10:02 a.m., Saturday. I wheel into the parking lot of the big chain instrument store - Le Plus Grande Centre du Guitarres - and stroll toward the entrance. On either side of the doors stand a gaggle of dudes smoking and gabbing. I wonder if tickets are going on sale, or if some rock star died, but then I realize these are the sales folk, and every man jack of them has come outside just as the store opened. You think they’d get their rally done before the customers arrive; on the other hand, I kind of admire this brashness.
Into the store. As usual in this joint, they crank up the modern hard rock for ambience. I’m here to scope out a couple of guitars. I tend to frequent the smaller local places for musical accoutrements, but for big-ticket items, I have to come here for the selection. So far, it’s just me, a few other shoppers, and the greeters inside the door.
I find the Epiphone Sheraton right away. I’ve sampled one before, and I want to give it more serious consideration. I pick it up and notice that it’s been tuned down to, er, C-sharp? You could play roulette in a guitar shop with which guitars are in standard tuning and which have been tuned down for the chunky power chords. If you find a guitar shaped like a medieval weapon in drop-D tuning, that’s no surprise, but did they have to do that with this jazzy axe as well? The sales dudes are still outside; I assume I’m allowed to test this puppy, so I plug into a clean amp and standardize the strings. A little “Autumn Leaves” and “Ruby My Dear” reveal nice action and great tone. With heavier gauge strings, this could do me quite well.
On the other side of the amp wall, Whiz Kid shows up. This is the teenager who’s practiced the guitar magazine exercises and has lots of tricks to show off, like the machine-gun power riff and the tapping and the dive-bomb harmonics that I thought belonged solely to the metalheads. He doesn’t play a single chord or melody; neither is he really testing the guitar or amplifier. He’s here to show off, thus the volume at which he plays. His dad (who admitted defeat early in the day and agreed to drive Whiz Kid here) has wandered off to another area of the store, probably sick of hearing this same stuff at home. When it sounds like the kid is staying in the key of B, I turn up and play along for no reason. Soon, Whiz Kid takes his show elsewhere.
I unplug and wander around very conspicuously with the Epiphone - a man don’t walk on the lot lest he wants to buy - but it’s about 10:15 and there still aren’t any sales folk around. This is a complete change from being here in the afternoon, when someone dogs your every move and tries to sell you everything in sight. More customers start to filter in, including Power Riff Guy. He’s usually the loner type, and one of the chronic de-tuners. He’s got one - just one - low power riff (Chugga chugga chug chugga chugga chug), which he plays over and over and over again into a goddamn half-stack. Chugga chugga chug, five minutes, ten minutes, the same riff nonstop. Yes, the guitar works, the Marshall works, your wrist works, what are you trying to prove? Is this a Philip Glass piece? Combined with the rawking muzak and the distant noodling of Whiz Kid, the store has gotten rather loud.
You have to watch out for the usual suspects. Along with Whiz Kid and Power Riff Guy, you can expect to hear Older Shred Man as well. He’s usually in his forties by now, plugged into a high-gain combo and demonstrating 1980s whammy-tap wankery. At least his playing seems more complete than Whiz Kid, who shoots from one isolated bit to another. Older Shred Man stays with one “solo” for a few minutes, obnoxious as it might be. He’s usually accompanied by a lackey, someone a few years younger who wears the half-smile of admiration. The lackey may even make a suggestion or two: “Hey man, do that thing…”, and there goes your harmonic dive-bomb again. If you stop to listen to Older Shred Man, he will throw you the same look you get from guys at the wheel of souped-up pickup trucks - stone cold, but validated.
Fender Guy is much less bothersome, mainly because he wants to try out a certain Telecaster and/or Deluxe Reverb, and he could care less about impressing anybody. He’ll play some nice rhythm parts and twangy country leads, and even if that’s not your bag, it will sound like sweet heaven compared to the cacophony in the rest of the store. Two rows over, it’s Band Guys, who play songs for the (feigned?) interest of their girlfriends. Band Guys don’t threaten, but their cool in-jokes may irritate, so don’t browse too close to them. For fun, you might set up nearby and try to draw the attention of the girls, but be warned that they probably won’t recognize any Mahavishnu Orchestra tunes.
Me? I’m Commando Guy. Get in, complete the mission, get out. If I have to drop a little “Starship Trooper”, “Fracture”, or “Kid Charlemagne” science, so be it.
Can’t say I’ve heard many bass players doing the showboat routine, nor do keyboard players really try to wow anybody. (But if I heard a keyboardist playing “Tarkus” or “Un Poco Loco”, I’d probably offer to buy them lunch.) In the drum room, most activity is devoted to actually testing the gear. This store also sells scratchin’ turntables, but I’m unfamiliar with that device’s standard repertoire.
Anyway, after I’ve hung up the Epiphone, a sales guy makes an appearance and I inquire about a particular PRS hanging on the wall. He recommends a different model instead, one that he says he owns. Every time I talk to a salesperson, doesn’t matter where, they say they own whatever item is under discussion. When I bought my last car, the salesman said he’d bought his wife the same one. I’ve welcomed it into my life; you should too. I try the guy’s recommended guitar, and hey, I actually like it, much more than the original PRS I had in mind. He knows what he’s talking about, and he dishes on the Sheraton as well. We shake on a deal, and suddenly my visit has paid off.
10:45. Time to lay waste to the compound. I infiltrate the sound system and replace the hyper-compressed rock with Herbie Hancock’s Man-Child. I put sheet music in front of Whiz Kid and Older Shred Dude and they stop playing. (Old joke, sorry.) I tell Band Guys that they’re giving away free i-pods next door, and they take off. Power Riff Guy never sees the silent projectile that ends his earthly tedium. In the sudden decrease of noise, a keyboard player, whom nobody saw enter, suddenly becomes audible in a meek rendition of “Axel F”. Harmless. I slip out the front door, knowing I’ll have to return soon to get my old Peavey guitar serviced. Will things still be the same?
(EDIT: Two months later, I went into the same store, and they were playing Hancock’s “Chameleon”! Ha! But there was an extra-loud Whiz Kid as well, so my enjoyment was short...)