How not to sell me a guitar

Since I have no good guitar store near me on the Peninsula (no, B Street does not count), going to Guitar Center is always something of a treat. I was visiting friends in the East Bay on Saturday, and those friends live very close to a Guitar Center. So after seeing them, I found that GC was staying open late for a “midnight madness” event and I checked it out.

Mostly, I was looking for a case for a hard-to-fit guitar (they were very accomodating and tried three different models to no avail — it’s not their fault, it’s the guitar). I was also there to window shop and look to see if there was anything I would kick myself for passing on. Some floor models (including one stompbox I probably should have snagged), some accessories deals…a good sale, really.

I am starting to think about selling my existing 12-string and getting a new one. This 1974 Epiphone Bard been in my family for several years and has some battle damage but still sounds lovely. Unfortunately it doesn’t match me — I have small hands, it has a huge 70s neck…hard to overcome that physical limitation. The instrument should match the player, and I don’t believe in owning guitars I won’t play. I haven’t played it in a year. I do love Taylors, so that’s my obvious replacement…but they’re spendy and I haven’t fallen in love with one yet. So, I’m browsing and thinking and collecting information on both Taylor acoustics and the 12-string T5. And maybe I’ll ultimately find something awesome by another manufacturer and go with that. I’m open.

Dude working the acoustic room at Guitar Center greeted me warmly, then got caught up with other customers. I looked around and tried a few things for about 10 minutes, then made my way back to the electrics. He came out after me, apologizing for ignoring me (he didn’t, I was just browsing), and asked if there was anything I needed. Well, I was looking for a Taylor 12-string, I said. He then informed me that he had a great Martin 12-string for me to try and that he played on Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.”

This would make him Chris Weber, which could be entirely true — there are tons of excellent guitarists in the Bay Area with professional experience — but it’s also entirely irrelevant. I see this as the first sign of a bad salesman: When he wants you to know how cool he is. I immediately asked him what the hell he was doing in Guitar Center in Concord, but followed him back to the acoustics anyway. He went to the guitar — a D12X1 — took it off the wall, and played it for me in the little fancy room where the pricey acoustics live. He then showed off his mad fingerpicking skills…for longer than I expected.

This is the second sign of a bad salesman. I don’t care how it sounds and feels in your hands; I care how it sounds and feels in mine. If you want me to buy it, let me try it.

I patiently wait for him to stop, then pick up the guitar myself. I am not really in the Martin camp; I respect the brand and I’ve tried a few (I considered buying a friend’s D-28 a few years back), but I haven’t played one that made me go “oh my god this is mine” yet, the way most of my guitars have spoken to me. And 12-strings are always more expensive because of the engineering that goes into them; that’s a lot of tension on a little wood, and of course it still has to sound good. It’s tough.

I’m thinking I’m looking at around $2K for my budget, selling my existing one as vintage (since it is) and saving for the rest. The price tag on this model: $600. It’s a Mexican import, which isn’t inherently a problem, but isn’t an heirloom, and that’s what I’m shopping for.

Kat instantly knows this is not my next guitar. “There’s no way that’s real wood,” she says. “Oh, it’s real wood!” assures the salesman. “That’s solid spruce on the top, and that’s the most important part to have, because all the tone comes from this area back here, behind the bridge.” That’s true. I know this; Kat knows this. Anybody who knows anything about guitars and shops for four-figure-price-tag instruments knows how the physics and resonance of an acoustic guitar works. Even the entry-level acoustics have solid spruce tops for this reason. It’s only worthy of note if they don’t.

But Kat is not to be fooled; even she knows high-pressure laminate when she sees it. “Yeah, but the rest is laminate.” “Uh…yes,” he admits. “The rest is laminate but it sounds great. And you know, it’s Martin; they’re not going to put their name on something that isn’t good.” Martin describes the back and sides as “Mahogany Pattern HPL Textured Finish,” which is to say the wood grain on this guitar is basically a big laser-printed texture. I notice that the bottom strap button is missing, but I keep my mouth shut.

I also notice that the neck is too wide for my tastes. This is entirely a personal ergonomic judgement; it might be built wonderfully, but if it doesn’t feel right in your hands, a lot of guitarists simply say “Sorry, no.” I play short-scale guitars and thin necks, because my hands are small. I avoid 70s Fenders and 50s Gibsons and Hamers and things like that just because of the neck shapes; I go for modern Fender C-shapes and Taylor’s neck profiles generally feel very good to me. I know pretty much as soon as I hold the neck if a guitar will work for me or not. I tell the salesman that it does sound nice but I don’t like the neck because my hands are too small. (Not that I’m not even blaming the instrument; I’m blaming Darwin.)

He sniffs and mumbles something. I couldn’t hear him, so I ask him to repeat. “That’s a cop-out,” he says louder.

This is the third sign of a bad salesman: The customer may not technically always be right, but the customer is absofuckinglutely right when it comes to their own physiology. It’s great that you played with Dylan, douchebag; my experience to counterbalance that is 38 years of owning the same two hands. Am I supposed to take that as some sort of challenge and buy the guitar to prove you wrong? I know what feels comfortable to me, and your insults will not change that. In this context, “that’s a cop-out” is possibly the stupidest thing a guitar salesman has ever said to me.

I guess I’ve been lucky; he’s the first jackass I’ve found in a guitar store in a while, and he was actually my first bad sales experience in that particular Guitar Center. I have bought guitars and gear there before; I like shopping there instead of the closer San Francisco location because Concord is generally not staffed by guys like him. If I spot him next time, I’m avoiding him.

Note to guitar shops: Don’t fuck with me. You’re only fucking your commission.

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