Rock & Roll Battlegrounds – Adventures at the Guitar Store

Any guitar player will occasionally venture into a guitar shop or musical supply store that specializes in guitars. They can be wonderlands to anyone that likes to play guitar and wants to see firsthand what kind of gear is available to them. Like a comic book store is a playground for comic fans, a guitar shop is a similar experience for guitar players.

But these paradises of gear lust are also weird environments with their own rules of conduct and  social orders. There are also quite a few characters you’re likely to encounter if you spend much time in guitar shops. Some of those characters are fun people to be around, and others will make you wonder if they have a secret doll-themed torture room in their homes. Proceed carefully.

In my neck of the woods, there are really only a couple of different basic types of guitar shops, but they’re different enough to make note of those differences.

First, there are the small, independently run shops. In most places they were the common type of music store until the big places like Guitar Center became more common in larger cities. You can still find some version of these mom-and-pop stores in a lot of places, many being the “all around music shop” that sells a little of everything from school band instruments to guitar gear, and they usually don’t specialize in the really expensive stuff.

Then there are the expensive vintage and boutique style stores. Those places generally have pricey vintage gear and high-end newer stuff. Some of them feel like museums, and a person might experience sticker shock the first time they walk around one. It’s disconcerting to realize that the guitars you’re brushing past are all more expensive than a new car.

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Typical managers at a guitar shop.

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Paradise, or the Ninth Level of Hell, depending on your perspective.

Fact: All American guitars made before 1968 are magical, and were blessed by wizards, paying $25,000 for one makes total sense when viewed in that light.

Most of the people working at either of these places are similar to the types of people you’ll find at the big stores (more on them shortly), but you’re much more likely to encounter one type of individual at the mom and pop stores:

The Moody Owner Person

It seems like a lot of independent guitar shops are owned by moody older guys. That’s just been my experience, I’m sure it’s not universal. But with places like Guitar Center breathing down their throats, I’m sure keeping a small music business afloat is a cutthroat and stressful endeavor. I’ve been in several guitar stores where some gruff owner person started yelling at his employees or just was an unfriendly ass to customers for whatever reason. Again, I’m sure that’s not universal, and these folks are probably having to make blood sacrifices to Dark Gods just to stay in business, so maybe the twitchy eye, and mean temperament just goes with the territory.

The other main type of guitar shop are the Guitar Centers of the world, giant “big box” style stores that seem to have a little bit of everything available. Some people love those places, and others hate them. I’ve personally found that Guitar Centers vary in quality depending on location. Some are like navigating the nine levels of Hell just to get in and out with a new set of strings, and others are fairly nice to shop at.

I have one tip for shopping at any big guitar chain, and really it can be used at the small shops too – shop during off hours. There’s no reason I’ll ever go to a Guitar Center on a weekend for instance. Or anytime around a holiday, for that matter. You’re setting yourself up for an unpleasant experience, as it’s almost certain that the store will be stuffed to the gills with soccer moms and kids. The cacophony of twenty 13-year olds simultaneously trying out high gain amps playing badly and out of tune is not something easily forgotten. But go in to the same store at 10 AM on a Monday, and you’re probably going to be the only geezer walking around the place.

These stores also vary in the quality of their employees for some reason, and you’re likely to encounter a few basic character types. People like:

1. The Sales Pro

These guys are pretty common in the big stores, it seems like at least a couple of them work at each big guitar retailer I’ve ever been to. I guess they get paid on commission or earn bonuses or something, because they’re the music store equivalent of the used car salesman. Once you’re in their clutches, good luck, because there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to give you the hard sell on something. You walked in knowing you just wanted an entry level student guitar for a niece of yours, but the Sales Pro knows that what you really need is that $2,400 Les Paul hanging on the wall. Then there’s…

2. The Know Nothing

This is a common employee of the big music stores. Since it’s probably an entry level retail job with high turnover, a lot of the people working at these places just don’t know much about the gear they’re selling. You ask a few specific questions, or have a certain amount of knowledge already, and it will become obvious that these guys don’t know anything about the stuff they’re trying to sell. It’s understandable in a store with thousands of different items, but you aren’t likely to get much good info from some guy that only knows electric guitars are stringed instruments that are plugged into squarish speaker box things, and they make sound. The Know Nothing is still better to deal with than…

3. The Sales Liar

The Sales Liar is often just a more ambitious version of the Know Nothing. Sometimes these guys actually think they know what they’re talking about, and in other cases they’ll just spin any old line of bullshit in order to make a sale. Ask one of these people anything specific about a guitar or manufacturer, and you will hear all sorts of bogus information when dealing with the Sales Liar.

That Fender Squier that is marked as being made in Indonesia is really “better” than the American Strats being made these days, at least according to the Sales Liar. You’ll discover that there are still great guitars being built today, but only if you’re willing to spend at least $1,000, says the Sales Liar. Inconsistencies and obvious misinformation will be passed off as fact by these folks, so beware.

These days it’s relatively easy to research gear before ever setting foot in a store. That’s the best way to counter the dishonest tendencies of The Sales Liar.

You’re also likely to meet…

4. The Bitter Band Guy

Unsurprisingly, a lot of the employees at large guitar shops tend to be people struggling to make it in bands. It makes sense. Even though the pay is probably not great, there’s likely to be an employee discount on gear, you can look like a rock star, and it’s a good place to network for your band.

It almost assuredly beats working at some loathsome fast food restaurant or other retail job where you won’t get hired for having a bitchin neck tattoo. The problem with dealing with the Bitter Band Guy is that if they’ve been struggling too long, and their band isn’t getting the success they think it’s due, then these folks can be surly fuckers to deal with.

Look, I’m sorry your band Death Hippie isn’t doing so well, but can I just buy this overdrive pedal please?

If those years of struggling become decades, you might end up facing..

5. The Rock and Roll Throwback

These guys have likely been working for years and years in music stores. They’ve seen music fads come and go, and they’re still hanging in there. When I was younger, most of these dudes were guys that played in bands in the 60’s and 70’s. They’d sometimes have attitudes about the newer music trends that had come along since then.

They’ve largely been replaced by now middle aged rockers that still love 80’s hard rock or hair metal, and think rock has sucked since then. For the most part the Rock and Roll Throwbacks can either be cool cats or bitter assholes depending on how angry they still are by their music of choice slipping from popularity. They’d probably still like to be spending their nights playing in L.A. Twyster and doing cocaine out of the butt cleavage of strippers, but those days are long behind them now.

The Rock and Roll Throwback is often related to…

This guitar store employee can take several forms, although they are commonly either Metal guys or Bluesmen of some type. Whatever the form, they tend to think their music of choice is the only good stuff out there. At their most irritating, these dudes are just not helpful if your gear preferences or look mark you as someone from another musical team.

I once worked with a Metal Purist that we nicknamed “Dr. Dio.”  The good Dr. was openly hostile to customers that weren’t metal musicians. I once saw Dr. Dio argue with a teenager, easily less than half his age, that Faster Pussycat was a better band than Nirvana. Whatever one’s opinion on that, it was weird to watch a 40-year old with hair like Nikki Sixx losing his shit in an argument with a 17-year old. What would the Metal Gods think of that lapse of decorum Dr. Dio? What would Michael Angelo Batio think?

It’s not just the Metal Purists that can be dicks though. I once had a Blues Purist give me attitude when I was trying to buy a guitar he deemed suited for hard rock. I don’t know how to counter these people. Like any closed-minded clowns, it’s probably just better to avoid them unless you happen to play the kind of music they love. If you happen to play their chosen music, you’ve probably made an invaluable music store ally. If not, just walk quickly away.

Of course, there are also lots of friendly helpful people that work at guitar shops, and once you find a place that meets your needs, and has employees you like, you are indeed a lucky person.

Just never turn your back on Dr. Dio. You never know what that guy is capable of.

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