I’m a spy. No, not just MI Spy. I actually am a real spy. I just haven’t worked in a while. For months now, I’ve been sitting at home waiting for the burner phone to ring. I finally received a coded message from my handler at the Music & Sound Retailer to spy on some of Philadelphia area’s top music retail stores. The mission: Find the best place to shop for a killer, upscale electric guitar in the $1,800 and up price range. It was a good assignment and I jumped on it. I reached out to a fellow musical operative in the Philly area and got some good intel on stores that were likely to have the kind of guitar that could spark an international incident. As part of our cover, we packed up with musical gear, made sure we weren’t being tailed and headed out to see what the City of Brotherly Love could offer.

Guitar Center Cherry Hill
2100 NJ-38,
Cherry Hill, NJ 08002

One of the first things we learned was that when Philadelphia guitarists are looking to buy, they frequently head to the suburbs or over the Ben Franklin bridge to music stores in Cherry Hill, N.J. Just over the bridge, five miles out on Route 38, I found a Guitar Center store in the Cherry Hill Mall. As I expected, the store was well marked and easy to find in this large mall with plenty of parking. I moved in on the store and found quite a few good-looking guitars on the walls as we entered — several were right in our price range. All of the departments of the store were well organized and the layout seemed typical with one exception: really high ceilings. Why did we care? The guitars were hung three-high on the wall putting our “top shelf” guitars of interest too far away to see well — forget reading the description on the tag. It was even hard to tell new from used stock at that distance. The price, being the largest thing on the tag, was readable. That, along with the shape of the headstocks, told us that they had some guitars that could be key to the success of our mission.

With the guitars so far away, we felt a bit helpless and hung around, hopeful that one of the two Guitar Center guitar experts at the desk would step up and assist us. After about 10 minutes, we thought maybe our cover was blown because no one was approaching. Was there a code word I should have used? We did a little subtle clearing of the throat and touched a few things. After handling a phone call, a salesman looked our way and said, “You OK?” which at least got me talking. After explaining what I was looking for, he pointed to a Trampas Green Paul Reed Smith guitar on the wall that was in our price range at $1,999, but there was no offer by the salesperson to pull it down. I asked him about it and learned that it was a model CE 24, but not much else. I eyed up the guitar and waited. Still no offer to get it down.

I gave up and wandered over to a technician we found in a cramped service area. He seemed knowledgeable and told us something about four different Tom Anderson guitars we saw coming into the store. With PRS, Anderson, and a good number of high-end Les Pauls and Stratocasters on the wall at Guitar Center, we were certain a few would have really played nicely, but it was not to be. Despite the fact that there was only one other customer in the guitar section, we weren’t having a great buying experience at this store.

Sam Ash Music Cherry Hill
2100 NJ-38,
Cherry Hill, NJ 08002

As we were exiting our first store, my spy senses started to tingle and I turned quickly expecting trouble, but instead saw a Sam Ash Music store just a few hundred feet away. Bonus! I didn’t even have to move my car. I just sauntered over like some regular customer and couldn’t help thinking that the co-location of these stores would really facilitate comparison guitar shopping. Unlike the Guitar Center store’s more open format, the Sam Ash store had more walls dividing up the store’s sections, so the guitar area felt like a smaller shop — just with a whole lot of guitars. The store was well organized and, happily, all the stock was easily accessible to me. I was immediately greeted by a young salesperson who wanted to know how he might help me.

Sharing my ideas with the Sam Ash salesperson was easy. Though young, he was quite knowledgeable about his stock, listened carefully to our needs and pointed us to some Fender American Professional Stratocaster models that were just slightly below my price range. Was he trying to save me money? Perhaps. As we checked them out, he detailed how the sound of these guitars could be radically changed for a small investment in a 920d custom loaded pickguard. Interesting. When I mentioned Gibson, he pulled out a Green Ocean Burst Gibson Les Paul Classic for me to try. The striking green finish was sure to get a spy noticed, but I liked the feel and the price of $1,999 was right in my range. The salesman noted my interest and showed off a Berry Burst Blue Les Paul Standard model for $2,799, as he explained Gibson’s weight-relief concept. The spy in me liked the idea of a space that could be used for a hidden compartment in our guitar, but I didn’t share that with him.

I peeked into a guitar service area at the Cherry Hill Sam Ash that was spacious, well organized and nicely out of the way of the sales floor. The salesman explained set-up plans and passed us his card in case I had further questions. He offered that the sales staff works together so I could talk to anyone if he wasn’t on when I came back. As we were wrapping up, the manager of the guitar area introduced himself and told us that he and his staff would go out of their way to match any documented price. More importantly, the staff seemed to be working together and happy to be there. On my way out, I eavesdropped a bit and overheard the staff talking about — you guessed it — guitars!

Roxy Guitar  
7026 Ridge Ave.,
Philadelphia, PA 19128

Next, I headed up the Schuylkill Expressway to Northwest Philadelphia just past the funky student enclave of Manayunk to a section of town called Roxborough where I was hoping to find Roxy Guitar. It was good that I called ahead because the store is open only a few days a week or by appointment. The phone message said to leave a phone number, and I’d get a call. This clandestine routine appealed to the inner spy in me, but I understood that it’s not for everybody. I got the sense that this was not going to be a typical retail experience and was right.

I returned to Roxy Guitar on a Tuesday when I had agreed to meet the owner. I had no trouble finding the building, but parking was scarce, just one or two spots not clearly marked and limited street parking. I would have pulled the plug on this store knowing it had limited hours and limited parking, but once I opened the door I knew we had hit the motherlode. While this one-room guitar boutique would have little room for any more than one or two customers, everywhere I looked I saw an interesting new guitar. This was not, however, the same stock I saw at the other stores. Roxy is about alternatives and very good ones. A blond Hamer Newport caught my eye, played great and looked classy at $3,100, as well as a John Suhr Stratocaster-style body with roasted maple neck at $3,800. There were plenty of G&L Stratocaster and Telecaster body styles in classic and custom styles between our low end of $1,800 and $4,000.

The owner at Roxy does all the setup work, is experienced and interested in what the player is looking for in terms of the playability and sound of their guitar. He was friendly, not overbearing and willing to share many details about his stock. I couldn’t see the repair shop, but our guess was that it was probably cramped like the rest of the store. While I asked about their service, I was told they would set it up for me specifically and make sure I was happy.

As I left Roxie Guitar, I noted a delivery of Marshall amps and several guitar boxes waiting outside the door and wondered where the owner was going to put them. Seriously, something was going to have to come out of the store before these were getting in. Despite the cramped quarters and limited hours, I liked this place for its devotion to fine electric guitars. And making the clandestine arrangements to meet with the owner, while unusual in retail, gave me a sense that selling fine guitars is a very personal thing at Roxy. I liked that.

Sam Ash Music
Franklin Mills
1887 Franklin Mills Cir., Philadelphia, PA 19154

There was one last stop for my spying on this assignment, hidden in the Northeast section of Philadelphia. OK, maybe it’s not so much hidden since it is on the corner of the huge 150-store Franklin Mills Mall. Our sources told me that this Sam Ash store was different and they were right. Like the mall, the store is pretty huge, with glass-enclosed departments for drums, keys, band instruments, acoustic guitars and electric guitars. There are even sizable departments devoted to orchestral instruments and sheet music. I was impressed. This gave the huge store a more welcoming feel as you passed through the main hallway into the department. I figured that it would also help with controlling the sound levels when the store got busy. It made me think that it would be nice to have some further enclosed areas where electric guitarists could put an amp, pedal and guitar through their paces and not be “out on the floor.” Enough wishing. I went right to the guitar wall and found a few things that surprised me.

I noted many of the same items that I encountered at the previous Sam Ash store, but the unique pieces that I liked, like the Rickenbacker 360 electric 12-string selling for $2,199 and the Canadian-made Godin 5th Avenue sunburst guitar at $1,895, seemed to stand out better. The items in my price range were mixed with the store’s more common stock of electric guitars. The salesperson got the “Rick” down for us (without prompting) and explained that this model was a favorite of Beatles legend George Harrison. He was knowledgeable and asked us about what style of music we played. The salesman pointed out some nice features on the guitars we checked out, like the comfort of the flat string saddles on the bridge assembly of Fender American Professional models, but didn’t seem less comfortable talking about features of the more expensive choices the store had to offer.

I saw a salesperson stringing a guitar on the sales counter. It provided a good segue to ask about set-ups. I was assured that the store had techs, but was told that sometimes the salespeople set up guitars. It wasn’t clear where in the store setups were done and we were concerned that it was at the sales counter. With so much space in this store it was hard to eavesdrop without being noticed, but being good spies, we hung around and listened in on a couple of other customers who seemed to be getting the help that they needed.

Having spied on four stores for this assignment, I reflected on how much I had to travel in the Philadelphia area to find an upscale ($1,800 or higher) electric guitar. The popular and long-standing music stores in Philadelphia’s artsy South Street area were selling mostly used and starter guitars, so they didn’t fit the profile for this assignment. Plus, some promising stores had closed recently, which makes even hardened spies tear up a bit. However, I did discover a few gems like DePinto guitars located in the Fishtown area of Philadelphia close to Center City. They were not suitable for a retail spying since they sell mostly their own custom-built guitars and vintage items, but they’re certainly worth a look.

The Sale

Guitar Center’s location in the Cherry Hill Mall was well organized and had a lot of guitars that would have been interesting to try. However, due to the way guitars were displayed and the lack of communication from our salesperson, I didn’t have a great experience.

At Sam Ash Music’s Cherry Hill location, I was shown guitars in my price range and had no problem trying them out. The staff appeared anxious to find the right guitar for me, but heavily favoring the typical Fender and Gibson guitar models, limiting my choices. It also seemed a little out of its depth talking about the higher-priced guitars, but the staff hadn’t made excuses and made our shopping experience enjoyable.

Sam Ash Music in Franklin Mills store is big, well organized and the upscale guitars were more accessible. The knowledgeable sales staff showed interest in our needs, but I wasn’t convinced that it was ready to provide any personal attention to be sure I got the right guitar and a proper setup.

Roxy Music, off the beaten path on the outskirts of Philadelphia, is the only store in the area where this spy would buy his guitar and, therefore, is this month’s winner. A physically small shop, it had the best stock of guitars in the right price range and seemed more prepared to give the personal attention that an upscale guitar buyer would expect. Sadly, there were no new Fender or Gibson guitars in the mix, but plenty of well-built instruments (Suhr, G&L, Hamer) to try. While overcrowded, the store was clean and guitars were dust-free and ready to play. The owner’s personal interest in our shopping made us feel that the guitar I bought would be set up as I wanted.

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