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Music Stores Musical Instruments

My First Real Guitar!

At my place of employment, there are a few other musicians and music lovers. One guy plays death/speed metal guitar in a band that has a decent local following, but when we talk, we are usually discussing guitars and equipment and not the music.

Our conversation one day came around to our first guitar that was decent in name brand and playability. I brought up my first axe, which was a Fender Squier Bullet. This was a step above the other Bullet models that Fender was putting out at the time (about 1987). The body was more solid, a Strat-style neck, but also looked very 1980s, with that hair-metal pickup configuration of two single coils and a humbucker.

Strange enough, I actually still own that guitar. Wile at least a dozen other electric guitars have passed through my ownership, that one has remained. Starting out as my main (only) guitar, it moved to back-up when I secured a Fender MIK Telecaster. Soon the frets began to pop out of their grooves, and rather than repair or sell it, I put it back into its case and let it sleep for now 20+ years.

My co-worker asked me to take a photo of it so he could see it, and I obliged. Pulling that old brown case out from the closet was a struggle in itself, as it was buried under a few suitcases and other junk. However, once I opened it, the memories came back. It still has the 1980s charm to it, and there was still some Scotch tape remnants where I put a photo of one of my girlfriends from back them. I cannot even remember who that girl was. I also remember that this guitar was a victim of an early guitar modification. I tapped the humbucker with a grounding switch so that I could have a pseudo single coil pickup in the treble position. I can’t remember if there were originally three control knobs on it or if I installed a third control for tone or volume – the configuration looks too weird for Fender’s design. Of course, it did have a vibrato bridge. If I remember correctly (I still haven’t plugged it in to check it out), the single coil pickups that were installed were not too much Fender sounding, so playing surf music on it didn’t have the same tone.

This was my first decent electric guitar. Before this, I had been playing bass in bands, and I was finding out that, to get my songs out there, I needed to form a band with which I was the next Joe Strummer. I couldn’t afford much, and was still keen on playing bass if need be. I purchased this Bullet from Wonderland Music in Dearborn, MI, which has long since closed down due to competition from Guitar Center. Back in the 1980s, Wonderland was THEEE music store in the Detroit area. Crazy Clarence would have sales three or four times each year so that you could get cheap guitar strings, and the craziest television commercials!

If you don’t know who Tony Bacon is, he is a world-renowned guitar historian. He has put out books on Fender, Gibson, Martin, Rickenbacker, and other top-name guitar companies. He also put out a comprehensive book on the history of the Squier brand (Squier Electrics: 30 Years of Fender’s Budget Guitar Brand, ISBN 978-61713-022-9). Unfortunately, there is no information on this particular Bullet in the book. In my years of floating around at shows, music stores, and guitar shows, I have only seen one other Bullet like this, and it was in black (mine is white). I find it strange that there are not a lot of relics out there of this model, as it proved (at least to me) that it was a quality guitar for the price. I have noticed that over the past few years, Fender has upped its game on the Squier brand, producing some high-quality models coming out of Asia that can compete with its Fender models at a more affordable price.

Upon looking at this old girl, perhaps for sentimental reasons, I may take it to a professional guitar repair person and have it re-fretted. I know that I will never sell it, but it may be nice to have and play occasionally in the basement to bring back memories.

Chew on it and comment.

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Music Stores

Sweetwater: A Musician’s Best Friend

As far as music equipment is concerned, I’m pretty much satisfied with what I got. In fact, I find myself selling off stuff that I no longer use, especially in the electric guitar area. As I have been cleaning out my house, I am finding amplifiers and effects pedals that I don’t see myself using, since I am sticking to acoustic music, and with that, primarily songwriting and not band situations.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t shop around any more. Thanks to the COVID shutdowns of so many businesses, going into stores and getting your hands on guitars and actually trying them out is almost completely gone. I really miss that. Musical instruments are a lot like cars. You want to test-drive the puppy before making a buying decision. On the other hand, buying books, videos and CDs is a bit different, and I have no problem ordering online or mailing in an order form.

I want to tell you about a great experience that I had with a recent purchase with Sweetwater. I have been on the company’s mailing list for years, even though I don’t purchase much from them. A few days ago, I received an email from Sweetwater about some clearance items. There was an audio interface module available for a great price that I couldn’t pass up (even though I do very little with music and computer hook-ups), and made the online order. About an hour later, I got a phone call from Marcus, a rep at Sweetwater. My first thought was that the product was sold out and he was going to try and talk me into buying something more expensive that I didn’t want or need.

I was wrong, to say the least! Marcus talked with me for about five minutes just to confirm my order and address, as well as to thank me for the purchase and tell me about how many days the shipment would take. No sales pitch, no bad news. On top of that, he sent a thank-you text to my cell phone. As far as emails, Sweetwater sends one out to me at every step (received order, packing order, sending out order).

This isn’t the first time that I have dealt with Sweetwater, and I have never had a bad experience. The packages usually get to me in a fast amount of time, and there is always a bumper sticker or a small bag of candy included with every order. That is good customer service! It’s that little extra, which doesn’t cost much in time or money, that customers will remember and come back for more. You feel important to Sweetwater, even if you are just buying a set of strings or a capo.

Sweetwater founder Chuck Surack started out like many of us, as a musician after graduating high school. At age 22, he bought an old VW Westphalia Microbus and converted it into a mobile recording studio so that he could record bands around his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. This passion for music led to the creation of Sweetwater Sound Inc, which is now a $275 million business, selling 3,300 guitars, 830 keyboards, 460 drum sets, and 5,300 microphones EVERY WEEK!

Surack knows what lies in the heart of every musician, whether he/she is a hobbyist playing in the bedroom, or a professional sweating it off on stage every night. Sweetwater was an oasis for many of us during the pandemic while brick-and-mortar shops had to close up. The people at Sweetwater honestly care about you as a musician, because most of them on the other side of the phone line, or in the warehouse, or at a desk inputting invoices, are musicians as well.
My advice: Go to Sweetwater’s website at www.sweetwater.com and take a look around. Sign up for its mailing list. Check out what is going on at its YouTube channel. There are not a lot of honest and friendly companies on the internet. Fortunately, Sweetwater is a good one, and treats its customers with tons of respect.

Chew on it and comment.

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Music Stores Musical Instruments

YouTube Find: Casino Guitars

Although I’m not the guitar nut that I was, say, 20 years ago, I still like to pick up different guitars, be they acoustic or electric, and strum away! Some things only a guitar enthusiast would understand goes on during this ritual, like the feel of the neck, the tone coming off of the body, and a few dozen other actions. Whether it is cars, motorcycles, beer cans, baseball memorabilia, or guitars, enthusiasts have a passion about something that the people around him do not quite understand.

That’s why I like these guys. Casino Guitars is a music store in North Carolina that is not just another Guitar Center. They treat the buying and selling of guitars like an adoption agency, which means that they REALLY love and care about guitars. The store has a YouTube page that is absolute entertainment. Two of the employees/owners(?) of the store (Baxter Clement and Jonathan Robinson) post a video about once a week to discuss guitars or rock/pop music in general.

When I first watched one of their videos, I thought that it looked like someone from Duck Dynasty talking guitar smack with Robert Smith from The Cure. They both look like guitar geeks somewhat, but also look like they would NEVER be in the same room together. However, as I got to listening to them, they were a lot like me. Not in looks or in presentation, but in passion for the guitar.

What is more likeable about Baxter and Jonathan is that they totally respect their fan base viewers. I’ve commented a number of times on their vlogs, whether it be praise, disagreement, or just to swipe a humorous insult. Sure enough, within a day or two, one of them will reply with a comeback or even a simple thanks for the suggestion. In short, they actually READ the comments, which 99% of YouTube vloggers do not. They make you feel like you are part of the conversation, and know that the people watching them are just like them – guitar enthusiasts.

Watching Baxter and Jonathan is like sitting in with them and talking guitars as well. Think of sitting around a music store that is welcoming, not a big-box place, and being able to BS about stuff we all love. The only thing missing is the bottle of bourbon to pass around (although I do have a rocks glass of Makers Mark close by).

Enough of the talk! I recommend that if you are into talking about guitars and guitar-oriented music, then check the Casino Guitars YT page and enjoy.

Chew on it and comment.

PS: Rest in Peace Alex Trebek and Sean Connery.

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Music Stores

I Miss Mars Music

I miss Mars Music. I’ll explain.

We can order just about anything we want for our musical instrument needs through the internet. Before the Coronavirus pandemic, it could arrive in a matter of a day or two. Once the pandemic kicked in, package delivery now takes weeks. When it comes to a lot of music stuff, especially instruments, you usually don’t want to just order them – you want to sit down and try them out, take them for a test-drive.

For months, music stores were considered non-essential, so the doors were bolted shut. Now, some are open on a limited basis or by appointment. Moreover, some mom-and-pop ones have gone out of business never to return. It is a sad state of affairs.

I love music stores. To me there are two kinds: the big-box ones like Guitar Center, and the specialty smaller ones that cater to enthusiasts. I always looked at it like going out to eat. If you want something fast and maybe cheaper and are not too picky about the outcome, you go to McDonald’s. If you want to get the best steak available and are willing to pay for it in money and time, you go to a five-star restaurant.

As for the big-box music store, there is really only one out now: Guitar Center. The immediate competition is minimal. Music-Go-Round is not much of competition as far as offerings, seems to concentrate on used gear, and is limited in locations. Sam Ash is even more limited in locations and relies heavily on internet orders. GC has its ear to the ground, with numerous locations and prices that are reasonable in most cases. They really do not have any brick-and-mortar competition.

It wasn’t always that way. For a few years, from 1996 until about 2002, GC had intense competition from Mars Music. MM was founded by Mark Begelman, a former president of Office Depot and an avid guitarist. After being disappointed by an experience at a local music store, he started up MM with the intent of selling decent equipment at affordable prices and no pushy salespeople. It worked for a while. Stores were in 20 states, and it was innovative in setting up music education programs and charity programs.

What I loved about MM was that it was competitive with GC in pricing, especially with accessories. I never really purchased any big-ticket items from either store, but I relied on them for quick and easy access to strings, cords, picks, straps, and other stuff that breaks and needs replacement right away. When MM opened, they had their own brand of such items, and they were extremely affordable. You could get a box of 10 set of guitar strings for about $20.00. A set of bass strings would be about $7.00. GC shortly started selling their own brand of accessories as well at bargain prices.

Begelman had a great heart. He knew musicians liked to try out instruments and did not have a lot of money. MM was in many ways more comfortable and welcoming than GC, but the main idea there was competition. Both knew there was a decent-sized market out there, and both went to extremes to get that cash.

Sadly, MM went bankrupt within a few years due to expansion problems and poor investments. It was literally a one-day-open-next-day-closed situation. I thought about all of that branded stuff going nowhere. GC kept going, but phased out most of its budgeted self-branded accessories. While GC still has relatively good prices, there is not that competitive feel for the small-ticket items.

Recently, I needed to purchase a budget gig bag for a cheap Chinese bass guitar that I got brand new for around $65.00. I just needed a glorified dust covering, not a hardshell case or a bells-and-whistle soft case gig bag. Surfing the internet, it was extremely hard to find even a cheap-quality gig bag for under $25.00 plus shipping. I finally found one that come to about $20.00 with tax and shipping. I got it through the mail a week after ordering, and it was not much more than sewn canvas with a zipper.

This experience made me think about how much I miss Mars. Back then, I remember getting a few gig bags that were of the same quality as this recent one for about $8.00. It had the MM brand emblazoned on it, but who cares? It did its job at a musician’s price. Times change, and I realize that a lot of good things disappear. Only competition can keep the things we love affordable.

Chew on it and comment.