Seattle has produced many well known musicians over the years. Members of bands like Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains have called Seattle home. The city was also the birthplace of grunge in the 1980s, with the rising success of bands like Nirvana taking the genre to global prominence in the 1990s. Relative newcomer Macklemore also hails from the Emerald City.
Perhaps it’s the infamous rain that inspires bands like Nirvana. Maybe it’s the emphasis the city places on the arts—with sculptures, galleries and innovative architecture decorating the city streets—that fosters a creative atmosphere. Whatever the case might be, Seattle’s musical history is embedded in its many independent musical instrument shops, which The Chief dispatched me to so I could find a high-end electric guitar.
It was an unusual summer for the Emerald City. For the most part, it didn’t look so emerald. The drought caused much of the grass to look like hay. Fierce wildfires ripped through eastern Washington and British Columbia to the north, the smoke from which caused a layer of haze to settle over the city from time to time.
But that didn’t stop the numerous cranes and construction workers from erecting office buildings, apartment complexes and skyscrapers. The city is growing in a big way, with major organizations like Amazon and Expedia constructing new office buildings. The sound of construction can be heard from most street corners.
However, Seattleites still value the plethora of independently owned and operated businesses that make up the fabric of their city. In my observations, Seattle seems to have the fewest fast-food restaurants of any major U.S. city I’ve visited. Instead, the city has dozens of microbreweries, local coffee roasters, and an abundance of unique shops and restaurants.
The city’s musical heritage, paired with the importance of its independently owned storefronts, set my standards pretty high going into this assignment.
I was not disappointed.
Emerald City Guitars
83 S. Washington St.
Seattle WA 98104
This nearly 20-year-old store, located in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, was my first stop. Located in the heart of the city, Pioneer Square is where the first pioneers settled in Seattle. Today, it’s surrounded by skyscrapers, rolling hills and the hubbub of the city. Emerald City Guitars is just across the street from Elliott Bay, where ferries that hold thousands of passengers, traveling back and forth all day long, cross the Puget Sound from the city to the surrounding islands.
The store has all the quirks of a typical, well known musical instrument shop. Its priority is to showcase exquisite guitars, and they proudly line the walls of the old brick building. The guitars were nicely spaced, separated into two rows. The guitars and their spec cards were easily accessible, although the employees prefer to take the instruments off the wall for you before you begin to jam.
When I first walked in, I noticed a woman polishing the body of a guitar at one of the counters. A few minutes later, she walked over to me, smiling, and asked if I needed any help. I gave her a vague idea of what I wanted: that being, a unique, quality electric guitar that would last. I explained to her that I hadn’t played for a few years, but I was looking to pick it up again.
She showed me to a small back room. Picking up a red Eastwood Airline guitar, she told me that that was the kind of guitar Jack White always plays. “Do you like Jack White?” she asked. “I suppose…but, no, not in particular,” I replied. She didn’t visibly judge me, which was a pleasant surprise.
She took me to another, larger room toward the front, where the store keeps the “prime cuts,” according to one customer I overheard speaking to his friend. I saw what he meant.
The first guitar she handed me was a 1995 G&L Legacy. The color was “silver sparkle” and the guitar was made in the U.S.A., according to the tag. G&Ls from the ’90s are in demand, she told me, which is why it was listed at $1,195: nearly double the price of other G&Ls I would later see. She gave me a little bit of background information about the company, and then showed me a few other options.
One, in particular, caught my eye: a red, Seattle-made TelElectro, which is a hybrid of a Danelectro and a Telecaster; it was listed for $1,349. I later went online and discovered that Emerald City Guitars is the only brick-and-mortar store from which TelElectro guitars can be purchased, although they can be purchased online, as well.
When I asked if I could play it, she carefully took it off the wall and removed the tag. I sat on a nearby stool (the only stool in the room, which I thought a bit unusual for a music shop) and played a couple tunes. The guitar was clearly built for quality, as the combination of vintage pieces and custom parts came together for a pleasing look, feel and, most importantly, sound. I very much enjoyed playing the guitar.
Before I sat, the woman formally introduced herself to me, shook my hand and told me not to hesitate if I had other questions or wanted to play another guitar. She remained attentive, though, and passed by every now and then to see if I needed help.
On my way out, I noticed a glass case containing a few very expensive guitars. The most expensive (and the priciest I saw during my shop visits) was a 1960 Fender Jazzmaster in blue sparkle…a custom color. The guitar was listed at $49,950: an impressive price tag for an instrument, even though, I must admit, it looked exquisite.
The store operated like a well-oiled machine. I could tell most of the customers had been there before, and the staff seamlessly balanced completing repair work with helping customers.
3406 Fremont Ave. N.
Seattle WA 98103
For my next stop, I left the busy streets of the urban center, drove past the Space Needle, which loomed large overhead, and continued along the edge of Lake Union, where Tom Hanks had his houseboat in the film “Sleepless in Seattle.” After a few minutes, I crossed over the distinctly blue and orange Fremont Bridge, doing so, quite luckily, right before traffic was briefly suspended so that a sailboat could pass underneath.
Directly across from the bridge is Dusty Strings, which was founded in 1979. I opened the shop’s door, walked down a flight of stairs and stepped into the store’s entrance. As I walked through the door and shut it behind me, I was greeted with a musical strum, as a pick attached to the top of the door strummed a dulcimer above the doorway. (The store, not incidentally, is also known for its fine, house-made hammered dulcimers and harps.) Sales associates were chatting away with customers, and the store felt friendly and spacious.
I entered the relatively small room, which had the apt label “Electric” above the doorway. The store specializes in acoustic instruments, but it still had a nice selection of electric guitars from which to choose.
I stood there, admiring the guitars, wondering which to play first, when one of the store employees asked whether I needed help or if I wanted to play one of the guitars. “Can I?” I asked. “That’s why I’m here,” he said with a smile. I told him what I was looking for; because I didn’t have a specific style or model in mind, he recommended the “bathroom mirror test.”
“Pick up whatever one jumps out at you until you find the one that feels comfortable…feels right…the one you can see yourself playing for the rest of your life,” he said. “OK,” I thought. “Simple enough.”
The employee introduced himself to me and then handed me a U.S.-made G&L Tribute Legacy with single-coil pickups, tremolo and a candy apple red finish; it was going for $500 new. I played a few riffs of “Behind Blue Eyes,” mainly because it’s so easy to play over and compare (and just easy in general), while the salesman showed me the different possible sounds. It was a decent guitar.
My next pick, however, was even better. It was the one I had been eyeing the whole time: a semi-hollow Collings I35 Deluxe with a flamed maple top, mahogany back and sides, mahogany neck with rosewood fingerboard, Lollar low-wind imperial humbuckers and a root beer finish. (Dusty Strings managed to fit a whole lot of information on the spec tags of each guitar, which was a plus for secretly sleuthing.) At $5,490, the guitar cost about 10 times as much as the G&L, but it was immediately apparent why. If $5,490 suddenly fell from the sky and into my lap, I would drop everything and buy that guitar.
The salesman told me that, in his opinion, Collings is the best electric guitar maker in the world. Aside from a handful of other Collings instruments, the store also carried some Godin electric guitars, among the dozen or so other electrics on display.
Dusty Strings is also a music school, offering lessons for a variety of instruments. The supportive in-store environment seemed to foster creativity and learning.
Upon my departure, the salesman handed me a red pick with Dusty Strings’ name and phone number stamped onto the front. Overall, I was very impressed with the level of customer care at the shop. All the employees were friendly, pleasant and eager to help, and the electric guitar selection was solid, especially considering that the store specializes in acoustic instruments.
4450 Fremont Ave. N.
Seattle WA 98103
Just up the street from Dusty Strings, American Music has a very different feel as compared to the other stores I visited. For starters, it’s much bigger than the rest, with hundreds of electric guitars in stock. The store is big, and I found the staff members to be more hands-off.
American Music opened in 1973. It has been renting equipment to musicians for decades, and it still does. Customers include members of well-known bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, My Sister’s Machine, The Posies and The Presidents, among others. Today, it’s still a store for musicians, run by musicians, according to its Web site.
The number of guitars the store had was almost overwhelming. They lined the walls, literally, from floor to ceiling; there were also racks of guitars standing on the sales floor. The store had guitars in nearly every color and finish imaginable: from hot-pink glitter to metal-worthy matte black to lime green.
After I glimpsed the electric guitars on display, an employee walked over and asked me whether I needed any help. I gave him a brief overview of what I was looking for, and he asked what kind of music I wanted to play. I told him I was a Led Zeppelin fan and I wanted to learn some of their songs. He pointed me to a semi-hollow D’Angelico EX-DH with humbucker pickups, colored in cherry burst. The guitar produces a thick, full-bodied sound like Zeppelin’s, and it was listed at $1,349 (although the tag said MSRP was $2,049.99).
The man told me he would send over a “guitar expert” to check on me in a few minutes, saying I could pick up and play whatever I wanted. I noted the store’s good selection of Jackson, ESP, Gretsch and Rickenbacker axes. According to a sales associate, though, the store’s big to-do is Fender. Indeed, the store was stocked full of Fenders of varying models, colors and price points.
One of the guitar experts approached me a few minutes later. He was brief, although he did say to wave him down if I needed help reaching one of the higher-up guitars.
I noticed a difference here, as compared to my previous store visits, as regards the attention given to customers. Granted, American Music is much bigger than the other stores are. Nevertheless, I visited the store on a weekday afternoon—when it wasn’t that busy—and, still, the employees spent very little time helping me pick a guitar, even when I asked for suggestions.
Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar
2418 NW 80th St.
Seattle WA 98117
After leaving American Music, I couldn’t have picked a more different store to visit next. When I called the store, I was warned that it doesn’t look like a typical storefront: it is, in fact, in Mike’s garage.
I walked up to the garage door, which was shut and was labeled “Mike & Mike’s Guitar Bar.” The words “Guitar Bar” were spelled out in black-and-white sticker letters. There was a man outside watering plants, whom I asked whether I should just open the door. He replied, “Yes.” When I reached down and gave the handle a tug, the door shot up under the ceiling.
A man sitting at a small desk behind layers of guitars and equipment smiled, greeted me and asked what brought me in. I told him my mission, and he said I’d come to the right place. I walked over to where a dozen-and-a-half or so electric guitars were displayed in a group on the floor, each on its own stand. The man told me I could pick up and play whatever I wanted, asking only that I not drop the guitars. “Reasonable enough,” I thought.
The store looked more like a furnished garage than a store, but, in some ways, that was a good thing. A large, comfy couch sat along the wall of the store, right next to the electric guitars. It was a welcome place to sit comfortably and test out the guitars as if you were at your buddy’s house.
I picked up my first guitar, a 1967 Gibson SG Melody Maker III with a short-frame Lyre Vibrola tailpiece, three pickups, and custom color and finish in sparkling burgundy, listed for $2,099. One of the Mikes came down the stairs (likely from his apartment above, although I can’t say for sure) and entered the store. He smiled and asked if I had any questions or needed any help. I told him I was just starting my guitar search and asked if the store specialized in any guitars in particular. He said anything obscure or vintage. If it’s hard to find, they try to get it.
He then went back upstairs, and the store employee made a couple more suggestions, also giving me a little background on the store. One of the founding Mikes used to tour with the Fleet Foxes as a guitar tech. The other Mike and he started the shop in 2012, mainly online through an eBay store. (To this day, much of the business is still centered online, shipping products worldwide.)
Unfortunately, a shipping emergency happened while I was in the store and, so, the staff member I had been working with was soon occupied dealing with that crisis. I was happy to be left to the guitars, though.
Another gem that caught my attention was a 1998 Don Grosh Bent Top Custom Strat-style guitar with Fralin single coils and a Dimarzio Steve Morse humbucker, listed at $2,299. The design, with a quilted maple top and mahogany body, initially caught my eye. It was equally fun to play, too, though.
The store was comfortable, and I felt I could trust the staff. Although the selection is smaller than that of other stores, each guitar is carefully handpicked and unique in its own right.
Picking a winner between these four shops is tough. For me, it comes down to Emerald City Guitars and Dusty Strings, owing both to their selection and to their customer service. In the end, I’d have to crown Emerald City Guitars top dog.