Your MI Spy was on a beach in an undisclosed location, enjoying the shade of an umbrella and a glass of my signature adult beverage (shaded by its own little umbrella), when the call came in. “We need you back in Chicago,” was the assignment. Yes, I had been there and done that. But, as the Chief explained, there is still so much more to the vibrant music scene of Chicago than what I’ve sleuthed out so far.

When the Chief is right, he’s right. Chicago is a city of neighborhoods that sprawls into an even broader community of history, heritage and persistent passion for making music. The Chicagoland area has been home to many of music’s premiere creators and performers. It’s where they cut their teeth, polished their chops and introduced the world to a steady stream of uniquely inventive sounds and styles. From the distinctive forms of early blues music that greatly influenced the development of rock and roll, to jazz, R&B, gospel, soul, and house music, this diverse and fertile metro region has been a major center for music-making for nearly 100 years. Thousands are employed in live performance, recording arts, music education, trade retail and related services throughout the greater Chicagoland area.

From the theater orchestra pits and commercial jingle houses, to its television and film scoring studios, to the hopping club scene and healthy festival and live-music market, the region’s robust music industry thrives on a steady stream of polished performers of every flavor. And the instruments, services and lessons they need are bread-and-butter business for the many music stores that serve the metro area. Clearly, I could conduct a dozen missions in Chicago and still only scratch the surface of its music scene.

So, I packed a few of my MI Spy disguises and blew my broad shoulders back to the Windy City. But, upon arriving at my Chicago safehouse, my MI Spy sense started tingling. Something seemed … off. The single strand of hair I had placed across the keyhole to the safehouse door had been displaced. Bizarrely, I also detected the distinct scent of lemon in the hallway. My gut told me some rival spy — perhaps an especially lemony-fresh-smelling one — had been tracking me on my last trip to Chicago in an attempt to expose my secret shopping, and now the safehouse had been compromised. Then I noticed a clue peeking out from under the doormat: Someone had left behind a calling card. It was blank except for a stylized drawing of an eye.

Call me paranoid, but as I held that card and looked at the strange eye drawn on it, I felt like I was being watched. Alarming stuff to be sure, but I would not let it distract me from the purpose of my trip. So I abandoned the safehouse for the time being, retrieved my MI Spy mobile from the garage and changed into my disguise in the back seat.

My mission: Conduct recon of select music stores, of both the national chain and local variety, to determine their breadth of selection, depth of product knowledge and expertise, pricing and value, and level of customer service.

My cover story: I am a guitar teacher who often strums along with my six-string students on my 12-string. Enough students and their parents have asked for suggestions on 12-string guitars that I decided to scope out some brands, models, prices and neighborhood dealers to best inform my recommendations. Although this cover story would require stating upfront that I wouldn’t be buying anything today, I thought it would be an especially effective way to appraise each store’s commitment to customer service. (Yes, this is an especially sneaky approach, but what do you expect from a covert agent!?) Would they recognize or care about the opportunity to best serve and cultivate an influencer of their customer base? How enthused might they be about helping, however indirectly, to nurture the students in their community? Spoiler alert: The results were mixed and a little surprising. Read on.

Sam Ash Music
1305 W. Dundee Road
Buffalo Grove, IL 60089

This national chain has two stores in Chicagoland. On this mission, I trekked to the one serving the northwestern suburbs. Situated in a strip mall on a major high-traffic road, this store is a well-located and a good-sized outlet with a broad selection across instrument and equipment categories. It offers lessons ranging from voice, guitar, bass and drums to select brass, reed and stringed orchestral instruments, and the curriculum even includes some pro-audio and DJ lessons. The store also provides instrument rental, maintenance and repair services.

I got a “hello” to welcome me right when I stepped in the door, but it came with no questions about my interest or offers to help or direct me. Though there were a handful of other customers about, the store didn’t feel exceptionally crowded or busy during my visit. After a quick self-guided orientation cruise around the sales floor, I made my own way back to the enclosed acoustic guitar room, separated from the rest of the shop for climate and humidity control.

The room is among the largest your MI Spy has seen in a music store, with instruments hung three to four high along most of the four walls, and several floor-standing racks with another half dozen or more instruments on each. The instruments on the floor stands, and those hung lower on the first couple rows on the walls, are easily accessible to customers. Any of the guitars hung higher on the walls would require staff assistance to bring down for a hands-on experience. There was one staffer in the room when I arrived who was engaged with another customer who appeared ready to buy.

Impressed with the quantity, I turned my attention to the variety and quality of the store’s offering, as well as its upkeep and the ease of arrangement for the customer. I started to scope out where to find the 12-strings, and was greeted within a few moments by the staffer who was helping the other customer. He was very friendly, introducing himself as the manager of that department, and offering his assistance. Once I explained the purpose of my visit, he pointed out several guitars in a lower price range, which was totally appropriate, and mentioned a coupon discount on one of the brands that was available on this day only. He then excused himself to take his other customer out front to finalize their purchase.

I then spent nearly an hour on my own touching up the tuning and playing a half dozen of the 12-string brands offered. They ranged in price from a $269 Epiphone D212 to an $899 Taylor 150E, with most of the selection in the $400 to $600 neighborhood, including Ibanez, Takamine and Breedlove models. The $400 Ibanez was a three-quarters size, a thoughtful offering well-suited for my imaginary kid-sized students. All but the entry-level Epiphone included onboard electronics. It was also interesting to find a Michael Kelly-brand Triad 10E model 10-string guitar priced at $380, both a unique instrument and an uncommon retail store offering. Most of the guitar tags showed prices discounted in a range from 25 percent to 41 percent.

Many of the guitars I played were in relatively good tune, though all needed at least a little exercise. A couple of them had apparently called the store home for quite a while, and were equipped with rough, scaly strings screeching for retirement. There was also one that couldn’t really be played because the price tag was attached in a way that it ran through the strings. I have to imagine that it would be at least a full-time job for a single tech to routinely cycle through this amount of stock to keep it in tip-top sampling shape.

During my reconnaissance, four other customers cruised the room, choosing and playing at least one or two guitars from the large selection. No staff appeared to serve their interest or invite a purchase, and all went on their way. I chatted easily with one fellow, his wife and their pre-school son. This potential customer expertly strummed a couple of guitars, while his son declared that he was going to be a guitar hero just like his dad. It was heartwarming to see how the spirit of music-making lives on. And what a great (missed) opportunity for a sharp merchandiser to grease the skids for the starter instruments and music lessons the kid would surely need.

With the exception of a different staff member cutting through the room on his way to the “back of house” and cheerfully offering me a clip-on tuner as he passed, no other customer attention was paid in the room until nearly an hour after I’d first arrived. Finally, the department manager I’d first spoke with also passed through the room on his way to get something for another customer out front and asked if I had any questions. I told him that I did, and he said he’d be right back after retrieving what he needed for his other customer. I waited another 10 minutes.

When he finally reappeared, I noted to him that all but one of the models I was looking at came with built-in electronics and wondered aloud about any quality differences. His response suggested that there’s no difference, though he mentioned that Taylor has branded its ES2 system (Expression System 2) and he noted that it was “just a fancy way of saying” that their acoustic guitars also came with pickups and EQ.

In overall defense of the staff’s inattention, the store traffic did build a bit during my stay, and the crew felt thin. Their priority was serving customers at the cash register. I clearly wasn’t buying anything today, although what attention I did get was quite friendly and earnest and seemed mostly informed. However, I saw several potential sales opportunities walk in and out. And although the family I chatted with left without any attention from the staff that I saw, I didn’t doubt one bit that the child would surely someday become a guitar hero!

I left the store and headed back to my MI Spy mobile, but quickly stopped in my tracks as I noticed a small white rectangle tucked under the windshield wiper. It was another calling card with the same creepy eye on it! I had been followed! And insultingly enough, my pursuers were clearly taunting me by leaving these cards for me to find. But the mission must go on. And since I couldn’t risk the possibility that the MI Spy mobile had been bugged, I decided to catch a bus (technically, two buses) to my next destination.

Guitar Center
2375 S. Arlington Heights Rd
Arlington Heights, IL 60005

Only seven miles south from the Sam Ash store, Guitar Center’s Arlington Heights location also serves Chicago’s northwest suburban area. There are 13 Guitar Center stores in the entire state of Illinois, 10 of which are in the Chicagoland region. In addition to new, used and vintage instruments, this particular shop offers a broad range of maintenance and repair services, and a long list of the voice and instrument lessons you would expect, plus lessons in music production and songwriting.

This standalone store is located at the intersection of an always-busy major expressway and a primary arterial road. It is a good-sized store laid out in distinct sections. When I entered, I saw only a single staffer far back in the central section busy with something that precluded their noticing me. My brief walk around to scope the layout revealed two additional staffers in other sections who were equally preoccupied. While I wasn’t trying to either attract or avoid attention, I’m not sure that anyone even noticed that I was there. Clearly my MI Spy training has paid off.

I made my way into the store’s enclosed acoustic guitar room to check out my target merchandise. It was a good-sized and well-appointed room with wood walls that was warmly lit, and it had dozens of fine instruments hung two-high along the walls along with a row of floor stands. I was especially impressed with the 12-string selection: An even dozen guitars (how appropriate!) were displayed in a clearly marked section just inside the door, hung right at “grab me” level and lined up in order of price. The selection ranged from an entry-level Mitchell marked down $100 to $249, to a Taylor 250CE at $1,599.

I spent the next hour (uninterrupted) playing 11 of the 12 guitars — all but the marked-down Mitchell. Six of the 12 hit right at the $300, $400 and $500 price points, including Ibanez, Takamine, D’Angelico and Guild models. Special mention goes to the $399 Ibanez Artwood threequarters solid top, perfectly sized for the younger student. Though it lacked onboard electronics, it had a good tone for the size and price point, and that nice relief-bevel feature where your strumming arm crooks around the guitar body. The $499 Guild F-2512E Jumbo also deserves a shout out for being quite impressive in action and tone at this price.

All in all, I thought this shop offered a full and solid selection, targeted primarily to entry- to mid-level customers. The guitars were well displayed and in generally good tune and string condition. The store is also quite market competitive on pricing. GC even offered the same Taylor 150E I saw at Sam Ash at the same $899 price, but the deal here also included a case or gig bag.

Two other customers came and went through the room during my hourlong recon, also receiving no obvious attention from staff. I finally went looking for help with my questions and happened upon a friendly and responsive fellow who followed me back into the room. I explained my interest in 12-strings, and asked questions to get a sense of what he’d recommend to students and their parents about considerations like cutaway versus full-body tone, three-quarter-sized options, electronics, string weight and setup cost. He checked with a store guitar technician to confirm the store’s $65 setup cost for 12-strings, although it was unclear whether this price included the cost of strings.

I left Guitar Center eager to continue my mission, but as I stepped through the front doors, I was confronted with a white van with an image of an eye painted on its side was parked right in the parking lot! Panicking, I leapt behind some nearby shrubbery and took a moment to assess the situation. Fortunately, there appeared to be no one inside the van, and no suspicious characters were wandering the parking lot. I had evaded my pursuers for now, but whoever was behind the eye was obviously tracking my every move. I would have to put the mission on hold for the time being. So I stealth-crawled out from the bushes, ducked and rolled my way behind some parked cars, and hopped a bus back in the direction of the safehouse.

My hunt for 12-string guitars would have to wait. But don’t fret! Your MI Spy will be back with the conclusion of this report in the March issue.


Editor’s note: The end of this story regarding the white van is meant for comedic purposes and did not actually happen at the Illinois Guitar Center location.

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

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