I felt exhilarated when I found out about my latest spy mission. I was to go—undercover, of course—to four musical instrument stores in search of a mid-level acoustic-electric guitar. Because I do not play guitar, I needed to come up with a cover story. I decided to go with the story that my 20-year-old niece was in need of an upgrade from her starter guitar and I, being the generous person that I am, was going to buy her one for her upcoming 21st birthday. I was prepared to take care of this mission on my own—something I am very capable of doing—but I found out I would have to take a partner along with me. This guy isn’t just any partner, though: he’s my partner in crime and my right-hand man. His name is Nathan, and he’s my 1½-year-old son. We decided early on that I would do all the talking, since Nathan’s verbal skills are not yet up to par.

Guitar Center
7250 S. Cicero Ave., Ste. C
Bedford Park IL 60629

Our first stop was Guitar Center and, owing to being in close proximity to the store that morning, we decided to stop in at 10am when the store opened. It’s located in a mini-mall and the parking lot was jam-packed, which I found surprising considering it was so early. I then realized this was for other businesses, and there was not much parking to be had. I worried that my partner and I would look like Guitar Center groupies waiting in the parking lot for the store to open. Just then, I noticed a man in a leather jacket lurking outside the front door and, suddenly, I didn’t feel so odd. In the window were the signature rock ‘n’ roll star images, but in the middle was a sign I had never seen before. It read, “We Beat Internet Prices.” I realized the degree to which giant chains like Guitar Center—not just indie stores—have to battle Internet competition.

I was greeted immediately when I walked in and, when I mentioned I was there to look at acoustic guitars, I was introduced to a tall man who would be helping me. The store was clean, well organized and had plenty of staff members on hand for anyone who needed help. I followed the gentleman into the “Acoustic Den,” which was an enclosed room covered from floor to ceiling with acoustic guitars. I told him I would be buying the instrument for my niece, whose birthday was coming up. I mentioned she already owned a starter guitar and needed an upgrade. He asked my price range and to what kind of music she usually listened. I told him between $200 and $900, and that she listened to everything under the sun. He asked whether she wanted to be able to plug it in, in response to which I answered in the affirmative.

He first showed me a $399 Fender Avril Lavigne Newporter Acoustic-Electric, which he said was a top-of-the-line name in acoustic-electric. The guitar had Fishman Isys III electronics with a built-in tuner, and it was brand new…straight from having been shown at the NAMM show. He said he took it out of the box to make fun of it—because it was Avril Lavigne—but the guitar ended up sounding great. He stated he would like to add it to his “Jam Room.” He played a little tune for me, and it did sound great. Then, I was shown a Breedlove Passport Concert Acoustic-Electric for $499. He said it was one your average person might not know, but it’s a solid brand with a solid body and decent electronics. Lastly, I was shown a Seagull Entourage CW Black GT QIT Acoustic-Electric for $550. The man said people cannot say enough great things about it, and that he was a fan himself. I thanked him for his time and told him I would be in touch.

In the end, I had a great experience at Guitar Center and, for that, I mostly thank the salesman who helped me. He was helpful and played each guitar for me. I mentioned that I was leaning toward the Fender Avril Lavigne Newporter Acoustic-Electric (which honestly sounded the best to me) and he let me know, if I wanted it in time for my niece’s birthday, to come in and have him order it at least 10 days beforehand. Visiting Guitar Center was a great way to start this little adventure. And so, on to the next we went!

House of Music
15900 S. Haven Ave.
Orland Hills IL 60487

I decided to tackle the rest of this mission alone, and so I dropped off my partner at home just in time for his nap. Then, I headed out to my next stop: House of Music. I never would have thought that I would pull up to an actual house. It’s on the corner of a very busy street, which is also adjacent to a residential street. It’s a house that’s been converted into a business, hence the name “House of Music.” I soon realized the parking was around back and, although it has a very small parking lot, I had no trouble finding a place because I was the only one there.

I walked in through the back (the front of the house is for piano lessons) into a small area with a large counter and staircase. There were framed pictures up the staircase, and I was greeted by a young girl at the counter. I asked her if she could help me find an acoustic-electric guitar for my niece. She let me know they only had one acoustic-electric guitar for sale, but she could order one off their Web site for me. She led me up the stairs and down a hallway with doors on each side. Most of the rooms seemed to be where they held music lessons; one was for employees only. We went into the last door on the right, and she took a guitar off the wall for me. It was a Wechter Maple Lake Acoustic-Electric in hazelnut brown selling for $299, which included a gig bag. After looking over the guitar, we proceeded back downstairs and she took to looking on their Web site.

We found a Johnson Cutaway Electric Dreadnaught Guitar, with active four-band EQ pickup, for $199. It had a Natural top with Nato wood sides, back and neck. It came in Natural, Blue, Black, Sunburst and White. I was told they put in orders every two weeks, and they needed to be in by Monday night in order for the guitar to be ready for pickup on Wednesday. I decided that it was time to go, because there weren’t any other options for me as far as purchasing an acoustic-electric. I thanked her and left the store.

I found the girl very nice and she was as helpful as could be, but there wasn’t much of a selection. They sold other instruments, as well, but there wasn’t much of anything around. There were some guitars, a violin and an accordion, but that was about it. I believe House of Music is better suited for someone who needs lessons; if you are looking to buy an instrument and want a large selection, you’re probably better off going somewhere else.

Midlothian Music
15645 S. 94th Ave.
Orland Park IL 60462

My next stop was Midlothian Music, which was about a five-minute drive away. It is located in a mini-mall with ample parking and sits in between a craft store and a pet shop. There were three signs on the window, which read “Financing Available,” “Enroll now! Drum Lessons all Seven Days,” and a very large sign that said, “Guitar Sale.” I figured I was in the perfect place and, so, I went right in.

I walked into a long, narrow store with floor-to-ceiling merchandise. I had to walk around a lot of amps that were on display all over the floor. Although there was a lot of equipment, it was all nicely and neatly in its place. There was a guitar being restrung on the counter, along with the tools necessary to do it. I was approached by a guy who came out from behind the counter to see if I needed any help. I let him know I was looking for an acoustic guitar that my niece could also plug in, if she liked. I told him my niece and I were very close and, since it was her 21st birthday, I was willing to go up to $900.

He immediately said he would recommend a Taylor. He went into the back to look for a Taylor 114ce Sapele/Spruce Grand Auditorium Cutaway Acoustic-Electric. As I stood in the store, I decided to look around. On the far back wall were the acoustic guitars, and on the counter in front of me were a few electric guitars. Behind the counter were cords of all kinds, and near the door were some drum sets. The salesman returned empty-handed after about five minutes. He said he was surprised there wasn’t that particular model in the back, and showed me a Taylor without a cutaway instead. It had a solid front with laminated sides and back. The salesman said Taylor was known for having a comfortable neck, which is nice for someone, like a woman, who has smaller hands.

Midlothian Music is also a full-service shop, so any problems I would have with the guitar could be fixed or adjusted there. He did mention, however, that, because of the quality, the guitars don’t need fixing very often, if at all. The Taylor guitar came with a warranty for life, so working on it would be free for the guitar’s lifetime. He mentioned that other guitars come in for regular maintenance and, sometimes, even have structural damage, but he rarely gets a Taylor that needs much work, if any at all. I was also shown a Washburn guitar, which had Fishman electronics, for $649.

We kept talking about my niece, and the nice guy helping me suggested that I have her pick which guitar she would want, because I would be spending a good amount of money on it. He did reiterate that a Taylor would be the best bet, though. He also said that Taylors are made in Mexico, but not far from its manufacturing plant in California. So, they go back and forth from each facility and the guitars are a quality-made product. I found this conversation very refreshing. He was actually looking out for my best interests, not just closing a sale.

I really enjoyed the friendliness and knowledge I experienced at Midlothian Music. The store also had a large array of inventory, so it won’t be hard to find what you’re looking for if you ever pay them a visit. I found the salesman to be friendly, helpful and considerate. I liked the time I spent in Midlothian Music, but I had one more place to visit before making my final decision. I thanked the gentleman for his time and away I went.

Down Home Guitars
11 S. White St.
Frankfort IL 60423

My final stop was Down Home Guitars, which was not as close as the others were. So, I turned on the radio and set out for my mini road trip. The store is located in historic Frankfort, and the only parking consisted of a few spots in front of the store. Otherwise, you would have to park across the street in front of other businesses. I happened to be lucky and arrived when there was a spot open right in front. The outside has a large picture window with a guitar painted on the glass, and you can easily see the guitars displayed through the window.

As I walked in, I noticed the store had a large open floor plan with shiny wood floors and excellent lighting. The one side held guitars and banjos, whereas the other side had a large cello along with guitars in the back. There was a large and long counter with a man and a woman working behind it. Despite the fact that there were bells that went off when I walked through the door, the woman never even looked away from her computer screen. The man noticed me right away, though, standing up and asking if I needed any help. I told him about my niece and he asked if I knew what she was playing now, to which I replied that I knew it was a starter acoustic. Now, I said, I was looking for a mid-range acoustic-electric guitar. He also asked if I knew what body type I was looking for, and I told him my niece would want something standard size. He then asked if I was looking for any particular model, but I told him no. I gave him my price range and he led me to the section of the store with the guitars and banjos.

He showed me a used black Cort SFX1F for $399; it featured a modern V-shaped neck. He quickly led me away from it to show me other models that he had near the back. He stated that Martin was a great brand and came with a lifetime warranty and a good pickup. I was shown a Martin DX1AE Solid Top Dreadnought Acoustic-Electric for $549; it had a solid spruce top, along with mahogany-patterned HPL back and sides. I was then shown a Martin Road Series DRS1 Dreadnought Acoustic-Electric for $699, with solid sapele top, back and sides. The Martin Road Series DRS2 Dreadnought Acoustic-Electric, selling for $799, had solid sapele back and sides and Sitka spruce top.

As though I had not mentioned before that my maximum was $900, he mentioned I should spend a little more and get the Martin Performing Artist Series DCPA4 Cutaway Dreadnought Acoustic-Electric for $1,149, which he said was about $100 cheaper than you could buy it for online. The employee mentioned to me that Martin was the best and it’s known for being a solid product. He also said that the other three Martin guitars he showed me were all made in a Mexican plant, whereas the most expensive one was American-made. After he let me know that was pretty much all he had to show me, I thanked him for his time and made my exit.

The Sale
I had finished my undercover mission and it was a success. I had visited the four musical instrument stores, gathered my information and, now, it was time to crown a winner. Guitar Center was great for its large variety and had good customer service, but I wouldn’t call GC the winner in this scenario. The girl I met at House of Music was rather pleasant, but the place is just not the best option for purchasing a guitar; however, it seemed to be a perfect place if you needed to take any kind of music lessons. Down Home Guitars was a very nice shop, but the fact that the salesman tried to get me to go over budget was a real turn-off for me.

So, that brings us to our winner: Midlothian Music. I loved everything about that place. I felt welcome right when I walked in. There was a ton of variety and, in addition, they fix the instruments they sell. It was a true one-stop shop. The thing I loved most was the fact that the salesman recommended I bring my niece in to see the guitar before dropping so much money on it. That showed me that he wasn’t just in it for the sale, but also cared about me as a customer. Midlothian Music wins this mini competition hands down!

I would recommend anyone and everyone shop there if you’re ever looking for an instrument or accessories, or you just need to get your guitar fixed.


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