When I received my latest assignment from MI Spy HQ, I couldn’t help but chuckle. The Chief had tasked me with tracking down a guitar for the budget-conscious player in preppy Connecticut, a state that’s as synonymous with wealth as it is with boat shoes and pastel pants. Mention “Connecticut” to people from other parts of the U.S., and you’re likely to hear a lot of jokes about the one percent, spoiled children and wine moms ruling the road in their giant, luxury SUVs.

Perhaps nowhere in this small, expensive state is conspicuous consumption more baked into the social milieu than along Connecticut’s Gold Coast, a 20-mile stretch of shoreline that borders more populous New York. And once you cross the New York State line traveling east, it all begins in the wealthy town of Greenwich. Here, Hollywood producers and hedge-fund millionaires alike mount home-construction projects that rival new office buildings in size, complete with construction entrances to the property and ample porta-potties for the help. Each new big house seems determined to outdo the last.

All that ostentation hides the fact that Greenwich, at least, is rather diverse. In Connecticut, a large town such as Greenwich (population 62,300) can consist of numerous sections that anywhere else would likely function as towns in their own right. In Greenwich, the working-class neighborhoods Byram and Pemberwick look identical to the parts of New York that they border, while father east, Cos Cob and Riverside are more middle- to uppermiddle class. But the cost of living in any neighborhood on the Long Island Sound will be quite expensive, and ditto for those northerly reaches of town known as “Back-Country Greenwich” (despite the quaint-sounding nickname).

The high cost of everything here gives people all the more reason to try to scout out bargains, I suppose. So your MI Spy went shopping for a low-priced acoustic guitar for my fictitious 14-year-old nephew. Surprisingly, I found just two stores that offer guitars within Greenwich’s 67 square miles. Fortunately, I didn’t have to go far afield to find two more. The others were in the neighboring city of Stamford and the next town to the east, Darien. The four stores I visited varied in size and selection, but all were manned by salespeople who demonstrated knowledge of music in general, and guitars in particular. In this respect, they exhibited a profound appreciation for a market that’s as apt to be as discriminating as it is well-heeled.

Greenwich Music
1200 East Putnam Ave.
Riverside, CT 06868

This midsized store occupies, along with several other shops, the ground floor of a three story medical building that promises “valet parking.” The sign is clearly meant for medical patients, not for retail shoppers. Though I visited during a late-afternoon slow period, the available parking was sparse, this being Greenwich, after all.

Inside, I found a fairly spacious, well-laid-out store with a sizable selection of guitars covering much of the rear wall. I told a salesman what I was looking for.

“For a 14-year-old, I would go with a full-sized guitar, unless he is smaller than average in height, in which case the full-sized models might be difficult to hold and to play,” the sales man told me. “And, I’d suggest a model with steel strings, because that’s how most of the music sounds that kids today like.” Given their greater versatility over classical models, the best choice would be an acoustic guitar, he said. And steel-stringed acoustic guitars are the overwhelming favorite among teens, he added.

The price range: $170 and up. Within that realm, the Epiphone Pro-1 steel-string guitar would be a great choice, the salesman said. It sells for $169 and offers reduced body depth to make it easier for beginners to hold and play, and jumbo frets to enable easier fingering.

At $179, the Epiphone PR-4E Player Pak is one of the store’s best sellers. This acoustic model has a plug-in jack enabling it to function as an electric guitar. The package consists of an amp cable, electronic tuner, gig bag and strap.

Next up in price was the Austin AA25DSB, priced at $219. This particular model comes in a black finis and is also geared toward beginning guitarists. “The neck is a fraction smaller than the Epiphone models, which might make it somewhat easier to play,” said the salesperson. “However, there won’t be much of a noticeable difference.”

Another attractive buy on display was the Ibanez ACCG, a used acoustic guitar at a bargain-basement price of $129. There was one drawback: It was a left handed model. “Unless your kid is a lefty, this one is no good,” the salesman said.

Upon exiting the store’s parking lot, I discovered a key downside to shopping in this area. East (and West) Putnam Avenues are Greenwich’s section of U.S. highway 1, and traffic in this area can be heavy at any time of the day. Or any time of the year, for that matter. The road is four-laned, and if the traffic is moving at all, it is moving very fast. What’s more, it seems that on Thursdays and Fridays year ‘round, much of the rest of the eastern seaboard passes through Connecticut, turning Interstate 95 (located literally behind the store) into a 100-mile-long parking lot. Abundant traffic exits onto U.S. 1, and these drivers are in no mood to slow down for mere shoppers and doctors’ patients, let alone MI Spies.

After a 10-minute wait for the traffic to clear, I exited left toward downtown Greenwich and the next stop on my shopping agenda.

Music & Arts
22 West Putnam Ave.
Greenwich, CT 06830

The Greenwich outlet of the nationwide Music & Arts chain occupies a small store front along busy West Putnam Avenue, around the corner from the heart of downtown with its designer boutiques and galleries. Everything here is picture perfect: Even the YMCA building in Greenwich is an architectural gem, with fat pillars and a dome with a small widow’s walk. Music & Arts is right next to a very fragrant steak restaurant, enabling musical-instrument shoppers to take a break and enjoy some wonderful food. Next to that is a small art gallery that had what seemed to be a genuine Keith Haring painting/sculpture prominently on display.

This Music & Arts branch packed a lot of instruments into a small space, and the salesman was an expert. After I pled ignorance to all things musical, he gave me a rundown of the finer points of guitars, especially those favored by younger musicians such as my fictitious 14-year-old nephew. Generally, younger folks overwhelmingly prefer acoustic guitars equipped with steel strings, he pointed out. This is especially true if they are rock music fans. “Nylon strings are slightly easier on the fingers,” he said. “But with a pick and the calluses that develop after playing for a couple of months, they are fine.

For beginners, Music & Arts carries a well-regarded private-label line: Laurel Canyon. The LA-100 acoustic guitar normally sells for $149, but was on sale for $99 during my visit. “It lacks a plug-in [for use with an amplifier],” he said. “But that might be a feature for this beginner’s next guitar.”

The salesman then suggested that “If dollars are less of an object, go for a Yamaha. Yamaha makes a beautiful guitar.” Yamaha acoustic models begin at $149 for the F235D dreadnought acoustic model and $159 for the F335 acoustic guitar; an acoustic-electric model will cost an additional $75 to $100.

“Above and beyond that, you’ll want a case — there’s one on sale right now for $25 — and a guitar stand for $15,” he said. “You just need some basic protection. For most beginners, a soft-sided case will be fine. Hard cases are only for musicians who travel. You don’t want to knock into it and have it fall over.”

The salesman related the sad saga of a customer who purchased an acoustic guitar “and all the add-ons,” but got lazy and took to stuffing his guitar underneath the sofa. One day his kids decided to use the sofa as a trampoline. The guitar, he recalled, was crushed.

“Fortunately, that was one of the Laurel Canyon sale models, so replacing it was not a challenge,” he said. “The other thing you need to bear in mind is that wood and laminate finishes are sensitive to temperature and humidity. Keeping a guitar in its case affords protection.”

Crescendo Music
351 Post Rd.
Darien, CT 06820

I dislike visiting any music store at closing time. Since I’m not a true shopper, I feel I’m imposing a bit on a salesperson to go in and pepper him or her with questions. When I visited Crescendo Music at 4:40 p.m. on a Saturday, 20 minutes before closing time, I was pleased to see that the lights were still on and I would be the sole customer in the store, so at least my visit would be quick.

Crescendo is a spacious, well-organized store just over the border from Norwalk in the tony shoreline suburb of Darien. This was the wealthy town that Rosalind Russell’s character derided for snobbishness in the 1958 film “Auntie Mame.” (In case you’re wondering, part of my MI Spy training includes being able to bewilder and beguile with classic film references.) Today, Darien is a friendly, family-oriented town, though conspicuously upscale.

The store is easy to find, right off I-95 in a small strip mall. It’s near a 24-hour diner and a Duchess, a fast-food chainlet found only in Southern Connecticut. Here, the salesperson’s advice echoed that of the other music stores: Classical models, while often a bit gentler on the pocketbook, won’t fit the usual teen’s tastes. “Classical guitars are definitel out if you want to play modern music,” he said.

His first recommendation: the Washburn HF11S Heritage Folk Acoustic, which the store currently sells for $299. An acoustic-electric version sells for $50 more. “It has a great sound for the money,” the salesman told me. “It is built with a solid top, and my experience has been that, the longer you have these guitars, the better they sound.”

Next up would be guitars from Takamine. These include the GD30-BLK dreadnought model and GN20-NS NEX. Both are offered for $399. For a some what bigger outlay ($479) the Takamine GY93-NAT Acoustic New Yorker offers both acoustic and electric capability and comes with a built-in equalizer.

According to the salesman, he strongly urges buyers to spend an extra $45 for a soft gig bag. “Hard-sided cases are for people who perform professionally,” he noted. “For most kids, a soft-sided bag will do the job.”

Guiliano’s Music
70 High Ridge Road
Stamford, CT 06905

It took a bit of trial and error to locate the just-opened Guiliano’s Music store (and school) in central Stamford, owing to outdated listings on Google and Yelp. Complicating matters somewhat, the store used to occupy space in an office building right up the street, and a sign reading “Guiliano’s” is still outside the building; venture inside, and you’ll find a crowded yoga studio.

I later learned that Guiliano’s had, indeed, consolidated into one location (in Norwalk, six miles east) several years ago, but decided to reopen in Stamford. The new store, located in the center of a strip mall across the street from a standalone Lord & Taylor, is well worth finding.

I visited on a late afternoon and found the salesman both attentive and extremely knowledgeable. He was, for starters, somebody who had picked up his first guitar at just about the same age as my fictitious nephew. Moreover, he was a graduate of a college that a) specializes in music, and b) your MI Spy had actually heard of.

During my visit, a salesperson from Guiliano’s somewhat-bigger Norwalk store came in to obtain some sales gear, which added a layer of insight into mastering the wonders of the guitar. For beginning guitar players, the salesperson recommended the nylon-stringed Kohala KG100N. Because the description I invented of my “nephew” was of a five-foot-eleven adolescent, the salesman recommended an adult-sized guitar. It is worth noting, however, that Kohala makes identical instruments to the KG100N that come in two smaller sizes for younger (or smaller) learners. (By the way, Kohala’s headquarters is in Tennessee, but its roots are in the Aloha State. Yes, the company is quite well known for ukuleles — which Guiliano’s also carries.)

The next step up represented a significant jump in both price ($300 vs. $149) and richness of sound. This was the Seagull S6 Original Slim QIT. Because he was an accomplished guitarist, and because he had a storewide audience of one, the salesman picked up both the Seagull and the Kohala and played a few chords for me. The more expensive model had a deeper tonality to it, owing to both its steel strings and its construction. “It definitely projects more,” the salesman said. “But nylon strings are going to be much easier on the fingers and hands for the beginner.” This would make it more likely that a student guitarist will continue practicing and playing.

The Kohala was no slouch in the sound department, however. It had a nice, warm tone, although it seemed tamer and softer. It clearly would do a yeomanlike job of encouraging a young learner to master the guitar, as well.

This Guiliano’s Music location is still new and did not yet carry any instruments at price points between $150 and $300 at the time of my visit. The Norwalk location does, however. What’s key wherever you shop, said the salesman, is getting a good education, and both of its outlets can help in that regard, he noted.

The Sale

As is often the case, there were no “losers” among the four stores I visited. Every salesperson I encountered was helpful, attentive, professional and, perhaps most important of all, knowledgeable. I made it clear that I knew nothing about music and just wanted to provide a favorite nephew with a memorable gift.

The four salesmen agreed on one thing: acoustic over classical. And they urged me to steer clear of any all-electric models until this beginning guitarist mastered the basics. They all seemed to indicate that a plug-in jack for an amp might be a “nice to have,” if the budget permitted it, but it was definitely not a “must.”

Three of the four salesmen steered me toward steel-stringed models. In this respect, Guiliano’s was the outlier, with a caveat: The salesperson urged me to purchase a nylon-stringed model, although he noted that he had learned on a steel-stringed guitar 10 or 15 years ago. (I am guessing his age to be late 20s.) “There are benefits and drawbacks to each type of string,” he said. “In my own case, I decided to learn on a steel model and trained myself to ‘power through’ any pain I might have been experiencing at the time.” The salesman also related that he learned to play at the “old” Stamford Guiliano’s, the one that’s now a yoga studio. In time, he discovered, the blisters he developed became calluses, which in turn made the going much, much easier. “For me it was, no pain, no gain,” he said. “But most kids aren’t like that, and for that reason, a nylon stringed model would be better for most.”

Although all stores were great, I appreciated the personal quality to the salesperson at Guiliano’s story, and for that reason, I chose Guiliano’s as the winner. Yet, any one of the four stores is apt to provide you with a great shopping experience, and should you choose to buy an instrument, all four stores operate music schools as well.

People in this neck of Connecticut demand excellence, and each of these four stores delivers.

To read other reports from the Music & Sound Retailer‘s MI Spy, click here.

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