After several recent missions spent looking at guitars and accessories for them, I’d started feeling too much like that proverbial kid let loose in the candy store. I’d enjoyed myself immensely, but I was feeling kind of queasy from sampling too much product. Even secret agents need a little variety, after all. So, you can imagine how pleased I was when The Chief asked me to search for something different…very different.

A couple of months ago, during the coldest, bleakest part of winter, I was instructed to transport myself to Rhode Island and look for stores that stocked good beginner drum sets. A man needs company on such junkets, of course. So, I asked Daisy—she’s new to the agency—if she would join me. Since Daisy, like the woman Gatsby longed for, accepted only the best, that’s exactly what she got. We booked a big room at Newport’s finest luxury hotel and arrived in mid-afternoon. After a long, melodious interlude, we had dinner, during which I plotted my route for the next few days. I’d be looking for a drum kit for the next John Bonham, Ringo Starr or Tré Cool. Cool, indeed.

Rick’s Musical Instruments w 2352 Mendon Rd. w Cumberland RI 02864

I thought I’d start by snooping around a well-regarded store called Rick’s Musical Instruments in a town called Cumberland. It was hardly walking distance from Newport and, so, I rented myself a car. After urging Daisy to keep herself occupied shopping or freelance sleuthing—her choice—I took off.

Cumberland was beautiful. Settled in 1635, it has everything from quaint old houses to modern mansions, and beautiful stone churches to historic graveyards. I pictured Pilgrims living there long ago. But, as I tried to imagine one of them holding a set of drumsticks, my mission brought me crashing back to reality. Rick’s calls itself “Rhode Island’s BEST music store.” It was my job to see, relative to beginner kits and service, if the store could back up that claim.

The place was so busy, and the service seemed so good, that you could almost use the phrase that was once applied to Bogie’s famous fictional watering hole: Everybody Comes to Rick’s.

I wandered around for a few minutes, looking confused. (I could pretend that’s my cover, but it’s actually my usual state.). Then, a salesman came over. I told him, “I’m looking for a kit for my nephew, who’s interested in playing the drums.” Without hesitation, this cat took me over to a set that the store had on the floor…and a good one it was.

The Pearl Roadshow Five-Piece Fusion Drum Set really is a gem. It’s made of nine-millimeter poplar shells, comes equipped with sturdy, double-braced hardware, and includes a drum throne, a bass drum pedal, a 16-inch crash/ride cymbal and a 14-inch hi-hat. It was really a beautiful set, and it was selling for less than $500. Without any hesitation, the salesman said I could sit down and play. As a sometimes drummer, I did a few rolls, a steady beat and some splashy stuff on the cymbals. It sounded sharper and better than you’d expect a kit in the $500 range to sound. I didn’t hesitate to show how impressed I was, exclaiming, “Man, my nephew would really like this!”

The Pearl kit was among the only sets the store had on the floor. That’s not atypical for most music stores. Beginner sets were easily available in boxes, though. The salesman revealed the simple reason, saying, “We can’t have people playing all of them, or they’d be so beat up that we’d never sell anything.”

Never shedding the look of a mystified uncle shopping for his drum-loving nephew, I thanked this cat and wandered around the bright, pleasant store for a while. Everybody seemed to be getting the help they needed, as well as being left alone when they wanted to play the drums, strum a guitar or check out mics. Eventually, I wandered out, wondering what the next day would bring. Regardless, my conclusion was clear: Rick’s is a good store with a focus on service. It’s well worth your while.

I returned to my car and drove back to Newport. Daisy lay on the bed, reading a book. Even in sweats and a T-shirt, she looked amazing. A soft fade as saxophone music swells.

While at dinner, we chattered away pleasantly as I thought of the adventures in store tomorrow.

Guitar Center w 1245 Bald Hill Rd. w Warwick RI 02886

It didn’t take me long to decide to drive to Warwick and check out the Guitar Center location there.

As is so often the case with the various links of this giant chain, the place was something of a madhouse. I tried walking around, looking dazed and confused, but no salesperson pounced on me as a prospective customer. Still, the drum kits that were out—and the ones I would later be told about—made this store a real contender for the best place to buy a beginner drum set. One of the sets on display could easily be snapped up for my fictional nephew.

The Sound Percussion Labs Kicker Pro Five-Piece Drum Set was just one of many good choices at Guitar Center. It’s a sprightly looking, metallic- and silver-colored, five-piece kit with an 18-inch kick drum, real multi-ply wood shells, full-size pedals, and a crash and ride cymbal. It looked stunning, it sounded crisp and it was going for an extremely seductive price: less than $300.

Still wandering, I found myself also falling for the PDP CENTERstage Five-Piece Drum Set. That kit, which I did a few paradiddles on, featured birch and selected hybrid hardwood shells, a complete double-braced hardwood pack, lathed brass cymbals, True Pitch Tuning rods and a matching snare. The whole kit and kaboodle was less than $400. Not bad! And, if a shopper were willing to go as high as $599.99, there was the impressive Ludwig Accent Combo Five-Piece Drum Set.

I came up against the usual customer service-related frustrations at Guitar Center. Once you corner a salesperson, he or she is pretty good about answering questions and making suggestions. Still, despite recent financial challenges, the chain hasn’t seemed to fix what is arguably its biggest problem: proactive customer service (or the lack thereof). That was still missing. But, between what GC has in the store and what you can order, the sub-optimal service was still acceptable.

Returning to my hotel, the din of Guitar Center still reverberated in my head. Daisy and I walked through Newport and found a lovely place called Brick Alley Pub. After bowls of clam chowder, we had lobster cakes and baked stuffed clams. We discussed the upcoming baseball season, the horrible omissions in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and how seriously to take the paintings of Jackson Pollock. Although it would have been fine regardless, the fact that the restaurant boasted no drum sets was a relief to my ringing ears.

Rossi Music w 271 Post Rd. w Westerly RI 02891

The next morning, I went out once again, this time to check out Rossi Music in Westerly. It might not have had the wide variety of drum kits that Guitar Center did—really, who does?—but the service was the sort you’d want to get from a music store, yet so rarely do.

Wearing my disguise, I went into this smallish shop in this smallish town. Sometimes, even when a store only has a small bit of stock (but can order for you), its customer service can nevertheless impress. When I spoke to a gentleman about beginner drum kits, he told me he had one in stock that would be perfect for a newer player.
I was thus introduced to one of the nicer kits I’d seen during my mission: a Mapex Voyager Series Drum Set. It included a full set of Mapex 330 Series hardware, a padded throne, new Mapex cymbals, and a set-up and instructional DVD. The all-basswood drums featured newly designed appointments, including lugs, mounts, badges and bass drum claws. The sale price was just north of $500. I was told the set was very popular; happily, when I asked about the kit’s longevity and warranty, I was never made to feel rushed.

Rossi Music didn’t have a whole lot of drum sets in the showroom. However, I was told the store could order similarly priced kits with minimal wait time.

As I left, I couldn’t help but wish that Rossi Music would merge with Guitar Center, thus combining superb service with a wide variety of drums. I guess you can’t have it all, though.

Even a super sleuth needs an easy day once in a while. So, I drove to the hotel and took Daisy out for lunch. We returned to our room for a nap, et cetera. Unsurprisingly, the most interesting parts fell into “et cetera.”

The Village Drum & Music w 17 Silk Lane w North Scituate RI 02857

I saved what I hoped would be my best visit for the last day. Every drummer I know had raved about The Village Drum & Music, situated in North Scituate. The store, which looked more like an A-frame home that you’d spot near a skiing area, might seem unassuming from the outside. Don’t be fooled.

Whether it’s owing to the size of the place or just that these guys know customer service, a salesman came up to me in short order and asked if he could help. I tried to put some oomph into my nephew story, adding color to the tale as each apocryphal detail entered my mind. Then, we went off and looked at some kits.

There’s one catch to the store: it specializes in used drum kits. It gets sets and refurbishes them so they look like new. But, it does also have access to Ludwig and Sonor drums. It’s a certified dealer of both, in fact.

Available through the store is a Sonor Bop Kit Shell Pack, boasting an 18-inch bass drum, a 12-inch rack drum, a 14-inch floor tom and a matching snare, with a smart Galaxy finish. The set was going for $429. It helps if you know what they sound like, and I do. So, what’s a few days’ wait to get one sent to the store?

Equally impressive (and just as easily orderable) was the new Sonor Martini Kit. It featured a bass drum with wood hoops, eight-inch and 13-inch toms, and a 12-inch snare, and it had a beautiful turquoise galaxy finish. This kit, perhaps even better for a first-time drummer, was selling for $359.

The Village Drum & Music also sported intricate, more expensive sets made by Ludwig and Crush, which could be ordered if they were your taste. For example, a gorgeous clear set by Crush was going for $1,099. That one’s for if your nephew keeps playing and needs a better kit for his 16th birthday.

Looking for something in stock and suitable for a beginner, though? The store had a new Ludwig Five-Piece Junior Drum Set, which sported a 16-inch bass, eight-inch and 10-inch rack toms, a 13-inch floor tom and a 13-inch snare, along with stands, cymbals and sticks. The salesman recommended this for “the very young,” but it’s probably up to the customer to define that. Particularly because that snazzy little kit was going for $299, it might have been the most perfect beginner set I saw during my journey.
I was glad to have a bit of a drive back to the hotel, allowing me to ruminate on my experiences from the past few days.

The Sale
Between the food, the fun, the time with Daisy and the pleasure of being in Rhode Island, this trip was easy. But picking a winner to earn “the Little Drummer Boy’s” sale? Tough. I thought about it all the way back to the hotel. Daisy was waiting to take me for lunch, which was a lobster roll and a bottle of champagne to celebrate the end of my journey. Around that time, I came up with a solution.

For maybe the first time in my espionage career, I’d have to say it was nearly a tie. The winner, however, is The Village Drum & Music. In the final analysis, it was the service that swung me. The store’s staff took the time to really explain things, and they assured me that any of the kits I liked would be perfect for a young drummer.

After two glasses of champagne, my decision was firm. If you’re buying a beginner drum set—or any other music product—you want to purchase from people who really seem to care. On that score, every store did well: from Rick’s Musical Instruments to Rossi Music, and even GC. But The Village Drum & Music takes the gold.

And, hey…maybe Guitar Center’s your cup of tea. Too often, though, you need signal flags to get help from a salesperson. And I am a service-oriented kind of guy.

So what’s the bottom line? Rhode Island’s music merchants had a lot to offer my fictional nephew, the Little Drummer Boy. Well done, guys. Well done.

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