The Rites of Spring

Girl With Guitar

Ah, Spring! Buds pop out on branches. Swallows return to Capistrano, much to the eternal chagrin of all the birds that never bother to leave and never merit any media attention. Barbecues return to backyards. The Chicago White Sox and Cubs are still in contention, at least until mid-April (okay, actually one team will be mathematically eliminated in the first week, but we never know which one. Is life thrilling or what?). Could there be a more magical time of year? As the Moody Blues sang so long ago, “Everywhere, love is all around.”

And, music being my love, I go visit her everywhere – in the coffee shops,at the Sunday gospel brunches, at the fondue restaurant with the live classical guitar. I even manage to somehow summon up enough courage to seek her out at the dreaded big-name guitar store.

Don’t laugh. While I have no trouble whatsoever meeting people (although by nature I am fairly shy and reserved), or writing very personal things that complete strangers will read and critique, or even playing solo in front of thousands of people, I get the absolute willies each time I walk through the door of a music shop. These “music store jitters” get exponentially worse as the size of the store increases.

Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s the five-year old over at the Fender wall playing a note-for-note perfect Stevie Ray Vaughn lead. Maybe it’s seven thousand different effects boxes (all priced differently) that all seem to do the same exact thing. Maybe it’s the two guys my age hovering over the amplifiers trying to figure out where the “on” switch might be located.

Maybe it’s all in my head. I mean, in spite of all my trepidation, I do enjoy going to guitar stores. A lot.

But the truth is that quite a few musicians (and worse, would-be musicians) get turned off going to music stores. Somewhere that should be a place of knowledge and refuge instead becomes a major annoyance.

Well, you know how we’ve managed to tackle major problems by looking at them and breaking them down into smaller, easier-to-solve pieces? You can do the same thing here.

After all, how can you hope to get better if you don’t keep up with all the wild wonderful new things that keep cropping up in our ever-changing world?

Getting To Know You

Buying a new (or used) guitar can be an emotional ordeal, especially if you haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re looking for. This is why it’s important to do a bit of thinking and investigating before even setting foot inside a music shop. It doesn’t matter if it’s going to be your first or fortieth guitar, take a moment to gather your thoughts. Ask yourself some questions:

Why am I buying a guitar? … This is serious. If you’re buying your first guitar, do you truly intend to invest the time it will take to learn? Have you considered borrowing one to make sure? Do you want one that you know you will upgrade later or do you want to buy one that will last years? If it’s your fortieth guitar, the questions obviously get harder. Like, what’s the point of this guitar? Is it significantly different then the ones you already have? Is it a stunt guitar? Is candy apple red really your color? When I was in Athens two years ago I decided to buy a bouzouki and the first question the woman behind the counter asked me was “Are you going to play it or hang it on your wall?” When I assured her that I wanted to play it (I even asked about restringing it left-handed and about whether I’d be able to find strings for it in the United States), she turned out to be incredibly helpful. She even took a good deal of time to go over the construction of the instruments and how to pick out a good one from a “display” piece.

What type of guitar do you want? … I am a firm proponent of learning on an acoustic before even thinking about playing an electric. Years ago it was a matter of cost but nowadays you can get whole “starter kits” (guitar, amp, cord, etc.) for the comparable price of a good acoustic. But there are so many different makes and models these days. If it’s your first guitar, I would also recommend you checking out a classical or two. If it’s for a child, you’ll also want to scope out the half and three-quarter size guitars. If you have decided you want an electric, you still have a lot of choices to deal with. Solid body? Strat style? Les Paul? Maybe a hollow body? Hey, how about an electric/acoustic? You may have to go back to the first question. If your answer to “why?” is to have a “performance” guitar, then you’ve opened up a whole new can of worms.

When and where am I likely to play/carry/keep/store this guitar? … This may not seem important until you find yourself lugging your prized possession around in the rain or snow of a beautiful spring evening. Is it better to get something that will be a “beater” or to pay more money for protection? If you travel a lot via public transportation, as I do, you’re actually better off than someone whose guitar is earning lots of air miles. It’s a good idea to think about these things ahead of time. Also about the humidity (or lack thereof) in your home. This affects different guitars (and guitar owners) in many different ways (from not at all to way too much). A knowledgeable salesperson can certainly help answer your questions in this matter.

And, of course, how much do you want to spend? … Does this budget include the cost of a case? How about an amp? Strap? Cords? Picks? Strings? Books? Tipping someone to help you carry it all out the door?

Other things to do before you go to the store should include talking with your friends that play guitar. What was their first guitar? What makes and models have they played and what did they think about them? What can they recommend? Do they know a good salesperson with whom to talk?

And don’t forget how much detective work you can do online! A glance at the Guitar Forums will tell you that people just like yourself are always asking for and receiving information concerning this type of acoustic guitar or that of electric. Do remember that any opinions you solicit are just that … opinions. While I might recommend a brand that’s been especially good for me someone else might have had such a bad experience with it that he or she can’t begin to understand why anyone in his/her right mind would ever want to buy one.

Getting To Know Them

Here in Chicago, we are blessed with many types of music stores. There are small repair shops that will sell the odd instrument or two, the “Mom and Pop” places that have been around forever and, of course, the huge chain stores that bombard the air waves with commercials that sound like ads for monster truck rallies (“THIS WEEKEND ONLY… MISS THIS SALE AND DIE!”). If you look hard enough, you can even find places that will build a guitar for you, or can teach you how to build one for yourself. Instruments can occasionally also be found in antiques shops and always in the classified ads and on the internet. And no matter how diverse all these places may seem, they all share the same goal: they want you to spend your money at their place.

Now, while it’s true that I tend to be a tad cynical about these things, it is important to remember why these places are in business in the first place. And this is why it is necessary to shop around not only to check out the guitars but also to find yourself a trustworthy “partner” in your endeavors. Every serious guitarist I know is on a first name basis with several music store owners/sales people in his or her locality. It’s extremely helpful to have a friendly inside source these days, someone who knows you and your needs and who can point you in the right direction.

This is why I make it a point to visit my “favorite” shops every now and then, even when I am not necessarily buying anything (although, there’s almost always something to get … a string, a set of strings, a book, picks (!)). And while I’m there I always have a question about something. Just as every guitarist has her or his own personal style, each sales person usually has a field of expertise. One person may be really up on the construction of guitars; another may know everything there is to know about amplifiers. And, usually, they are all more than happy to share the knowledge and experience they have. This is a great source of learning that many people overlook. It’s especially hard for people my age (early forties) to go into a store where all the sales people are half our age (twelve years old). Our first instinct is to dismiss the sales staff as too young to shave, let alone be helpful, and it is really a shame to find oneself thinking in this fashion. More often than not even the “kids” have had invaluable information that I would not have gotten otherwise.

Above all, you have to know that you can talk frankly with your sales person. Tell him or her your concerns as to a particular guitar or accessory. If you know you can tell this person “no” without the fear of offending her or him, then you’ve got someone good to work with. You see, you not only go to the music store to buy things but you also go to cultivate relationships that will help you down the road. You should take advantage of the knowledge and expertise that is available to you. In the smaller shops, you will make valuable friendships. In the larger establishments, you will soon find out which sales people can actually assist you and which ones will probably not be there the next time you drop in for a visit.

Getting To Know It

If you’re truly serious about getting a new guitar then there’s something you should know up front … it should take some time for you to make a decision. We’re not talking months or years or even the amount of time it takes to get in or out of downtown Chicago on a Friday evening (plate tectonics is rumored to be a tad faster). But we are talking about making an informed decision, and that involves a bit of work.

Ideally you want to try out a guitar or a piece of equipment in a controlled environment. I can hear you laughing right now. “Controlled environment? We’re talking about a music store!” True. But you can control it more than you might imagine. First off, let’s talk acoustic or classical guitars. This is easier than you think, especially since larger stores usually have a room for these guitars sealed off from the rest of the store. There are usually fewer people there (it’s a lot harder for a show off to show off on an acoustic for some reason. Go figure…). And speaking of fewer people, try to find a time to go when things are relatively quiet. If you pick your day (and time of day) well, you can usually have the whole place to yourself.

And do yourself a favor. Take notes. Even if you’re worried that it will make you look like a complete idiot, write things down. Believe me, you will never remember all the things you will want to remember the moment you set a guitar down, let alone the moment you walk out the door. Try a guitar. How does it feel? Comfort should be the number one consideration in your book. A lot of things about a guitar, from the action to the color, can be changed. But how it feels in your hands will rarely change no matter how much you think it can. How’s the sound? Try a different brand, size or shape. Try one that is constructed from a different type of wood. Ask about the strings. How old are they? What brand or gauge are they? You’ll be amazed at how you once thought that they all sounded the same. Even if it’s out of your price range, try out an expensive model and see what you think of it. Remember it’s how it sounds to you that should be important. There’s a brand of guitar out there (and I’m not naming names) that I’ll never buy … they are quality guitars (and the price reflects it) but I have yet to find one whose sound I really like. It’s just me. Someone could give me one; I would still play my twenty-year old acoustic, bashed in
and all.

Do yourself another favor … avoid burning yourself out. If it does all start sounding the same, call it a day. Go over your notes. Narrow down your choices and go back when you’ve rebooted.

If you’re buying your first guitar, take along a friend who does play and listen to him or her. You check out the feel, but since you have no idea how to play, it makes more sense to have your friend play. Don’t have the salesperson play for you unless you cannot get anyone to accompany you. And make sure your friend plays fairly simply … mostly strumming chords and maybe a little lead or fill work. After all you want to hear what you’re going to be learning, not what you can hopefully do a year or two down the road.

And a big bit of advice for you if you’re buying a new (but not first) guitar, whether acoustic, electric, classical, bass, whatever: PLAY WHAT YOU NORMALLY PLAY. If you’re a rhythm guitarist, strum a rhythm. If you play leads, then play a typical lead. Play a song you know well. If you’re checking out a new electric guitar, try to test it out on the same kind of amplifier that you use. So many people buy a guitar and then complain that it doesn’t sound anything like it did in the store. That’s because you didn’t sound at all like yourself at the store, either. Leave the showing off to the people who believe that everyone else comes to the guitar store to hear them play.

And if you are trying out an electric guitar, please play it at a reasonable volume. After all, you’re buying the guitar, not the amp. If you are buying the amp, then play it at a level that you expect to be playing at. Most people sink a lot of money into amps that they are never going to really use. They could easily have put an extra two or three hundred into their guitar instead. Sad, really, but hey, image is everything, right? If you’re buying an amp to really crank it out, then you really owe it to yourself to test one out in a performance setting, at a club or on a stage. You will never be able to accurately translate from what it sounds like in a store to what it might sound like in “real life.”

Likewise with effects … experiment as much as you want but be smart enough to play it on your guitar and amp. Or at least as close as you can get.

And be kind to the sales staff. I mean if you’ve taken all the trouble to findsomeone you like and can work with, don’t reward him or her by playing Smoke on the Water with the amp and guitar both set on eleven. Imagine what it must be like for these folks – to come into work each day knowing that the best they can hope for is to not have one of their favorite songs butchered in front of their ears can’t be all that much fun. One of my favorite stores used to have a list of riffs/songs posted on the wall. Anyone caught playing anything on the list was subject to removal from the premises. Multiple violations could result in a ban from the store. There’s just so much Iron Man that a
person should be asked to listen to in his or her lifetime.

Getting To Know The Rest Of Them

All joking aside, the guitar store is a great place to meet and learn from other musicians. It’s like going to a party where everyone has something in common. There are bound to be people that you won’t get along with and there will also be people who could become your best friends. But you’ll never know unless you mingle.

Besides making the acquaintance of the people who inhabit the store (whether they be sales staff or habitual customers), it’s not a bad idea to check out the bulletin boards from time to time. It’s a good way to hook up with a teacher (you might even get reviews from members of the staff), meet potential band members or even find some good used stuff.

And there are other benefits to making friends at the music store. Many smaller stores nowadays hold “preferred customers” or “closed door sales.” Basically it’s the same idea as the “great weekend giveaways” the big stores have, but it’s just for their “good clients.” Often the store will be closed to the public and you’ll need an invitation in order to walk through the door. The store will normally inform you of this event ahead of time so you will have the chance to check out the equipment and then some in on the day of the event to see what prices they have. Usually it’s a good event to plan for in your yearly budget.

Bigger stores will occasionally host special seminars, almost always sponsors by a guitar manufacturer. These are hosted by very talented players (although you may not have heard of them); they come in and talk about a particular subject, play a little and often field questions from the audience. It’s all in the hopes that you will buy some of the manufacturer’s wares, but you can usually learn a thing or two and you get to hear some good guitar work, so it’s not a bad deal.

One of the big stores in the Chicago area (and I’ve heard from some of you that this idea is spreading) offer a “build a band” service. It’s kind of like those “blind date lunch” deals. They’ll put you in contact with other people with similar musical tastes and styles and give you rehearsal space and even throw a “battle of the bands” night for the people who participate. Yes, it is just another way to get you to spend money but you’ve got to admit it’s an interesting idea.

Personally, I prefer to throw a “music and munchies” session at my house. It’s pretty easy … you invite your friends that can play as well as friends that like to listen or sing or sit in on the percussion and you just see what happens. In the past we would normally do this once every three or four months but so far this year (knock on wood) we’ve had one each month. As word spreads you get more and more participants and more input in the selection of music that gets played. It’s a great way to learn new things, develop your skills and have some fun at the same time.

So go out and celebrate the season! Visit some old friends and investigate the new kids in town. Whether we’re talking about people, guitars or guitar stores, the philosophy should be the same. As corny as it sounds, life is beautiful. Especially for those of us who truly believe that there is no life without music.