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Where to Look
New guitars can be purchased in any music store or online. Several big cities have a Guitar Center [2.] store (nicknamed Guitar Safeway by some players because they are a huge overwhelming ordeal, much like a grocery store). You can also order from them online at www.guitarcenter.com, but I think a guitar is something you want to be able to try out in person. An exception might actually be some mass produced guitars. Jimi Hendrix is said to have liked the mass-produced CBS Fender Stratocasters because he could buy one anywhere and know exactly what he was getting.
[2.] In big guitar stores, there are always a dozen egotistical and not very good young guitarists wanking away loudly at any given time, usually playing the current hit. Or "Stairway to Heaven." One review of my band Bomb (we actually had two very good and very innovative guitarists in the band) said "The guitars on this album are, at best, reminiscent of Tyranny and Mutation-era Blue Oyster Cult, and, at worst, Saturday morning at Guitar Center."
My drummer swears by Nadine's Music here in Los Angeles. That's the big one a lot of "stars" go to. I've never been inside it myself .
You might want to go with a smaller neighborhood store (like Silver Lake Guitar Shop in Los Angeles, which is run by buddy Mike) for several reasons. One, you're supporting the little guy rather than a huge (possibly heartless) corporation, which is always a good thing in my book. All my books. Second, you will probably get better service over time. And finally, while you may end up paying a little more, you probably won't have a high-pressure salesman breathing down your neck.
A large store like Guitar Center will offer stuff at a bit of a discount because they buy in bulk, but the salespeople tend to hover over you and totally fluff your ego to make the sale. They will be like, "Dude, that guitar rocks. You're gonna get so many chicks with that!" Or, "Dude, that's the same guitar that ___________ (whoever's on the cover of Spin Magazine this week) uses." Basically, they want you to buy big because they make minimum wage unless they make a lot of sales. And they don't make much. If you buy a guitar, they probably get enough extra to buy a burrito.
One advantage, though, is that they often can bargain with you and go below the sticker price. How far below depends on the store and the manager and how long the sales dude has been working there. If you are good at bargaining with people (a good skill to have if you're ever going to sell any kind of art, by the way), you can haggle with them. You can also dicker with the small store employee, but they will probably have less leeway than someone who works in a big Megalo-Mart type joint.
One way is to lowball them and literally show them the money. Before you talk to them, figure out how much you want to pay, and when they aren't looking, put only that amount in one pocket. When you go to talk turkey , pull out that wad and say, "This is all I have in the world, and I want to buy a guitar today." If they try to get you to make payments and want you to pay some now and some later, tell 'em you're leaving town today. Moving. Or going on tour. Whatever. It's okay to lie to these people, because they, while at work, are not humans . They are aggressive sales-bots that are basically just the pimply face on an unfeeling monolithic corporation. Tell 'em whatever you want.
A couple of other bargaining techniques are to get them to eat the tax, or to throw in extras, like a guitar stand, strap, strings, picks, a cable, or whatever. Get what you can.
eBay is a good resource also for used equipment. However, guitars and basses are usually, as I said, things that you probably want to try out in person. For this reason, you might want to limit your eBay search to auctions in your region; you can send the person an e-mail, and he might actually let you come over and try it out.
For less personal items, like microphones and effects boxes, and even for guitars, eBay can have some great deals.
I usually make it a point to deal only with people with a lot of positive feedback, which minimizes the risk of getting ripped off. (Feedback is the feature on eBay where people give references to people they've dealt with. Someone who does a lot of selling and buying on eBay will sometimes have feedback entries from hundreds of people. Usually, if they are honest, it will be like 300 positive feedbacks and one or two negative ones. This is normal. There are people who are unhappy with their own lives who will slam people even when they're honest. You can also check the people who gave the negative feedback and see if they have a history of this.
Another tip is to search misspellings. Some people might list a Telecaster guitar as a "Telicaster" or "Tele Caster," and then it won't show up in searches, and you might be the only person bidding on it. You can get total steals this way.
Another place to buy stuff is from your local classified ads or a local swap paper. Los Angeles has the Recycler (also online at Recycler.com), which has some cool deals.
The Recycler has free ads for private parties. As does Craigslist.com, one of my favorite resources.
You can buy from friends also. Anyway, like I said, get the best you can. Most musicians will own many instruments in their lives, and you aren't stuck with what you have. You can always sell it or trade up for something else, or have a few different guitars. Many guitarists have a few different ones that specialize for different tasks , live or in the studio. It's harder to switch guitars a lot during a set, so live you'll want one or two that cover all the bases.
If you can, you always want to have a spare guitar on stage on a stand, tuned and ready to go, so you don't have to kill time to change a broken string on stage. And it's good to have a friend who knows how to change and tune a string to restring the first one to use as a backup in case you break a string on the backup. In the studio, it's fine to have a number of axes ( ax is a cheesy, outmoded word for your instrument). One might sound better for clean sounds, one might be better for crunchy loud parts , one better for slide guitar, and so forth.
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