I’m a useless guitar player. Can’t read music. Nerve damage hearing loss in one ear. Play in an old man garage band. A room full of amps and guitars that pisses off my wife every time she sees it. To quote George S. Patton: “God, I love it so.” Playing rock-n-roll guitar has been one of my passions since I was 12 years old and I was fired by the classical guitar teacher my mother sent me to. In addition to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice (read “Outliers”…it will change your life), I’ve probably spent the equivalent loitering in local music shops, ogling guitars and twiddling them through amps. 98% of the time, I’ve had absolutely no intention whatsoever of spending any money. That was before Guitar centre when the mum and pop music store was the outlet for new Stratocasters or fuzz pedals or strings.
Guitar centre grew and grew and, for the most part, planted mum and pop’s arse six feet under in most smaller markets. It’s often popular to be a populist and bemoan the evil big box retailers for squelching the middle class shopkeeper and enslaving the consumer. To some extent, Wal Mart did do that building giant, Orwellian looking stores that attract disability drawers on mobility scooters like garbage dumps attract seagulls. I avoid Wal Mart at all costs. I refuse to go there unless it’s absolutely necessary and all of my other options have been exhausted. However, Guitar centre did it right and, honestly, I don’t miss mum and Pop’s Music much at all.
I live in a smallish city. At one point, there were probably 10 independent music stores that focused on guitars in town. Today, there’s one and guitars probably make up 25% of their business if that much. I hate going there and rarely do. The guy in charge, who doesn’t own it, hovers over you and not in a good way. I get the vibe that he thinks I’m going to try to put one of their crappy Yamaha amps down my pants and try to steal it. It’s always a chore if you ask to try one of the instruments. You can almost feel them rolling their eyes. That was the customer experience at just about every local music store: touch the merchandise…but not too much and we’ll act very put out about it and treat you like a criminal. Not at GC. Wanna jam on $1200 custom shop Strat? Go for it. Turn it up. It almost seems that when Guitar centre did marketing research, they asked us loser musicians what we hated about music stores and then made sure they didn’t include that in the customer experience.
And speaking of marketing, that’s another area where they hit it on the screws. “Guitar centre Sessions” on Direct TV is perfect. I don’t dig all of the bands they have but I’ll watch it if I land on it. To me, the concept says that he marketing guys decided to spend money paying musicians to provide decent content rather than wasting it on newspaper inserts (a dying medium), direct mail (another dying medium), TV commercials…you get the picture. A few weeks ago, my phone rings. It’s a kid from Guitar centre. “Hey, Mr. Yieldpig (not my real name). Just wanted to shout at you and let you know that the weekend sale is gonna be extended through Tuesday and you can get 10% off of anything in the store.” I thanked him and said I’d swing by if I needed anything. I didn’t but I didn’t mind the unsolicited call. The kid was pleasant and polite and tried to add some value. 10% isn’t much but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
I am not…repeat…not a paid shill. Just a satisfied customer. I know mum and pop work hard. I’ve been there. It sucks. It’s tough and thankless. But so is running a huge business. Both can be rewarding if they’re done correctly. Guitar centre went private in 2007 so you can’t blame their success on being an evil public company backed by Wall Street. They’ve probably got the same corporate structure as lot of mum and pops. They just know how to rock the customer’s world. Everyone should copy that riff.