But it was cheap...AGAIN!

or...Buying a guitar from an Internet Super Store

What is the determining factor in buying a guitar?  Are the big manufacturers squeezing out the little guy so much it is difficult to find a "Mom and Pop" store that carries lots of inventory?  Is buying a guitar sight unseen the preferred method in the 21st century? Is comparison-shopping in a store a thing of the past?  Are we really in trouble now that Hartley Peavey has allowed his gear to be sold in the Musician's Friend catalog -- something he swore he would never do?   Tough questions -- read on...

The psychology of guitar buying is very interesting, and I've developed some very strong opinions based on observations over a number of years. You want an example? Here it is folks -- exactly what I have been talking about. This post is verbatim from the alt.guitar newsgroup. The names have been changed...again:

Subject: Musician's Friend shipped me an ugly guitar - help!!!!
From: Jimbo@xxxx.org
Date: 6/24/03 11:40 AM Central Daylight Time
Message-id: <xxxxxxx@news.bellatlantic.net>

First of all, MF's customer service department is friendly and efficient. As far as I can tell every aspect of their mail order business is well run.

With that out of the way, I know that I should have known better than to buy a guitar online rather than in person but there are a couple of guitar models I just can't find in local stores and this was one of them.

I've been wanting a hardtail strat. While learning about them I realized that the choices were kind of limited. (1) an American made hardtail strat around $1000 (2) an American made Robert Cray strat (around $2000) and (3) a MIM Robert Cray strat around $550.

The MIM Robert Cray has special custom shop pickups and a special neck. Seems like a pretty good value.  I called all the stores in the area. Nobody carried it.  So I ordered the guitar from Musician's Friend in violet (the choices were violet, Inca silver, and sunburst).

The first guitar came and it had a bridge that was attached so crookedly you could tell from across the room. It even through the strings off center a bit. Obviously, I returned that guitar. I also decided that I did not care for the violet finish. The guitar looked like it had been dipped in purple plastic.

Guitar number two arrives. This one is a sunburst. I figured I should try the sunburst because it might at least look like wood from across the room. It arrived and the finish was pretty darned good. You couldn't tell where one piece of wood began and the other ended. It might as well be a single piece of alder.

Problem with this guitar was that one of the tuning posts was defective. It only had around 1/4" of post. I don't even know how they managed to tune it let alone get it through QC. Also the guitar finish had a small ding on top making a mark in the finish that did not look like it could be fixed. This polyester kind of cracks like plastic when it takes a hit. I sent that one back.

Guitar number three arrives. It's bridge is on straight enough. Perhaps I should look at it again. It has all its tuning posts and they are all the same height. But the guitar is UGLY.

This guitar should have been given a solid color finish. The grain is unsightly and asymmetrical or imbalanced. One of the pieces was more receptive to the stain that the other two so you can eye ball the guitar from a distance and count the pieces of wood. YUCK.  Is this an adequate reason to reject a mail order guitar?

If I return it because I don't like it and I have to pay the return delivery charges with insurance, about how much will that cost me to do?  I don't think that I am ever going to buy a mail order guitar in anything other than a solid color again. It's just too stressful a variable to deal with.

My next mail order adventure, if I have the stomach for it will be to buy a BB King Lucille. At least you can't screw up a black guitar as far as matching the wood goes.


This is a great post because it doesn't have anything in it talking about "do you prefer .011s or .013s" or "check out my MP3 page" or "Who's better: Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath?"

This is pretty interesting because this guy thought he knew what he wanted, but the locals didn't carry it.  How did he figure out what he wanted?  Probably from the Musician's Friend catalog or Fender.com.  He decided on the Robert Cray Strat without ever actually playing one.  As we've said before, Fender makes such a dizzying (confusing) array of guitars, we don't know how any dealer could actually stock one of each.

Our friend ordered a Strat, and he didn't like it.  The second one arrives...ditto.  The third one arrives...same same.  Now he doesn't know what to do.   What would you do?  We sure wouldn't order a Lucille!   Note how committed he is to the color of his guitar.

As we stated in our first look at Internet Super Stores, the big assumption is that the guitar that arrives in the UPS truck is going to be OK...really OK.  We've bought some stuff from this store -- generic electronics stuff -- and they were pretty easy to deal with.  But we got into to a "return authorization loop" with a Line6 floorboard, and we didn't know if our stuff was coming or going -- very frustrating.  The floorboard was defective, and we knew it, and we had to drive 25 minutes to the FedEx place to send it back.  It would be difficult to imagine playing this game with a guitar, all the while hoping they didn't try to ding you for a restocking fee if it wasn't perfect when it arrived back at the warehouse.  The post above was kind of disturbing because of the QC problems with the guitars.

As we become more mature guitarists, we can clearly see that patience is a virtue when buying a guitar.  In a way, we long for the days when Fender made two Strats, albeit in a variety of colors, and you found that guitar at the local jewelry store.  Somehow it just seemed much easier.  Personally, part of the fun of buying a guitar now is the ability to play it and comparison shop.  Kind of the Search for the Grail.  But this is easy for me to say; I've been playing guitar for years, got a bunch of good guitars already, I know what a good guitar rig sounds like, and I have a pretty good eye for quality.  Now if you don't have at least some qualifications, what is the bottom line?  Price, of course.

How do you know that the guitar that you bought is a good one?  What do you compare it to?  I suppose that if your friends think it is cool, you'll go into a full court press to convince yourself that it is cool, too. 

What is the bottom line (Updated from our first "But it was Cheap..." article)?

First, I've always believed that the big mail order places that also had retail stores "culled" the good guitars to hang up in the store and sent the second-tier ones out in the brown truck. Does the top look a little less flamey than the one you expected? Too bad -- its prettier stablemate is hanging in the store.  (Oct 03:  I'm not so sure anymore -- this presumes the warehouse folks actually look at the guitar prior to sending it out in its factory box, and I'm not sure this happens.)

Second, what makes a Gibson Les Paul and Epiphone Les Paul so different is the materials, quality control, and workmanship. Yes folks -- my Les Paul Classic sounds and plays better than any Korea-built Epiphone I've ever picked up. That is truth as I see it.  It is also much more expensive!

Third, what makes guitar playing and building so interesting -- and frustrating -- is the subtle differences in guitars that look exactly the same. The pickups may be just a little hotter, or the wood in the body just a little denser. It is difficult to explain these subtleties to a guy that doesn't know what a humbucker is, so the guitar companies turn to icons to peddle their wares -- if it looks the same, it is the same, right?


If you are going to spend more than $300-400 on a guitar, take a road trip and go to a store that has a number of instruments and play them until you find the one that really "speaks to you" and buy it.  This is what we found with our acoustic guitar, and any number of guitars in our collection.  There is that "mojo factor" when you find a great guitar and you really can't articulate why you like it other than "man…it plays great!"

The guy that wrote the post above has probably already ordered another guitar, and probably no guitar from the box will satisfy him.  He would be much better off just taking a weekend and hitting the road, looking for guitars.   Or he will just get bored, accept the final guitar, and start the process of convincing himself of what a great deal he got.

Good Luck!


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