It was a great day for sussing out music gear in the San Francisco Bay Area. Knowing that I had a full day of hunting in front of me, on the prowl for an entry-level drum kit for around $500, I ate a huge scrambled egg omelette for breakfast in El Cerrito at the popular breakfast diner Nibs, guzzled down a French press of coffee and was raring to go, off to find the store with the least amount of attitude, combined with the best selection of gear at the right pricing—and hoping I wouldn’t leave any of the stores with the song “You’re So Vain,” by Carly Simon, stuck on repeat in my head.

Starving Musician
2474 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94704
The first stop on my list was the Starving Musician off Shattuck in the college town of Berkeley, famous for its UC Berkeley campus and home of the well-known band Green Day, as well as the famous Gilman Street punk venue. I found a parking meter on a side street, popped in the few quarters I could dig up from my bag and walked past Radio Shack into the tiny shop, specializing in two-for-one strings and used, as well as new, gear sold at affordable prices.

The store is a long, wide room crammed from top to bottom with gear. Amps line the center of the floor space in between the glass counter to the left and the guitar-lined wall to the right, making two narrow rows for foot traffic to peruse the store from front to back. The glass counter was packed with guitar pedals. Gibson, Danelectro and Ibanez guitars lined the guitar wall.

Immediately, as I walked in and assessed the space, the clerk behind the counter looked directly at me, made eye contact and asked if there was anything that he could help me with. I told him my “cover story,” which, to you, dear reader, is a complete fabrication; he did not guess, however.

“I’m looking for entry-level drum kit for my friend,” I explained. “She’s just starting out, and doesn’t know what she wants.” I explained to him that since I’m the only musician who she knows, and was headed out looking for guitar amps anyhow, I told her I could check out what models were available in an affordable price range for someone just beginning.

The clerk took me to the back end of the long, open room, where drums were stacked in the middle and on the sides, along with cymbals, snares and rides of many different shapes and sizes. The first question the clerk asked was what my price range was. I told him that my friend had a price range preferably near $500, but I would like to see what they had available in the lowest to highest price ranges, just in case there was something better at a slightly higher price.

I also told him that I didn’t know much about drums, hoping to see how much he could help me explain things to my newbie friend.

The clerk was happy to explain the different types of wood that affect the different sounds of drum kits. He talked about drums for the studio versus drums for the stage, and described how wood birch is different from maple “just like the wood with guitars.”

He explained that most of their sets were just the shells and that the hardware, such as snare and cymbals, would add to the price. He even took the time to explain that some cymbals, should my friend want to buy a kit, were machine pressed and would not be as good as the hand-pressed cymbals she could get with a custom kit. He definitely leaned on the side of custom drum kits. This being Berkeley—the land of small, local business and quality over quantity—I wasn’t surprised that he took the time to describe the benefits of a higher quality kit as compared to a cheaper one.

First, he pointed out a Premier kit that came with three shells, running $399, available in a number of colors. Next, he pointed to a few Mapex Voyager kits that ran $499 and included cymbals but, again, suggested not buying a kit that came with the machine-pressed cymbals. He added that hardware and cymbals, including a quirky combination cymbal/ride, start at around $100 for customizing beyond the shells on the other kits. He noted that mostly what the Starving Musician carries is the shells, because most drummers who come into the store like to customize. The various kits weren’t marked with model numbers, only the brand name and price, and most were stacked in the middle of the floor near the back register. All the customizable drum kit accessories were hanging on the back walls.

Out of curiosity, I asked him what their most expensive kit on the floor was. He pointed to a seven-piece D’Amico, a beautiful light brown wood, also with no model number written, and a price of $2,499. He also added that, if my friend was going to be serious about learning to play drums, she should invest in a higher-end kit. But, if she were just going to abandon the kit at some point, deciding it wasn’t worth it, she would be better off buying an entry-level kit. But then he circled back to the quality drums argument, stating that purchasing an entry-level kit, even if she wasn’t sure she was going to stick with drumming, might not be the best idea, either, because she would have to think about resale, too: a mediocre entry-level kit would not be resellable and so, essentially, she would be wasting her money. The clerk did not want my friend to waste her money: that much seemed clear.

All in all, the clerk was patient, super nice and had absolutely no attitude. He took the time to explain more than he needed to explain, giving me a detailed drum kit 101 and, when I asked whether I could plug in the Fender Stratocaster I’d brought in for my own purposes, he pointed out a couple of great amps I never would have considered, including a VHT that ran around $329 and sounded excellent. Ah, the perks of being a spy….

Guitar Center
5925 Shellmound St.
Emeryville, CA 94608
Guitar Center recently moved from a giant space in El Cerrito CA to an even larger space in Emeryville. Emeryville is a tiny city bordering Oakland and Berkeley. The new location is right next door to a well-frequented public market, and is in a building that used to house a Borders bookshop before the company’s unfortunate demise.

When I arrived, I stood at the entrance rather confused for a good minute or two, trying to figure out where to go. Whereas the store in its previous incarnation was a giant warehouse space in which you could see pretty much from the front to the back of the store upon entering the building, the depth of this new space is not immediately revealed upon entry to the building: It is much more high-tech and snazzy. For a second, I thought I had left the Bay Area and was suddenly in a car dealership entryway in Los Angeles.

I had brought the same Fender guitar with me, and asked the girl at what I figured to be the front counter whether she needed to check it in. The check-in girl was a bit haughty at first, but, once she looked at my face and realized I was smiling, seeing that I didn’t have any attitude and was familiar with the drill to boot, she warmed up and became very helpful.

Looking around, I got the feel that each salesperson in the store was also a musician when not working the day job. There were a lot of tattoos, long hair in ponytails and a pervasive vibe of being part of something much more important outside of this already-very-important music sales center at which they all worked. There was plenty of hurried scurrying about from one end of the store to the other.

The girl told me where the drums were when I asked. “Go to the back,” she said, pointing deep into the caverns of the store. “It’s where the big drum is.” We both laughed, me thinking, “How hard will it be to find a giant drum?”

I eventually found the so-called drum. On the way to find the drum space, disoriented and not feeling quite cool enough, I ogled the sunburst guitars lining the walls, trying to keep the drool in my mouth while avoiding bumping into product placed at various intervals throughout the store.

The drum room was hopping, with two full drum kits set up and two people trying out drums at the exact same time. I had to shout at the clerk over the din of noise, asking, “What options do you have for an entry-level drum kit for a friend of mine?” At first, I thought he was ignoring me, because he didn’t even look up; eventually, though, he said, while still staring at his computer, “Hold on a second.” Then, he continued looking at his computer. And he continued staring at that computer for a good couple of minutes. I looked around at the drumming folks for a long while, assessing the variety of drum sets stacked on the floor and up on shelves high on the walls—shelves that would take a ladder to reach.

It seemed a bit odd to me that the clerk didn’t walk me around the floor like the clerk in Starving Musician had, but I held on, gripping my pen and notebook in my hand, and tried to ignore the cacophony of drumming going on and on.

Finally, he said something to me that I couldn’t hear. I had to ask him to repeat himself. “What kind of music does your friend play?” he asked. I threw out the first thing I could think of, this being near Berkeley—Green Day and the Gilman and all. “Punk…but she’s just starting out.” He nodded almost imperceptibly and finally left his safe station behind the clerk desk to show me something on the floor.

The first thing he pointed out looked like a Guitar Center special: a Sound Percussion red five-piece selling for $399. I asked him about it and he said that this was, indeed, the Guitar Center model. “It comes with cymbals,” he said, but added that the cymbals were not the best, thus furthering my hypothesis that all the store employees were musicians, too.

I asked him if that was because they were machine pressed—testing his cymbal knowledge—and he nodded. He then pointed out a black DW Pacific Mainstage kit going for $699 that came equipped with cymbals and stands. “That’s about all we have for complete kits on the floor,” he said. “Everything else is customizable.” As an afterthought, and with a sleepy look on his face, he pointed out a Tama Rockstar (R52KS) and added that basically any kit could be customized for around $400.

While he was talking, I noticed a very pretty used drum kit: white with black stripes. Upon further investigation, I discovered that it was a used Ludwig Vistalite, a four-piece going for $1,499.99. Not in my fictitious friend’s price range, but definitely a looker. Before going back to his perch behind the computer counter, the clerk pointed out one last kit: an Orange County going for $699.99.

Before heading off to play my guitar for a minute to clear my brain, I asked what brands of drums Guitar Center carries as a whole. The salesman rattled off names in his sleepy tone: DW, Yamaha, Gretsch, Tama and Pearl. He also told me that my friend could go online, look up any of the kits and then check out the customer reviews if she couldn’t figure out what she wanted. He nodded one last time before resuming his computer glaze. I went to plug in my Stratocaster—this time in a Fender Twin Amp with a vibrato plug. Perfect.

Music Works
11225 San Pablo Ave.
El Cerrito, CA 94530
I had parked quite a distance from Guitar Center due to the lack of available parking in the smallish parking lot. When I got back to my car, I headed for a back entrance to the 80 toward Sacramento, and exited on Potrero in the sleepy bedroom community of El Cerrito.

This suburban town neighboring Albany and Berkeley is little known, even among Bay Area locals. Few would know by driving past the many strip malls and tiny war-era houses that sell for outlandish prices today that this was once a rowdy town called Rust, where gambling and prostitution abounded. It’s also a town where Metallica had its first jam session in Exodus manager Mark Whittaker’s garage.

This tiny mom-and-pop store, owned by a musician couple that specializes in the sale of ukuleles, was easy to find right on San Pablo Ave. I found a parking spot directly outside the store. As I walked in, I noticed a signed Green Day record directly above the rectangular clerk counter located a couple of feet from the doorway, covered with catalogs, picks and on-sale guitar strings.

Two clerks sat on stools behind the counter. To the right of the counter, in plain access of customers walking in and not hidden behind the checkout counter like at Guitar Center and the Starving Musician, was a large display of even more guitar strings. To the left, on the wall, were electric and acoustic guitars, mostly Squier model electrics and some acoustics, plus a number of newer model amps, particularly Peavey and Fender.
I asked one of the clerks—who greeted me with a smile immediately when I walked in—whether he could tell me about their entry-level drum kits, giving him the cover story about my drummer friend. He immediately walked me to the back of the room, where two drum kits sat on a tier above the main floor. “She could always buy the Sunlite,” he said. “It’s $399, and comes with cymbals,” but, he added quickly, “it’s made in China, probably from a kit, and the cymbals…”

“Are machine pressed?” I asked. He nodded. “Also,” he added, “the drums are built from a generic kit.” So far, the clerks at the first three out of four music stores were killing me with their honesty.

“Let me take you upstairs,” he said. He grabbed the store keys from somewhere behind the counter and led me outside the store, then up some stairs adjacent to the front entrance. We ended up in a room equipped with a stage, chairs and guitars. We walked toward a couple of drum kits lining the wall on the right-hand side of the space.

He pointed out a five-piece Pearl Forum kit, which he said was good for a beginner, but also good for someone who wants to keep playing. He explained that they only had a couple of kits at the moment, but had recently rolled out a rent-to-own program. With the new program, a customer could purchase a drum kit and pay in installments during a three-month period. “If you pay within that time period, you keep the store price; but, if you don’t pay within that three months, you have to either return the kit or pay list price,” he explained. He added, “Three months is plenty of time to purchase a drum kit.”

I asked him about the wood on the kits, just to bring our conversation back to the kits, and he said that, unfortunately, he didn’t know what kind of wood it was. He pointed to a five-piece Pearl Vision (VX925/B) going for $879. “We can also order Mapex,” he said, “which might be a good brand for your friend. The only reason we don’t have any right now is because people realized that they could rent to own Mapex and bought the last ones we had on the floor.”
As we descended the stairs, he asked me about my friend. I spun a yarn about how she worked a full-time day job and was relying on me to visit music stores during the day, since she couldn’t. I was starting to believe my imaginary friend really existed! We reentered the store and he pulled out a Mapex catalog to show me a number of shell colors and kit options. “We can order it to go to her house,” he said, and then asked where she lived; I told him Berkeley. “Yeah…if she doesn’t want to pick it up, we can deliver it for her,” he confirmed. Customizable kits ran about $1,479. I’d have to tell my friend that, so far, within her price range, there were only a few options for her at Music Works.

Haight Ashbury Music Center
1540 Haight St.
San Francisco, CA 94117
I drove from the sprawl of the East Bay area of the San Francisco Bay over the Bay Bridge and into San Francisco. Hitting the city in the early afternoon on a Monday made the traffic more bearable than usual, and I found parking about 10 blocks from the music store. Haight St. has seen many changes throughout the years. These days, it is still packed at most hours of the day: an assortment of folks—from vagabond street kids to well-to-do European tourists—filling the sidewalks, making it hard to keep a fast pace without walking off curbs and through plants.

I walked into Haight Ashbury Music Center, a narrow corridor of a store packed with guitars, strings, sheet music and, as I was to find, just a few drum accessories. The guitars on the wall were chained with foreboding signs that read, “Do Not Touch.” As I headed to where I assumed the drums would be, I was eyed up and down by a long-haired, burly sales clerk who ignored me—no “Hello,” or “Welcome,” or anything—and continued talking to the person to whom he was talking (hopefully another customer), even though I made “help me, please” eye contact. Left to my own devices and unable to establish eye contact with the other clerks who had dispersed quickly as soon as I walked in, I took notes in the tiny section of the store dedicated to drums.

I saw a handful of assembled kits. ’80s metal music blasted through the speakers as I tried to make sense of the display. Finally, not figuring out whether certain pieces came as a kit or as separate pieces, I wrote down the names of the only assembled kits I could find for my fictional friend. A Pearl Vision kit, stacked up on a top shelf, was on “blow out” for $799.99. There were a couple of loose Pearl Reference series and Yamaha shells, with no attached description. A Tama Rockstar five-piece kit (RD522DS) in black was retailing for $699.99, and I spotted a Mike Portnoy Signature Snare for $369. It looked like, for the price range of $300 to $800, my friend had at least a few options, assuming any of the kits came with cymbals. All in all, I was in the store for quite some time, wandering about and looking for help, but the clerks remained hard to find and/or distracted. One guy who I assumed was a clerk, probably around 60, was so busy frantically pulling down acoustic guitars for musicians in a tiny guitar room in the back that I felt loathe to bother him, especially if I were to receive that same frenetic service. I had to settle for taking my own notes and leaving without a single word with any clerk at all.

The Sale
Of the four stores I visited, Music Works and The Starving Musician came close to a tie for general helpfulness and friendly demeanor, although I would have to say that, of the two, The Starving Musician had more options available for an entry-level drummer. Music Works definitely came in a close second for its friendliness and the same patience with my multiple questions. Guitar Center would come in third. Although they probably have the widest selection of options and brands, it felt very awkward and impersonal, and I appreciated the personal touch of the other two stores. Due to the lack of convenient parking, the busy street traffic, the lack of friendliness and the fact that I wasn’t really able to suss out the full scope of my options at Haight Ashbury Music Center on the day I visited, I would have to put them last on my list.

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