The Guitar Store Experience

Several months ago I bought a new guitar.  Since I bought it from a guitar store, it is that store’s policy (as it is with most or all guitar stores) that string changes and set-ups are free for the life of the instrument.  Considering a set-up can run you $80 easily, this ain’t a bad deal.  The advantage to this is obvious.  I now have it set up every time I change the strings.  Also, in my defense, I have THEM change the strings because the guitar has a floating bridge and I don’t feel like dealing with that myself yet.

The disadvantage, though, is that it puts me in a guitar store about once every month to six weeks, at minimum.  (By the way, I’m calling it a “guitar store” to differentiate a place that sells musical equipment–not just guitars–from a “music store” which could be confused with the “record store”).  The reason that frequenting these places is a pain is obvious to those of us who play instruments, but perhaps not so much to those who don’t.  The reason I don’t like going to the guitar store so often isn’t because I’m afraid I’ll spend money–it’s easy to avoid $350 impulse buys–it’s because of the notorious nature of the demeanors of the guitar store employees and guitar store frequenters.  The folks that work or hang out regularly in these places are like some special kind of vampire that feed on feigning extreme superiority over their fellow musicians–and that analogy includes the insatiable nature of their hunger.  *I* for one always thought it would be a neat experience to work in, or even own, a guitar store, but it actually seems like many of these guys are walking through an eternal hell of frustration and simplicity and a general lack of respect for their obvious expertise, dude.  I also thought it would be cool to be someone that was on a first-name-basis with those folks, especially places here in Seattle, because these are guys that real professionals come to and depend on, but those that are are so icy cold to anyone that’s an unfamiliar face that it chills me even to walk by them.  And sometimes I’m not completely sure any of these people are aware of the states of their existence.

So what goes on?  Egos.  Insecurities.  Differences in opinion.  You think it’s bad when you sit a PC nut and a Mac nut next to each other?  Try watching what happens when you put a customer who likes digital effects in front of a staff member who’s all about analog.  Or send a guy to try out an amp that starts playing some Death Cab in front of a guy who started playing thirty years ago because someone played him some Zeppelin.  Much of this is simply being fallible humans with abilities that we foolishly let define our self-worth, but that’s really just the start.  You put a guy who knows how to think about himself and receive for himself due to his skill on an instrument into a situation where he’s expected to think about other people, some of them rude, some difficult, and some frankly completely moronic (i.e., customer service), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.  Multiply that problem by a couple of generations of staff and turnovers and you have an environment that is bad enough that a very good guitarist I know says he avoids guitar stores as much as possible, now.  He just can’t take it anymore.

And the regulars?  I’ve been told that many regulars actually annoy the employees, too (but that doesn’t get the employees off the hook).  Some of them so obviously to me went there to try to show off how fast their fingers can move that I doubt they know that’s why they’re there.  They’ve lost touch with reality to that degree.  But honestly those regulars aren’t even the worst ones–the worst ones are the buddies of the employees that chat who-knows-what with them all day and make you feel like dirt for interrupting so you can buy some freaking guitar strings.  If  you need to ask actual questions about some gear, you’d better wait until the employee comes to you, lest you be (at best) chuckled at for wanting to check out a solid-state Peavey amp.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that you are looked upon as an inferior animal in a guitar store.  We start out naïvely walking into one hoping to find someone excited about the six-string that’s equally excited to help us improve our knowledge and maybe, a little at a time, our gear.  But we quickly figure out that this is not a retailer-customer relationship.  Oh, no.  It is a skill competition.  Most of the time you just know that the guy is better than you at everything guitar related and you feel him rubbing it in just by him “helping.”

Play anything less than "Eruption" and you're the joke for the rest of the day.

And pray–PRAY–that the guy doesn’t actually demonstrate something before handing you the guitar.  I’ve had that happen.  “You just did 32nd notes across the neck at 120 bpm.  I’m not touching that thing.  I never can.  In fact, I might quit playing.”  Insecurity is a big problem, and if we’d just get over it, they’d have no power over us.  But easier said than done.

Before I go any further, I want to of course offer the disclaimer that not every employee of a music store I’ve ever met is like this.  I can think of . . . six from the fourteen stores I can currently remember interacting with their staff.  Yes, I counted.  (And as I write this, I keep remembering more stores, but not more nice employees.)  So those people–two of which work at the store I currently frequent and one of those changes the strings on my guitar–are cool.  But all fourteen stores had at least one employee that, whether they knew it or not, made me feel an inch tall for even daring to talk to them.  Actually, only one of them had just one, and only three guys worked there and I was personal friends with the other two . . . hmph.

So this is rough, right?  Musicians can’t logically buy their stuff off of Amazon and Musician’s Friend all the time.  You need to try the stuff out; you need to have guarantees of service; you need to be able to hold and compare gear.  Plus the option to trade in isn’t a bad addition, either.  So what to do?  Well, if you’re going to avoid difficult interactions with these people when going into a guitar shop, there are few things you need to do or not do.  Let’s go over some of them.

DON’T . . .
. . . Exist.  I guess we’re off to a tough start.  By merely walking into a music store and actually having a physical presence, you are more than likely going to annoy one of these guys.  So avoid existing.  Got it?  Next . . .

. . . Ask for guidance.  One time I decided I wanted to change the pickups on one of my guitars for purely aesthetic reasons.  They’re not amazing pickups to start, so no harm could be done overall to the guitar if I’m upgrading to something like Gibson 57’s, but my primary motivation is that it would look really cool.

Seriously! Imagine that thing with some chrome humbuckers! YOW!

I asked one guy at one store for advice, and in the tone and body language that made me very sorry for bothering him, he said, “You can’t just change out pickups like strings.”  I went to a different store to ask the same thing and he took one look at the guitar and said with a near-sigh, “It’ll cost more than the guitar’s worth . . .”  For the record, it’s a low-end guitar and I KNOW that, but it’s not a “Wal-Mart guitar.”  Sheesh.

. . . Ask general questions.  There’s no better way to make one of these guys mad for wasting their time.  Rockman on Yahoo! Answers tells his story:

I picked up the guitar in my teens as soon as it occurred to me that I should AND as the opportunity hit just right.  To this day, I play TOTALLY by ear, can’t read a note.  However, I don’t know what this one guy’s thing with me was–perhaps he was put off that I wasn’t “formal”–and he was The Proprietor of the place!  After frequenting his locale for everything from strings to some books, etc, one day I asked him a perfectly innocent question in near-reverent tones of a teenager asking an elder for his personal advice.  In a most condescending monotone he snapped, “You should tune your guitar as often as it needs it!”  I couldn’t believe he thought I’d said that after several convos wherein I know he knew I was perfectly coherent.  What I’d asked was, “How often do you CHANGE your strings?”  I realized during my stroll home that perhaps his hearing had dissipated, but the insult wasn’t even Ethical with me, no, MY thing has remained Intellectual–as in, if anything wouldn’t he’ve looked up and asked me if he heard me right.  I mean, he was on site 6 days a week, he clearly knew his music, he wasn’t dumb or on drugs, he couldn’t’ve been more than mid-40s. …and, as importantly as anything, I wasn’t some kid hangin’ around, blasting amps with hoodlum friends…I never went back, either!

I should add in that I’ve asked how often to change strings and been understood perfectly well, and still talked down to.

. . . Be stumped by a guitar problem, ever.  A good friend of mine had problems with his Gibson SG not staying in tune when he bent the strings.  One of the things you need to do with a guitar is to stretch the strings out so that there’s no stretch left in them when you bend them and they don’t lose their pitch.  Well, he’d done that and figured something was wrong with the guitar.  Maybe the tuners were loose.  He took it to his guitar guy who, before my friend could finish explaining what he’d done, said, “Oh, well you just gotta stretch the strings out.”  This guy stretched the strings out and the problem was fixed.  I can speak up and state with absolute assurance that my friend knows how to take care of a guitar, but he still walked out of there with his tail between his legs.

DO . . .

. . . Know exactly what your tastes and preferences and desires are for any musical situation before even stepping foot in the store.  You cannot browse a guitar store with intent to buy, but requiring salesman assistance, without having to answer a billion questions about your “preferences” that you may not necessarily know the answer to.  But that salesman knows what he wants in every detail and exactly how he wants it and Lord help you if you prevent him from getting it.  So how is it YOU don’t have any idea what YOU want?  You probably suck at guitar.  I once went shopping for some kind of device that let me play guitar through headphones.  I knew someting had to exist, but I didn’t know what.  I was also sure there was a variety of choices available . . . so I asked a guy.

“Well what do you want to do with it?”
“Play through headphones because I live in an apartment.”
“So do you want to record with it?”
“I don’t know.  Maybe someday, but I don’t have recording stuff right now.
“Do you want effects in it?”
“I guess . . . the headphones are what’s important, though.”
[annoyed] “Well lots of things let you play through headphones; I need to know what you want to help you find something.”
“As long as it lets me use headphones, it’s fine.”

See?  The normal approach would be, “You require a single function, these are the other options you have with that single function available.  Which would you prefer?”  Instead I got “You require a single function.  That’s not enough information because there are other options available with that single function.”

 . . . Know absolutely everything about the guitar there is to know–ever.  Oh, the condescension I got in the question, “When was the last time you had this guitar set up?”  Set up?  What’s that?  I didn’t know and I’d been playing for eleven years.  (A “set up” is making sure the neck is trussed right, the strings are intonated correctly, the pickups are sitting the right distance from the strings, and so on).  And the time I mentioned my guitar had a bit of a buzz?  “It’s the nature of the instrument to have a slight buzz.”  Oh.  Funny.  I was always told that a buzz was bad, but if you say so.  Thank goodness I never had to deal with these guys in my early days before I knew what the bridge and the nut were.  I know a lot, now, but I am still susceptible through conversations about wood types, neck contours, tuning machine differences, and so on.  Just a couple weeks ago I was buying some strings.  This store didn’t have my preferred size, so I was stuck getting something else (I was using a Groupon).  I wanted hex-core strings (vs. round-core), but wasn’t sure what brands had it.  One of the guys went into the other room to ask the main guitar guy and came back, “he says 99% of the wall is hex-core, and if it’s round-core it’s marked.”  Well how do you like that?  The guy wasn’t even in the same room and he got me.

So if  you ever end up needing to go into a guitar store, I hope this information can prepare you.  Tough skin is the best defense.  Godspeed.


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4 responses to “The Guitar Store Experience

  1. Where did Superman go? That was hilarious, too. 🙂

  2. Just got a new axe today. I walked in to the store and told the guy the cash range I was willing to buy in. He shows me ONE guitar. I didn’t even play it before he asks. “Now how does that sound? Do you want to take it?” I tell him no because it was FAR below my price range and sounded mediocre at best there were tons of guitars on the wall without price tags. I tell him I just want to play a few before I make any decision. He says “play away my friend” gesturing towards the wall. I tell him again I don’t know what the prices are on any of these guitars. He shows me ONE more guitar and doesn’t pull any more. I don’t know the prices. I don’t know where anything is. I have to spell it out for this moron. I WANT TO PLAY MULTIPLE GUITARS. Dude had absolutely no idea what he was doing. Finally the owner came and helped me and stuck me back with the moron after I made my selection. He looked at me like I was crazy after he offered a free setup ‘exactly the way I want’ and I told him I wanted the action a tiny bit lower. It was like I was inconveniencing THEM by spending MY money at their store. You’re not alone.

    • So frustrating. At least you got to keep your confidence through it and knew what you wanted. I get ran over by those guys all the time; I can see myself going with that first guitar and assuming he showed me what they had available and that’s it.

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