It was a great day for a drive to Silicon Valley, burgeoning hub of the modern technology boom and the location of massive, world-renowned headquarters that include the Facebook and Google campuses. Although I hit a couple of snags while taking 880 down, that wasn’t a surprise. Actually, 880 is almost always bad, and it’s a rare day that you don’t grit your teeth heading south from the northern part of California. I was headed down after an early-morning phone call (5:23am) from The Chief, who demanded I go suss out guitar amps. He wanted me to seek out mid-range models of all shapes and sizes; he barked a list of acceptable stores at meAC as I scrambled to pick up my pants off the floor. I hopped around my room for a while, all the while soothing The Chief’s intensity, agreeing amicably to head out that very minute. “Yes, sir! I know it’s an important mission that can’t wait a second. I am on my way!”

I was certain that my mission would be rather smooth, as I was vaguely familiar with the area and I didn’t have to take any planes to get there. My first stop was in Santa Clara, an odd town that looks to be a suburb of Los Angeles. Palm trees lined the streets and ’50s-style billboards, in garish neon, stuck out of run-down, box-shaped buildings on the main strip. I parked easily on W. San Carlos in San Jose and ran into my first location, only to find that it did not carry guitar amps! Discouraged, I headed down the strip, stopping briefly at a consignment clothing store, begging to use the restroom. The clerk behind the counter failed to list a single acceptable nearby location to which I could go for relief. “Is it an emergency?” he asked, as I started to walk away. With that, he finally let me into the staff bathroom. “I won’t tell anyone,” I said, thanking him as he led me to it.

My next location was pretty much smack dab in the middle of downtown San Jose. Driving by rundown Victorians that were likely worth millions, I wondered about the city. It is not the prettiest place: the hills surrounding it are quite yellow, dwarfing the city sprawl in the valley below them. In the city proper, where my mission brought me, the square strips and high-façade buildings don’t leave much to marvel at, as compared to the bounty of San Francisco and Oakland slightly to the north. The fact that California was going through an epic drought during my mission didn’t help the visual appeal, either.

San Jose Rock Shop
30 N. 3rd St.
San Jose CA 95112

I found metered parking outside the San Jose Rock Shop. I put the minimum amount I could possibly get away with into the meter. When I walked into the consignment shop, I was greeted quietly by a man in his 30s and a woman in her late 30s to early 40s with red hair. They both smiled docilely, leaving me to my own devices. To the left of the counter, which was immediately to the right when I walked in, I saw a cluster of amps. I looked at them and, quickly, I ascertained that they were pretty much all used. Uh-oh…. The Chief wouldn’t be too happy with this. I noted a Marshall MF280 ($349.99), a Jackson J412 ($249.99), a Peavey JSX head ($599.99) and a Line 6 4×12″ cab ($199). There was one new amp, an Ashdown 8×10″ ($699.99), which was not for guitar but, rather, for bass.

“Do you carry any new amps?” I asked the clerks. The man seemed to know what was up, and he said that they only had the Ashdown and one other model whose name I didn’t recognize. I thanked them and left the store to the sound of jazz playing overhead, feeling as though I’d just walked out of some chill couple’s private home in a hip area of a metropolitan city.

Guitar Center
3677 Stevens Creek Blvd.
Santa Clara CA 95051

Once out of San Jose, in the affluent communities of Santa Clara and Palo Alto, many of the streets were lined with beautiful, towering green trees of all shapes and sizes. In the distance, I could see the breathtaking Santa Cruz mountains. My GPS took me quickly to the next location, cutting a path down very wide streets lined with many auto malls. Guitar Center, meanwhile, was housed within a huge warehouse building. Nobody was manning the front security desk when I walked in. I walked to the right, past the Platinum Guitar Room and the Rumble Room, where the bass amps live.
Amp after amp was stacked in the middle of the floor; the selection ranged from Marshall to Peavey to Orange to Fender. As I stood wondering where to begin—trying to decide which amps The Chief would care most about—a clerk asked me if I needed any help. He was young, boasting two snakebite piercings in his lower lip and a fade hairdo. I told him I was just looking at amps, and he instructed me to let him know if I needed anything. As I walked around, I noticed a bunch of yellow-tag sale items. My eyes drifted to stacks of Marshall heads and cabs, a Blackstar cluster of amps with the HT Stage 60 ($849 on sale), an EVH 5150III 1×12″ 50-watt combo ($1,079), a cluster of Line 6 amps and a notable Fender Vintage Reissue ’65 Deluxe Reverb ($1,000), as well as a Fender Princeton Reverb ($899). Soon, the clerk appeared again, asking if I wanted to play through any of the amps.
“I don’t have my guitar,” I said, trying not to notice the lines of guitars behind the clerk.
“That’s OK! We have plenty,” he said. “What do you play?”
“An Epiphone and a Fender,” I replied.
“We have both,” he happily exclaimed, racing off to grab me an Epiphone. He asked me many, many questions. What kind of band are you in? What style of amp do you like? I answered each one glibly, feeling somewhat pressured by his otherwise-commendable zealous eagerness to help. Trying not to draw suspicion, I still looked somewhat interested, playing the part of a real customer.
“I have a Fender Deluxe and it’s great,” I said. “I’m just looking at what’s out there. You know…trying to keep ahead of the curve.”
When I told him it was 40 watts, he nodded, saying, “Yep, you have a good amp.” He continued, “But maybe you can try some others. See what you’d like next.” He plugged me into a Marshall first. “Too muddy,” I said. Then, it was the Fender Princeton. I tweaked with the knobs and strummed a bit, but I likely had a frown on my face. “Do you like your guitar to sound clean or dirty?” he then asked, seeming to suspect that I was just going along for the ride.
“Ummm…dirty,” I replied.
“Then let’s try the Orange amp,” he said. He showed me the Orange Amps’ Dark Terror 15 (DA15H; $549.99) plugged into a PPC Series PPC212-C 120-watt guitar speaker cabinet ($749). I was in love, capable only of exclaiming, “Wow!”
The salesman tried to convince me that I needed to buy them today, but I looked at him as though he were nuts. “I’ll come back later,” I said. I couldn’t get away, though, without him showing me a flyer and asking me about the band I was in. I responded to the question nebulously. “Sure, we play shows,” I said. Then, looking at my phone suddenly, I blurted, “I’ve gotta go.”
“Good luck with your show,” he said as I left.

The Starving Musician
3939 Stevens Creek Blvd.
Santa Clara CA 95051

The next stop wasn’t far down the road. The Starving Musician is a warehouse space with ample parking in the lot outside (although, when I arrived in the early afternoon, it was packed).

Inside, drums lined the floors, and rows of amps and guitars were stacked in aisle after aisle after aisle. The place was bustling, and nobody greeted me upon my entrance. I noted many used amps and new amps, but seemingly more used than new. A new Bugera (112TS 80-watt cab; $159.99) rested alongside what must have been a used Blackstar HT Club 40 ($399.99), a new VHT Lead 20 ($449.99) and a plethora of other used amps: from Line 6, Crate, Blackstar, Epiphone and some unfamiliar names.

As I continued to explore, I found a fascinating used combo Egnater Tweaker 112 amp ($299.99) on which I wouldn’t have minded trying the vintage and modern voicing, had I had more time. A used Fender Blues Junior III ($349.99) begged for me to play it, too, as did a (presumably used) VOX practice amp, which was equipped with 11 amp models, 11 pedal effects and a two-channel digital programmer (AD50VT; $249.99). I was falling down the rabbit hole into amp land, remembering why I accepted the job with the temperamental Chief in the first place. I lost sense of time and space as my eyes bugged out. I started to wish I’d brought my ax so I could sample the goods.

A used, solid-state Tech 21 Trademark 60 ($399.99) winked at me. And, finally, I spotted one of my lusts: a VOX AC30 ($999.99), which, for the price, I assumed to be used.

I took in amp after amp after amp. When I got to the end of the aisles, on to the edge of the back warehouse, a long-haired, metal-looking clerk who was dismantling a guitar behind a small counter finally asked me if I needed any help. His eyebrows furrowed as he glanced in my direction.

“Do you carry many new amps?” I asked, not sure if he would tell me anything I didn’t already know, having already thoroughly investigated every aisle. “We have a few,” he responded. With that, another clerk, who sported long, brown, curly hair and who was possibly the store’s Owner, emerged. “I’ll show you,” he said.

“Why are you looking for amps?” the man asked, giving me a 20-questions rundown, while wearing a skeptical face, that was similar to what I’d experienced at Guitar Center. He seemed to be assessing my motives by the moment. I felt as though, perhaps, he was trying to crack through my spy charade; undaunted, I kept up the illusion in spite of his interrogative abilities.

“What do you play?” he asked, his hands on his hips. I told him I played a Fender Deluxe. “That’s a good amp,” he responded, asking, “Why are you even looking?” He added, “You don’t need anything else.” Then, he asked what type of music I play and what band I play in. When I tried, once again, to answer vaguely, he asked what the name of my band was. “Oh, it doesn’t have a name,” I responded. To my surprise, he nodded in agreement. “Names are useless anyway,” he said. “Better to just go by your name than to have a band name,” he continued. “That way, you get all the credit!” He was loosening up a bit, as if he had a bit of experience with this in his own past. Again, though, he told me I should stick with my own amp. “It’s the only amp you’ll ever need,” he reiterated. “You don’t need anything else.”

“Sometimes, I like to look at what’s out there,” I told him unconvincingly. Then, I rushed back to my car, as he seemed done with me for the day and I needed to be on my merry way. The guitar amps whispered at my back as I left, but, alas, I couldn’t do anything more with them, lest I be called out.

Crossroads Instruments
10564 S. De Anza Blvd.
Cupertino CA 95014

The fourth and final store on my list was located in Cupertino, another part of Silicon Valley. Seeing the storefront in a strip mall, I worried immediately that it wouldn’t have any amps. When I walked in, a very happy clerk greeted me, continuing to air drum as he had been when I’d walked in. When he asked what I needed, I told him I was looking for amps. “We can order anything you want,” he responded. “It usually gets here in a couple of days.”

There were a couple of amps spaced out on the floor, but, mostly, I saw sheet music, a few guitars and a back room full of rental instruments for band practice. A Line 6 Spider IV 30 ($229), a VHT Special 6 ($250), an acoustic RMS AC40 and a Line 6 AMPLIFi 75 caught my eye.

The clerk, whose knowledge about the products was limited, didn’t know the prices, either. That made me strongly suspicious that they were negotiable. It seemed as though this location specialized more in special orders than in stocking any particular item. A used Fender had come directly from the clerk’s own garage.

“I used it for recording and then forgot about it,” he said. When I asked the price, he replied, “Dirt cheap! I’d say no more than a buck fifty.” As I got ready to go, he added, “Come by any time and plug in!” He was still air drumming, a smile across his face, when I left.

The Sale
Unfortunately, San Jose Rock Shop didn’t have much in the way of new gear. As a result, I’d put them toward the bottom. Crossroads would likely come in slightly ahead of San Jose Rock Shop, owing to the clerk’s extreme friendliness. The only thing that set the store back was not having much in stock, even though the clerk said the store had the ability to order almost anything I wanted. The Starving Musician had a lot of gear, but it was mostly used. I’d put that store toward the front of the pack, though. However, the winner this month is Guitar Center, which, I must say, had the best selection and some great, rock-bottom prices going for new gear. GC: you win this time!

No more articles