Choosing a music store is, for many people, akin to choosing a proctologist. You may really need what it has to offer, but you also know it is almost always going to be painful. Whether you are an aspiring newbie or a seasoned musician, the experience of visiting the retailers who have what you need to get your groove on can be scary, intimidating, and sometimes offensive to your sensibility of right and wrong.
The Valley has a few stores that stand out. Sure, sometimes even their folks can be surly or disinterested in hearing about your latest power ballad, but there are places where you can go and be treated fairly well by the staff. Here are the top eight choices, chosen through a combination of our own experience and conversations with a cross-section of local musicians.
9. Ziggie's Music Located on North Third Street in Central Phoenix, Ziggie's Music is a Valley institution. Family-owned and in business since 1927, this small store specializes in rarities and hard-to-find pieces of equipment. Need a pickup for your mandolin? Ziggie's probably has one. Want to take accordion lessons? Ziggie's has Tony Longoria, who can teach you one of the world's most versatile instruments in English or español. On the first Saturday of every month, Ziggie's Music sponsors a swap meet where local musicians can get together and buy and sell gear. The action starts at 9:30 a.m.
8. Precision Guitar Blink and you'll miss Precision Guitar. Nestled in a small strip center on North Seventh Avenue in Central Phoenix, this spot is a longtime favorite of local ax-men for the hard-to-find hardware and pickups, as well as great repair work. The shop is truly a spectacle to behold in its clutter of parts, guitars, amps, straps (of which they have a remarkably good selection for such a small place), and pedals. Owners Jim and Colin are friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating, but don't show up on Sundays, Mondays, or before noon because they won't be there. However, if you want your guitar or bass fixed or set up and you don't like to leave the Melrose neighborhood, this is definitely the place to go.
7. Milano's Music Mesa had to be represented at some point, and the only choice there was Milano's. The old school store has a certain vibe. Perhaps it's the whole Main Street Mesa thing, but when you walk in there, you feel you could be walking into a music store in Hollywood or Chicago or New York City from way back when. Opened in 1946, Milano's sold guitars to Buck Owens in the early days of the songwriter's fabled career. The store offers a full line of gear, lessons, repairs, and rentals. There is a cool little video on its site that longtime Arizona and newbies looking for a quick history lesson might enjoy.
6. Drum Alley Located inside west-side store Boogie Music, Drum Alley is a favorite among Phoenix's elite drummers because of its prices, selection, and most of all, hospitality. No offense to the drummers out there, but y'all can be some of the most difficult people to please, so when you hear one give praise to a music store, pay attention. "The nicest customer service of late I had was at Drum Alley . . . They do have people there very willing to help with repairs or orders," says Claire Griese, drummer for bands such as Black Banner Dovichenko, The MadCaps, and many others.
5. Boogie Music Boogie Music has managed to stay relevant in the local music gear world for 34 years now. Though its location is pretty much in the middle of a two-mile stretch between a Guitar Center and Metro Phoenix's only Sam Ash location, Boogie holds its own and stays true to the neighborhood that continues to support it.
Ryan Butler, owner of Arcane Digital Recording and guitarist in Landmine Marathon, is a fan of the store. "[Boogie] has Brent Gutierrez as their luthier. He's the best in town. Only guy I will let touch my high-dollar guitars," Butler says. "I have two of his custom-built guitars. Amazing pieces that go from blocks of wood to the best playing new guitars." Boogie also sets itself apart from others on the west side with a great repair service and the option of renting equipment. Whether you are looking for a trumpet for your next trip to band camp or a P.A. for a backyard kegger featuring your new garage band, Boogie can hook you up.
4. Guitar Gallery Scottsdale's only entry on this list. Guitar Gallery is owned by local musician Michael Parkin and has been in business for the past 20 years, providing guitars, a killer collection of lower-watt boutique amplifiers, accessories, lessons, and repair services to the East Valley with style and panache. The gents who work in the store are always inviting, and, as Parkin says, they're "different because we care about guitar and guitar players."
"We're all musicians here. We can all do repairs or at least understand what is needed and what that entails, and we aim to provide every customer with a positive, unique experience with us," he says. "And no question is ever a stupid one. Just try us." What really separates Guitar Gallery from a lot of other shops in town is the quality of the lessons it offers. The staff is both knowledgeable and accessible, two things that do not always go hand in hand.
3. Sam Ash The first entry of the "big box" variety. Sam Ash, unlike Guitar Center, is still family-owned, and if you talk to someone from the home office, you're still likely to talk to an actual member of the Ash clan. A great selection of gear at competitive prices and a friendly staff make it difficult to keep the store off this list. When you've been in business for almost 90 years, it is hard to argue with your success. The location is perfect for the musician who calls the northwest part of the Valley home.
2. Guitar Tree A relative newcomer to the music gear scene in Phoenix, but a fantastic addition nonetheless. Guitar Tree is the furthest thing from a corporate-style store you will find in the Valley. Located in a small house just west of Seventh Street along Osborn Road in midtown Phoenix, this shop is owned by two dudes who love guitars and sell a ton of them.
There is never a dull moment at Guitar Tree, as the inventory is always changing. In addition to a great selection of guitars and basses, it also sells some amplifiers, although space is a challenge in keeping a large selection around, and it also offers repair services and lessons. It is only a matter of time before Guitar Tree is number one on this list. (Plus, the relatively new vinyl haven Record Revival is located just next door.)
1. Guitar Center I am not sure how to feel about Guitar Center being number one on this list. Having been a professional musician since long before Guitar Center got to Phoenix, I have to admit that when it arrived, it certainly took the pain out of wondering whether the smaller (and often more pretentious) local stores would have my favorite bass strings or a particular item I was looking for.
Love it or hate it, Guitar Center is the best the Valley has to offer for musicians, working and non-working alike. No matter what you need, it probably has it or can order it for you. The prices are often competitive, especially if you have a friend who works there, and there are six locations around the greater Phoenix area (unfortunately, though, none in what most of us would consider Central Phoenix).
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A tremendous upside for Guitar Center is the staff. Unless they are just slammed with customers, I have never gone more than 30 seconds without someone offering to help me or, at very least, greeting me with seemingly sincere enthusiasm. If you are shopping for a friend or family member who is a musician, this is a place even a non-musician can go and feel comfortable.