One day while surveying the booty accrued via years' worth of swap meets, garage sales and Pennysaver ads, I realized I could equip a rock trio for less than $100. The gear in question wasn't monkey chow, but a '60s Gibson Firebird snagged for $7, a Sears Danelectro bass for $5, a Fender Princeton for $35, an Ampeg B-15N and a red-sparkle Slingerland drum set for $25 each. You can rock okay with those.
This was amassed years ago, before everyone and their uncle was hip to vintage instruments and before everything started going straight from the attic to eBay or the Antiques Roadshow. But the fact remains that if you think a lack of money is keeping you from playing music, you're wrong.
Obscure treasures still turn up in flea markets and thrift stores. (I recently got a '50s Silvertone guitar and amp for $70 at a local swap meet, while a friend found a 1930s Martin at an Orange collectables shop for less than $200). While eBay may have dried up much of the gear to be found in the real world, there are also tons of deals to be found within its cyberconfines. Meanwhile, the musical-instrument business is so damn competitive that usable gear has rarely been cheaper.
Resign yourself to the fact that what you don't spend in money, you're going to have to spend in time researching and hunting.
Don't want to spend much money or time? You can walk into most music stores and buy a package with a guitar or bass, plus amp, cord, gig bag, strap, tuner and probably even a groupie thrown in for less than $300. (Check out Fender's Squier and DeArmond lines, as well as Gibson's Epiphone line.) Fifteen years ago, any keyboard selling for less than $300 was pretty much a toy. Now, in that range, you can find keyboards that are better featured than pro gear was a few years back. You can even get a brand-new, functional drum set for $250 to $400. It may not be hip, but it's solid, usable stuff, and it's all only a tool. A musician with emotion and ideas playing a shit-looking $250 Peavey will always sound better than some lardhead with a $70,000 flame-top Les Paul.
That's one way you can go, but not the way I'd choose. It pains me to say this because there are many good stores and manufacturers that deserve your business, but NEVER BUY ANYTHING NEW! Musical gear is like a car: it can loose nearly half its value as soon as it leaves the showroom. Though, unlike a car, if a Strat's vibrato fails, it won't kill you on the freeway. Let the rich kids spend their parents' money on new gear, and when they chuck it aside to be a porn star six months later, buy it then. If you shop smart, instead of that beginner's practice package, the same money will get you a rig you can gig with.
There's less security in buying used from a private party, particularly at a swap meet, and that's why you need to spend some time informing yourself. Read up on what the instrument you want should do and on what might go wrong with it. Harmony-central.com is a good reference source.
There's not much to go wrong with a guitar or bass that's not evident just in examining and playing the thing. The most important thing is a neck that's not warped or twisted, that has clean fretwork and feels comfortable to play. If a guitar or bass is cheap because the electronics don't work, don't be scared off: often the problem is as simple as a broken wire that needs to be resoldered.
Amps are far more complex, but the rule pretty much is if they work, they'll keep working. It isn't like they can put sawdust in the differential to fake a buyer out. You should look, though, to make sure the proper value fuse is inserted. Sometimes people replace them with a higher value fuse or even wadded foil, masking a problem that could soon lead to a meltdown. Beware of any modifications made to an amp, unless you can be assured it was done by a pro.
Solid-state amps are fine for bass, but I recommend tube amps for guitar. They still sound warmer and distort better (some of the recent solid-state digital modeling amps now come close and are wicked versatile. The Vox Valvetronix line, starting at $449 new, is a real bargain). Of the currently made tube amps, the reissue Ampegs sound great and often turn up used for less than $200. Most tube amp problems are easy for a tech to troubleshoot and, with the rare exception of blown transformers, aren't all that expensive to fix. For old workhorse amps, it's hard to go wrong with a Fender, but even most '60s Sears Silvertone amps are still chugging along pretty well.
Buying used does get dicier as you move up the technological food chain. With keyboard synths, digital rack gear, PA mixing boards and such, make sure you take the time to check out all the different parameters and programs before you buy.
You probably already own a musical tool more versatile and powerful than anything musicians had to work with for most of human history: a computer. You can load recording-studio, sampling, synth and effects programs—some of it free shareware or sold cheaper than a harmonica; some of it for $600 but worth it—that can engage your creativity for years to come.
Where should you look for stuff? The Recycler—on newsstands every Thursday or online at recycler.com—is a good local resource. Checking out garage sales is time-consuming, but the $5 Fender '50s tweed amps that pop up every few years can make it worthwhile. Some deals lurk still in pawn shops, but pawnbrokers long ago wearied of hearing about the vintage Les Pauls they let go cheap, and charge too much for everything now. A fair amount of gear shows up at OC's community-college swap meets (Goldenwest and Cypress are the best, followed by Orange Coast), but there are also a lot of buyers at the swaps competing for it, including dealers looking to turn it over for a profit. (One such guy has been nicknamed the Cryptkeeper. See if you can spot him.)
Thrift stores rarely get much rock-worthy gear, but they can be good for oddball stuff such as accordions and autoharps and for big items such as pianos and organs. (I have a friend who scored a prized Hammond organ for something like $40. The digital sword cuts both ways: some people so prefer the unruly sound of analog gear they'll pay $4,000 for a Hammond B-3; for others, a digital keyboard that weighs 12 pounds sounds close enough that they'll abandon their hulking Hammond by a dumpster.)
The nice thing about looking in the real world instead of online auctions is the auction price can only go up, while you can bargain on the local stuff. It never hurts to ask for a discount. I once went to buy a Marshall amp head from a stoner (he told me his motto was "A day without a buzz is the day that never was"). I waited him out through numerous bong hits and walked—okay, crawled—out of there with a full eight- to 12-inch amp stack for the price he'd been asking just for the head. One friend of mine used to keep track of the going price for a vial of coke and would offer musicians some multiple of that when bargaining for their gear.
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All that said, eBay rules. Some of the instruments I crave, which might only surface in the real world after a year or two of diligent searching, routinely pop up there—sometimes three or four of them a week. But the other difference is that everyone else in the goddamn world can find them there, too. Again, you've got to be willing to spend more time and be informed. If you're looking for a '50s Harmony electric guitar, don't just search under "Harmony," but also check under the Silvertone, Airline and other "house brand" names they were sold under. Try misspelling search words because sellers sometimes inadvertently misspell them, too. It's amazing how many people will list a $2,000 Gretsch guitar as a Gretch. Explore different categories: if you're looking for a ukulele, you'll sometimes find them listed incorrectly as a "small guitar." The more odd byways you search, the less likely it is that a horde of other people will be bidding on it.
There's an added level of queasiness to eBay, in that you're sometimes sending thousands of dollars to a total stranger in another part of the country, unsure that the instrument he's sending you is as it should be—or even that he'll send it at all. In well more than 400 eBay deals, I've only been burned twice and not too badly. Check out the seller's feedback (the record of his previous dealings) and ask any questions before you bid. Also check to make sure they're not charging a ridiculous amount for shipping and handling, which can turn a good deal into a bad one.
When you do bid, do it at the absolute last minute. Usually, most of the real action in the auctions takes place in the last 30 seconds. If you place a bid sooner than that, it's just a target for other bidders to peck away at. Maybe the other guy was only going to bid $25, but when he sees your $30 bid, he has second thoughts and aces you out with a $31 bid. Avoid bidding frenzies yourself. I try not to pay more for something than I can resell it for if I don't like it. Check the "completed auctions" listing to see what similar instruments go for. Decide the maximum you're willing to pay, maybe tack another $10 on top to avoid the "coulda-shoulda" remorse if you miss getting it by a few bucks, and stick to that.
If all else fails, spend $17 on a Hohner Marine Band harmonica. You can play as much music on that as anything.