‘Suddenly he had a vision, an inspiration. He could see himself, Leonard Bernstein, the egregio maestro, walking out on stage in white tie and tails in front of a full orchestra. On one side of the conductor’s podium is a piano. On the other is a chair with a guitar leaning against it. He sits in the chair and picks up the guitar. A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown!’
From “Radical Chic,”
by Tom Wolfe. Published in
New York magazine, June 8, 1970.
In 1970, Tom Wolfe penned an essay lampooning New York’s intelligentsia in general—and composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein in particular. The quoted snippet from his essay conveyed how cultured New Yorkers felt at the time about rock ‘n’ roll, youth culture and the symbol of both: the guitar.
Forty-four years later, the humble guitar endures as an instrument of choice for musicians of all stripes. Guitar-toting panhandlers on big-city streets are not as much a public nuisance as a kind of public entertainment. Guitar choirs have become a fixture in both Catholic cathedrals and nondenominational mega-churches.
Mastering the guitar is also a semiofficial rite of passage for American youth. The very phrase “air guitar” would be meaningless had not five decades of American males strummed the air wistfully, plucking imaginary instruments and becoming, if only in their imaginations, Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend or Jon Bon Jovi.
The beat goes on. Contemporary American kids have honed their musical chops strumming virtual “strings” in sync with games such as Guitar Hero. Millions of these kids now get their own first guitars each year. Some master it; many do not. One key to any level of mastery is the quality of the instrument people select and how comfortable they are using it.
For this month’s MI Spy, I went shopping for an acoustic guitar for a semi-fictitious 12-year-old boy in Eastern Fairfield County in Connecticut. Although abutting the fabled Gold Coast, this area, in contrast to its uber-wealthy neighbors to the west, is more down-to-earth and middle class in its purchasing habits.
As I soon discovered, people here have some excellent options when shopping for an acoustic guitar…or any instrument, for that matter.
Main Street Music
264 Main St.
Monroe CT 06468
Before December 14, 2012, most Americans had never heard of Monroe CT (population 19,000). When a gunman killed 26 people at nearby Sandy Hook Elementary, Monroe offered the school’s students and teachers a new home in a mothballed middle school.
For a few weeks, Monroe’s picturesque roads and Town Green were on the nightly news. Despite the attention, Monroe is a quiet place that would roll up its sidewalks at night, if only it had any. There aren’t many streetlights, either. However, it does boast two full-service music stores.
Main Street Music is the older of the two, located along busy Connecticut Route 25 in half of a small strip mall. Next door is a popular bar and restaurant. As I walked toward the entry, a gentleman opened the door. The son of the store’s Owner, who opened Main Street Music in 2003, he welcomed me.
Inside a small, brightly decorated room was a wall with a wide assortment of guitars: everything from beginner basics to serious electric models for local garage bands. The store bills itself as “Monroe’s hometown music store,” and it does a brisk business in trade-ins and consignment sales.
That made Main Street Music a bit unusual among the four stores I eventually came to visit. Yet, I was impressed that a lot of those instruments came from repeat customers trading up to higher-end guitars. It also struck me as a good way to obtain more instrument for the money.
As possibilities for my 12-year-old budding guitarist, the man showed me a vintage acoustic guitar from the 1970s; it was called the Mach 1. That particular model was priced $10 higher than an Esteban ALC 200 acoustic-electric guitar that occupied the shelf slot next to it. That’s because it was produced in limited quantities, and such instruments gain in value over time, the man pointed out.
“One cool thing about the acoustic-electric model is that you can upgrade over time…by buying a new amplifier or a new pedal, for instance,” he noted.
I liked the fact that he personally demonstrated just what made that particular guitar easy to handle. He picked a few notes and demonstrated how its strings were gentle and forgiving to a young person’s hands.
From experience, he surmised that an adolescent boy might one day wish to play an electric guitar, and the hybrid model would give him that option. The store also had an extensive selection of purely electric guitars—from about $100 on up—which the man said would also be good choices.
For customers who prefer to buy a brand-new guitar for a child, he suggested the Recording King RD-06 Classic Series Dreadnought. Available via special order, the guitar listed for $475, but the store would discount that generously, I was told. The model’s cutaway design would make it easier for younger people to hold, and thus make it easier to learn.
Main Street Music was by far the “homiest” of the four stores to which this mission would take me. For starters, it was divided into multiple rooms. One of those was a sitting room, which featured a television, DVD player and toys for kids. That gave younger siblings something to do while waiting for a lesson to wrap up.
Creative Music Center
701 Main St.
Monroe CT 06468
Monroe’s Creative Music Center was the newest and largest of the four stores I visited, boasting a nicely appointed instrument showroom as well a spacious classroom area. That must come in handy because one bonus of buying an instrument there is a free lesson with your purchase.
My visit to Creative Music Center took place on a Sunday in September, soon after the school year began. Normally, the store is closed on Sunday, but it stays open at the beginning of the school session. The local high school (Masuk High) has a music program that’s popular among students, so the store does a brisk business with high-school students coming in to rent band instruments.
Although the store was not crowded, the two salespeople had more than one customer apiece. I browsed the guitar section for about four minutes before a sales associate (a Monroe native and Masuk grad) came to help me.
He was friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable about guitars. His recommendation for my budding guitarist was the Yamaha GigMaker package, priced at $169.
“This is a very good deal on a complete package that provides the beginning guitarist with all the basics he or she needs to start learning the guitar,” he said. Besides the guitar itself, the package included a strap, a tuner, a DVD tutorial, a set of strings, picks and a guitar case.
Mixing things up a bit, the sales associate pointed out that, for the same price, the store also carried Peavey product. He showed me an acoustic-electric guitar, which some might argue would give an aspiring rocker the best of both worlds.
“I don’t know the size of the student, but you might also want to consider Yamaha’s CGS Classical Guitar,” he said. That’s a three-quarter-sized guitar that sells for around $130.
“Might not a sensitive adolescent be embarrassed to lug around an undersized guitar?” I wondered. The associate shook his head vigorously. “That certainly hasn’t been the case with the parents and kids who come here to shop,” he declared. “A beginning guitar should be as easy to handle as possible, and this model has a nice sound.”
Moving up a notch on the price spectrum, he also showed me an Alvarez acoustic-electric model that was selling for $329.
For parents—and kids—who remain unsure of just what to purchase, the store provides a no-obligation rent-to-own program. In fact, most of its customers initially obtain their instruments in this manner. The store boasts a guaranteed price-match program and, at any given time of year, it’ll have five to six guitar instructors available for lessons.
Peter F. D’Addario Music
1660 Barnum Ave.
Stratford CT 06614
Connecticut towns are quite spread out and freeways are not in abundance. Hence, a drive to a nearby town will often take 20 to 30 minutes. A set of ambulances and the remnants of rush hour I-95 traffic meant I arrived at Peter F. D’Addario Music minutes before closing time (6:30pm on weeknights).
D’Addario Music occupies a freestanding, ’60s-era building along Stratford’s busy Barnum Ave. Despite my late arrival, the store’s Owner greeted me warmly. He is someone who literally grew up in this business. Until four years ago, he ran the shop with his aunt and uncle. They died a month apart from each other, making him the sole Owner.
For beginners, he recommended Ibanez’s IJVC50 JamPack Grand Concert Acoustic Guitar Pack. At $129.95, it consisted of a guitar, a bag, strings and picks. It also happened to be among D’Addario’s hottest sellers.
“It’s a really nice guitar and it has everything you need to get started,” he said. “We sell a lot of them, and customers have been very happy with them.”
He removed the JamPack from its box and showed me the distance between its strings. This feature would make it easier for novices, especially children, to learn chords. This store, too, offered a free lesson with your purchase.
“I could sell people a $49 special, but those don’t play as well and they aren’t as easy for a beginner to learn,” he noted. “If an instrument is easy to play, someone is going to enjoy using it. On the other hand, if it is difficult to play, they’re not going to stick with it. There’s nothing better on the market for this price range.”
An entire array of Ibanez guitars was on display at D’Addario Music, going up to $800 in price. “Those are all excellent guitars, but they’re not intended for beginners,” he added.
One of the reasons why he was so keen on that particular maker was that, in addition to providing great sound, Ibanez also offered a lifetime guarantee on every part of the guitar (with the exception of fret wear). He identified that as a particularly valuable feature.
He added, “I’ve tried to find something comparable in quality, and where the company stands behind the product the way Ibanez does. There just isn’t anything else out there for the same price.”
Moving up slightly in price, Ibanez also offered the JamPack with a left-handed model: the PF15L.
Ibanez’s IJC30 Quickstart ¾-Scale Classical Guitar Pack was also selling for $129.95. “This a great instrument for kids—and lots of adults like them, too,” I was told. The gentleman explained that people who travel a lot and who bring their guitars with them like its compact size. The IJC30 could easily fit into the back of an SUV or a minivan, or in a luggage compartment on an airplane.
Music & Arts
1863 Post Rd.
Fairfield CT 06824
Music & Arts is a small, well-appointed store on Fairfield’s Post Rd., the town’s main drag and part of U.S. Route 1. You can find a smattering of chain stores along the strip, but also an abundance of locally owned businesses and eateries. There’s never a shortage of pedestrians, owing in part to the proximity of Fairfield University…just three quarters of a mile to the north.
Once inside, I began browsing among the two dozen or so guitars mounted on the left side of the store. I was immediately greeted by a young woman, who was practically a brand-new employee. I explained my mission to her: to locate a guitar for my 12-year-old son, a beginning guitar player who’s had some exposure to strings (i.e., cello lessons at school).
She fetched a three-quarter-size model, the Yamaha FG Jr. Acoustic Guitar, priced just a bit over $100. In addition to its smaller size, the guitar’s body was somewhat thinner, thus making it easier to hold and play.
“I recommend the FG Jr. to a lot of people because I like it so much myself,” she said, adding, “It’s a good size for lots of adults, as well.” She also pointed out that the strings on that model were particularly easy to replace. She noted that a broken string that remains broken would be frustrating for anyone, but particularly so for a beginner.
The store also offered a Squier by Fender acoustic guitar bundle, which included a gig bag, a tuner, a strap, strings and picks.
Belying Fairfield’s reputation as a pricy town, a full-sized acoustic guitar wouldn’t set you back much at Music & Arts. She showed me a well-made Mitchell acoustic model that was selling for $129.
To move up in price and quality, her co-worker, a male, recommended a discontinued model: Breedlove’s Passport C250/CMe Acoustic-Electric Guitar. On sale for $298, it had been priced at $695.
“That is a great buy,” the gentleman said. “The Breedlove guitars are our best models.”
The store was formerly Zera’s Musicland. Frederick MD-based Music & Arts took it over about 10 years ago, but the store retains the same hometown vibe. Browsers are welcome. During my discussion and browsing, a 10-year-old girl noodled around on a drum set. A robust array of brass band instruments lined the wall behind the checkout counter. Several other customers were chatting about music. It was all very pleasant and unpressured.
Each of the four stores I visited had a vibe all its own and each was quite different from the other three. The two Monroe stores, in fact, were practically polar opposites in style, although they mostly serve the same clients: musically oriented kids in family-friendly Monroe and surrounding towns. I did get a sense that Main Street Music caters more to the local musicians and bands than the other three stores do, but I have nothing to back up that impression besides the artwork of famous musicians on its walls.
I truly wanted to make each of these four stores “the winner,” but there can be only one. My choice is D’Addario’s. It’s where I would go if I were really seeking a guitar for my 12-year-old son. Why? In a word: gravitas. The man who helped me had music in his blood. He’s logged 40 years at D’Addario’s Music. In an age where few people even live in the same place for more than five years, such longevity in any enterprise is remarkable.
He further impressed me with his willingness to spend extra time—his off-hours, really—helping me…just one more customer wandering into his Barnum Ave. establishment. The store is his home, and his pride and dedication shone through.
That is not to say that anyone else lacked dedication. The people in all four stores exhibited an enthusiasm for the business, a strong command of music and a dedication to friendly, helpful service.
Indeed, the lack of obvious duds might be a function of conducting business in an affluent bubble: competing for the bucks of the upper middle class clearly inspires one to perform well. Having lived in this region for 20 years, I know that this is the kind of place where, if a child exhibits musical interest or aptitude, chances are that his or her parents are eager to fork over serious money for instruments, lessons, service and repairs…even if they don’t happen to live in Greenwich, Darien or Westport.
All in all, it’s a good place to be a kid—especially one with a talent for music.