Every guitar player, regardless of their skill level or style, deserves to have a great buying experience. So, as Memorial Day approaches and stores begin prepping their online and brick-and-mortar storefronts for one of the biggest retail weekends of the year, TheToneKing.com wanted to take a look at some of the biggest and the not-as-big retailers so you know where to get your gear.
“From Joe to Pro”
A particular favorite of TheToneKing.com, Sweetwater entered the music business 35 years ago with a focus on recording technology. Sweetwater’s founder, Chuck Surack, had previously been a touring musician and quickly became known for the personalized level of service he provided, particularly with recording and sampler technology.
Sweetwater’s studio-centric soul is still evident today, carrying everything from the tireless standard Shure SM57 to high-end, hand-built, professional grade studio rack equipment, in addition to guitars, basses, amps and effects for all budgets. Catering to such a wide variety of skill levels and price points really make Sweetwater stand out, but it’s not the only area where the company has truly innovated.
If you’ve ever made a purchase from Sweetwater, you’ve probably received a personal email from one of Sweetwater’s sales staff. Called “sales engineers”, these folks act as your advocate at every step of the sale. And this is not a one-time thing. I’ve had the same sales engineer since I placed my first order with Sweetwater years ago and have always been very pleased with the help he’s provided me, even on the smallest orders.
Sweetwater also introduced the online market to the Guitar Gallery. Instead of referring to generic photos, players get to view the actual guitars in stock by serial number, with helpful details such as weight listed. It provides potential online buyers with the closest thing to an in-hand inspection possible. It’s a feature that has proven so popular that other stores have adopted the practice, some a little too well.
Combined with its capacity to carry dozens of examples of a single model and a sales engineer assigned to monitor every stage of your transaction, about the only significant advantage a brick and mortar store might have over Sweetwater is that you actually get a whiff of that new guitar smell before whipping out your credit card. Then again, I wouldn’t be surprised if the guitar section in the next Sweetwater catalog I receive is scratch-n-sniff. Mmmmm…fresh lacquer!
“The Internet’s Neighborhood Music Shop”
Musician’s Friend has been a fixture in the music retail market for a long time, enabling musicians to develop a high degree of familiarity with it. Originally a mail-based operation, Musician’s Friend was acquired by Guitar Center in 2000 as internet-based gear sales began taking off.
As with most large retailers customer experiences vary wildly, but overall Musician’s Friend has carved out a reputation as a solid place to do business online. We here at TheToneKing.com probably placed dozens (hundreds?) of orders with Musician’s Friend since first glimpsing their catalog in the early nineties for everything from my first Dunlop Crybaby (I mowed five lawns to get that thing) to top-of-the-line guitars to a couple of packs of strings and can’t recall ever having a bad experience with them. The one time I had to make a return (a faulty cable), everything was resolved quickly and easily with minimal fuss. If you know what you want and like to have a variety of shipping options (including free shipping) available, Musician’s Friend will get you properly set up.
Which brings us to the other great thing about Musician’s Friend and online shopping in general: anonymity on demand. Sometimes, we don’t want or need a lot of personal attention from a sales staff; we just want to get the items we need at the best price possible without feeling like we’re in a car dealership. With Musician’s Friend, a human being on the other end of a phone line or chat window is there if needed, but those who wish to go it alone can still do so.
“Putting the ‘custom’ in ‘customer'”
To most, Carvin would not immediately be thought of as a retailer in the mold of Guitar Center or Sweetwater. Carvin is better known as the custom shop for the common player, with access to exotic woods, premium construction techniques and hundreds of custom guitar and bass options at a price lower than many off-the-rack production guitars. If you’ve seen and heard The Tone Dragon on TheToneKing’s YouTube Channel, you know what Carvin is capable of delivering.
Carvin also produces several highly renowned amplifiers, including Steve Vai’s signature Legacy series, the classic X100B and the highly versatile V3. Throw in the ability to outfit your band’s entire pro audio needs and even add a pack of strings and a strap into your online cart, and you have a unique source for top-of-the-line custom guitars and equipment at extremely competitive prices, all available directly from the manufacturer.
There isn’t really anybody else doing what Carvin does on such a grand scale. Carvin has a long-established reputation for adjusting well to emerging trends in the industry while maintaining the same custom-oriented business model that has made them successful for so long.
“If The DMV Were a Music Store”
With 315 locations in 44 states and a robust online operation (through ownership of Musicians Friend, Music 123, Woodwind and Brasswind and their own site), Guitar Center probably captures the business of the vast majority of guitar players over the course of any given year. But if online message board traffic is any indication, the guitar-playing world’s relationship with the massive retailer is a tumultuous one.
This shouldn’t be of any surprise. With so many stores in so many locations, it’s inevitable that experiences with the retailer will vary wildly. But there are handful of annoyances that seem typical: bolted-down guitar cables (better hope the amp you want to try has one close by!); most guitars are stored out of reach, requiring the assistance of a sales person for a tryout; the “shopworn” condition of many items being sold as new and what seems to be a lack of effort to price things competitively. Trying out pedals can also be a circuitous experience, due to their being kept under glass or attached to a giant rotating display. Then you have to find a guitar, hope the amp you want to use is available. Not to mention all of their financial woes and recent change of management. Hell, nobody can say for certain if GC will even be here in the next few years. But, need we go on?
Despite owning Musicians Friend, GC still operates an online sales site. But with so many options for online sales today, Guitar Center also has a hard time competing online. Residents of most states don’t have to pay sales tax if they order from Musicians Friend, but if you live in one of the 44 states that has a Guitar Center, ordering online becomes more expensive. And coupons and special discounts seem less frequent with GC online than other internet retailers.
Guitar Center is introducing some interesting innovations into the marketplace that guitar players should aware of, however. Its new String Club is something I don’t think I’ve seen anyone do and, if the membership is used properly, can potentially put players ahead when it comes to the cost of keeping fresh strings on their instruments.
“Kick up your feet and jam awhile!”
On the other side of the big-box spectrum is Sam Ash. Sam Ash is the largest family owned music retailer, and it feels like it. If Guitar Center is the high school cafeteria (grab your tray, stand in line, what you get is what you get), Sam Ash might be akin to a tailgate party before a football game. And you know TTK loves tailgating! The stores feel a little bit disorganized but in a homey, welcoming way. The in-store vibe is friendly and informal and the staff are generally happy to let you navigate the well-stocked inventory on your own if that’s what you prefer, which keeps the sales pressure low. For any shopper, these factors are important. And for those musicians who negotiate price, all of this makes the Sam Ash playing field feel remarkably level and inviting.
Sam Ash has 45 stores across 16 states, so once again experiences will vary. A quick survey of some forums seems to put the Guitar Center versus Sam Ash loyalty just about right down the middle in terms of how many players prefer which store. But it is important to note that Sam Ash has far less of a brick and mortar presence than Guitar Center does, so that 50/50 figure speaks well of Sam Ash.
“One cast-iron skillet, one DVD copy of ‘Caddyshack’, and one flametop Les Paul Custom, please”
Amazon is the innovator when it comes to online sales. Now the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon was mainly known for book and music sales when it started nearly twenty years ago. Now, you can get just about anything that is bought or sold in the world today, including fascinating products like…errrr…red fox urine?
Anyway, Amazon can be a decent source for all sorts of gear needs. Many retailers make Amazon their online sales portal, so you can easily shop several different retailers (including Amazon itself) at once and compare prices at a glance. There’s nothing really setting Amazon apart from more specialized music retailers, however, and custom service is going to be focused on shipping or inventory questions. But unlike iTunes, you can get all of Def Leppard’s classic discs (“High ‘n Dry” is my personal favorite).
Let’s Not Forget The “Locals”
Most musicians live within a reasonable distance of an honest-to-goodness “mom and pop” music store. We’re sure your favorite is deserving of inclusion on our list, but with the wide geographic dispersal of thousands of TheToneKing.com readers it would be tough to give a shout-out to all of them. So we decided to pick two retailers that we felt were emblematic of all the great independent music stores out while being able to deliver to just about anyone in the world, Drum City Guitar Land and The Music Farm.
7: Drum City Guitar Land
“Nearly 50 and Still Fabulous”
Based in Wheat Ridge, Colo., Drum City Guitar Land was founded in 1965 by professional drummer Ronny Kae and is now owned and operated by his sons, Tim and Jason. DCGL has won many prestigious awards, such as ESP Dealer of the Year for 2008, Schecter Guitar Research Independent Dealer of the Year and an award from Fender for Outstanding Support of FMIC Brands. One might think such awards would be out of reach for an operation without the size of name recognition of larger competitors, but online reviews back up the accolades.
On top of carrying many popular brands and items, DCGL has also set itself apart with its “Closeout Corner.” Here, musicians can find great deals on special runs and other closeouts that they would be hard-pressed to find anywhere else, which makes DCGL a great place to find that unique piece to complement your rig.
8:The Music Farm
Another great example of a “mom and pop” store is the famous Music Farm of Canton, Ohio. Longtime TheToneKing.com readers are probably very familiar with this store as the supplier of the famous, crowd-sourced B.C. Rich TTK-1 Mockingbird. So you know immediately that The Music Farm is another great source for unique, special run pieces not likely to be found in most major chain stores.
The Music Farm also carries a wide selection of popular brands and models for a huge range of budgets. In particular, they carry a spectacular inventory of B.C. Rich and Dean guitars, brands that with reputations for classic lines and edgy designs. The Music Farm also keeps customers in the loop with an informative blog about new products and specials.
“The Internet’s Neighborhood Pawn Shop”
For many years, pawn shops were viable sources of “diamonds in the rough.” From the beginnings of electric rock ‘n roll to sometime around the early ’90s, it was entirely plausible to walk into any run-of-the-mill pawn shop and find something special. In fact, it’s said that during the ’70s pawn shop customers were practically handed ’50s or ’60s-era Stratocasters, the same guitars that easily fetch five-figure sums today, just for stopping by since the Strat was somewhat out of fashion at the time and pawn shops had plenty of them to go around. Today, however, thanks in part to the growth of the internet, most pawn shops have little in the way of remarkable finds or bargains.
And so it is with Ebay. It’s still entirely possible to score a fantastic find and many used common items can be had for low prices, but the early days of unreal bargains appear to be long gone. There seem to be just as many retailers as private sellers on “the ‘bay” now, which has pushed prices closer to retail levels. Ebay has also turned into a testbed for sellers who think that they have the next big collectible guitar or pedal on their hands and attempt to price it according to their dreams, rather than reality. Selling on Ebay means also you automatically lose ten percent right off the top (unless you get a top seller discount), not counting additional fees for other listing add-ons or using PayPal. Still, the sheer number of buyers still make Ebay a prime destination for people wishing to sell gear auction-style. We here at TheToneKing.com definitely visit the bay every once in a while.
For all the ups and downs associated with Ebay, there’s no doubt that auction sites are still a prime destination for gear seekers. Providing some fresh competition is Reverb.com, an online auction site specifically geared towards musicians. Established in 2013 by David Kalt, owner of the powerhouse vintage dealer Chicago Music Exchange, Reverb.com was founded with the goal of giving musicians a tailored, interactive experience.
In addition to plenty of gear, there are artist and manufacturer profiles and an ever-expanding price guide. Plus, Reverb.com charges an extremely competitive flat sales fee of 3.5% for sellers, with no listing fee. Reverb.com is barely a year old at this point, but it’s already attracting lots of attention among musicians. We at TheToneKing.com will definitely be keeping our eyes peeled to see where Reverb.com takes the online auction experience when it comes to gear.
This is where you come in! If we here at TheToneKing.com missed your favorite dealer in the rundown above, tell us about it in the comments. How did you find them and how do they earn your business purchase after purchase? What do they have in common with the retailers listed above and what sets them apart? We’re looking forward to hearing from you!
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