MI Spy has friends who even know little of my secret identity. Some of them are old pals of mine who have scant knowledge of my sleuthing in the music world, even if they have heard me sing along with the oldies radio stations. (And not half badly, either.) Sometimes, those friends invite MI Spy to come out and visit, especially when their kids are not around and there is a spare room for yours truly to konk out in.

Two friends, one who has known me since high school (but don’t ask us to sing our respective school songs, at your own risk), invited MI Spy to visit them in the fair, old and historic city of Providence, R.I. Yours truly had not been there in a long, long time. But I did have fond memories of a charming city, a mix of college campuses, monuments, nice architecture and, er, Red Sox Nation hoopla. So, I figured I could check out a city known for its colleges, and also check out a few of the local music shops in the city itself and the nearby suburbs.

I readied the MI Spy Mobile with beverages, healthy snacks, musical choices and a big, unwieldy map, and tucked away the various baseball caps that did not feature the BoSox insignia. Soon I was heading to the highway, Interstate 95, which was cool running until somewhere in the wilds of Connecticut. But overall, the car ride was pretty decent, and Rhode Island soon came into view.

I stopped in the Ocean State’s westernmost tourism center and spoke with a rep who, it turned out, was also an amateur guitarist. He had choice things to say about two music stores that I would soon visit, and I would say that he was accurate. (You shall fi nd out soon enough, pilgrims.) The amiable tourism rep also gave me a good map, and I was on my way.

Guitar Center Warwick
1245 Bald Hill Road
Warwick, RI 02886

In my many missions, I have learned that not all branches of major chain stores are the same. Sure, each location may have the same logo and other cosmetic touches, and they may share a website and employee shirts, but there can be noticeable differences between branches.

I have shopped in Guitar Center in Brooklyn and Long Island, N.Y., as well as a location in New Jersey and another in suburban Maryland. In the Brooklyn and Maryland stores, employees greeted me shortly after I strolled inside, and asked me what I was interested in. I had valuable discussions about guitars and accessories in both these stores. These visits were excellent experiences.

So, when I walked around the Warwick branch for more than 15 minutes and only one employee addressed me, and that was in passing (“How’re you doing?”), I was miffed to say the least. What am I, vegan chopped liver?

There were nine or 10 employees on the floor, two gals and the rest guys, and not one approached me when I first walked in. Not one asked me what instruments I was interested in, what level of expertise I had or if I was wearing my Glenn Danzig socks that day. (I wasn’t.) I walked every corner of that store, twice in fact, and slowly. I picked up various musical instruments (a ukulele, an acoustic guitar, a mandolin) and tried out a few percussion instruments. I nosed through a collection of sheet music and vinyl. And not one employee asked me if I needed assistance, or if I liked a certain item.

At one point, I thought an employee was finally speaking with me because I heard a terse “Hello?” in the acoustic guitar room; but it was just a customer barking into her cellphone. Talk about a communication breakdown.

Near the wall of electric guitars, I stopped to listen to a customer play “Misty” on a Fender. He was pretty good, and an employee did approach him and said, “You can play for as long as you want.”

I did overhear one employee at the front checkout, speaking in a chatty tone with a young boy and his mother. And when someone on the PA asked for a guitar tech to come to the back, one employee said to another, “Hey, do you know any guitar techs?” and they both cackled.

One time, I stood just a few feet away from an employee, while I looked over a Grateful Dead-themed uke, and the guy did not say a word to me. He neatened up a shelf of somethings and then walked away. When I stood and admired banjos and put up my arms toward them (and the banjos did not fall into my arms), not one employee said to me, “Hey, nice customer, would you like to try out a banjo?”

To its credit, the store is clean and well organized. Like the other Guitar Center stores I have visited, it is well stocked, and there are clearly marked sale items. There is ample parking in the strip mall within which it is situated. And yeah, the MI Spy isn’t new to this game; I know full well that I could have smiled my award-winning grin and asked for help. But it was not that busy; someone could have spoken to me.

Ross Music Sales & Service
1800 Post Road
Warwick, RI 02886

A short and not difficult drive from Guitar Center Warwick, I found myself at another sprawl mall and located Ross Music. Actually, I found out about Ross (and Guitar Center) from the Rhode Island tourism rep/guitar slinger. Ross is not far from the local airport and is surrounded by other major chains, as well as a pizzeria. But I was not yet hungry for a snack, but rather, for knowledgeable music salesman or woman.

As soon as I strode into Ross Music, I noted the fliers for local music venues and performers hanging on the wall by the entrance.

Within two minutes of going in, the fellow behind the counter asked me if I was interested in the drum sets I was eyeing. I confessed to him that I just thought they were kind of cute (little kid-sized sets) and I really wanted to look into guitar effects pedals. He then spoke at length with me about various pedals, such as the wah wahs. He showed me several different types of pedals and a few different brands.

He made a point of showing me pedals available for sale at various prices, including one less expensive brand with which I was unfamiliar. “Look, I have to stock less expensive ones for the teens who come in and don’t have a lot of money. I want to make music fun again,” he said, and I understood.

As we chatted, I learned that the store opened in 1960. He also offered his opinions on the Vox brand of equipment.

This indie store was of a good size and had a wide variety of new and used guitars and basses, brass and woodwinds, drum sets and percussion, sheet music and accessories, as well as venue equipment. It also gives lessons, and a man walked in for his weekly lesson as I headed out.

Overall, the vibe here was friendly and professional, and it seems to cater to people of various abilities, interests and ages. And that’s the way any musical instrument shop, especially an independent, should be run.

Empire Guitars
1271 N. Main St., Rear Entrance
Providence, RI 02904

The MI Spy has decided that Empire Guitars gets a special award for funkiest entrance in Old Rhody. It also gets an award for Store Most Like a Funky Museum. And these are both tips of the hat.

Empire’s entrance is a riot of color, too. Painted on the front wall are grinning fishies, hearts and guitars, and two sequences that read “E A D G B E.” Musical literacy rules! Seriously, that is a darn good idea. And the store provides three parking spots in front.

Inside the store, I was very, very impressed by how many different guitar effects pedals it stocked. Frankly, I do not think I’d ever seen so many big-name brands, as well as little-known and custom-made products. They seemed to be everywhere, neatly displayed in counters, on the floor and on shelves. The store also stocks a good variety of electric and acoustic guitars, new and used, as well as basses and other stringed instruments, amps and other equipment.

It also displayed a few unusual stringed instruments, such as narrow two-neck one stringer and a sitar.

There were two employees. One was chatting with another customer who wanted to sell him used equipment, and then to the next man who strolled in, he announced, “You’re the guy from Google! How are you?”

This employee spoke with me about the plethora of pedals, and said, “Some people want to set up lots of effects on their boards, so they like these tiny space-saver ones.” I’m telling you, some were near miniscule, but he knew about them all, it seemed.

Then I spoke with the other employee about the sitar, and he was extremely knowledgeable, but in a relatable way. “Look at these sympathetic strings, and how the sitar is laid out,” he said, explaining all the parts. “It gets a lot of looks! It was made sometime in the 1980s.” If the MI Spy budget had a wee bit more room for some spare cash, I would have been very tempted.

Empire Guitars is not huge, but it is a sizable store, with a lot packed inside. It’s on a side street though, so customers have to look for it carefully. But I may not have ever seen so many effects in one store; this was amazing to see.

Luca Music
1530 Mineral Spring Ave.
Providence, RI 02904

Luca Music immediately made me think of the song lyric, “My name is Luca. I live on the second floor,” Suzanne Vega’s classic song. Funny enough, Luca Music is on the second floor of this building.

It is a big corner building and takes up a lengthy floor. It has a lived-in feel to it. There were salespeople and teachers and a cashier, all conversing with customers and students.

I spoke at length with a salesman about effects pedals and some of the more esoteric instruments stocked in the store. When I asked him about wah wah pedals, he said, with amusement, “Just yesterday I was talking to one of the instructors about Cry Babies.” We went to look at what he had in stock.

When I mentioned that two of my old guitar pedals from a particular brand had rusted out, he said not to blame that manufacturer, because he had some of those many years earlier, and when his house had been flooded, he dried out the pedals and they still worked. This kind of conversation I do appreciate, because it shows that the salesperson really does use the equipment.

I asked about the curious stringed musical instruments such as the lutes, the odd-looking banjo-like things and some others. “When (a Boston store) went out of business, we bought their inventory.” He explained that the banjo-like instrument was actually a Turkish specialty. The store also stocked a few sitars.

On the other side of the sales floor, Luca Music stocked many pianos including a slick white model, as well as keyboards, drum sets and other instruments. It also has a few side rooms where music lessons take place.

The store was well kept — although perhaps a bit more staid than Empire Guitars — with a much less trendy feel, which I couldn’t quite explain. But overall, it is a very good store for not only the neighborhood, but also as a destination.

The Sale

I’ve often had fantastic experiences at Guitar Center. So, I definitely feel my visit was the exception, not the rule. I look forward to my next visit to a GC.

Among the other three stores I visited, I was truly pleased and impressed with the inventory and the service at each. All three are indie stores that are really into their mission, and that showed. The people working at all three have been involved in the music store business for quite some time, and their expertise was obvious, as was their care.

For sheer guitar-nerd heaven, Empire Guitars is one excellent treat, and our winner this month, although only by a slight margin. The amount of effects pedals was dazzling. If you want obscure or if you want mainstream, this place really does seem to have it all.

If you want a wider variety of musical instruments, either Ross Music or Luca Music would be a very good choice. Luca did have more pianos, so if that is your interest, head there.

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