Just as comic book stores are the niche playgrounds for comic fans, guitar shops are a similar experience for guitarists. These paradises of gear-lust are also environments with their own social order, rules of conduct, and quite a few characters.
There are the small, independently run mom-and-pop stores, which sell a little of everything from school band instruments to guitar gear. Then there are the more expensive vintage and boutique-style stores, which generally have rare older gear and high-end newer stuff. Some of them feel like museums. Finally, there are the big chains like Guitar Center.
In all of these establishments, familiar archetypes emerge over and over again. Here are seven types of people you'll run into in your guitar shopping pursuits.
7. THE MOODY OWNER PERSON
Several independent guitar shops are owned by cantankerous folks who have witnessed a decline in business with Guitar Center breathing down their throats. I've been in several guitar stores where a gruff owner-person started yelling at employees or just was unfriendly to customers for whatever reason. Keeping a small business of any sort afloat is a cutthroat and stressful endeavor, so maybe the twitchy eye and temperament just goes with the territory.
These folks are pretty common in the larger stores; it seems like at least a couple of them work at each big guitar retailer I've ever been to. I guess they get paid on commission or earn bonuses or something, because they're the music-store equivalent of the used car salesman. Once you're in their clutches, good luck. There's a pretty good chance they're going to give you the hard sell on something. You walked in knowing you just wanted an entry-level student guitar for a niece of yours, but the Sales Pro knows that what you really need is that $2,400 Les Paul hanging on the wall.
5. THE KNOW-NOTHING
This employee is common in the big music stores. Since it's probably an entry-level retail job with high turnover, many people working at these places aren't experts on the gear they're selling. You ask a few specific questions, or have a certain amount of knowledge already, and this discrepancy will become obvious. It's understandable in a store with thousands of different items, but you aren't likely to get much good info from someone who only knows electric guitars are stringed instruments that plug into squarish speaker-box things, and they make sound.
4. THE SALES LIAR
The Sales Liar is often just a more ambitious version of the Know-Nothing. Sometimes they actually think they know what they're talking about, and in other cases they'll just spin any old line of bullshit in order to make a sale. Ask one of them anything specific about a guitar or manufacturer, and you will hear all sorts of bogus information. That Fender Squier that is marked as being made in Indonesia is really "better" than the American Strats being made these days, at least according to the Sales Liar. You'll discover that great guitars are still being built today, but only if you're willing to spend at least $1,000. Inconsistencies and obvious misinformation will be passed off as fact by these folks, so beware.
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3. THE BITTER MUSICIAN
Unsurprisingly, some employees at large guitar shops tend to be people struggling to make it in bands. It makes sense. Even though the pay is probably not great, there's likely to be an employee discount on gear, you can look like a rock star, and it's a good place to network for your band. It almost assuredly beats working at some loathsome fast-food restaurant or other retail job that won't hire people with bitchin' neck tattoos. However, the problem with dealing with the Bitter Musician is that if they've been struggling too long, they're a surly fucker to deal with. Can I just buy this overdrive pedal, please?
2. THE ROCK 'N' ROLL THROWBACK
These folks have likely been working in music stores for years and years. They've seen music fads come and go, and are still hanging in there. When I was younger, most of these dudes were guys that played in bands in the '60s and '70s and would sometimes have attitudes about the newer trends that had come along since then. Today they've largely been replaced by middle-aged rockers who still love '80s hard rock or hair metal, and think rock has sucked since then. They can either be cool or cranky depending on how much their music of choice has slipped from popularity.
1. THE GENRE PURIST
This class of employee can take several forms, although they are commonly either metalheads or blues enthusiasts of some type. Regardless, they tend to think their favorite music is the only good stuff out there. At their most irritating, these people are just not helpful if your gear preferences or look mark you as someone from another musical team.
I once worked with a metal purist that we nicknamed "Dr. Dio," who was openly hostile to customers who weren't metal musicians. I once saw him argue with a teenager, easily less than half his age, that Faster Pussycat was a better band than Nirvana. Whatever one's opinion on that, it was weird to watch a 40-year-old with hair like Nikki Sixx losing his shit while arguing with a 17-year-old. What would the metal gods think of that lapse of decorum, Dr. Dio?
I also once had a blues purist give me attitude when I was trying to buy a guitar he deemed suited for hard rock. I don't know how to counter these people. As with any closed-minded clowns, it's probably just better to avoid them unless you happen to play the kind of music they love. If you happen to play their chosen music, you've probably made an invaluable music-store ally. If not, just walk away quickly.
Of course, lots of friendly and helpful people also work at guitar shops. Once you find a place that meets your needs and has employees you like, you are indeed a lucky person.
One final tip: Shop during off hours. There's no reason to ever go to a Guitar Center on a weekend, for instance -- or anytime around a holiday, for that matter. You're setting yourself up for an unpleasant experience, as it's almost certain that the store will be stuffed to the gills with soccer moms and kids.
And never turn your back on Dr. Dio. You don't know what that guy is capable of.
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