spybasementTucked in between idyllic Marin County—land of good eating, old-school hippie culture and scenic Mount Tamalpais hiking—and Napa County, which is otherwise known as the land of wine and hot springs, lies Sonoma County. A slice of land that comprises the northwestern county in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma doesn’t get a lot of press.

However, rest assured, there are musicians lurking here, as deduced by the stores your humble Spy visited after being prompted by a phone call from The Chief.

The conversation had been pretty light, considering all the times this Spy has been roused from slumber in the wee hours of the morning and heavy-handedly given a mission imperative from a gruff, no-nonsense voice. This mission was to go suss out the stores in Sonoma County that offer digital keyboards.

The task was harder than I had imagined when I casually took the call. As I drove toward Sonoma County from near San Francisco proper, I saw huge signs blaring that an overturned trailer was completely blocking the Richmond Bridge, my main route forward. I quickly mapped out an alternate route, taking the 80 up further north before going west on 37.

The unexpected change in route was a welcome surprise. I drove through mild traffic near Mare Island on a long bridge through the wetlands, listening to old Black Sabbath records (on CD, of course) and watching red-winged blackbirds roost in trees as I left the bridge. I was surrounded by golden hills, vineyards and farmland strewn across the visual landscape, signs outside offering tours to those driving by. I picked the route that took me right downtown through historic old Cotati—a two-way street lined with Western-façade-type buildings—to my first destination: Loud and Clear Audio Visual.

Loud and Clear Audio Visual
7886 Old Redwood Hwy.
Cotati CA 94931

Parking right in front of the store, which also looked to be a band camp/recording studio destination for budding musicians, was easy as pie. I walked through the glass doors of the main entrance and, immediately, I was greeted by a clerk to my left, behind glass islands that housed pedals of various shapes and sizes. The space had a rectangular warehouse shape, with most of the instruments straight ahead. Right away, I noticed the keyboards to my left and front on the journey to the rear of the warehouse space. I marched toward them determinedly.

Loud and Clear hosted a number of options. There were mostly consignment models on the floor, I deduced, and an extensive selection: from the Roland JD-800 ($750) to the old-school Kurzweil K2500X ($700). A Nord Lead 2 keyboard ($799) occupied space next to a Fender Rhodes ($1,600), a Roland JP-8000 keyboard/synth ($650) and a Korg Triton Studio with 76 keys and a hardcase ($1,200).

While I was noting the keyboard selection, the same sales clerk who had greeted me upon my arrival at the store walked down the aisle and asked another customer if he was finding everything he needed, then approached me and asked the same. I told him I was OK for now, but, after a few minutes, as I wasn’t seeing much in the way of new keyboards (aside from some MIDI controllers and phrase samplers from Roland), I went back to the counter and asked about the possibility of ordering new keyboards from a catalog.

The clerk told me the store could order Yamaha and Roland models of all shapes and sizes, but didn’t offer any information about special discounts off the list price. I imagine I could have asked to see a catalog, but my head was reeling from the other keyboards I had noted, including an old-school vintage Yamaha DX5 ($550). I asked about consignment and the clerk told me they would accept almost anything, even if it was already on the floor, and only keep 25 percent. He gave me his card, and I thanked him. Then, I headed out in the sweltering heat to my next destination.

Bananas at Large
515 Ross St.
Santa Rosa CA 95401

The next destination was in a neighboring city, Santa Rosa, the county seat of Sonoma County and the fifth most populous city in the San Francisco Bay Area, as well as the 26th most populous city in California. As I got onto the freeway, I got lost in vintage and new keyboard daydreams. These were punctuated only by sudden anxious realizations that I might have missed my exit, idyllic daydreaming returning as soon as I realized that I hadn’t. Just as a new and beautiful red Nord keyboard was floating to the forefront of my mind, I saw my exit and headed to the center of Santa Rosa.

The next store on my list had the most unusual name this Spy has ever heard of for a music store. I headed toward Bananas at Large with an open mind, not knowing what I would discover as my GPS took me into the downtown area of Santa Rosa. The buildings were getting bigger and more historic-looking, similar to the first stop on my list. Parking was a bit of a hassle, but only because I had to pay for parking either in a public lot or along a side street; there was plenty of paid parking in supply. Spoiled from the previous experience, I just didn’t want to pay.

The store itself was a large warehouse taking up a city block corner. When I walked in, I saw a glass counter with a clerk behind it to my right. This was definitely the hippest store in Sonoma County so far. A calmly cool clerk with a couple of tattoos gave me a head nod and asked me whether I needed any help. Heavy metal music played on the speakers. When I asked where the keys were, he pointed me to a section of the store to the left. It was filled with new and used keyboards.

There were so many that I didn’t know where to start. Most of them were black; some, like the Nord, were red. Some had prices on them; a few did not. I saw a Korg Pa50SD ($700 on sale), as well as a Roland FA-06 ($1,199), FA-08 ($1,799) and weighted-key FP-80 with no price indicated. I asked the clerk if he could help me with prices. He came over and pointed out other weighted-key keyboards after telling me the price of the FP-80 was $1,999. I temporarily mourned the white vintage FP-8 keyboard in mint condition that I had sold for a mere $300 some months previous. Then, however, I spotted a beautiful metallic-red Nord Electro 4D 61-key keyboard and thought ahead to a better day.

I was afraid to ask to play anything. I knew I’d be overcome or overwhelmed or end up with a keyboard in my trunk if I did, and The Chief doesn’t endorse impulse purchases for a Spy out on the job (particularly a Spy with an agency credit card). This, however, didn’t stop me from feeling the keys on each keyboard…just touching them a few times to see what they were made of.

I was surprised by how many weighted-key options were available and that the store catered to customers who appreciate the quality of weighted keys in general, given that there are so many non-weighted-key options on the market today. There were low- and mid-range models available. The store also housed numerous Casio keyboards in what seemed like every model, with a special display for the brand alone on one wall of the section dedicated to keyboards.

When I had asked about pricing on the Roland keys, the clerk had pointed out a used Roland Fantom ($1,250), which was gigantic and looked like an amazing workstation. “That can do just about anything, can’t it?” I asked. “Yep,” said the clerk. “It’s a steal.” The clerk pointed out all the weighted- and partially weighted-key models the store offered, and I continued to be impressed with the selection of high-quality keys. There was also a new Roland RD-300NX ($1,799) with a beautiful touch to it.

As I was jotting down prices and models, the clerk, assuming I was going to do an Internet hunt on pricing, told me the store could match any price I found. “Cool!” I said, continuing to jot down my notes, adding, “That’s great.” I noted a Yamaha MX61 ($699.99) and a Yamaha P-35 ($449.99). Most of the equipment seemed new, especially the previously mentioned Casio models that took up their own display corner. This was a place where a Spy could easily get lost!

At some point, I became distracted by a corner dedicated to the tiny synthesizer workstations. They were all hooked up to speakers, and I couldn’t help myself. I filled the store with waves and oscillations, bending the pitch with built-in pitch wheels. Although I was tempted to go nuts, I had compassion for the clerks, even though they seemed unruffled by my outward demonstration of intense sound modulation. I noted an Arturia MiniBrute analog synth for my own personal Spy purposes, just in case I should need to “investigate” said item further during my own time. The Novation MiniNova analog synth ($499.99) was comparable to the ever-popular Korg MicroKorg XL Plus synthesizer ($499.99) and a Moog Sub Phatty Analog synthesizer ($999) sat unassumingly, begging to be played. But it wasn’t plugged in, which was likely, in retrospect, to my benefit. I knew I’d better get out of there quick: the secret powers of this particular music store were starting to lull me out of my focused Spy mindset. If I didn’t leave the facility soon, I might have been knocked off guard and confessed everything!

Tall Toad Music
43 Petaluma Blvd. N.
Petaluma CA 95476

The next, and final, stop on my list was a bit of a drive into historic downtown Petaluma. The drive in continued to be a visual plus. When I entered Petaluma, I was taken aback by the beauty of this historic city. There were many old Victorians lining the streets, as well as interesting Old Western-style façades housing various restaurants and an ample number of coffee shops. One giant building that looked like a former money bank had been turned into a seed bank: the entire store was dedicated to seeds for growing things. The music store I was pursuing was easily accessible and it had free public parking a few storefronts away from the entrance.

I had high hopes for Tall Toad Music. I walked in and saw a lot of clutter…not much space. There were rows of sheet music to my left and instruments and pedals in glass display cases to my right. A male clerk asked me if I needed help. I told him I was looking for keyboards. “We have one keyboard model,” he told me. My head sank. “Are you able to order any from a catalog?” I asked. He shook his head.

“Let me show you what we have,” he said, taking me through the front glass display cases to a back room. I saw a green cage with hay in it for some kind of furry creature to my right. A guinea pig? A hamster? I didn’t have time to ask…we were marching downstairs into a basement storage space. He walked me through a number of boxes.
“This is the keyboard we keep for customers like you who specifically ask for keyboards,” he said. He showed me a Yamaha P-35B: a basic, portable, 88-key digital piano similar to the Roland FP-80 but a whole lot cheaper. It offered weighted keys and a MIDI output to connect to other keyboards with different sounds. “How much?” I asked. The going price was $500. They had quite a few in boxes.

As we walked upstairs, I asked if there were other places to get keyboards in Petaluma. He told me the other place I could check out was Bananas at Large. “We just don’t have space for keys,” he added. “You could also try Music Exchange in Santa Rosa.”

Following up on his lead, I called Music Exchange after leaving Tall Toad Music and found the store specialized only in full digital pianos—no keyboards at all. “Try Bananas at Large,” I was told, “unless you want the quality a non-portable keyboard can offer. The smallest thing we have is the Yamaha Arius.”
I thanked the gentleman for his time and hung up.

The Sale
I wasn’t sure The Chief would be happy with my findings this time. Nevertheless, I executed my mission, which was to suss out keyboards in and around Sonoma County, to the best of my ability. In the end, the store I found to be the best in all regards—ample parking, a large storefront with an amazing selection, the ability to match online pricing and order other things, gear all hooked up and ready to play—was Bananas at Large, hands down. Following closely was Loud and Clear. The parking was easy, the surrounding area was adorable and great for foot traffic, and the clerks were helpful. They also had the ability to order additional gear, if needed, from a catalog. The existing selection was great for someone without a problem buying used gear, with a wide range of keyboards available to play around with. I would list Tall Toad Music last for obvious reasons. It didn’t have anything like the selection the other stores had, but the clerk tried to be helpful regardless, including referring me to a place that could help me find what I needed.


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