In the last few weeks I’ve been fairly busy so both the Facebook page and this website have been a bit neglected. One of the jobs I’ve had come in fairly regularly in the last few weeks is to set up newly bought guitars.
Why would anyone have to do that? What is the shop doing? What is the importer doing?
A recent story
Let’s look at one recent customer, we’ll call him Jim (not his real name). Jim bought a guitar from a chain retailer - a G&L Legacy. He’s been an acoustic player for years, but has never owned an electric. After a few days of playing the guitar, he’s not entirely happy, but he’s a little nervous about going back to the retailer because he’s not sure whether the what he has is what he should expect, or actually a problem.
So he brought the guitar in for a setup.
The guitar wasn’t correctly constructed. It should never have left the factory. The neck isn’t joined to the body in a straight line. The neck pocket doesn’t have any play in it, so I can’t just undo the neck and push it around (as we did with many Fenders, especially from the 70’s) - the neck pocket isn’t routed correctly. The high E is falling off the side of the fretboard, the pickup poles are clearly not centred on the strings. It’s visibly a long way out. I was surprised, because G&L QC is usually very good.
So rather than set the guitar up as best I could, I advised him to return it. The retailer, to their credit, played a perfectly straight bat, offering another of the same model or a straight refund/credit against anything else he wanted without hesitation. In the end, he was offered a great price on a Mexican Strat, well under the ticket price, which he accepted. It was just one that they missed when they put it on the wall.
And that’s where the story should end, the retailer has behaved incredibly well, and the customer is happy. But it didn’t.
Jim phoned me and told me what had happened, but then went on to say he wasn’t entirely convinced that he didn’t have another problem. The new guitar needs a setup. Well that’s not unusual, for reasons I’ll come to later. But it was crackling - the jack socket appeared to be a bit unreliable.
When he brought it in, we found that the guitar’s jack socket route wasn’t quite large enough. This meant that any jack plug, when inserted into the guitar, would touch the wood and force the jack socket slightly open, with predictable results. Every time you moved with the guitar plugged in it would emit a crackle or a thump as the connection was being intermittently broken. It was an easily fixable problem - and along with a much needed setup the guitar was good to go.
Changing the market
This is the bit where I am supposed to castigate the retailer for sending out two duff guitars. But I’m not going to. The market has changed over the years, and much of that has been driven by the customer, not the shop. In some respects, we as customers have made our retail market what it is.
The internet has exposed us to price competition in a way that we haven’t had before in the MI business. Pretty much every item that we need is available online. That means that everything from Picks to amps - and the sundries that kept shops in business, strings, sticks, picks, straps, beginners kits - its all online at knock down prices.
In the USA, minimum advertised prices from manufacturers keep prices advertised at a certain level which to a degree prevents the internet crushing the high street, but in the EU this is illegal.
That’s forced many of the independent stores out of business, taking that personal service with it. If you expect your retailer to voluntarily price match the internet box shifters, and keep a bricks and mortar presence (while buying all your sundries online), then how do they stay open and also employ extra staff with the expertise to undertake particularly skilled technical tasks? How long would it take them to check and set up every guitar on the wall, when there are often hundreds of them, especially considering that the margin in guitar sales is actually not that great. Don’t forget that we don’t make many guitars in the EU - so when you buy a guitar, 3.5% of the price is Import Duty, then 20% is VAT, and if you pay by credit card then there’s about another 1% from the card issuer. Margins are tight.
You don’t expect Currys to boil every kettle before they sell it, or turn on every TV. The principle at this point is largely the same. Competition is about price more than service. You only find out how good the service is when something goes wrong. This is there the bricks and mortar retailers take even more of a hit because their costs are already higher than the online stores, so if they deal with a problem in house that is an even bigger loss of margin.
It’s not just the cheap stuff
I’ve had £1000 plus USA Fenders in here in the last month, straight off the shelf, that have needed setting up. Pretty much nothing gets touched at the shop or importer level now. If you buy from the internet, there’s a good chance that the box hasn’t even been opened since it left the factory - the importer didn’t even check it. But that doesn’t mean that the guitar is duff or that you’ve been taken advantage of - it just means that it will have the factory setup, which generally isn’t very good, and will have almost certainly moved in shipping. The manufacturer expects the importer to set the guitar up, but the price doesn’t include a margin for the job. Simply put, you aren’t paying for this service any more - it’s a cost that has been driven out of the market by aggressive pricing.
If there is something not quite right with an instrument, it goes back to the supplier. Shops no longer have workshops in the main - they don’t do repairs, and they don’t service the warranty themselves.
A new service
I’ve seen so many guitars this year that aren’t set up well from the factory or shop, that I’m going to offer a new service level in the workshop.
Any brand new guitar, that you buy, you can have it fully checked, the neck, bridge and intonation set, for just £20.
Just bring it in, and I’ll do it while you wait, giving you piece of mind that you don’t have a problem that you haven’t found yet, or don’t have the experience to find. This isn’t the full setup and service that I already offer, because many parts of that should not be necessary on a new guitar - this is directly tailored to a the new guitar purchaser.
If you’re buying for someone else, with Christmas coming a particularly burning issue, this is a great service for you. It’s cheap, and less hassle than having to return something in the wake of the Christmas holidays when retailers will be already over burdened with the Sales and warranty returns issues already.
Even if you’ve bought a beginner’s guitar, this is a service that is cost effective - there’s nothing worse for a beginner than playing a guitar that isn’t set up correctly, and they may not even know that there is a problem.