Around 3am on a Tuesday, I awoke, bleary eyed, to a text message that detailed my next mission. The Chief informed me that my next assignment would lead me back to the desert southwest. This time, I was to shop for drums in the absurdly sunny city of Tucson AZ.

Because it is located just 45 minutes from the Mexican border, Tucson presents an interesting blend of the Old West and Mexican culture. Streets are lined with one-floor adobe houses of yellow, orange and pink, with elaborately designed, brightly colored doors. The mix of culture culminates with the Sonoran hot dog, an extreme culinary self-indulgence and, quite possibly, the greatest invention in the history of mankind. The Sonoran treats a hot dog to a blanket of bacon; then, it’s covered with generous portions of beans, onions and the obligatory chili pepper. While on my short trip through Tucson, I would eat enough Sonorans to feed a small village.

Cruising down the mile-wide avenues toward downtown Tucson, I ran into my first obstacle: Mother Nature. Like a bad omen, my air conditioning ceased to work right before the mission began…an extremely unfortunate circumstance in a place where 90 degrees is considered cool, even in mid-September. I feared that just the car-to-shop walk would end with me becoming an evaporating puddle on a Tucson sidewalk. Nevertheless, I soldiered on.

After parking my car on downtown 4th Ave., ominous clouds suddenly crept into view, darkening everything in their path. Fall in Tucson brings monsoon season, during which tremendous heat alternates with quick, torrential downpours. I hurried down Congress St. to my first destination: Chicago Music Store.

Chicago Music Store
130 E. Congress St.
Tucson AZ 85701

Chicago Music Store is Tucson’s oldest music shop, and one of its most celebrated. It sits on the corner of Congress St. and 6th Ave. in an old JCPenney building that looks straight out of a black-and-white photograph from the 1950s. The shop maintains a charming, old-world feel, and it relishes in its assortment of vintage equipment influenced by the mix of cultures in Tucson.

A blending of cultures is immediately apparent, in fact. Out front, on display, sit two beautiful, vintage accordions: one from Russia, and the other from Italy. Although Tucson hosts rock bands of differing styles, the accordion could be considered the quintessential musical instrument of Tucson, as it’s used in many styles of Mexican music, such as tejano, norteno and banda.

The interior of Chicago Music Store greets you like a relic of the past: a towering, two-floor jumble of instruments, parts, electronics and lighting equipment. The enormous 50-foot ceilings give the store a holy air, as though it were a shrine for music lovers. The store extends to a second floor, inaccessible to customers, where the overflow of used equipment sits, ready to replace the plethora of instruments that cover the sales floor.

I was greeted by an employee at the door, who promptly went back to work on his computer. Two bearded, hipster-looking employees also sat behind the counter to my left side, both of them also on computers. The shop specializes in special orders, so I assumed that was what all the computer usage was about. Either that, or everyone was updating their Instagram.

For about 10 minutes, I skulked around the three full-sized and assembled drum kits for sale, which included a Mapex Rebel kit for $399.99 and a Tama Silverstar set for $999.99. The Rebel kit, in a sleek black color, looked new, and it included cymbals and stands. An employee said that another Rebel set was available in dark blue. The Silverstar was a beautiful red burst, and it, too, included cymbals and stands. Clearly, the Tama was designed for the more advanced player, and my fake persona probably wouldn’t need something this heavy duty to start out with. An employee also mentioned that he could special order a Tama Imperialstar for $699.99, if I was interested. The set also included cymbals and stands. After looking at them four or five times and trying to look quizzical, I wandered over to the guitar selection. By this section sat an impressive array of brass instruments hung in a glass case, as well as a collection of new and used accordions.

On my way back to the now-familiar drum kits, I flagged down the employee who had initially greeted me. I told him my story…how I had become enthralled with the drums after playing around on a friend’s kit a few weeks back.

The employee happily led me back to the drum sets. He recommended the Mapex kit as a starter, but, he admitted, “The cymbals aren’t great.” He spoke highly of the Tama set, but he said it might be a bit too “high end” for my ability level. I asked if they had any electronic kits available, but none was in the store at the time. However, the employee offered to call their other store, located on the other side of town, because he thought they might have a used kit. After noting all the models and prices, I strolled to the back of the store, where the instrument repair section stood amid a narrow hallway of random gear and instrument parts. The repairman diligently took apart a guitar with the care of a safe cracker. When he looked up and saw me watching, I headed for the exit, afraid that I might have blown my cover.

As I left, the employee who showed me the sets was still on the phone with the other store. He seemed annoyed by the lack of communication with the sister location, so I told him I would stop by there later. Perhaps I stumbled upon a bit of sibling rivalry between the new and old stores….

Scarfing down yet another Sonoran hot dog, I jetted toward Instrumental Music Center, my second location. It’s situated further north, near the Foothills area of Tucson, where the Catalina Mountains surround you like towering gods. Black clouds hung over the enormous rock faces, looking like a shot of Mordor from “The Lord of the Rings” and serving as a reminder that another mini downpour was yet to come.

Instrumental Music Center
405 E. Wetmore Rd.
Tucson AZ 85705

Located at the end of a strip mall, next to a Starbucks, you could be forgiven for never noticing Instrumental Music Center. It’s much smaller than Chicago Music Store…about a quarter of the size, and featuring substantially less equipment. What it lacked in inventory, though, Instrumental Music Center certainly made up for with outstanding customer service. In fact, I was greeted immediately at the door by a friendly young man who asked if I needed any help. I launched again into my tale, happily adding details as I imagined them.

The young man led me to the one fully assembled kit in the shop: a Mapex Rebel for $399. A simple black set that looked like new, it included a package that featured a throne, cymbals and hardware. The salesman explained that, as a novice drummer, I should spring for a full kit with calibrated equipment, such as the Mapex. He said that, when I grow to know the instrument more intimately, I could customize cymbals and drums according to my taste, taking into account tone and comfort.

He then led me into the cymbal room, where he showed me some of the available cymbal packages, which included Sabian and Zildjian sets. The salesman said, for now, I should stay away from the expensive stuff.

Then, he mentioned an electronic drum kit. His introduction of a new, electronic element upended my original intentions. Would I—a fake aspiring drummer—forsake the original glory of a classic drum set and join the digital revolution? Well, it certainly would annoy my wife and neighbors less…. “Perhaps,” I thought, “the machines are taking over and I might as well just give in.”

The salesman showed me the one electronic kit available: a Yamaha DTX for $500. He hit some of the pads and toggled through the various sound banks for each drum pad. For a $500 kit, the drums sounded pretty authentic…way ahead of the distortion-heavy, fake-sounding kits from a decade ago.

I thanked the young man and gave him a parting handshake before he handed me a business card. I left with the satisfied feeling that only comes from receiving genuinely caring customer service. This guy made my day.

My next stop would take me to Metro Gnome Music on the east side of town. In between stops, I was able to sneak off to my hotel for reconnaissance. I was afraid that, perhaps, word was getting out about my undercover activities. So, I swapped out my car for a bike, so as to appear less conspicuous. Before my visit, I learned that Tucson had a vibrant cycling community; that fact enabled me to blend in well. Also, I burned off the 2,000 calories I had consumed in Sonoran hot dogs.

Metro Gnome Music
4044 E. Speedway Blvd.
Tucson AZ 85712

The bike ride to Metro Gnome was slow going due to the Tucsonian heat. I was soon drenched in sweat, relieved only when a light shower rained down upon me halfway through the ride. It was then that I realized the real reason I was traveling so slowly: My tire was low on air.

Luckily, Metro Gnome Music is a hybrid music store/bike shop/random stuff store. It’s practically split down the middle, with the right side of the shop containing two large racks of bicycles, surrounded by bicycle accessories and parts. I would be able to replace my tube and continue on my mission undaunted.

Inside, the Owner chatted with a customer who was trading in a vintage guitar. Metro Gnome almost exclusively deals in used equipment. As a result, the availability of equipment depends on whatever happens to arrive in the store that particular day. The shop is a decently sized, warehouse-like building, packed to the rafters with equipment. In the center of the store are racks of used DVDs and songbooks. In the back is a collection of classic video game consoles and games I remember from my youth. On the opposite side of the shop, various musical equipment and instruments are laid out in a somewhat random order. I spotted two complete drum kits on the floor: a Pearl set that included stands for $399, and a Tama Silverstar complete kit for $750. The black Pearl set appeared to be a bit beat up, but the Silverstar was like new, with a gorgeous silver finish.

I patiently waited near the drums while the guitar trade continued. Once the transaction was complete, I approached the employee about my drum situation. He led me over to the two drum kits, which, he said, had arrived in the past week. All the drumheads were replaced, he said, with Evans heads. The Pearl was a Forum series, fusion size kit with a 22-inch bass; 10-inch, 12-inch and 14-inch toms; and a 14-inch snare. The set included both drums and hardware.

The Silverstar set included a 22-inch bass; 10-inch, 12-inch and 16-inch toms; and a 14-inch snare. The Tama also included PDP hardware and a like-new Zildjian ZBT cymbal set with 13-inch hi-hats, 14-inch crash and 18-inch crash/ride. The employee mentioned that the set normally costs $1,199 and that it was a steal for $749. He gave me a quick demonstration of the sounds of both sets and told me that the Tama set was more sensitive, better suited for brush kits and contained a more vibrant sound than the Pearl, which was more appropriate for a beginning drummer due to its low price tag and portability.

In addition to instrument sales, Metro Gnome offers instrument repair and music lessons. The employee said that the lessons are taught by a University of Arizona graduate who received his masters in music. Impressive!

I then transitioned to my bicycle quandary. The employee happily helped me find a matching tube for my bike. Talk about killing two birds with one stone! I really appreciated the variety and general randomness of Metro Gnome. It seems as though availability is hit or miss—depending on when you visit the store—but the prices were good as compared to the other shops I visited. It seems as though being vigilant and popping in often will score you some decent gear from the shop. It’s probably the only place where you can walk out with a bike, a guitar, a copy of “Forrest Gump” and a used Nintendo 64 console.

My final visit led me several miles further east, to the music retail juggernaut Guitar Center, which boasts locations in nearly every American city. Prior to the visit, I assumed Guitar Center would provide impersonal customer service and overpriced, low-quality gear. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find my biases about customer service were wrong, although I did find that prices were somewhat higher than in the smaller shops.

Guitar Center
4720 E. Broadway Blvd.
Tucson AZ 85711

For those who have never been, Guitar Center is a mammoth, well-organized and absurdly spacious place to shop. I arrived a little under an hour from closing, so the store was relatively bare of customers. There were several employees in the store, more of them than there were customers, in fact. One tuned a guitar off to the side, whereas another organized equipment in preparation for closing. I passed through to the back of the store, where the percussion room is located.

The room was virtually empty. I wandered around and scanned a few drum kits on display. The most prominent was a $400 custom Ludwig Breakbeats model designed by Questlove of The Roots, which is Jimmy Fallon’s house band. The set sparkled in silver, with splashy graphics on the bass drum. The one downside was its size, which, by the looks of it, was more suitable for a child. I wondered if I would break it while blasting out a mediocre drum fill.

An employee entered the percussion room and I regaled him with my drum tale, telling it this time in a much less dramatic way. First, he took me to the Questlove set, claiming that, despite its small size, it would make an ideal first drum set. He gave me a sample of the sound and, indeed, it sounded impressive considering it looked tiny enough for an eight-year-old child.

There was a problem, though. The Ludwig Questlove set was only the shell kit, meaning that it only included the drums. I would need to supply myself with cymbals, stands and a throne, all of which can add up quickly. At a $400 price tag, this would end up being a somewhat expensive package in comparison to the others I’d seen that day.

When I asked to see the available cymbals, I was taken to the magical cymbal room in the back. The employee was incredibly knowledgeable about the different types of cymbals and their various uses, as well as for which level of player a set is appropriate. He first showed me the Zildjian packages, which included a nice starter pack of ZBTs for $199.99. He then admitted that he, personally, uses Sabian cymbals before taking me to that section, where he showed me a set of Sabian Xs20s in the same price range.

I left Guitar Center surprised as to the level of customer service and knowledge from its staff. If I had made my purchase from GC, my drum set would have been substantially more expensive than if I’d purchased from one of the smaller shops around town. But, GC makes up for it with its enormous musical instrument inventory: from guitars to keyboards to DJ gear.

A beautiful sunset cast over the mountains as the day came to an end. There I was, shoving a final Sonoran hot dog into my mouth, reflecting on a job well done. Tucson had a lot to offer, with its variety of quirky indie shops and history. Watching the intense orange of the sunlight hitting the Catalinas, I knew that I would return someday.

The Sale

With its combination of old-school charm, helpful employees, and heaps of diverse instruments and equipment, I have to award the match to Chicago Music Store. Although I appreciated each shop and its unique attributes, Chicago Music Store provided the best combination of inventory, customer service and amenities.

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