Too Big to Care: What to Look Out for When Shopping at Big Box Stores


ernieballmusicmanA while back, I was in a local big box guitar store and saw an Ernie Ball guitar with a ‘Black Magic Crystal’ finish hanging on the wall.  This thing was beautiful. Being a collector, it satisfied many check-boxes for me.  It was a brand that I didn’t own.  It was a well-respected USA made instrument. The features were killer (Dimarzio pickups, Floyd Rose trem, and a flamed maple neck) And the finish blew me away.

When I asked the salesperson what kind of deal he could give me, he said, “Nothing at all.”

So, I walked away. I started emailing a few friends, seeing if there was anybody out there who could get me a good deal on this thing. Finally got in touch with a guy that I had never met before, who happened to be a manager from the same chain. He gave me, brand new in a box, 15% off, no sales tax and free shipping.


Fast-forward about 4 years, and that guitar is still hanging by its neck at the same store. Grungy. Old. Beaten. Tired. No surprise, the price hasn’t moved either.

This got me thinking.

How can they still sell that thing as new?  Is that 4-year-old guitar that’s been played by countless souls and seen its fair share of dirt and grime from a crowd of greasy fingers still “new?” When’s the last time that guitar’s neck was adjusted? From the looks of it, that guitar hadn’t even been cleaned since Disco was still a thing.

Let’s look at it from this angle. If I decided to sell my pristine guitar that I bought new, played for a total of 10 minutes, wiped it down, and put it right back in the box that it came in, can I sell that guitar as “new” on eBay?

Obviously, that answer is, “No!”

But, why the hell not? It’s obvious that my guitar was better cared for, not played by as many greasy fingers, and isn’t even as old as the one hanging in the shop. So, what justification is there that makes their guitar “New” and mine “Used?”

Maybe it’s time for the big-box stores to take this into consideration. If a guitar sits for too long, like food at a grocery store, maybe that guitar should get marked as “used” or “shop-worn.” There comes a point where that guitar simply isn’t new anymore.  How many people need to wipe their dirty asses with the guitar before dealers will call it “used?”

And, warranties are bullshit (in my honest opinion).  If something’s wrong with the guitar, the store should know about it in advance.  They shouldn’t be selling guitars with twisted necks, popped frets and electronics that don’t work. Besides, considering the cost of a simple repair ($20 bucks or so for a truss rod adjustment, or scratch pot or a full set-up for about $40-$50) I’d rather get a guitar set up properly in lieu of a bullshit warranty. Besides, I’d rather get a few bucks shaved off of the overall price knowing I can get a tech to make it play like I want it to play.

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Remember, stores are there to make money. So, if they can sell their gear at full pop with no added cost of maintaining the instrument, they win the game.

You, on the other hand, are the loser.

If the guitar is swinging, ask the dealer if they’ll shave a few bucks off of the price so that you can get the guitar professionally adjusted. If they try to tell you that it’s already been adjusted, say, “Yeah? Well, it hasn’t been adjusted the way that I like.”

Most dealers will have no problem with that. They’ll either set it up for you, or they’ll recommend a place where you can get the guitar to play like new. If they won’t do it, turn around and walk away.

If you buy something from eBay or from a ‘non-dealer’ take into account everything I mentioned. You might be lucky to get something better than what’s hanging on the wall of your local music store.  On the other hand, just because you’re nickel and diming your way through places like Craigslist and eBay, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the best deal.  Most importantly, keep in mind that anytime you buy online, you’re at the mercy of the dude you’re buying from.

Personally, when I sell a guitar, it’s fingerprint free. If I sell it in person, I open the case in front of them and pick up the guitar with a soft white towel.  Out of respect for the future owner, I don’t let anyone play the guitar until I see money on the table. It lets them know they are dealing with someone who truly cares about their instruments.

If someone just wants to play, I tell them to go to Guitar Center. When you’re ready to buy, come back here and see me.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it! Retailers have to put the guitar in the player’s hands before they’ll buy. But, don’t hand me a greasy, grimy, booger covered, relic that I’ll need a tetanus shot after getting cut with one of the rusty frets.  Keep it tidy, or I’m gonna walk away.

Think twice about buying from a shop that’s too big to care for its gear. There are plenty of smaller dealers out there that can better manage their inventory that ultimately leads to a better experience with your purchase. You can even find a few online. Like,  With every purchase, they ask you what kind of strings you’d like on the guitar. The guitar gets a full set-up before it ships. Cleaned. Filed. Adjusted. Intonated. That’s good business.  Good for the consumer and good for the store. Remember, if the shop’s too big to care for its gear, they’re probably too big to care about you.

Tell us about your good and bad experiences below …

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About the Author: Hello. Welcome to! My name is Louis, but in name of good fun & entertainment - I call myself The Tone King. This website was born back in 2008, to compliment the videos I started uploading to YouTube on guitar & related gear (guitar, amps, pedals, etc.). It has since grown, thanks to the thousands that tune in, making it what it is. If you subscribe to, you can expect lots of Guitar, Amp, Pedal Reviews & Shoot-Out videos. I also have monthly Live Webcasts, perform Artist Interviews, and try to get all the juicy coverage Backstage and at trade-shows like NAMM. The cherry on top is that there are no shortage of How-To Videos & TTK Killer Deal Alerts getting you the most knowledge & gear into your hands & mind! Thanks for stopping by to check out my website! Rock ON!

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  6. Rich says:

    I have had similar experiences buying guitars and equimpment with missing parts,belt buckle scratches,,,etc.They would not budge off their prices so I buy all my stuff online from now on.

  7. testmonk0501 says:

    GC is owned by a private equity group. Their profit margins are thin and revenue is insufficient to justify long term operations.

    They’re going to sell or fold a bunch of stores in the next few years. I like going in there and trying out guitars…. And essentially they are the quintessential ‘showcase’ business that retailers bitch and moan about. Dinosaurs will die….

  8. echo says:

    From someone who worked in a big box store…

    They can’t control who comes in. When young Jimmy douchbag and his 6 friends want to kill time after (or before) watching a movie they came to my department. We are very handcuffed as to what we can say to them, we are generally told to treat them as customers even though they rarely make any purchases. I used to count it as a big win if one of them left buying some strings or picks..

    Can’t tell you how many times I found these poster children for birth control stepping on stools to get the higher price guitars as if they 6 chords they know would sound much better on a $2000 guitar than a $600 one. And of course the “chug, chug” guitarist that while sounding exactly like the last 6000 “chuggers” insist on blaring the amp to the point where my customer can’t hear me..

    That being said; if a guitar is beat and the sales guy won’t budge on a well worn instrument then by all means leave. To those of you that exclusively use sweetwater or some other on line retailer, you are why local stores are shutting down. Local stores employ your friends, neighbors and they in turn spend money where you work helping to keep you employed.

    While my time there has ended (thankfully) I see the situation from both sides and have a bit of empathy for the store employees that have person after person want some kind of cartoonish discount for little or no reason.

    Give your local shop a try.

  9. ruben trevino says:

    dude I know exactly what you mean, that said I buy all my gear online from sweetwater, American musical supply, and zzounds. all these offer monthly payments and free shipping. now with 3, 4, 8, and 12 payment plans in short perfect.

  10. tony93666 says:

    Experiences just like this are the reason I rarely, if ever, buy anything at Guitar Center. 95% of the time, I buy online, usually from the same few websites, although I HAVE gotten excellent service at the local Sam Ash in Charlotte, NC.

  11. Judge T says:

    I’d like to have a nickel for every time I have gone to buy equipment at Guitar Center and found that the box has been re-taped or to open a box only to find that the power chord or manual is not in the box. This tells me that GC is selling returned merchandise as new. As far as I am concerned, if it leaves the store and is returned, it is fraud to resell it as new. That is why I only do business with Sweetwater when I shop online or with Rainbow Guitars when I shop locally here in Tucson.

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