San Francisco CA has a rich musical tradition, particularly when it comes to jazz and the blues. It was once known as the “Harlem of the West,” and the city once hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker. Let’s be honest, though: When most people think of the San Francisco music scene, it very likely begins (and ends) with the summer of 1967. The Summer of Love happened there, and it’s the home of the Fillmore, where the Grateful Dead, The Steve Miller Band, Santana, The Who, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix all played at one time.

Truth be told, you’re now probably more likely to run into a tech billionaire in San Francisco than any tie-dye-wearing hippies. It’s not the city that it once was, but San Francisco’s image as a left-wing kingdom remains to this day. The city has never truly recovered from being the place where you’re supposed to “be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.”

So, it’s rather fitting that my assignment was to pretend to be in the market for an electric guitar…the instrument of choice for so many of those classic rock bands. Given my lack of experience playing the guitar (strumming an acoustic in college is as far as I’ve gotten), it seemed like a good idea to say I was buying for someone else. I chose my girlfriend, who is just learning how to play and whom I wanted to surprise with a gift.

Armed with nothing more than a pen and a notebook, along with a stealthily placed iPhone recorder, I ventured out to see which of the stores would give me the help I needed….

Haight Ashbury Music Center
1540 Haight St.
San Francisco CA 94117

If there’s one section of San Francisco that lives up to the stereotypes, it has to be Haight-Ashbury. Filled with all kinds of psychedelia and long-haired weirdos, it’s one of the last sections that seemingly have not succumbed to the tech bubble.

Standing outside Haight Ashbury Music Center was a man playing an acoustic guitar, singing in a voice that I couldn’t help but notice sounded a lot like Johnny Cash. I declined to ask him whether he had purchased his instrument from the store I was about to enter.

Haight Ashbury Music Center is shaped sort of like a bowling lane—much longer than it is wide—with a hardwood floor stretching back. Taking over a good portion of the left side of the store is a larger-than-usual front desk, where numerous workers mill around, talking to customers and taking orders.

With nobody out on the floor from whom to solicit help, I approached the desk, waiting behind a queue of other customers, expecting a bit of a wait before I was helped. To my surprise, I was actually noticed very quickly. Within two minutes of entering, I was already being shown what the store had to offer.

The first guitar that the salesman showed me was a vintage modified Squier Stratocaster for $350. The guitar, he told me, was meant to sound like what a modified guitar would sound like in the ’70s.

“Some of the guitars that are an older style…like a vintage style…have thicker necks. That makes it harder for new players to get their hands around,” he explained. “This one’s got that classic look…a little bit of a modified kind of sound to it. It’s not the classic Stratocaster pickups. They’re kind of like a little more present.”

He also showed me a Classic Series Stratocaster for $400, which, he said, gives “more of that iconic Fender kind of sound.” The pickups are the main difference, he told me. The ones on the Classic Series are “what made the Stratocaster famous,” he said, while also citing the wood. “Say, like, a maple neck, or a rosewood…there’s a different feel to it,” the man continued. I was told that maple is a little slicker and rosewood is easier to grip, but that the difference in sound is negligible.

Looking beyond Fender models, he showed me an Ibanez for $400. “It seems to be geared toward a certain style of playing,” he explained. “Like, a lot of metal heads really go for it.”

The man continued, “They’re not necessary bad or anything. They’re fine pickups; it’s very lightweight; and it’s nicely figured.”

Ultimately, though, none of that matters unless the person you’re buying for likes the guitar, he affirmed. That was far and away the most important thing. “My basic idea is, anything that’s going to get them to be interested in learning is a good guitar,” he declared. “Typically, for me, that’s something that plays well and sounds good, but it might also be the look. Somebody could say, ‘This is my guitar. I love the look of it.’ So, whatever it takes to get them to play.”

Panhandle Guitars
1221 Fell St.
San Francisco CA 94117

Nestled between Ted & Al’s Towing and the New Antioch Baptist Church, Panhandle Guitars was the store where I feel like I got the most personalized experience. It was also the store that I spent the least amount of time in, simply because it had, by far, the smallest selection of all the stores I visited.

Except for a few guitars and a banjo, which sat in a window display, and a row of guitars on the left-hand side, Panhandle Guitars was basically one big, empty room. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that the store hadn’t even been there very long. However, the Owner informed me that it has actually been around for two decades. Everything in the shop is used and/or refurbished.

“I used to go to estate sales…guitar shows,” he began, “but, now, we’ve been here almost 20 years.” The man continued, “We’ve got regulars who come in and buy, sell, trade and consign stuff here. I go through the whole guitar and tighten every nut and bolt, put on new strings, adjust the action. So, everything plays really nice.”

At the back of the shop was a glass desk. My eyes were immediately drawn to the wall behind it, which featured an eclectic mix of toys and figurines, both music related and otherwise. It gave the store a very distinct flavor. There was a Paul McCartney, playing his bass guitar; a large, dented, popcorn-sized tin with Elvis on it; a Beetlejuice doll; and, by my count, at least three Pee-Wee Hermans stuck to the wall.

Back to business, though! The first thing the man recommended for a beginner looking for an electric guitar was a Strat. “The reason being, the Stratocaster is the most versatile guitar,” he contended.

Unlike the others to whom I spoke, this man mentioned, more than once, the potential resale value of what I was buying, noting that my girlfriend would eventually want to step up. Given that resale is his business, though, perhaps that shouldn’t have come as a surprise.

The first guitar he showed me was a Squier Affinity Series Stratocaster for $179, with “fully adjustable, die-cast sealed tuners.” I was told that cheaper guitars have tuners that, once they begin to vibrate, can’t be adjusted. However, the guitar he showed me had exposed screws to help keep it in tune.

I told him I wanted to spend between $300 and $400, so he recommended getting something “a little nicer.” Next, he showed me a Squier II ($379) that was made in 1989.

The man explained, “They made this look like a ’57. It’s got standard bolt pickups.” He continued, “The nice thing on this is the resale. If you’re going to resell it, there are always people looking for the older ones. They just don’t make them like this anymore.”

Finally, he also showed me a limited-edition Fender Jaguar, in mahogany, for $395. “This thing…she’s not going to need another guitar,” he declared. “This will keep her busy for a long time. And, if you ever go to resell it, people go gung ho for Fender.”

However, he added that Squier is decent for starting out and, if I wanted to save a little money, that would be the way to go.

Real Guitars
15 Lafayette St.
San Francisco CA 94103

Real Guitars is a shop that, seemingly, doesn’t want to be found.

A 10-minute walk from the nearest BART station, the store is located on a side street leading to a residential area. One would not be faulted for never even knowing it was there at all. Hundreds of people must pass it by every single day, never knowing that they’re passing what the store says is, “San Francisco’s oldest vintage guitar store.” Even I passed by it at least twice. Not wanting to look too dumb in front of the construction crew that was working across the street, I busted out my smartphone. Only then did I realize that…oops…I was literally standing right in front of the place. That was when I spotted the small, red sign in the window: the only thing indicating that any kind of activity was taking place inside.

Upon entering the store, the first thing I noticed was the size; it’s a pretty small store. The second thing I noticed was the sheer number of guitars, which lined the walls and the floor. The shop is quite narrow, and there’s barely any room to walk given the number of instruments. As per its slogan, it specializes in vintage and used instruments and amps.

Directly to the left of the door is the front desk, where I asked for the man to whom I had briefly spoken on the phone earlier in the day. Without hesitation, he immediately helped me look for the ideal guitar.

The first three he showed me were Squier Bullets Strats. “The differences between them are in their pickups and electronics,” he explained. “That really doesn’t matter until you have an amp situation going. Otherwise it’s just about what feels best.”

Next, he showed me a Squier Stratocaster, which was considerably less expensive than the other three. The difference in price comes from where it was made (Korea), he said, intimating that, comparatively, it was a lower-quality instrument.

“You’ll find with guitars that things made in China, Korea or Indonesia are going to be of lower quality, and they’re usually cheaper,” I was told. “Things made in the U.S., Japan or Mexico are, generally, better made.” He cited, in particular, the materials used. However, he added it wouldn’t really be noticeable to a beginner.

Next, he showed me two Danelectro guitars, which were priced at $350 and $280, as well as a $400 Harmony Rocket semi-hollow body, which was made in the mid-’60s. The last had a wider body, changing how the guitar would sit when played, he told me.

“There are a lot of different-looking Harmony Rockets out there,” he continued. “They’re pretty good guitars. They hold up, and they’re well made. People tend to like them a lot.”

Ultimately, though, he suggested that I come back with my girlfriend so that she could see which guitar would suit her best.

Guitar Center
1645 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco CA 94109

Compared to the other three shops I visited, all of which were small and fairly intimate, Guitar Center was like walking into a completely different world. It’s an enormous store, with at least three help desks. It’s easily larger than the other three all put together. There’s just so much stuff to look at and wade through that it can almost be intimidating.

Here’s the other big difference: the number of people sitting around playing guitars. Both Real Guitars and Haight Ashbury Music Center had other customers, but Guitar Center was the only one where, at times, it was actually difficult to concentrate on what the salesman was telling me.

First, I wandered to the back of the store to a large, circular desk, where one salesman was talking to a customer. I patiently waited for him to finish. Before he was done, though, he looked over to me and asked if I needed help. When I told him what I was looking for, he pointed me back to the desk at the front of the store and told me to ask “the tall guy.”

When I returned to the desk I had previously passed, I was greeted not by the tall salesman who had been pointed out but, rather, by a shorter salesman with long, black hair.

The first guitar he showed me was a Fender Duo-Sonic, which was priced at $499.99. He told me it would give a “clean tone.” He followed up with a Squier Classic Vibe Telecaster ($399.99), which, he stated, would give a more “twangy sound.” I was also shown an Epiphone ES-339 PRO for $469.

“Don’t go too cheap,” he warned, “It would basically make it harder for you to learn, because then you’ve got to struggle with the guitar.” At that point, the customer who had been playing in the background stopped playing and joined in, concurring with what the salesman had said.

“If you buy somebody a cheap guitar, it’s going to turn them off from playing,” he remarked.

At that point, the clerk went off to go help another customer, so I continued to talk to the other guy about his experiences learning to play.

I learned on a bad guitar,” he admitted. “That’s why I’m speaking from personal experience. There were a couple years where I just put it down…left it alone. Then, I came back to it when I was an adult.” He recommended that I buy my girlfriend a Telecaster.

“As far as playing for a long time, especially learning, it’s comfortable in your hand because it’s small. I’ve always liked that,” the man continued. “Some people like a thicker neck so that you can hold on to it a little better. But, if she has small hands, then that’s a nice way to reach everything. And, they just sound good…classic.”

His other piece of advice? Buy used.

“They’re going to want you to buy a brand new guitar. But, if they’ve got a Telecaster in the used section in decent condition, I’d go that way,” he recommended. “Used guitars are generally just as good as new ones. It’s like buying a car. Sure, you can buy a car straight off the lot. But, if you buy last year’s model, it’s half the price and it drives just as well.”

The original salesman, I should point out, never mentioned that the store even had a used guitar section. So, I ventured over on my own to look around. I found a wide range of models and prices, with guitars as low as $199 for a Cort G250 and as high as $1,399 for an ESP Standard Series Horizon.

It’s an unusual experience to get better service from a random customer in a store than from the actual salesperson whose job it was to help me, but that’s exactly what happened that day.

The Sale

The choice really comes down to two stores: Real Guitars and Haight Ashbury Music Center. Panhandle Guitars was eliminated simply because of the lack of selection. Although the Owner was extremely personable, friendly and helpful, I just didn’t think there was enough to choose from in his shop. I would be more inclined to frequent the store for repairs than for buying.

Guitar Center was taken out of contention early for the opposite reason. Although the store had the best selection by far, I didn’t get the feeling that the guy whose job it was to help me was very interested in doing so. In fact, I left feeling as though I got better advice from the random customer playing nearby. That doesn’t inspire me to want to give GC my money.

Finally, I eliminated Real Guitars. Although the store has a good selection and a helpful staff, I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was the store at which I’d get the best deal. Given that it’s a vintage guitar shop, Real Guitars had less to show me that was in my price range. It’s a store that’s better suited for someone who has experience, as well as more money to spend.

That leaves Haight Ashbury Music Center to earn The Sale. The salesperson I dealt with was very knowledgeable and gave me good advice about what I’d need to get started, including accessories and amps. The shop also featured a good selection, with plenty of guitars in my price range.

So…if you’re going to San Francisco…be sure to check that store out!

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