If you live in a large urban center, and are a musician who makes frequent purchases, it can be confusing to find a music store that is both conveniently located, and has quality service. This is a guide to noticing signs where music stores will skimp on the quality. It is up to you to determine the convenience factor.
When you first walk into a music store, you should notice several distinct things. The first of these being how organized the store is. You should see several distinct areas seperating different sections. Woodwinds and brass should be in one part, and the guitars should be seperated, so that when you're reaching for a fancy guitar to try out, you're not bumping into a sax player wearing shades, carrying an instrument far more expensive than you are.
If you've never been to this particular store before, you should have a few quick "field tests" to determine how fair the pricing is. You could try any one or a few of the following:
Start with a 'Base' product. This could be a pack of guitar strings, an amp, a certain guitar, whatever you want. Know what the manufacturer's list price is, and preferably what stores around it are selling it for. This works better with guitars. If you see that the price is ridiculously higher, even if its "on sale", get the hell out of that store. If you're going to be spending 20 bucks on a pack of guitar strings that should cost no more than 10, you shouldn't do so unless you have no other choice. I have personally been forced into a situation, spending thirty dollars on a pack of five reeds, which shouldn' t have costed more than 15. It's probably better to wait until other stores get that item in stock than to spend too much.
When in the guitar or bass section, you should see at least 3 or 4 stools sitting next to amplifiers, with cords in them. Some music stores will require that you ask a staff to get a guitar down so you can play. This should be a good thing - it shows the music store is committed to not having stupid kids come in, fool around, and dent guitars. On the other hand, if the staff clerk seem to follow you around (especially if you're a teenager) and are very suspicious of you, it probably isn't the best store to be in. The staff should be friendly, and willing to help, but not overbearing.
Another sign to look for quality control is in the acoustic guitar room. If you're going to be buying an acoustic, its just about a must that the store keep the acoustics in a seperate room. If you're ever seen cigar stores, they keep their cigars in a specially humidified room. The same goes for acoustics. There should be a sign on the door saying, "Please keep door closed at all times - humidified room". To keep the guitars in top condition, there has to be a certain amount of moisture in the room's air. This is especially true during winter, where the air gets especially dry. Seeing a humidifier that is on is a good sign that this particular store is committed to keeping their products in perfect condition for you to buy.
Finally, you should notice the selection. If the music store seem to have a bunch of pianos, a few acoustics shoved along the wall, and has a pitiful attempt to appeal to woodwind players, with a sax and clarinet in a display case, you may not want to even buy guitars there. A music store should either try to make a clear specialty, or have three floors to cater to everyone.
If the store has a moderate amount of guitars, amps drums, and a smaller woodwinds/PA department, they're trying to cater to everyone, without being pathetic. Generally, these stores are good for the casual musician, but their staff won't have such great knowledge for an individual instrument.
If you're going to make small purchases, it's perfectly fine to do it at stores like above. However, if you're going to be buying an amp, and aren't perfectly sure of what you want, then you should make the big trip to the big downtown stores for advice. The type of stores I'm talking about are the ones which have a whole floor of nothing but electric guitars and amps, then a second room filled with acoustics and dedicated staffs for only the acoustics room, and an upper level with drums from floor to ceiling, and a walk-in closet sized room for woodwinds. The staff hired there are generally judged to a higher standard, as serious musicians will come in looking for advice.
Higher end stores like these may have lower prices, due to the fact more people will go there to buy more gear. You should find most, if not all of the brands you know about in a store where you plan to make big purchases, including lesser known brands, and brands you've never heard of. Wide selection is the key, without going overboard at taking a little bit of every kind of instrument and cramming them into a small corner of a mall.
If you don't see staff talking to players about the gear they're playing on (babble about, "this will bring out the single coils in the strat more" or "you probably won't get great distortion, but the clean is amazing"). If the staff are willing to point out a downside to something you're playing on, you're in the right place. If you're a beginner and looking for a new guitar, don't let them take an entry-level guitar and put you on a high-level tube amp. Even worse, don't let them suggest a Gibson when all you need is a Squier or Yamaha Pacifica.
All in all, a music store's quality is a balance between staff and selection. If you walk into a store with a modest selection, but the clerk will say "Hi, how ya doin'?" when you walk in, you're probably in a better place than a store with a larger selection, but the staff will follow you around for fear you're going to set fire to the place.
The decision of where to spend the money is up to you, but remember, its your money, and you shouldn't let anyone hassle you into spending money on something you're not completely comfortable with.
Thanks for reading the article, and I hope the advice will serve you well.
- Backup Guitar.