My Letter To Guitar Center - They Asked For It (Literally)

I recently posted a tweet bashing Guitar Center.

Guitar Center, you are the lame cousin that other guitar shops can only handle seeing on Holidays.”

Plain and simple. I had, yet again, another awful experience with the Walmart of guitar shops, so naturally, as an American, I went to twitter with this grievance. A couple friends even re-tweeted it. Big whoop. But then I got this:

"I’m sorry to read this. What makes you feel that way? We appreciate the feedback:"

What I got was a tweet from someone named @Iamjcole. His profile stated: I am a musician. I help musicians. Views and opinions expressed here are mine and mine alone.

I also looked through his twitter feed to find that almost exclusively he was making cookie-cutter responses of the same nature to other people who had shared grievances with Guitar Center. At least I knew I wasn’t alone.

Taking his advice, I decided to actually write to him. If he truly wanted my feedback, then I would give it. This will probably be a boring read for you un-musician types, but if you play music, and have the same strange history that many of us have had as a musician, with Guitar Center, then this may be for you.

Dear Jeremy,

I recieved your response tweet in regards to my own tweet, criticizing Guitar Center. I apologize for the delay in actually e-mailing you. I saw that your tweet had a contact e-mail address, and that the tweet said you would appreciate feedback. So wanting to put my money where my mouth is, and not just come off as a Twitter Troll, I’ve decided to write you an articulate e-mail explaining my experiences with Guitar Center and why I posted what I did.

To give a bit of background on myself, I’ve been playing live music for ten years in a professional setting (touring, clubs, coffee shops, music videos, festivals etc.) and I’ve been playing guitar for about 15 years. I teach guitar for a living, and also do a lot amount of writing music too. 

To start at the end and work my way back, here is why I posted what I posted. I have a Vox AC30 CC2 which I adore. I use it non-stop playing live music, which I do at the very least about 3-4 times a month. At a certain point, the footswitch stopped working correctly when it came to turning on and off my Reverb/Tremolo. I love the Vox Tremolo, and the Reverb, so I strayed away from getting pedals for those two effects. The reason for this malfunction is simply that the cable going from the footswitch to the amp was beginning to get torn at one input side. So naturally, I wanted to get a replacement. I tend to get busy and can’t always go in person (right away) to a guitar shop, so I thought to myself “Hey, I’m out here waiting for a meeting to start in 30 minutes, I’ll make use of my time, and call the Guitar Center near my house and ask them if they know what kind of cable I need, and if they sell it”. This specific Guitar Center is literally 5 minutes from my house, so if I’m really in a bind, I head over there (usually just to buy strings). After I was directed via phone to the right department, I had a very brief, and frustating conversation with someone in the accessories department. I quickly described what I needed.

"…my Vox footswitch isn’t working, and at this point I’m positive it’s the cable, so I’m wondering if you might know what type of cable I need, and if you…"

"I don’t think we carry that"

"Well could you check for…."

"Why don’t you just bring it in" was the reply

That seems like a logical answer. Except it doesn’t make very much sense when I’m cut off midsentence with this answer, and when the head of the accessories department has done nothing to even use his vast galactic knowledge on accessories to do a bit of research.

Not being the kind of guy who push it any further, I said thanks, and that I would come in later in the week to show him. Really, I had no intention of dealing with this guy again, but I said it to be polite, and that was the end of the conversation. His tone of voice on the phone was more along the lines of “How dare you waste my time asking about an item we may or may not sell!”. It was pretty frustrating. I could maybe see him saying this to someone who has no clue about guitars, and who would be easier to deal with in person, but then again, this guy has no idea who I am, the kind of knowledge and experience I have, and furthermore whether they even sold what I was looking for.

This lead me to calling a privately owned shop I got to sometimes a little bit further from my house. Within the same amount of time that I was on the phone, being directed to the Accessories department, and being put on hold (which wasn’t super long at all), I had gotten the answer I needed from the fellow on the phone at this other shop. It simply came down to it being a Stereo cable, because my footswitch is an A B switch. He even said “I don’t know exactly but I’m going to check online for you real quick”, and he proceeded to look it up. Got me my answer, and even explained that if I want, I can come in, buy a cable, and then if that doesn’t fix the problem, I can come back and return it.

The dichotomy between these two situations, which held a very similar context was a pretty stunning to me.

Now, you are probably saying, “ok, that was one situation, and an employee decided to handle it differently than the customer was expecting”. Really it should be water off a ducks back for me. The problem is, this is just one of many strange, frustrating, and mind boggling adventures in Guitar Center.

As I mentioned, I teach guitar. When my students first come to me, a lot of them don’t have a guitar, and they need something easy and cheap to start on. To make things easy, I suggest they head over to guitar center with me and try out cheap guitars to get a sense of what feels best, what guitar has a certain level of action they like etc. I’m not talking expensive guitars at all. I’m talking $75 Fender acoustic guitars. This is just something simple they can sink their teeth into. I always suggest that they never buy anything above $100 or so, because sometimes, lets face it, people think they want to play guitar and then after a couple weeks of practice realize they don’t have the heart to practice enough, or really do what it takes. Call it a cheap investment to avoid wasting tons of money for the future. 

Without fail though, every time we are checking out guitars, we are constantly being approached by seperate employees trying to upsell us. This is the most annoying thing ever no matter what store or industry you are buying out of. “Hey, if you like that guitar, there is an even better one that looks the same for X more dollars!”. I’m trying to basically get this kid and his parents to buy something that won’t break their bank if their kid accidentally drops it because he slips on a Yu-Gi-Oh! card in his room, and at every turn, an employee is trying to get us to buy an Epiphone Masterbilt. I understand this a little, because as I understand it, Guitar Center has a commission policy, so it makes sense they would want their sales to look good. But there is nothing more demoralizing than walking into a store and feeling like the salesman just sees you as the next bump in their pay grade. I explain the situation to them, and that we are just looking for a knockaround guitar that won’t be too much of a worry when it comes to upkeep. Basically if this kid puts a scratch it in then it won’t matter. If Willie Nelson can play Trigger on stage in a proffesional sense then I think a $90 dollar guitar won’t kill this kid while he practices One Direction songs in his room. This still doesn’t stop them. When they proceed to the check out with us they pull out sales pitch number two:

"Would you like some sales insurance? You’re really gonna want that in case you drop the guitar, or scratch it. In fact, you’re probably gonna want a case and a stand to keep the guitar in good condition".

It’s like my explanation flew out of their other ear. Again, I explain that we dont need it because it’s just a beginner guitar, and as long as they aren’t playing a new sport called “Guitar Baseball”, I’m pretty sure the guitar will stand up against some scratches and drops. Still though, this does nothing to deter them. They then begin to talk to me like I’ve been playing guitar for 3 months at the local YMCA  ”Beginners Can” intro lessons. Without fail, every time, they take a condescending tone with me, suggesting in the most sneaky and subtle of ways, that I really don’t have a clue to the dangers that Yu-Gi-Oh! cards pose to the natural habitat of an Ibanez. This puts me in a really strange situation. Here I am, with this employee staring me down, while the mother of my student is turning her head back and forth like an electric Fan, looking for some indication in either mine, or the employees eyes about what to do. In one case, I just left it up to the parent. It’s their money, and they are choosing what amount seems worth it to pay for this guitar, and in that one case, the mother chose the soft case, warranty, and guitar stand (which I might add, is bundled up in a corner of their living room. That student uses the time tested guitar stand “Couch” when he isn’t playing his guitar).

But the wackiness doesn’t end their. Not only did this employee fight harder to sell me than Willy Loman in ‘Death of a Salesman’, but this employee then began to have a really awkward, subtle, and passive agressive argument with another employee over who’s sale the guitar was. We had been standing by the counter near the acoustic section for a handful of minutes, unhelped, when another employee cheerfully came along and asked if we need to be checked out. Pure misunderstanding. 

But this other employee wasn’t having it, and a 5 minute “conversation” happened about who’s sale it was, even though the latter employee was surrendering his sale hands down, as it was the original employees. To add that onto an already frustration experience was just the strange icing on the cake.

But wait..there’s more..

I from time to time, come into guitar center if I’m in a last minute rush, to buy strings, or even a strap. Buying strings should be a pretty simple journey. For a place that calls themselves “Guitar Center”, it would make sense that someone at a front desk, who’s backdrop is a wall of strings, would be able to help me out when I have a simple question.

"I usually play D’Addario 11’s for my electric, but I’m trying to see if there is anything I like more. Can you suggest anything?"

Most of them say “I really don’t know”.

'I really don't know' seems to me at times comical considering they are wearing a T-Shirt with a guitar on it. In fact one time, they literally suggested I try the Martin Marquis Mediums. When I explained that they were Acoustic Guitar strings, there was a breif moment of silence before they sheepishly handed me the D'addario 11's. Now I just tell them what I want, point it out on the wall, and the transaction ends. I'm just glad they aren't trying to also sell me string insurance.

Not to mention a lot of these employees looking like they just got off their shift as a galley slave on a Spanish Galleon. Sometimes I think I can even imagine the shackle scars on their wrists. This probably doesn’t help the fact that I get the intense feeling from many employees, that they are unhappy to see me, another customer, in their store. I’m not expecting a ticker tape parade, but I certainly don’t expect that itchy feeling in the back of my head, from what feels like a Rifles Laser Sight. If I could sum up the vibe I get walking into Guitar Center, I would quote the late great Basil Fawlty: “I could run this hotel properly if it weren’t for all the guests”.

And on the floor, it’s another world entirely.

I’ve overhard employees speaking about customers in the most shallow ways possible. “Hey, did you see that kid that came in with his parents? Loaded! I suggested they buy the Les Paul cause it was more expensive”. I’ve actually heard similar conversations like this about two times now. To think that I might be herded to buy something, not because it’s what I need or asked for, but because it’s more expensive, and will help this guys sale score, is pretty sickening to me. They would make great doctors.

And I also get that Guitar Center has a reputation for being the Wank-Meisters wet dream, and you have, at any given moment, five or six people playing ‘Stairway To Heaven’, Meshuggah, Steve Vai, or Joe Satriani at a volume of 8 through a marshall half-stack. Dont’ even get me started on the Slap-funk coming from the bass section.

Where I get confused is when I am simply playing a Telecaster through a Vox amp at a volume of 2, with a clean tone, I get the smack down. Not even a “Hey could you turn that down!?”. I got the employee-turning-down-the-amp-volume-without-saying-a-word-and-then-walking-away move. This has happened at least three times. That would be like a neighbor, instead of a noise complaint to the police, walking into your house, and turning your stereo off, and then walking back to their house. Considering that I had the next Johnny Ramone in the aisle next to me butchering some Fall Out Boy  at a volume of at least 12 0’clock, me getting the wrath for some gentle jazz chords seems a bit strange to me. Now in the GC defense, I have been asked to play quieter in the past, and it was all koster and polite. Given that it was probably about ten years ago, and the issues at hand I’ve mentioned have been happening the past four years, I am called to wonder as to the reasons why.

And finally, to give you some context for why I think that Guitar Center is the most atrocious place to recieve help when it comes to guitars, is my own experiences working in the service industry.

I worked at Game Stop for two years (thank God not much longer than that), which in the Video Game world, has the reputation for being a total corporate slaughterhouse, with some of the worst service and customer satisfaction ratings in the whole industry. I personally witnessed Gulag style customer service on a daily basis. It was actually a big part of why I left. I couldn’t bring myself to lower my standards enough to take part in actions that the corporate office condoned as “clever sales”. Now, given that these are two separate industries, I think they have a lot in common:

1. They are huge corporate chains which have many, many stores in the US, and are run by a corporate structure.

2. They both have systems in place, such as commission, which places emphasis on sales, and finalizing sales.

3. They both require employees to have a good knowledge of the product they are selling, but yet it seems to me that the employees have a minor or mediocre knowledge.

These three things couldn’t be further from fostering a sense (in my humble opinion) of good customer service.

What I saw on a daily basis was a cut-throat approach to being on top of sales, which included going over and around other employees to achieve this goal. I Also saw, a corporate structure that was similar to Reaganomics in the sense that from a top view point, it looked like it was working, but in fact, it had no relevance on the ground floor. And lastly, a staff that lacked a good and common understanding of what they were selling on a general level. 

So all in all, this is why I posted what I did on Twitter. Years, and years (and probably some forgotten instances) of bad service, rabid sales people, and an overall lack of consideration for customers. Again, these things are my opinion, but I can safely say without a doubt that many, many of my musician friends (and I know alot) feel exactly the same. 

Customer service comes first in my mind, and secondly, an honest approach to helping each customer with a solid knowledge of what is being sold, is at the end of the day, my major grip with Guitar Center. Until that changes, I’m happy going to a smaller local shop if I know I’m not going to be upsold, condescended, and dicked around.

Sincerely yours,

Nik Bartunek