There’s something magical about walking into a store that sells musical instruments, even if you’re not a musician. Maybe it’s because all the wire and wood, all the skins and snares, represent more than just the instruments they compose, but the music they will eventually produce. Maybe it’s because bows and sticks and mallets and pics whisper to the most innocent, childlike, fun-loving parts of our brains, telling us, no – urging us – just to play.
Maybe it’s because we know that when we’re sitting at a piano keyboard, stretching our arms out to get a violin ‘fitted,’ or cradling the curves of a cello against our bodies we’re not just considering the purchase of a musical instrument, we’re buying possibility.
I hadn’t been into an instrument shop in years, but last August, I recognized that it was finally time to follow through on a dream: after 31 years of cello, I was finally going to take the guitar journey I’d been flirting with, and never committing to, for years.
I was going to buy a guitar.
I started on the internet first, of course, researching types of guitars, and learning a bit about the instrument so that, at the very least, when I entered a brick and mortar store, I’d be able to speak intelligently.
My research taught me that I wanted a six-string acoustic guitar. My taste informed me that I wanted an instrument that would be good for folk music. My history with my cello, and the process of shopping for that told me that I wanted a guitar that had as much real wood as possible. My size – I’m exactly five feet tall and have fairly small hands – made a smaller instrument seem like the wiser choice. My budget dictated that I not spend more than $500 for my first guitar.
Armed with this information, recommendations from friends, and a few things I’d learned from a guitar blogger who also reviews instruments, I went to my local Guitar Center.
At first, I was a little daunted. Most of the people in the room were sporting visibly edgy looks – I saw piercings that surprised even me – and the vast majority were twenty-something males. I was expecting them to look at me, short, round, white, old (although I still get carded), hobbling because of a recent knee-injury, and not give me the time of day.
I was wrong of course, mostly because I’d forgotten the bond of musicians, the one that is just intrinsically there. It’s this little undercurrent that says I know you even if you’ve never met the other person, and even if you play drastically different instruments.
“I’ve played cello forever,” I said, “but I’ve always wanted to play the guitar.”
The long-haired sales clerk who sported a few very well-placed tattoos on his muscular arms and had the piercings in his ears filled with discs the diameter of quarters, smiled at me. “Okay, let me ask you some questions.”
And he did.
What kind of music did I want to play? Was I looking to record or just have an instrument to learn on. Had I tried any guitars already? Was there a make I had in mind? How much did I want to spend?
I answered his barrage of questions and he led me to a room full of guitars. “There really isn’t that big a difference between a ‘travel’ guitar like the Little Martin that Ed Sheeran uses and a full-size guitar, but those few millimeters can make a difference. Try some out, let me know if you have questions.”
My husband had come with me for support and consultation. Like me, Fuzzy is a musician, but not a guitarist. He’s not even a string player! His instruments are piano, trumpet, and accordion. (No, really, accordion.)
Still, it was nice to have someone there to help me lift the guitars off the racks, and give me an external opinion that wasn’t colored by my initial overwhelmedness – I mean, a room full of guitars – really.
I strummed about five guitars that day. I had no intention of buying one on the first outing unless I fell in love with it, and left pretty much thinking I’d be back in a week to get the solid spruce-top Little Martin. It was at the top of my price range, but Martin is a good brand and I liked the feel of it.
I’m glad I waited to buy it, though, because in the meantime, I discovered a brand called Luna, that specialized in guitars that were designed by, and marketed toward, women. The Luna guitars that I looked at online had everything the Little Martin had, but they were also pretty.
Obviously, what a guitar looks like does not affect its sound in the slightest, but when I bought my cello, I was able to customize it so that the fittings are rosewood, which gives it a more feminine look. Was it wrong, all things considered, to want my guitar to be sort of pretty and feminine also?
My next issue was that the spruce-top travel guitar Luna wanted was not in stock at any of the instrument shops near me. I could have ordered it from Zzounds (a company I highly recommend for recording gear), but even when you think you know what you want, you should never buy an instrument without trying it first.
I did more research, and finally, the day before my birthday, Fuzzy and I drove to the Guitar Center in Dallas (as opposed to the suburban branch I’d initially visited), where a man who was a dead-ringer for Anthony LaPaglia (back when he played Joe in Empire Records) greeted us.
“I know you don’t have the Luna I’m looking for,” I said. “But you have a Luna travel guitar that isn’t spruce-top and it will, at least, let me see how it feels.”
He showed me several smaller guitars, including a Baby Taylor, that was too pricey and not as pretty, and then I played the laminate Luna.
It sounded like a cigar box.
But it felt like I’d met an old friend.
(Just for fun, even though I’d just made my choice, I also played a cotton-candy pink Luna electric-acoustic, but I didn’t like it nearly as well, even though it looked cool.)
We went back to talk to not-actually-Anthony-LaPaglia and he said, “Oh, we can special order the model you want. If you have it delivered to your local store, there’s no shipping fee.”
Four days later, I was holding my Luna Safari Supreme in my hands, tuning it with an app I’d downloaded to my iPhone, and taking my first guitar lesson via a collection of YouTube videos. I haven’t started formal lessons with a live teacher yet – that will probably be this summer’s project – but I’m enjoying the challenge of learning a new instrument after all these years.
I’m also enjoying telling people about my guitar shopping experience, which is best summed up thusly: When I told not-actually-Anthony-LaPaglia that I’d played cello for decades and wanted to take up a new instrument, he looked at me like I was some kind of musical goddess.
“I tried the cello once, a long time ago,” he confessed. “I couldn’t figure it out. Dude… cello’s hard.”
I don’t remember what my response was, but I know that my journey with this guitar – with the wire and the wood, and learning a whole new way of using my hands and fingers, feeling this instrument become part of me – is only just beginning, and I can’t wait to find out where it takes me next.
I mean, anything’s possible.
About the author: Melissa A. Bartell
Melissa is a writer, voice actor, podcaster, itinerant musician, voracious reader, and collector of hats and rescue dogs. She is the author of The Bathtub Mermaid: Tales from the Holiday Tub. You can learn more about her on her blog, or connect with her on on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.