Ohio has long been considered one of the most “all-American” U.S. states, and within it, Cleveland is perhaps the quintessential big American city. And during the early ‘50s, Cleveland became the birthplace of the most American of music styles: rock and roll.

Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed first popularized this new type of music that synthesized elements of blues, country, jazz and R&B, and he is widely credited with giving rock and roll its name. Although Freed left Cleveland for New York City in 1954, Cleveland continued to dominate the rock-music scene for decades to come, through the music of such diverse bands as the James Gang, Raspberries, Pere Ubu and Nine Inch Nails, among others. Folk/blues singer Tracy Chapman is a native Clevelander, while Chrissy Hynde, lead singer of The Pretenders, hails from nearby Akron. Hynde even immortalized postindustrial Ohio in the ‘80s lament “My City Was Gone,” a testament to the power of rock music to speak to all aspects of the American spirit.

In 1995, Downtown Cleveland celebrated the grand opening of the I.M. Pei-designed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the Lake Erie shoreline. It has become one of the city’s most popular destinations and is credited in part with a sparking the rebirth of downtown Cleveland. It also helped rehabilitate the city’s image, which suffered mightily when the Cuyahoga River caught fire during the summer of 1969. That event was instrumental in the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and resulted in a nationwide cleanup of America’s rivers and lakes, with Ohio leading the way.

As it happens, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame also brought your MI Spy to town. The city’s status as a rock-and-roll mecca made Cleveland a fitting place to shop for a musical instrument and to gather some intel on the local music retail scene. Obviously, The Chief had no issues with your MI Spy visiting Cleveland, considering its musical roots, and I was happy to plan a mission there during the waning days of summertime.

This time around, your MI Spy sought a low- to mid-range acoustic guitar for my fictitious sister, who is celebrating her 50th birthday. At each store, I wove a story of a guitar-playing woman who had put aside music for career and family, who wanted for little in her now empty nest and who would find a guitar to be a delightful surprise. In case anyone noticed my out-of-state license plates, I devised an ingenious cover story about not wanting to haul my purchase westward on a plane trip back for the celebration. We all know how miserable air travel with instruments can be, after all.

For this mission, your MI Spy and his companion set up a safehouse in lakeside Willoughby, in Cleveland’s eastern ‘burbs. Because of that, most stores featured here are located in the city’s eastern suburbs. Nonetheless, shoppers can find a wide range of music stores throughout Metro Cleveland.

Music Emporium
670 East 185th St.
Cleveland, OH 44119

First up was this spacious store on Cleveland’s far eastern end. It’s in a neighborhood called North Collinwood, which has enjoyed a renaissance as a housing destination for artists and musicians. Music Emporium has occupied the same spacious location at the corner of Windward Road since 1984, and before that, it occupied a storefront further down 185th street. Next door is an eyelash salon and further down the block, a used furniture store. Lake Erie is two blocks north.

When I entered the store, a CD playing “Los Cubanos” was playing in the background — quite appropriate, considering this assignment. A person who turned out to be the store’s owner quickly wrapped up a phone call and greeted me. The store does a brisk business in both new and used guitars, he noted. The guitars he suggested proved quite affordable. For starters, he held up a used Fender DG-8 dreadnought guitar as an especially good buy. It would cost $125. He pointed out a small blemish on the front that would not, he said, affect its musical prowess.

“It sounds great, plays great and it’s easy to play,” he said. One drawback to growing old, he noted, is that arthritis and other forms of hand stiffness can make playing a guitar progressively difficult. That wouldn’t be a problem with the DG-8, he said.

Moving up slightly in price was the Kona K2 acoustic-electric guitar. It comes with a pickup to plug into an amp. “From what you’ve told me about your sister, I don’t think she would be using that feature,” he said. “But it’s there if she wants it. Also, getting an amp to go with it might be a good thing if younger relatives want to play.”

All instruments sold here come with a one-year warranty. “Our used instruments have the same guarantee as new ones,” the owner pointed out, “and everything we carry has been completely tuned and road tested.”

The store earns widespread praise through Google and Yelp. “Run by musicians for musicians, and tons of new and used gear,” wrote one reviewer identified only as “J.” (Perhaps a fellow secret agent!?) With such a satisfied customer base, Music Emporium seems to be enjoying some success. In fact, a second, smaller Music Emporium location in South Collinwood, a neighborhood aptly located on the other side of Interstate 90 from North Collinwood, is in the works.

Academy Music Co.
1443 Warrensville Center Rd.
Cleveland, OH 44121

Situated just over the city line in the inner suburb of Cleveland Heights, Academy Music has been in the music business since 1958. It has been at its current location since 1968; a second store is located about 15 miles away in the small town of Solon, Ohio.

The store is heavily oriented toward students and is equal parts an instrument store and a music school. Stroll in — as MI Spy did — on any given Saturday, and you’ll be apt to overhear the melodic sounds of a violin, cello or saxophone lesson.

Upon hearing of my quest, the salesperson offered the Alvarez RD-263 acoustic guitar. It is part of the Alvarez Regent series of guitars. This particular model is especially popular among adults who play the guitar as a hobby, he said.

“With the RD-263, you’re getting a very good guitar without breaking the bank,” he said. The package retails for $199 and includes a gig bag, strings, picks and an electronic tuner. This instrument features a wooden neck, back and sides, with a laminated body. The Regent line includes both lower-end beginner models, as well as professional models priced in the thousands.

Academy Music is a destination of choice for student musicians and is within a quick drive of such affluent suburbs as Shaker Heights, Beachwood and Chagrin Falls. “While we do sell a few used models as well, they tend to be higher-end instruments that are trade-ins,” he said.

Academy Music also wins rave reviews online, with most reviewers giving it excellent marks for quick service, musical acumen and fair prices. “The instructors are true professionals,” wrote one reviewer, “playing gigs during the week and then sharing their knowledge on weekends.”

Makin’ Music
5795 Ridge Road
Parma, Ohio 44129

Makin’ Music occupies a corner store in Downtown Parma, Ohio, about 10 miles south of downtown Cleveland. Downtown Parma is rather quaint. This area is known to locals as “Parma’s Polish Village,” and across the street is a diner specializing in homemade pierogies. Makin’ Music, which opened in 1995, is the youngest of the four music stores I visited on this mission. Almost immediately after I entered the store, a salesman offered his recommendation: a Cort 8110 OP. With a sticker price of $199, the guitar provides excellent value in a model that’s a “cut above” beginners’ models, he explained. All instruments come with a 30-day “no-questions-asked” return policy, he added.

Nearby was an eye-catching used guitar, a Carlo Robelli F-414CE with a striking red finish. This model is both thinner and lighter than most, and as such, might be easier for a smaller woman to handle, he said. On this particular Saturday, the guitar could be had for $179. “This would be the guitar for you if you want to get your sister something a bit different,” said the salesman. “A new model would cost at least double that price, and it’s in excellent condition.”

Should I want to move up a bit in price, the salesman suggested two Luna models: the Luna SW140 and Luna Gypsy 42310. Both are in the $300 range. “These would be great choices as well,” he said.

Sam Ash
5700 Mayfield Road
Lyndhurst, Ohio 44124

On the way back to the hotel, I paid a visit to Sam Ash in suburban Lyndhurst. This is the only Cleveland location of this venerable musical-instrument chain, which celebrates 95 years in business this year. The Lyndhurst store is toward the rear of a shopping center on busy Mayfield Road, straddling the line with more well-known Mayfield Heights. Mayfield was, for all you TV trivia fanatics out there, where the Cleaver family lived in “Leave It to Beaver.” Sam Ash is nestled next to a kids’ furniture store, a shoe store and a bagel shop. I inadvertently passed the store when looking for it initially; after making a U-turn in an adjacent strip mall, your MI Spy was back in business.

The store was large and well appointed, and the guitar section was easy to find. This being a weekend, a guest guitarist provided soft background music for shoppers.

Upon learning of my plan, the salesman directed me to four midrange Taylor guitars: the Taylor 110 and 210 dreadnought guitars, and the Taylor 114 and 214 Grand Auditorium models. The Grand Auditorium models are slightly smaller in size and lighter in weight than dreadnought models. For a female guitarist, that might make such a model easier to lug around, especially if she is petite. “Any of the Taylors will provide you with fantastic music quality and playability,” the salesman said. The models range in price from $799 to $899.

Asked about lower-priced models, the salesman suggested the Epiphone Masterbuilt DR400MCE, which retails for $399. This dreadnought model, he noted, offers excellent tonal qualities but might not be as easily portable as the aforementioned auditorium models.

“Any of these five models will give you superb sound and excellent durability,” he added, which should be important considerations for the experienced guitar player.

The Verdict

When conducting these mystery shopping assignments, your MI Spy often finds it difficult to choose a hands-down winner. This assignment was no exception. All four stores offer an excellent selection of instruments, and all of their employees were knowledgeable, responsive and polite in terms of service.

Of the four, I found the owner of Music Emporium to be the most personable. Indeed, I could have spent hours chatting with the owner. There was just one other customer in the store when I was there, and that individual spent his entire time perusing sheet music. The experience was pleasant, and I could see the store having a large, loyal following.

Sam Ash benefits from being part of a large chain, with stores stretching from New England to Florida to California. All products discussed here are featured on the company’s website, and you can research the inventory of any individual Sam Ash retail location. That’s an especially useful feature, and Sam Ash was the sole retailer among the four with a robust web presence.

As its name might imply, Academy Music has a strong educational bent. Physically, it was the smallest of the four stores visited, but it does a brisk business with area students and parents. It’s well established, and the owner pays personal attention to all customers.

However, even with four strong contenders, one store has to get the prize, and that store is Makin’ Music. At 24 years old, this retailer is hardly an upstart, but its enthusiastic staff members have the dedication and energy of a brand-new enterprise. I especially appreciated having someone show me a range of instruments. Your MI Spy often finds himself seeking the guidance of people more knowledgeable than him, and the Makin’ Music salesman was happy to provide it, without attempting to “oversell.” The two instruments initially discussed were lower in price than I had anticipated. This was the case at the Music Emporium, as well. In fact, it was almost a tossup between those two stores for me, but those additional, slightly more expensive suggestions made by the salesman at Makin’ Music gave this store a slight edge. Choice is always a good thing when making a purchase, especially when a retailer offers rationales for a range of different offerings.

One footnote: A well-established, locally owned music store, Joe’s Music, was near my hotel in Willoughby. From its website, it appears well worth a visit. Alas, your MI Spy visited on a weekend, and the store is closed Saturday and Sunday.

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