Edit: A few months later, I realize that hate is such a strong word.
Preface: I’ve been to 6 different Guitar Centers. Hollywood, San Marcos, La Mesa, San Diego (pre La Mesa move), San Francisco, and San Francisco 2 (pre Van Ness move). So I think i’ve seen enough Guitar Center’s to accurately complain about them, but that’s up to you. Lets get started.
Guitar Center is the bane of the guitarists existence; the be-all end-all of guitar stores for the guitarist’s vernacular. When someone wants to try out guitars, they go to Guitar Center. When someone wants to buy an amplifier, they go to Guitar Center. When someone needs just about any musical gear, they go to Guitar Center. Every person who’s ever been to one knows the feeling they get. You’re outside the door and you hear someone butchering a popular song; Stairway to Heaven, One by Metallica, or some Green Day. At any other time, you’d be irritated, but when you walk in, you completely ignore that kid playing an American Telecaster on Neck Pickup through a Line 6 on full distortion, you ignore the guy who’s always too loud when he plays a small combo, and you forget the Metalhead shredding his pants off at the Mesa Boogie Triple rectifier. You see that wall of guitars and think “Damn, I want that wall.” Then it all sets in. The attractive woman at the door (I’ve been meaning to ask, but it might sound rude asking “Why are all of the guitar center door people attractive women” as I might sound creepy coming from a guy in a faded hat, old sandals, shorts, and an ACDC shirt that’s too big) says hello to you, you start looking for that guitar you want to play around with, and there are already 10 people’s eyes watching you, judging you.
Now why would I take time out of my day to rant about Guitar Center? Simple. Guitar Center is a business, and their business is music, so they run music like a business. Confused? I’ll explain.
The Levels: When you or I walk into a Guitar Center, everything is thought out about how it should look when we walk in. Their gear is organized in levels on the walls. They symbolize yearning and affordability, so basically the lower it is, the easier to buy, and with the elevation increase on that wall of guitars, the price follows suit. But the proof is in the pudding, so here’s an analysis of the “levels.”
The Low Level: The Squiers, Mexican Strats, Jackson Dinkys, PRS SE’s, Epiphone Les Pauls, BC Rich bolt-ons, Ibanez’s low numbered RGs, Jasmine acoustics, Baby Taylors, Fender acoustics, and so on. Usually, the lowest guitars are the guitars meant to introduce people to playing the instrument, and they only cost 100-300 dollars. So you’d think that they’re there for the new guitarist? One would hope so. These are the Guitars that the parents buy for their kids on Christmas, the younger player gets when they save money, and the older person gets to try and rekindle their youth. However, the companies that make the guitars are trying to keep a steady profit while also selling expensive instruments. Rarely does a company specialize in top of the line gear without making cheap stuff to keep the money flowing in. The thing about the cheap stuff is that the companies don’t really care about it. They use cheap materials, cheap labor, and no quality control. These mass produced instruments should be used by no one, but there’s no getting around it. The companies don’t set the guitars up when they send them to Guitar Center, so when that young kid who gets a guitar complains that his fingers have been hurting too much, his strings keep breaking, and the sound keeps cutting out, it’s because there’s absolutely no setting up at the factory. I actually feel like the companies might be deliberately keeping the action on guitars high so people will want the more expensive ones, therefore associating easiness with the more expensive guitars. These cheap guitars are meant to be played for about a year, then the person either gives up guitar or is forced to buy a better guitar.
The Middle: At mid-level are the middle range guitars which are good bang for your buck instruments which will last awhile, and still sound pretty good. I’m talking the Ibanez Prestiges, Fender American Strats and Teles, Jackson bolt-on Soloists, Gibson Faded models, Schecters, Takamine and Parkwood acoustics, amongst plenty of others which cost anywhere from 400-1000. These are actually good guitars, but they don’t have the construction quality of the upper level guitars. These are the guitars for the player who wants to upgrade or get another guitar of equal quality to another guitar. They are perfect backups to the ultra expensive guitars, and are great for experiments customization such as pickups, hardware, and different wiring. Guitar Center puts these there because they are slightly harder to reach than the cheap ones, therefore signifying that someone might know what they’re doing if they’re going out of their way to grab one. These guitars are semi-well set up, which means the guitar player used to the cheap guitar might associated these guitars with something better, and give them a reason to beg their parents for one. Personally, i’d save up for a better one, but for a temporary halt to the begging of your kids, these will work for about 5 months.
The Upper Level: These are the instruments you’re supposed to aspire to, and they take a months pay to get. Gibson Les Pauls, Fender Player’s choice american Strats, Jackson American Soloists, Charvel San Dimas’, Ernie Ball Music Man, PRS Santanas, BC Rich Platinums, Ibanez JEMs, and pretty much any guitar from 1000 to 5000 dollars. These are the instruments that the companies know you want, so Guitar Center puts them out of reach. You’re only supposed to look at these things until you can actually get one, and rarely does anyone have the brass to ask a Guitar Center sales person to reach down a $3000 Gibson Les Paul Supreme unless they have the money to afford one. These guitars are made with good quality materials, most likely constructed in America (Partly the reason for the price), and they have been professionally set up. If anyone gets a chance to pick one up, the company wants you to know that this represents the best in instruments and is what the pros use.
First you get the money: Guitar Center makes musical instruments a Corporation style event, and while you’re looking for the best instrument for yourself, they just want you to buy anything. They don’t really care if you get the best deal, really love the instrument, or if you’re getting a quality instrument. The salespeople are paid on commission, and the prices of everything are hiked up in the first place. That means that the Fender Telecaster that says 400 dollars plus tax, you can probably get it for 350 flat if you actually talk to the sales person. Experience shows that a Fender Fretless Jazz bass for 450 plus tax can be bought for 375 with no tax. The sales people are willing to haggle because they just want you to buy anything. That’s why they wander around the store aimlessly looking for their next victim, and I referenced it when I talked about the experience of entering guitar center and seeing the 10 people judge you. 5 of those people are the wandering musicians in the store, and the other 5 are salespeople figuring out how much money you might spend. That’s why if you’re dressed as a college student, you’ll get the cold shoulder, but if you’re an older man, if you’re a mom with your son, or if you just look rich, the salespeople will swarm you like vultures to a dead gazelle.
What does it all mean?: Guitar center wants you to think that the best guitar for you is the one at the top of the wall, they want you to think that the most expensive thing must be the best thing. You have to look up to see it, you have to think about it from afar, and it catches your eyes and memory, so you have to associate it with the best.
But it’s not. In fact, there is no best, especially not the ones at Guitar Center.
Guitar Center doesn’t really put competing guitars and gear in their store. There’s only a handful of modeling amps there, mostly Line 6, but there are lots of others out there which are better, and better priced. There are only a few of each expensive guitar at the store, and there are limited options, but the company has made thousands of these expensive guitars. There’s only one Fender Eric Johnson strat at each Guitar Center at a given time, and it’s to keep up the idea that it’s being sold (Don’t get me wrong, the Eric Johnson strat is one of the best sounding guitars ever made). They only sell the Line 6 Pod, when there are actually a good amount of other Pods out there for a better price and more functionality (Behringer V-amp, Johnson J-Station). There are literally thousands of distortion pedals out there, and Guitar Center usually has about 30 of them, mostly Boss and Digitech.
The companies out there actually pay Guitar Center to keep one of a certain iconic object available, instead of giving options that would be available had there been more.
Sadly, there’s no alternative. Mom-and-pop stores are pretty much nonexistant, their prices can’t compete, and there’s no one out there willing to fight Guitar Center’s unorthodox style of musical instrument selling. And what should be a fun hobby/joy/profession such as music, is instead turned into a car dealership.