This summer, the venerable Stone Pony in Asbury Park NJ played host to a robust series of rock ‘n’ roll concerts. The Pixies, Willie Nelson, Blues Traveler and the Wallflowers were among the noteworthy stars who packed the relatively small venue with enthusiastic fans.

On Labor Day weekend, the ’80s band the Go-Go’s made it an important stop on the band’s farewell tour, with lead singer Belinda Carlisle signing off with a shout to the crowd: “Good night, Joysie! We love you!”

The Stone Pony in particular, and the Jersey Shore in general, holds a special place in the hearts of many rock ‘n’ roll fans. This is where the careers of rock luminaries such as Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny were launched. That status belies the fact that, although the Jersey Shore comes alive during the summer months, it’s a quiet string of bedroom towns during the rest of the year…a great place to raise kids.

That, of course, includes budding musicians of every stripe. Accordingly, this past summer, I visited part of the Jersey Shore on a Sunday afternoon. My musical instrument hunt focused on a student clarinet for a 14-year-old boy. And, even though my own 14-year-old son has no interest in band instruments, I nevertheless managed to convince four area store owners of the utter sincerity of my search.

The four stores were all quite different in both ambience and selection, but the staff in each bent over backwards to help me. That means any of the establishments would be a worthwhile stop on a musical shopping trip.

The small town of Red Bank NJ was first in line, the important reason being that it was the closest exit off the crowded Garden State Parkway. Red Bank is among the first shore towns you encounter on a drive south, and it has a nice downtown area.

Just in case you don’t notice, there are banners on the streetlights: “Red Bank: One Cool Little Town.” That slogan underscores the fact that, although there is a distinct upscale vibe, the town also hasn’t lost its authenticity.

Monmouth Music
30 Monmouth St.
Red Bank NJ 07701

Monmouth Music is a longstanding business that was purchased by its present Owners about 12 years ago. Apart from the store, they also operate the Monmouth Music Academy at the same location, offering a varied selection of music instruction.

Live Irish music being played by a band outside of a pub next door lent a pleasant ambience. Upon my entering the store, a salesperson promptly greeted me, and then showed me a well-appointed Yamaha clarinet that sold for $250. The clarinet was completely refurbished, and it just happened to be there. Normally, the store doesn’t stock many used instruments, unless it happens to be right after a school term has ended.

The salesperson was a drummer, and he requested that I speak to another salesperson, on a weekday, who could offer better guidance as regards band instruments. I called to speak to that person, and I obtained a wealth of information. Most significantly, that individual offered just one suggestion—the Hunter 6403NE clarinet—for several reasons. First and foremost, the store offers it for around $250 brand new, with a case included. That, the salesperson said, has made it the store’s bestselling clarinet by far.

“I’ve sold many of these instruments over the past 12 years, and I’ve never had a customer come back with any issues about it,” he attested. “It’s perfect for the beginning student. And, should he or she continue with it for the rest of high school, it’ll perform well for all four years.”

The salesman pointed out that, although the Hunter name is less prominent than other lines of musical instruments, the clarinets are made in the same Asian factories that produce clarinets that sell for much higher prices. “That enables us to offer a good instrument at a very attractive price point,” the man said. “We do lots of rentals, but, by the time the student is finished with two years of renting, you could just as easily purchase this clarinet.”

A budding artist wouldn’t need to upgrade in a year or two, either, he added. Only if the student were to continue to play beyond high school would he or she want to consider purchasing a professional-quality clarinet at some point. Most of those instruments are made in the U.S., he confirmed, with retail prices that begin around $1,500.

Nobody attempted to steer me away from just renting a clarinet. Monmouth Music has a brisk business renting band instruments of all kinds. A clarinet would cost $120 for the school term or $25 for month-by-month rental. All the instruments are completely overhauled prior to rental, and they can be switched for another instrument if the student decides to play something else.

Jack’s Music Shoppe
30 Broad St.
Red Bank NJ 07701

Just around the corner from Monmouth Music is another local fixture: Jack’s Music Shoppe. Jack’s is quite a bit larger than Monmouth, but it’s primarily a record store that has a musical instrument department on its mezzanine.

The store’s team specializes in vintage instruments. If you go in looking for a used clarinet, the store will have several quality models in stock from which to choose. It does not carry new clarinets; however, it does have a band instrument rental program. For that, the store contracts with Russo Music, which, incidentally, I visited later on during my trip.

The salesperson showed me two used instruments that, he said, had been entirely rebuilt and were in excellent shape. Both were also several decades old. The lower-priced of the two was the Selmer 1401 student clarinet, selling for $150 with a case included. The other was an Artley Prelude clarinet, going for $199.

The Selmer brand has a longstanding reputation for high quality. Artley is no longer around, but, in its day, it was known for high-quality, well-performing woodwind instruments, especially for beginners. Jack’s can also provide plenty of aftermarket support for parts, such as reeds and mouthpieces, as well as for repairs in the event that something breaks.

“Reeds and mouthpieces have to be replaced periodically, but the instruments themselves will never wear out,” the salesman declared. “All the used merchandise we sell has been completely serviced and reconditioned with all new parts.”

The store will also tune up an instrument that a person already owns. “You can find lots of used clarinets on Craigslist, but they will most likely need a tune up at a minimum,” he explained. “A tune up here will cost at least $70, depending on what needs to be done.”

The store’s instrument rental program is quite popular, the man affirmed. Clarinets rent for $115 for the whole school year. The program has a lease-to-own option, with payments credited toward the instrument’s purchase, should the parent eventually decide to buy it.

“All of them are high-quality instruments that are in perfect working condition,” the salesperson noted. “The cost is modest to rent, but they’re a bit expensive to purchase.”
One footnote: If you go to Jack’s, park in municipal parking behind the store. There is a beautiful, two-story mural on the building’s rear side that pays homage to its long history in Red Bank.

Russo Music
619 Lake Ave.
Asbury Park NJ 07712

From Red Bank, it was a very pleasant, 20-minute drive south to venerable Asbury Park NJ. Once New Jersey’s quintessential beach town, Asbury Park became quite seedy during the 1970s and ’80s. Much of the vista along Route 71—the main drag through town—still has a seedy, down-at-the-heels look. The side blocks nearer the Atlantic Ocean, however, have undergone significant gentrification.

Russo Music sits on one of those upscale blocks, Lake Ave., located, as the name would indicate, across the street from a small lake. Russo is as much an entertainment stop as it is a music store. On the ground level is a pleasant café with an assortment of organic menu items, as well as coffee, beer and wine. It’s worth a visit just to hang out and listen to the musicians who jam in the rehearsal spaces upstairs.

The overall ambience is a bit reminiscent, in fact, of Melkweg Amsterdam, a popular music emporium and discotheque. The cavernous indoor space provides a cool respite for music lovers and tourists alike after a day at the beach.

When I stepped into the well-appointed musical instrument room, a salesman promptly greeted me and asked how he could help. There began a conversation about student clarinets and the merits of renting versus buying.

The department was big and well stocked. However, the salesman told me, Russo has a much bigger store in Hamilton NJ, next door to Trenton NJ, where it offers a better clarinet selection. Still, he assured me, whatever the Hamilton store has, the Asbury Park store can get quickly.

The man asked me more questions than the previous two stores’ staffers. He wanted to know, for example, where my child attended school. “Ocean Township High School,” I improvised, having recently passed that school when visiting a family member.

“Our new clarinets typically cost in the $850 to $950 range,” he said. “But, the vast majority of our customers rent band instruments.” As with the other stores, Russo Music has a lease-to-own program: A clarinet can be rented for $28 per month. And, apart from the initial $100 deposit, all the payments will be credited toward the final instrument purchase.

“In either case, renting or buying, you’ll be getting a high-quality instrument that’ll hold up for you for a long, long time,” he said. “I usually have a few clarinets in stock at this store for people looking to rent or buy.”

The selection at the store included a Yamaha YCL-250Y Bb student clarinet ($896) and a Yamaha YCL-CSG silver-plated model ($2,456). Russo chiefly offers Yamaha clarinets, the salesman added, because they are durable and, if something does break, the parts are easy to obtain. Those factors have made them extremely popular among parents.

Music & Arts
100 US Hwy. 9, Ste. 2
Manalapan NJ 07726

My visit to the next store on my list—Guitar Center in Ocean NJ—was a nonstarter. Although some Guitar Centers carry some band instruments, that one does not. The salesperson directed me to the nearest outlet of its sister store, Music & Arts. It was 25 minutes away in Manalapan NJ.

To be sure, Manalapan is a bit far inland to be considered part of the Jersey Shore, but that’s where I was told to go, so I did. Fortunately, it was a quick drive, bringing me close to Bruce Springsteen’s hometown of Freehold NJ. Music & Arts is in a small, L-shaped strip mall on busy Rte. 9, next door to a baby furniture store.

Inside the store, a salesman showed me a variety of merchandise to meet my needs. The lowest-priced clarinet was an Etude student clarinet model ECL-100, selling for $249. Etude is the “house brand” at Music & Arts. Also at an affordable price point was the Prelude by Conn-Selmer CL711 Bb student clarinet. That instrument was going for $389. It touted a “warmer” tone to make it easier for beginners to achieve decent results.

Next up was the Buffet Crampon Premium Student standard Bb clarinet, selling for $599. And, two Amati models—the ACL 311-O student clarinet and the ACL-201 Bb student clarinet—were offered for $659 and $699, respectively. Should the student hanker for a better clarinet after a few years, a parent should expect to pay at least $1,200 for an intermediate-level instrument.

“You could save some money and get a used clarinet,” the salesperson said, “but the selection can be hit or miss, depending on the time of year.” The volume of trade-ins increases right after the school year ends and right before it begins again. I spotted one lightly used Yamaha YCL-255 standard Bb clarinet in the shop, selling for $678, which included its own case. That model retails for nearly $1,000 new.

“So, buying used is one option, but used instruments tend to be snapped up quickly,” the salesperson said. “In my opinion, for a beginner, it is way better to rent than to buy. If a child has a lot of difficulty or just doesn’t like playing an instrument, you don’t want to be stuck with it.”

Depending on the model, rentals at Music & Arts go for $165 or $185 for nine months. That amount can be applied to the cost of buying an instrument later, if the parent chooses to do so.

The Sale

Lots of folks hate big-box stores and chain retailers. I, however, am not one of them. Still, having grown up in a seaside city in Florida at a time when there was just one department store with an escalator, I do sometimes feel a bit lost when faced with a large selection of goods. Big-box stores are great if you’re looking for a bargain—a hugely marked-down television, for instance—but not so great for anything that requires expertise.

I, like most parents, perhaps, definitely fall in with the “small is beautiful” crowd when it comes to shopping for band instruments. Too many choices just slow down the decision-making process. Fortunately, Jersey Shore parents who seek to obtain expert advice won’t have difficulty. Four very good stores are right in Monmouth County, and all are of a manageable size. All four stores I visited provided attentive, polite service from people who seemed to possess musical smarts.

So, which store gets the prize? Music & Arts and the two stores in Red Bank seemed suitable choices for the budget conscious. (Remember: The assignment was to purchase a student clarinet.) Opting for a rental does keep the cost down, so kudos to all four stores for offering rental plans.

Buying a new clarinet at Russo Music, by contrast, might be a bit too steep for many parents. And Jack’s Music Shoppe had a rather small selection of used clarinets to peruse—and no new ones.

The remaining two stores, Monmouth Music and Music & Arts, offered entry-level models at nearly identical price points, making this mission almost a tie. Here, again, “small is beautiful” wins out. Monmouth Music is the old-fashioned, Main St. retail store that has become far too rare. From my point of view, the store simply tries harder, in both dispensing musical advice and trying to close the deal.

Upon entering Monmouth Music, I appreciated the almost-instantaneous attention I received. Granted, the store was not busy; however, I got the impression that’s just how the store operates. When it comes to customer service, they’re on it. Similarly, the store’s Owner and other sales expert both immediately made themselves available several days later, when I called back for a phone consultation.

Last, but certainly not least, I have never purchased a clarinet (or, for that matter, any band instrument). I was prepared to spend considerably more than the $249.95 price tag for the Hunter clarinet that the Monmouth Music salesperson held in such high esteem. Yet, he was able to intuit—via phone conversation—that I had a novice musician and was on a limited budget.

The salesman gave me a great solution, and one that was very gentle on my wallet. If I had been serious about buying a student clarinet, it would have been a difficult offer to refuse. That cements Monmouth Music as this month’s winner.

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