Stayin' Alive - The Independent Music Store in the 21st Century
As you might surmise from the title of this article, staying in business has become more of a challenge for the independent music store as the large chains, department stores and warehouse retailers make their presence felt in the music merchandise marketplace. Other changes have come into play as well, and the end result is that the so-called "mom & pop" music store is finding it harder and harder to keep the doors open. We here at Fretz Music Center are just such an independent store, founded by Mr. Roland Fretz in the mid 1950s and existing in the same location now for some 50 years. Little in the landscape of music merchandising today is as it was when Mr. Fretz started out, yet we have managed to overcome many challenges with a proven formula - go to work every day and treat each customer honestly and fairly.
This is true, of course, for any area of retail commerce. A customer who has experienced the personal service a small store can provide, who feels that they have been treated honestly, will not only return to buy again but also will recommend the store to others. Word of mouth advertising is free, of course, and more effective than any other type. For us, establishing and maintaining such a reputation has resulted in a steady flow of new and repeat customers over the years. Customer loyalty of this kind is what sustains a store like ours through good economic times and bad.
Let me give an example. People who buy from us have learned that we don't display a guitar unless it has been set up properly. Many guitar retailers don't do this. They sell it "right out of the box" and say things like "it was set up at the factory" or "we'll gladly set that up for you for a $60.00 fee". As a result, the customer may end up coming back to the seller with buzzing strings, high action and/or bad intonation and being charged extra to have these conditions corrected. If the purchase was made from a store with no repair facilities or over the internet, they will likely be seeking out a store like ours to do the work. So in the end, the customer loses the small amount they may have saved on the initial purchase. The fact is that with MAP (Minimum Advertised Price) policies imposed by most manufacturers on their dealers, our in-store prices are at least as good or better than any internet mega-dealer. Again, we set the guitar up before the sale the way we, being players ourselves, know it should be. If you have a particular style that requires a non-standard set-up (e.g., drop tunings, etc.), we'll set it up to suit you at no extra charge.
We also realize that even a properly set up guitar will react to the different temperature and humidity conditions outside the controlled environment of our store. So we offer a free first string change with every guitar purchased here, at which time we make any adjustments made necessary by the instrument adjusting to its new surroundings. And we do it at no additional cost to you. This is an example of nothing more or less than good old-fashioned customer service - something that grows more scarce in the present day business world, and which the independent store can and must provide in order to remain competitive.
The independent music store can't be all things to all people. Because of manufacturer buy-in requirements, we can't carry every brand. But we do offer our customers top name, quality professional instruments like Martin Guitars, as well as more affordable products such as HamerXT and the products of the Godin Guitar Company of Canada (Godin electric, Seagull acoustic, LaPatrie classical, etc.). Being players ourselves, we choose to only sell products like these that are the best quality we can find in a given price range.
Although instruments are a large part of what we do, we also carry a huge selection of print music. We realize that popular, rock & blues isn't all there is - there remains the classical repertoire, educational methods, Broadway, movies, jazz, folk & traditional, etc., and the sale of print music from these genres also helps our store survive. That's why we stock the best sellers from all the major publishers, and can order virtually any piece of music currently in print. Fortunately, interest in great music from Beethoven to Duke Ellington to Andrew Lloyd Webber has stood the test of time, and will no doubt continue to do so.
Print music is of no use to someone who doesn't read music, and so music instruction represents another significant segment of our business. We offer private lessons on guitar, bass guitar, mandolin, drums, piano, clarinet, sax, flute and trumpet, all by quality instructors who bring years of teaching and performing experience to the table. We say, "Be a real guitar hero and form your own rock band!". For those would like to learn to play but can't afford to purchase an instrument, we offer rental and rent-to-own instruments. We have just started handling band and orchestra instruments through our affiliation with VIR (Veritas Instrument Rental). Again, we handle only top name instruments like Selmer, Bach, Holton, Conn and Wm. Lewis & Son.
Beyond this, there is the feeling you get when you see the excited smile on the face of a 8-year old child who has just been handed his or her first recorder by Mom or Dad. Just such a thing happened here recently in the middle of a slow day, and it reminded us of why we put forth the effort to remain who and what we are. We may not be posting the kind of numbers of which our larger competitors can boast. But after 50 years, we're still in operation thanks to buyers who value the kind of service we offer. And the satisfaction we get from the more direct and personal interaction with our customers isn't something that can be measured by the bottom line.
Your Child's First Guitar - What To Do?
Fortunately for our business, there appears to be a steady flow of young people who become interested in guitar music and think they'd like to learn to play one. Many is the parent who comes into our store looking for a starter guitar for a child, from whom we hear "I don't know a thing about this". One of the things we take pride in at Fretz Music Center is educating buyers like this with honest, useful information. This helps the parent feel they've made a wise investment, and helps build trust and repeat business for us, which is how we've remained in business these 50 years. Let me give a few guidelines to the parent who wants to purchase a starter guitar, and doesn't know where to begin.
First of all, the general rule often quoted by my dear old dad applies here also: you buy cheap, you get cheap. Remember also that there's a difference between "cheap" and "inexpensive". You can go for the bargain basement deals, like those in certain department or warehouse stores or what you find on TV or the Internet. You may save money at first, but many times these instruments are of poor quality or workmanship, and you wind up spending what you saved or more getting the instrument set up (adjusted) properly or repaired (if it can be). Of course you can't go back to the source for service when you buy this way, so you will find yourself seeking out a store like ours where music is a specialty, and where you'll get good advice before the sale and service after the sale. We are all players at our store, and the instruments we choose to carry must be of sufficient quality that we wouldn't hesitate to buy one for our own beginner.
Let's consider acoustic guitars. The acoustic is the least expensive option, since you don't need to buy additional equipment as with electric guitars (amplifiers, cables, effects pedals, etc.). Most youngsters will want to start with the steel string acoustic, as this is what is used in most popular music. They fall into two general categories - laminate top and solid top. The laminate top guitars are the less expensive. They feature a sound board made of thin layers of wood glued together, with the grains facing different directions for strength. This type will stand more abuse than will a solid top guitar. You could drill a hole in a laminate top and you'll have a hole - do the same to a solid top and it may split along the grain from the hole outward. Solid top guitars sound better than laminate tops - the more delicate solid top vibrates more easily, giving a richer sound. Many parents opt for the laminate top guitar as a first instrument because of the lower price, and if the child really likes the guitar and shows the inclination to practice and improve, then the parent feels good about moving up to a solid top guitar later on. Of course, the difference in price between the laminate top and the least expensive solid top can be as little as $100, so you may want to go for the solid top first.
The size of the guitar is also an important consideration. The general rule is that while the guitar rests in the child's lap, the child should be able to touch the end of the headstock with the fingertips. Fractional size acoustic guitars are available for the smaller child. Also, most guitars are for right-handed players, i.e., strummed with the right hand and fingered with the left. If your child is a lefty and hasn't begun to play yet, I encourage you to have the child learn to play right-handed, as there is less variety available in left-handed guitars as a rule, and they are generally more expensive than the comparable right-handed model. Re-stringing a right-handed guitar with a stationary saddle to play left-handed will result in bad intonation, which means it won't play in tune even if the open strings are tuned perfectly.
On the laminate tops, look for one with cross-bracing under the bridge instead of straight lateral bracing. This will strengthen the top where the strings exert the most pressure and help resist lifting and bending. Also, choose a guitar with an adjustable truss rod in the neck to maintain proper neck curvature. An easy way to check for proper neck adjustment is to sight down the neck from the headstock toward the body while holding the 6th string down on the 1st fret with one hand, then the 14th with the other. The string under tension is perfectly straight and provides a reference to determine neck curvature. When held this way, there should be no more than a matchbook cover's worth of space at the 7th fret between the bottom of the string and the top of the fret. Not every music store will set up a guitar before they display it, something we do routinely at FMC.
The acoustic guitar may be more desirable as a first guitar for a number of reasons: they cost less than an electric package would, they are ready to pick up and play at any time (no need for an amplifier or access to AC power), they're easier to travel with or take on vacation, and certainly easier on Mom & Dad's ears than their electric counterparts! For the beginning player, however, the rudiments can be learned on either type - acoustic or electric, it's still a guitar after all.
I hope you parents out there find this information helpful in selecting a first guitar for your son or daughter. Consider buying from a music store like ours for the reasons I've mentioned. As I said, you can spend less at first, but you risk crossing the line between an inexpensive musical instrument and an expensive toy.
Music Lessons - Guitar or Bass?
While working in the store the other day, I overheard an exchange between a mother and her young son. "I'd rather learn bass than guitar", I heard the lad say. "It doesn't have as many strings, and you don't have to learn chords". I thought to chime in on this conversation, and it came to me that this might be a commonly held misconception with aspiring young string players. So, I thought I'd expound a bit on this point for this month's "Notes".
I suppose it's easy enough to reach this conclusion for someone who hasn't yet learned the rudiments of music. But for those youngsters trying to decide between guitar and bass, be assured that although you may not need to play chords like a guitarist, you will certainly need to understand the basics of chord structure in order to be a sound bass player. Many bass lines are built on arpeggios, i.e., the notes of a chord played one at a time instead of together. Further, the consideration of arpeggios leads directly to scale studies. For example, a common bass line for accompaniment of jazz standards is 1-2-3-5 or 1-2-b3-5. For someone who doesn't know anything about the major or minor scale, these numbers are meaningless. Also, if a guitar player is playing a minor chord, and the bass player plays a major chord arpeggio, the result will be rather unpleasant to the ear. Simply stated, the fledgling bass player will need to learn the very same things a beginning guitarist must learn, e.g., the staff and the notes on the staff, clefs, note values, time signatures, etc. Of course, there are techniques unique to the bass, but basically the approach for the beginning bassist is much the same as for the beginning guitarist.
There's an old saw in the business - guitar players are a dime a dozen, but a good bass player will always be in demand. There's some truth to that, I believe. Of course, I emphasize "good". A bass player who doesn't understand chords or plays too much will kick the bottom out from under a band. The fact is that most guitarists will pick up a bass at some point, and most bassists will at some point try to find their way around a guitar. A player who starts out on bass and remains devoted to the instrument will likely be well grounded in what I call a good bass mind set. Many guitarists who take up the bass, however, will likely have to combat the tendency to overplay. I remember talking a long time ago to a bassist whose work I admired, and he said something that always stuck with me. He said, "It takes 10 years to learn to play the bass well - 2 years to learn what to play, and the next 8 years to learn when not to play it". As time has gone by I realize more and more the wisdom of this statement. A good bassist knows when to play sparingly and when to indulge in some harmonic play. But in the end, the bassist and the drummer are the rhythm section, and the bassist must help keep the music anchored down in the pocket if the band is going to kick.
So, if you are (or if you know) someone trying to decide between learning guitar or bass, keep in mind that the bass is not necessarily easier, and in some respects is harder to learn to play well. Keep in mind also that if you start with one, you'll probably try your hand at the other sooner or later. So, base your decision on which one you like better, not on which one might be "easier".
Do Your Ears Have "Tunnel Vision"?
Welcome to the first edition of Joe's "Notes To You", hopefully the first of many. I am Joe Triglia, the newcomer among the Fretz Music Center stable of teachers. I teach guitar, bass and mandolin. Of all the talented people who teach here, I'm probably the closest to what some people might call a musical "hayseed" (except perhaps my partner "Charmin' Charlie Ray" Newman). The first music I learned to play was country & western, taught me by my father and my Uncle Ben (my musical hero). As a pre-teen and teenager I listened to pop music of various kinds, from Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran through early Motown and the British invasion. After spending a few years on the road playing rock music, however, I acquired another acoustic guitar and rekindled my interest in acoustic music, adding folk and bluegrass to my sphere of interest. However, of all the styles I've played over the years, acoustic music seems to be my favorite. This may be nothing more that my earliest musical experience being the style with which I feel most at ease, and where my musical instincts are at their sharpest. Don't get me wrong, I love my electric guitar and electric music, but I have a real soft spot for what's known as American roots music.
This leads me to a point on which I am in complete agreement with my friend and musical mate Bill Sharrow, the owner of Fretz Music Center. Those of you who check out Bill's "Bottom Line" feature will see an eloquent case made for learning to play many musical styles, and for not having "tunnel vision" when it comes to music appreciation. Hard-core rockers may be hard-pressed to sit and listen to Doc Watson playing an old-time fiddle tune on his guitar (many decibels more quietly than they're accustomed to!). Fact is, Arthel (Doc) Watson is in my view one of the greatest guitarists who ever picked up a 6-string. Most serious musicians I know, no matter what style they're into, appreciate ability and dedication, and certainly Doc Watson exemplifies these attributes. Now I personally like mostly any kind of music. However, as much as I enjoy and appreciate the creativity and chops of someone like Jimmy Page or Jimi Hendrix, for example, I can't imagine why I would deny myself the pleasure of listening to my old Doc and Merle Watson vinyl, simply because it's not rock music! The way I see it, music is a profoundly intimate reflection of the heart and soul of a group of people (ethnic, racial, societal, whatever), and the need to share music is as basic as the human need for understanding and respect. I am constantly fascinated by the great variety evident in folk music and dance, and the window they provide into the unique ways of the particular group from which they originated. I think this is why people call music the universal language, as it opens doors of communication not found in other forms of artistic expression.
There are apparently those who think there's no viable market for roots music. They were proven wrong by the phenomenal success of the soundtrack for the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?" One would think that the country stations might have given "Man Of Constant Sorrow" more airplay during the movie's noteworthy first run, but I suppose it wasn't hip enough for some program directors. Of course, these people wound up with egg on their faces when the song won a Grammy and the soundtrack garnered numerous awards, showing that there definitely IS a market for this music. Thank Heaven there are still many, many people who love and appreciate this kind of music - basic, unplugged, story songs, songs of life and death, struggle and triumph, faith and worship, work and play. Being a veteran of a bluegrass trio, I was delighted to see the success of T-Bone Burnett's soundtrack bringing fresh and much deserved attention to artists like Alison Krauss and Union Station, Norman Blake, Ralph Stanley, The Whites, and the Cox Family. Roots music in general and bluegrass in particular have since experienced an upsurge in popularity, and I for one hope that the increased interest in American roots music will be sustained and nurtured as time goes forward. After all, everything that's currently happening musically came from somewhere, and appreciating the old will increase your understanding and enjoyment of the new.
So, I encourage all my fellow musicians - don't be a musical "snob". There's a whole world of music out there - old and new - from madrigals, classical and big band to roots, rock & reggae. Broaden your musical horizons, and good things will happen!