Tonal quality can be described as the overall sound of the instrument. Although your personal preference for tonal quality is a major part in instrument selection, an instrument’s tonal quality can play a large role in how well it will perform in different ensembles and environments.
Tonal quality can be broadly described using Warmth, Clarity, and Evenness. These three parts can additionally be broken down into a myriad of descriptions that all influence the overall sound of each instrument. Each of these traits affect how successful your instrument will be in helping you achieve your musical goals, based on your ensemble and style/genre preferences.
Tonal Quality: Warmth
What is it?
It is a term used to describe the character of the sound of the instrument and is typically described as one of three things:
- Warm – These instruments have a deep, “dark” tone to them. They are often more mellow-sounding and can sometimes (but not always) have a “fuzzy” quality to them.
- Bright – These instruments have a sharp, brilliant quality to their tone. They are often perceived as having a more “aggressive” sound and usually excel at making themselves heard.
- Moderate – Neither excessively warm nor bright, these instruments are the Goldilocks of the tonal world. These instruments tend to be good for blending and can be used in a wide variety of situations.
Why is Warmth Important?
Warmth contributes to the overall mood or feel of your playing. An instrument with a warmer tone lends itself to a “cozy” feeling, whereas an instrument with a bright tone can feel uplifting and free. Tonal warmth is a subjective quality so go for an instrument that you enjoy hearing under your ear.
Tonal Quality: Clarity
What is it?
The term “clarity” refers to how clearly you can hear each individual note as it is being played. An instrument’s clarity is typically described as one of three categories:
- Focused – A concise sound with little or no overtones. This can also be described as having a clear or clean tone. Instruments with a focused tone make it easy to differentiate each individual note as it is being played, regardless of how fast or slow you are playing. Due to the small amount of overtones, the note you are playing is the note you hear.
- Overtones is the term used to describe how resonant your instrument is. They are often described as providing an “echoey” quality to the sound. An instrument with lots of overtones is frequently referred to as having “complex overtones” whereas an instrument with few overtones is frequently referred to as being “direct.”
- Full – A well-rounded tone that contributes to a “thick” quality to the sound. This term typically refers to an instrument with lots of overtones which can provide added “padding” to the note you are playing, due to the resonant nature of the instrument. Some instruments with a full tone cannot react quickly enough and can sound “muddy” or “fuzzy,” especially in fast, technical passages of music.
- Moderate – Much like a moderate tone, this is a term used to describe a sound that does not lean excessively towards a focused or full tone.
Clarity can sometimes be a little more tricky to determine than tonal warmth, as an instrument can often embody combinations of various aspects of clarity. For example, an instrument can produce a clear sound, but have lots of overtones, resulting in an instrument with a full, clear tone.
Why is Tonal Clarity Important?
Clarity can play a large role in whether an instrument is better in an ensemble or solo situation. If you are in a solo situation it is important that your part – each individual note – can be heard clearly over background instrumentation. Conversely, if you are performing as part of an ensemble such as an orchestra or quartet, it is important that your instrument not stand out too much.
Clarity can also contribute to the mood of the music you are playing; a thick, fuzzy tone can help evoke a warm and cozy or melancholy feel whereas a brilliant, clear tone can contribute to a joyful and lighthearted or aggressive feel, depending on the type of music being played. While it is impractical to have a variety of instruments for every mood, it is important to keep in mind the overall feel you wish to evoke when playing your instrument.
Tonal Quality: Evenness
What is it?
Last, but certainly not least, is how “even” the instrument sounds. Evenness can be described as how easily the sound transitions from one string to the next as well as how well the tone holds when playing higher up the fingerboard – ultimately how the tone and clarity changes or stays the same across strings and at various positions along each individual string.
Ideally you are looking for an instrument that changes tone and clarity as little as possible, regardless of which string you are on or in which position you are playing. Evenness is made apparent in two different dimensions:
- Across Strings – When testing for evenness across strings, you will want to listen to the overall tone of the instrument as you transition from one string to the next. You should be listening for the following:
- Does one string sound louder than the rest?
- Is there a tonal difference between any of the strings? (Is one string warmer, brighter, fuller, thinner than the others?)
- Do any of the strings seem to have difficulty producing the notes (or a single note)?
- Up the Fingerboard – Once you have determined the evenness of sound across all four strings in first position, test how well the instrument holds its tone as you play further up the fingerboard. This technique is not necessary for all levels and styles of playing, but if you plan to shift into higher positions it is extremely important to test this tonal aspect as well. If you are just starting out in higher positions you should ask a friend or teacher to perform this test for you. When testing evenness in higher positions, be on the lookout for the following points:
- How clear are the notes as you progress up the string?
- How difficult does it seem to get the notes to sound?
- Are there any odd/harsh sounds as you progress up the string?
- Does the tonal quality or thickness change as you progress up the string?
Later in this article we will address the best way to test for evenness so you can be certain you are performing an equal trial across instruments.
Why is Tonal Evenness Important?
Evenness contributes to how smoothly you can execute a passage of music without certain notes or strings jumping out from the rest because of the nature of the instrument. This is important in all styles and genres of music as an uneven tone can be jarring both to the listener and the player.
An uneven instrument can also make playing frustrating, as an inability to clearly produce a note, be it in first position or in higher positions, can make a player feel as if they are doing something wrong, even if their technique is correct.
Putting Tonal Qualities Together
Although each individual aspect of tonal quality is important on its own, the way they all fit together is what will give you the overall tonal quality of your instrument. Every combination of warmth, clarity, and evenness contributes to the overall character of the instrument, a topic we will explore a little later in this article.
The balance between warmth and clarity in particular is important to consider when evaluating the tonal quality of an instrument. A very warm instrument with a full sound and complex overtones most likely has a thick, rich, potentially fuzzy sound. This instrument may struggle to produce clearly articulated notes in faster, complex passages. Alternatively, a very bright instrument with a clear tone and few overtones is more likely to have an aggressive, potentially abrasive tonal quality. Although it will most likely excel at producing clean, clear, articulated notes in faster, complex passages, the lack of warmth or overtones can lend itself to a piercing, thin, or nasally sound.
This combination of tonal characteristics also results in an instrument’s tonal “color.” Tonal color is a combination of warmth and overtones. The blend of the two qualities creates a unique sound which can also help define an instrument’s character.
When trying out instruments carefully consider which aspects of warmth and clarity are the most important to you and your playing style and then find a balance between the two to produce the tonal quality that will support your playing the best.
Have you ever tried to play a passage of music and felt like you just couldn’t do it, no matter how hard you tried? This struggle is directly tied to your instrument’s playability. Although any new or advanced technique will be difficult initially, an inability to progress with the passage or technique is a sure sign you are struggling against the playability of your instrument.
What Defines Playability?
The overall construction, set up, and quality of an instrument is what determines how quickly the instrument responds and therefore how easy it is to play.
What impacts an instrument’s playability?
- Setup – This is critical to the playability of an instrument. A proper setup consists of an expertly fitted bridge, a properly scooped fingerboard, correct spacing of the strings at the nut and the tensions (string length from nut to bridge and bridge to tailpiece). The fittings (strings, pegs, tailpiece, etc.) along with the proper and precise positioning (setting) of the sound post are essential to playability. Even 1/10 of a mm in fitment in the soundpost can make the difference between excellent and average playability. This all affects how easy it is to play from string to string and in different positions, as well as how easy it is for the sound vibrations to resonate freely. Proper setup and adjustment of the instrument is so important to playability and sound it will be discussed in a separate blog.
- Neck and Fingerboard Thickness – How thick or wide an instrument’s neck and fingerboard is can make a considerable difference in playability depending on the player’s own hand shape and size. Someone with smaller hands will most likely struggle to play an instrument with a wide neck, whereas someone with larger hands may find it less comfortable on a very thin neck.
- Wood quality – As with any item, the better quality the materials are the better quality the finished product is. Here are some easy ways to identify good wood quality:
- Tight wood grain – One way to determine the quality of wood is to look at the top and back of the instrument to assess how tight, straight or consistent the wood grain is. Instruments are made with a spruce top and maple back, sides and neck. The grain can be identified as the lines running vertically from the top (at the neck) to the bottom (near the end button or tailpiece). In general it can be said that the tighter the grain, the better the quality of the wood and the more easily sound vibrations will pass through the instrument to produce a good tone.
- Craftmanship – Of course, excellent craftmanship, attention to detail and proper and precise graduation of the woods from the maker make the difference in the playability of the instrument.
Playability becomes apparent in quite a few ways. Regular playing as well as advanced and extended techniques are all factors affected by an instrument’s playability. In order to be sure you are testing for these many factors when trying out an instrument, here is a brief list of techniques and skills that will help identify the instrument’s playability:
- Scales – Scales in first position as well as scales using shifts will allow you to feel how comfortable the instrument is for you, check finger spacing and compare ease of shifting.
- Double Stops – These will help you determine how freely the instrument resonates and if the fingerboard and neck are a good thickness/width for your hand.
- Harmonics – Hearing these help determine if the instrument’s setup is even across all four strings and exposes how resonant and responsive the instrument is.
A more detailed list of techniques and how to implement them is included in the “The Instrument Trial Process” section of this article.
Why is an Instrument’s Playability Important?
Although tonal quality is a major factor in choosing an instrument, playability is arguably the most important aspect of your next instrument. If you are constantly struggling to successfully complete a technical passage it will not matter how good the instrument sounds. In order to progress as a musician you will need an instrument that helps you reach your aspirations and works with you to tell a story through your music.
At last, we have reached the final category in our instrument search. You may be wondering, “If tonal quality and playability are so important and I’ve checked those boxes, what else could there be?”.
That’s where our third point, Character, comes in. An instrument’s character is the most personal and subjective aspect of your instrument decision process. Sometimes an instrument can have the perfect tonal quality and be easy to play, but something is missing. Much like any good personal relationship, an instrument should contain qualities you appreciate and should support and assist you in reaching your goals as an ideal partner in your music. Character is not defined by an instrument’s quality, craftsmanship, or price, but rather can be heard in the way any instrument expresses itself.
What Exactly is “Character”?
As mentioned above, character is a rather difficult and subjective quality to define. It could be as complex as an indefinable unique quality to the instrument’s sound or as simple as the instrument just feeling right as you play it. Since no one except you can determine if an instrument’s character is good or bad, let’s start by identifying a few of the things that can help you recognize an instrument’s character:
- A good instrument will teach you how to play it. Similar to playability, an instrument with a complementary character knows when you are in tune and using good technique and rewards you for it. However, unlike generalized playability, character tends to be expressed through responding well to certain styles over others. For example, some instruments will respond quickly and accurately to a classical style, but sound and feel resistant to a more folk or rock style. Other instruments will excel in a folk or traditional style, but struggle to clearly express a classical style. Much as you have preferences in your playing style, instruments often seem to have their own input on which styles of music they enjoy playing!
- The instrument “speaks the same language” as you do. Much like translating between languages or playing the children’s game “telephone,” you can lose parts of the music’s message during the process of transferring what is in your head to what comes out of your instrument. Having an instrument that understands the message you are sending and can easily relay it with the same kind of language and wording is key to sharing your music with the world. Although the ideal instrument should expand your vocabulary and clean up your phrasing, it should have a similar starting basis in order to enable expression beyond the playability of the instrument.
- Character can be a unique tone or quality to the instrument, like a different language or accent. Think about the music you hear on the radio and what makes one singer’s voice stand out to you more than others. Sometimes having a unique sound is what made that person famous and has become a trademark recognizable across genres. For example, compare Dolly Parton, Rush, and Michael Jackson. You may love them, hate them, or be indifferent to them, but you have to admit they are all immediately recognizable all the same. Much like a singer’s voice, instruments can express character in their “vocal” quality – they can be nasally, resonant, gravelly, or have a quality that comes across as an “accent.”
- Character is like a friendship. When you meet someone new, they usually fall into one of four categories: Sometimes you just click with someone, sometimes they grow on you, sometimes you’re both indifferent, and sometimes you’ll just never get along. Just like every person is unique, instruments are much the same. Two instruments by the same maker can have different “personality” and be versatile with different genres of music. Sometimes character is more of a feel than a sound, very similar to situations where two people can look compatible on paper, but not click in real life. At the end of the day, it comes down to how easy it is for you and the instrument to interact as a whole.
Why is an Instrument’s Character Important?
To answer this question, we’re going to ask you to take a moment to think of any group project you have ever done. I am sure you can think of at least a few situations in which you and another group member just didn’t see eye to eye. Whether it was a difference in opinion, a different methodology, or a personality conflict, this inability most likely created a situation that at best caused delays in the process and at worst resulted in frustration, anger, and a less than satisfying end result.
Just like group projects, when you are practicing and playing your instrument you are working as a unit to achieve a spectacular end result. Constantly fighting with your instrument in order to produce your ideal sound or phrasing will be similarly disheartening with an end result that will take longer to produce and may or may not ever be exactly what you intended. Although tonal quality and playability set the stage for the perfect instrument, finding an instrument that matches your playing style makes expressing yourself through music that much easier.
The Instrument Trial Process – have a plan
In a group project you often do not have the luxury of selecting the ideal partners to guarantee success, or you do not have the opportunity to try out the partnership before being locked into a commitment. Thankfully, when going through the instrument selection process at Atlantic Strings you are able to take multiple instruments on trial so you can be sure you have a partnership that works.
Now that we have identified the important points to look for in an instrument, we need to address the best way to compare them from one instrument to the next. Throughout your trial process it is extremely important to make sure you are giving each instrument an equal playing field. This allows each instrument the opportunity to showcase its virtues and character across its full tonal range and in different stylistic situations.
Instrument Trial Check List
We know this information can be a bit difficult to process all at once, so to make your life easier and to be sure no important steps are skipped we have created a printable instrument trial checklist that covers all the important factors in your trial <click here to download the Atlantic Strings Instrument Evaluation Checklist for Advancing musicians>. With the hard part taken care of, just relax and have a read through the following tips we have assembled to ensure an effective and fair trial between instruments:
Instrument Trial Plan
- Play scales. Play scales with a particular focus on the instrument and not on what you are playing. Start with a slow, even scale that begins on the lowest open string and goes up through the top string. This should give you an idea of the feel and sound on each different string and will allow you to find the correct positioning for any shifts without being rushed. Once you have completed the slow scale, paying attention to the tone and finger spacings, play the same scale at a faster pace. This allows you to see how comfortable the instrument feels to you, how good it sounds to you and how well it works for you without choosing an extremely difficult passage of music. Play the same scale(s) on each instrument. It can often be useful to do two or three scales:
- A scale that stays in first position the entire time. This will display the evenness and overall tone between each of the strings.
- A scale that starts on the lowest string and goes up through various shifted positions on the top string(s). This will display tonal quality and evenness in the upper register of the upper string(s) and allow you to experience how easy or difficult it is to shift between positions.
- A scale that starts on the lowest string and completes a full octave or more just on that string. This will display the tonal quality, projection, and ease of shifting, especially on the lower strings, since an instrument’s sound is more likely to choke up on the lower strings than the upper strings when in higher positions. This scale can be repeated on each of the four strings.
- Play a piece or segment of a piece you know extremely well. You will want to choose something that is not too difficult. This allows you to experience an instrument’s playability, tone, and character without struggling with technique or memorization.
- Play a challenging technical passage (preferably one you know well, but find difficult). Usually this will be a fast, technical passage that will allow you to see how easily you can cross strings, change positions, and find finger placement. It will showcase the instrument’s ability to produce a clear, clean sound despite the fast succession of notes.
- Try extended techniques. You will want to experiment with any extended techniques you use or plan to use in your playing. The two most common extended techniques include:
- Double stops – Test double stops using every string combination. Even just playing a simple scale against the open string above or below should give you a good idea of how easy or difficult it will be to play double stops as well as how pronounced individual notes will sound on the instrument. If possible, try octave double stops to see if you can easily reach the large interval between the notes.
- Harmonics – Harmonics should ring freely, whether they are natural harmonics or false harmonics. This will greatly affect how easy it is to play passages with false harmonics or fast passages that include natural harmonics. Harmonics can also frequently be good indicators of how easily other notes will ring out when playing fast passages.
- Play a passage with dynamic contrast. Be sure to test different dynamics on your instrument. This can be an actual portion of a piece with dynamic contrast, scales, or just open strings. This will allow you to see the instrument’s response and projection.
- Play a variety of musical styles/genres. As we mentioned in the character section of this article, instruments can have definite preferences as to musical styles and genres. Classical musicians will want to be sure to play music from different eras (Baroque vs Classical vs Romantic, etc.) as well as contrasting styles (think of the difference in moods between movements of symphonies and concertos). Musicians with an interest in a variety of styles will want to be sure to play a little bit of music from each genre of interest to be sure their instrument is versatile enough to smoothly transition between styles.
- Play in different locations. If possible, play in several different locations. such as a concert hall, small room and outside (only if safe for the instrument!). This will give you the opportunity to see how the instrument reacts and sounds in different environments. This is especially important for performers, since an instrument’s ability to adjust to and project in various environments can have a major impact on the entire performance.
We understand that this process can seem complex. It’s important to make sure that the people you are working with to find your next instrument understand these points and can help guide you through the process by focusing on the things that are most important to you. A good guide will have a plan that ensures your success, and will not let you fail.
Don’t forget to download your free Instrument Evaluation check list by clicking here