New Jersey is the fourth-smallest state in the U.S. But, yet, the Garden State occupies an outsized place in the rock ‘n’ roll world. Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, Phoebe Snow, Janis Ian, Patti Smith, Pat DiNizio and the rest of the Smithereens, Debbie Harry (Blondie), Kate Pierson (The B-52s) and Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) are just a sampling of the rock greats who are New Jerseyans.

Additionally, many of rock’s signature performances took place on stages there. Asbury Park’s Convention Hall and Stone Pony lounge, Maxwell’s of Hoboken, the Atlantic City Steel Pier and the Capitol Theater in Passaic have all become rock legends.

In this setting, it would be difficult for any budding guitarist not to dream of following in the footsteps of Bon Jovi, “The Boss” or any of the numerous Jersey-grown musicians now popular on the national scene. Accordingly, you probably couldn’t pick a better place to go shopping for an electric guitar than in New Jersey.

For this assignment, your humble sleuth zeroed in on suburban Morris County NJ, seeking an electric guitar in the $500 to $800 range. This location’s in the Appalachian foothills, where suburbia meets open farmland. Million-dollar McMansions are just a stone’s throw from old, industrial “boroughs” founded in the mid-1800s. Within this setting are well equipped music stores where any serious musician might feel at home. All offered a variety of merchandise apart from guitars and other stringed instruments.

My 12-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter accompanied me on this shopping trip. Alas, the world of music couldn’t compete with handheld electronics, laptops and a glove box bursting with DVDs, and so they remained in the car. This made maintaining my undercover shopping assignment—locating a step-up electric guitar for “Tommy,” my fictitious cousin turning 30—a bit simpler to pull off.

The Music Shop w 56 Fanny Rd. w Boonton Township NJ 07005

First up on a bright winter’s Saturday was The Music Shop: a combination retail store, school and performance space that occupies most of a newish, two-story building just inside Boonton’s border with its larger and more well known neighbor, Parsippany. The building was wedged between a Dodge dealership and an auto-repair facility; a textbook publisher sat across the street.
The small town of Boonton boasts a true downtown, with a 25-foot waterfall and a commuter rail station. The Music Shop was located about two miles from there, and I spent about 15 minutes winding through backstreets lined with Tudor and Victorian homes.

The retail store occupied a slot next to a coffee shop called The Daily Joe. Once I was inside the store, the retail space was well laid out, nicely decorated and easy to navigate. Sheet music, keyboards, horns and other instruments were clustered to the right; the ample display of electric guitars was hard to miss, taking up most of a wall to the far left.

After I spent several minutes in the store, a sales associate offered his assistance. Hearing my story (cousin turning 30…giant extended family chipping in to bear the cost of a decent electric guitar), the gentleman queried me about my fictitious cuz. I quickly embroidered the story. (I mean, the fun is in the details, right?)

“Well, Tommy has been playing off and on in bands since he was in high school,” I explained. “He’s definitely into rock. Not super-heavy stuff like metal bands, but definitely music from the 1980s onward. Think Green Day.”

“Well, if he’s been playing for a while, these three models are most apt to be well suited for him,” the salesman replied.

At $499, the Fender Blacktop Stratocaster HH was one of the store’s most popular sellers, he explained. It could handle a wide range of styles, thus accommodating musicians with a versatile repertoire. And, he added, it was the choice for people who play heavier rock tunes. “Fender has been around forever and it builds a quality guitar,” he commented. “They are always popular with music people.”

The salesman also pointed to the Schecter C-1. The “C” in the model designation denoted the fact that it had a body made from cherry. The store offered that particular model at an introductory price of $500 because it was new. “Schecters are really growing in popularity,” he told me. “One advantage is that it has more pickups, which makes it better suited for a guitarist playing heavier tunes.”

He also liked the Jackson SLATTXMG3-6 Soloist. It was more of a personal preference, he told me. At $600, the Soloist cost slightly more than the other two guitars, but, the salesman said, it offers a richer range. The musician with a Jackson Soloist has the choice of playing in an ensemble or alone on stage, which lends the instrument a greater degree of versatility.

Private lessons seemed to be the establishment’s stock in trade, and I learned that the business recruits budding musicians for rock, classical and jazz ensembles. Performances were held in a hall upstairs. Instrument rentals for area middle- and high-school bands also comprised a brick business.
Although he was an able guitarist himself, the salesman’s true love was the saxophone. He told me that he teaches lessons at The Music Shop, as well as at an assortment of other music schools in Morris County. Cool!

The Music Den w 1030 Route 10 W. w Randolph NJ 07869

After leaving The Music Shop, we set our GPS to our next destination: The Music Den in Randolph. It was a 15-mile drive west along New Jersey’s Route 10, one of those fast-moving, four-lane roads with a smattering of traffic lights as well as “jug handles”…a traffic feature particular to the Garden State. Drivers who want to turn left must turn right along a semi-circular traffic lane shaped like the handle of a jug. Driving west, no such acrobatics are necessary.

Randolph maintains a semi-rural vibe. The Jersey Housewives of reality TV fame would feel right at home here, as home prices go well into the seven figures.
The Music Den bills itself as both a performance center and a store. Upon entry, however, it was difficult to figure out exactly where the different segments fell. I had to intuit where the electric guitars were situated. I spied a bunch of them on the wall next to the open staircase, but they proved to be used models.

Much of the first floor was taken up by instruction rooms. That, at least, is what I deduced from the strumming, plinking and a rather noisy drum lesson. Oddly, a large section at the front of the store was occupied by grand pianos: about 10 of them, all destined, no doubt, for those big houses in Randolph and the surrounding towns.

I went upstairs and—Bingo!—there were the guitars: about 100 of them, in fact, all grouped by price. I perused a section in the $400 to $700 range for about 10 minutes before a salesman approached me to offer assistance.

He, too, recommended something in the Fender Stratocaster family of electrics. “You can’t go wrong with a Stratocaster; it’s almost like a rite of passage for a guitarist,” he said. The store offered the Standard Stratocaster for $499, and it comes in three finishes. Higher-end models from the line fall in the $699 to $799 range, I was told.

The gentleman also suggested a Gibson, which was on a nice sale at $750. “This is the best deal we have in the store right now,” he said. “It has a hard-rock sound and feel…and it’s the kind of guitar that the lead singer from Green Day uses.”

“For something a little wilder, I’d highly recommend this Ibanez model,” the salesman continued, picking up a white electric guitar: the Ibanez ARZIR20WH Iron Label ARZ Series White. The Iron Label is Ibanez’s made-for-metal line; thus, the guitar offered a hard-rocking sound. That model, too, was nicely discounted: it normally sold for $1,102, but the Music Den was offering it for $799.

Ritchie’s Music Center 424 Route 46 w Rockaway NJ 07866

Ritchie’s Music Center has garnered rave reviews on Internet sites such as Google and Yelp for service and for its staff’s knowledge of guitars and drums. Yet, it also offers a full range of other instruments, sheet music and accessories; private lessons are also available.

One word of caution when traveling to Ritchie’s: don’t use your GPS. The store isn’t where its street number would place it on the map. After cruising in vain up and down the busy thoroughfare for about a half-hour, I pulled into a supermarket parking lot and called the store.

“You can’t find us with our address,” the man who answered told me. “Instead, use your GPS map and find the intersection of Route 46 and Woodstone Rd. We’re across the street.”

Once I arrived at the store, I discovered it to be jam-packed with all things musical. The guitars were up on a short mezzanine. While browsing, I listened to the banter of the college-age men behind the counter, who soon broke into humming and air-playing the theme song from “The Munsters.” It was quite entertaining.

Soon thereafter, a salesman came over to offer his advice…and he proved quite knowledgeable about electric guitars. If he suspected my ruse about “Cousin Tommy,” he didn’t let on.

He was an avid guitarist himself, and he showed me several great buys in the clearance category. One of his favorites was the Fender Standard Telecaster, an electric guitar that was on sale for $499 for an indefinite period.

“The best deal we have in the store right now is the Ibanez RGA42E,” he said. That model, he said, gives the guitarist a lot of flexibility to experiment with different settings and sounds, yet it’s simple and uncomplicated to play. Ritchie’s was selling it for $599.

“I’ve played around with it and it has a fantastic sound,” he said, strumming to demonstrate its fine sound quality. In addition, he continued, it gives the guitarist the flexibility to experiment with unusual guitar effects, such as fades and vibratos. Dual humbuckers are another key feature of the guitar, which offer exceptional cancelling of unwanted noises and stray effects.

Another good buy was the ESP LTD Deluxe EC-1000, which Ritchie’s was offering for $859. Although that price put the EC-1000 slightly outside of the $500 to $800 price range, we’d get a lot of bang for those extra 50 bucks.

“It’s a bit flashier than the others I showed you, but it gives the guitarist a lot of great features,” the man told me. “These include locking tuners and a maple finger board. As a guitarist, I prefer the slippier feel that a maple fingerboard gives you. Changing strings is also much easier on this guitar than on other models.”

Robbie’s Music City w 476 Route 46 w Hackettstown NJ 07840

Robbie’s Music City was yet another music emporium on Route 46 whose address was a misnomer. It’s not actually in Hackettstown but, rather, in Mount Olive Township. It’s probably a holdover from days long gone by when few stores or people actually resided in Mount Olive. Although the latter has become a thriving suburb in its own right, the Hackettstown address endures.

This was the most far-flung of the four stores I visited, located about 17 miles west of Ritchie’s in the outer fringes of suburbia. I was prepared to dislike Robbie’s, thanks to some rather negative online reviews. Surprisingly, though, it was the only store where a salesperson greeted me as soon as I walked in.
The store occupied a long, low structure that resembled a 1950s motel in shape. Inside, it was quite spacious and well organized. Percussion instruments occupied an entire section up front; guitars were in the rear.

Robbie’s was well worth the drive…particularly since I encountered an especially helpful and knowledgeable salesperson. An avid drummer, he knew a thing or two about guitars, as well.

He started by showing me a Charvel Desolation DS-2 ST, which was selling for $529. That model featured a rosewood fingerboard and Grover tuners. He pointed out that the Charvel’s neck design was integral with the instrument’s body, providing for better structural integrity.

He also recommended a Dean Soltero model. “This is a Les Paul-style guitar, with a solid maple top and Grover tuners,” the gentleman pointed out. “The hardware on this model has a great look: it’s all made from nickel rather than polished chrome.” It was on sale for $699.

On the higher end, he also held up a Schecter Solo-6 Classic with a few slight blemishes. “It’s on sale for $849, but I can probably give you a bigger discount if you’re really interested,” he said. “It’s a nice featured guitar offering locking tuners and both active and passive pickups.”

The salesman wanted to know if my cousin lives nearby, in case he had heard him play. I quickly told him that Tommy lives in western Pennsylvania.
“It’s difficult to buy for a musician,” he added. “All our merchandise comes with a seven-day exchange policy. So, if your cousin isn’t happy with what you purchase, he can just bring it back and get something else.”

The Sale

I wouldn’t hesitate to go back to any of the four stores that I visited. All offered helpful, knowledgeable service and proffered merchandise suggestions based on important features and attributes.

If size and selection were the sole deciding factors, then The Music Den would be the hands-down winner. The salesman was quite helpful, and having a store that big—combined with a performing-arts space—is a great asset for any town. Yet, for first-timers, the store had little to indicate what was where; the staff didn’t wear nametags, either.

That can be disconcerting during busy periods and it gives The Music Den a decidedly “insider” feel. Great if you live nearby and plan to come here often…but, if you don’t, it’s a bit off-putting.

In my view, service is the most important of all. And, in that respect, Robbie’s wins top honors this month—albeit just a nose ahead of Ritchie’s and The Music Shop. Although not as huge as The Music Den is, Robbie’s boasts a great selection in its own right. I found the quick, attentive service to be just what this inexpert guitar shopper needed…especially at the end of a chilly day spent driving around the snowy Jersey suburbs with two complaining teens in the car.

One footnote: While pursuing this assignment, I whizzed past several other sizable, attractive music stores that had failed to pop up during an Internet search. Clearly, people who live in this corner of the Garden State have plenty of good choices when shopping for a musical instrument. And that applies equally whether the purchase is for a would-be teen rocker or for a mature musician.

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