Lying for Profit: A Tale of Two Guitars

As I stated in previous articles, I owned a small retail business for about 17 years, beginning in 1979 and ending in 1996. It was a music store and my specialty was what is referred to as the “combo market”…acoustic and electric guitars, amplifiers, drums, sheet music, and accessories. Over the years I branched out and included used LP records, CDs, and cassettes.

At the time acoustic guitar sales were as strong as they are today. I carried a good selection of instruments in all price ranges. In terms of dollar volume, my biggest income producer was in starter guitars which ranged in price from around $159 to $299. I occasionally ordered a few guitars in the under $100 range, especially around Christmas time. All instruments that went on my floor, regardless of price, would be inspected and adjusted to make sure that they were playable and would stay in tune. Unacceptable instruments would be sent back to the distributor or sold as is at cost with a notation as to the defect.

One of the characteristics of these less expensive acoustic guitars was plywood construction. An extremely thin veneer of attractive, decent quality wood was glued onto large sheets of cheaper wood and the various parts of the instrument body would be cut in an assembly line process. Some limited hand labor was involved in the gluing and assembly of these pieces into the body of an instrument. Necks would be mass produced in a similar fashion.

My customers were naturally curious about why the instruments behind the counter retailed for $900 or more while the ones on the floor went for a fraction of that cost. I would tell them about the material and construction and assure them that, although the cheap instrument would not play and resonate like the expensive one, it would be more than adequate for them to learn on. I would often caution them against buying an expensive instrument right off the bat. It was much better to learn a few chords and songs, build up callouses on the finger tips, and develop their musical ear.

Less than scrupulous sales clerks, I warned them, upon learning of a beginner’s fat wallet, would steer these suckers to an expensive but inferior sounding instrument that had been hanging on the wall since God only knows when…shunned by experienced players and tying up the store’s money.

This may come as a shock to the uninformed, but even a well-respected, long-established company like Martin or Gibson Guitars occasionally put out what we referred to in the industry as a “dog.” Of course, the instrument will look the same as a good one and have exactly the same quality material and construction, but it will sound dull and lifeless. Usually, this is because the top (or the soundboard), for reasons largely unknown, will not resonate properly. That’s why it is essential for a beginner to get his or her chops up before making an investment in an expensive guitar. You can then sit down and play numerous instruments before making a wise decision based on an ear that is trained for the nuances of tonal quality, playability, and resonance. Otherwise, you may just wind up with an albatross that could be difficult to unload.

I did a brisk business in these starter instruments and occasionally got them back as trade-ins from buyers who wished to invest in a finer instrument. I say occasionally because a huge percentage of people who buy musical instruments do not put out the effort required to gain a fundamental knowledge of their instrument of choice.

Around 1990, one of my competitors decided to open a satellite store right down the street from me. My sales of these bread-and-butter entry level guitars tanked and, at first, I couldn’t figure out why. One day a customer came in. He had been shopping at the new store down the street and asked me if I had any solid wood, hand made instruments in the $200 range (by solid wood I mean not laminated). I told him that there was no such beast and he informed me that a sales dude down the street assured him that their $200 guitar was hand made and of solid wood construction…Bullshit.

More customers came in with the same story and, as a result, I was placed in an untenable situation: Should I try to educate the customer how and why they were being lied to…or should I simply give up and join in the cavalcade of falsehoods?

Consider this: You’re looking across the sales counter at some dude… he’s wearing bib coveralls…there’s a dark green crust around his nostrils……his eyebrows are furrowed in a desperate, but futile, attempt to look smart. As he talks, a stalagmite of spittle bounces between his upper and lower lips in a rubbery dance. You know deep down inside that there is no way on the face of God’s green earth that this guy is going to learn three chords…let alone play a song in a coherent fashion. In a matter of a few short months, the instrument will be shoved in a closet or hanging on a pawnshop wall.

So why not just lie, take his money, pat him on the back, tell him what a smart shopper he is, then return to your spot on the floor and continue to weave your web while you wait for the next sucker to stumble in? The problem with that scenario is that you wind up doing it over and over and over until (if you possess a conscience at all) you are ashamed to look at yourself in the mirror.

Alas, I rejected the profitable option presented to me by the little devil on my shoulder and opted, instead, to try to educate these misinformed shoppers about guitar materials and construction. It was fairly easy to discern a laminated guitar and I would show them how to do so by simple observation.

I would love to say that my game plan worked like a charm and that truth and honesty was restored to the guitar selling business on Savannah Highway. But, it was not to be. I would go through my spiel…how to tell if a guitar is laminated, why a $200 guitar is not hand made from the finest materials, etc… Invariably, my words would be met with a blank look or a confused nod. The results were always the same. The customer would leave empty-handed and hop in his or her car. I watched them take the right-hand turn out of my parking lot (that led to my competitor) and I would never see them again.

Maybe some folks just want to be lied to and deserve whatever crap is shoveled their way.

I saw some measure of karma soon after, however, when a customer wandered into my store with what he suspected was a bogus Fender Stratocaster sold to him by the store down the street as a new, fully guaranteed original. This was impossible as they were not a Fender dealer and I was. He was toting the instrument in an original Fender hard shell case and I told him to put it on the counter. I opened the case and looked at what appeared to be a real Strat. It had the original look along with the correct decal on the headstock.  I knew enough, however, to know that initial appearances can be deceiving.

I told the customer that I needed to “pop” the neck and take a look. This is a relatively simple procedure as the neck is not glued on. It is attached to the body by four long wood screws (guitar terminology is “bolts”) and a metal plate on the back of the body. All you have to do is take off the strings, flip the guitar over on a workbench, and remove the screws. You now have two parts…the neck and the body. I looked at the base of the neck and the name “DiMarzio” was branded. It was also stamped in the body. DiMarzio is an aftermarket company which makes all sorts of guitar replacement parts ranging from tuning keys to necks, to bodies, to electronic components, and much more.

Fake Fender Stratocaster

This instrument was a fake. The lazy creep who put this mess together had made a feeble attempt to run a file across the DiMarzio logo but gave up. He probably figured that the customer would never discover the deceit. I took some photos and sent them to Fender in Anaheim, CA. They sent me back an analysis but would not discuss any actions which they took against my competitor.

Fake Fender Stratocaster

The customer contacted a lawyer I referred him to and, armed with the paperwork from Fender, they both went to the offending music store and got a full refund.

I hope he didn’t wind up spending part of his refund on one of their “solid wood” starter guitars. Funny thing, however, is that I never saw the guy again. I thought that my diligent efforts would win him over as a lifelong customer but it did not pan out that way. He seemed like a really nice fellow, however, and I am certain that there is a logical explanation.

Must avoid cynicism…today at least…

*In all fairness, however, I have to make a point about Martin Guitars. The best acoustic guitar I have ever owned was a 1972 D-18 model. I flew up to New York City and purchased it brand new from Manny’s Music after playing at least a dozen other Martins at that store. That guitar was a friggin’ cannon! I have only played one box guitar that equaled it in my entire life (an original J.W. Gallagher). To my everlasting regret, I sold the Martin after only a year due to personal turmoil. The Gallagher was owned by my best friend who died about 15 years ago. He was in frail health for several years and he refused to sell it to me promising, instead, that he would make sure that I get it after his passing. Twice he told me this. When he finally died, his Mom decided not to follow his last wishes. “Do you have any idea how much that instrument is worth?” she asked me when I inquired about it. I let it go because the only value it had to me was to make music and to remember my old friend Billy.

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