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New Online Guitar Shops Bring the Boutique Experience Back to E-Commerce

Once upon a time, the local guitar shop was more than just a place to buy musical instruments. It was the cultural hub of the musical community. Young kids came to take lessons from the graying owner with the David Lee Roth haircut, experienced musicians came to check bulletin boards for band tryouts, and broke musicians came to fawn over the small collection of expensive, exotic guitars. It was a place of business, but also one of learning and sharing.

Now, a decade after big-box music franchises like Guitar Center and Zzounds nearly drove them to extinction, guitar boutiques are making a determined comeback – only this time they’re doing it through a URL address. To win over the thousands of musicians who are fed up with clunky online superstores, several music shops have launched websites designed to make shopping for a guitar an intimate experience again. They’re publishing newsletters. They’re hiring gear techs with national touring experience to man their customer service lines. And, of course, they’re selling some really fancy guitars too.

Take GTRstore, for instance. The New Jersey-based guitar boutique has put a tremendous amount of effort into creating a great online shopping experience. The service lines are manned by veteran shop techs who are “second to none,” as owner Steve Pisani puts it. Besides offering an array of top-shelf instruments and gear, GTRstore publishes an online magazine that features news from around the industry. There you’ll find a vlog as well as interviews with rock legends like Yngwie Malmsteen and Ace Frehley of KISS.

If the mission is to inject a little hard-rock culture back into hard-rock retail, GTRstore is on the vanguard. Nikki Sixx wrote a blog post about fashion for the site. Pat Nowak and Dave Girodano from The Rising Suns recorded a demo video for Gibson’s ES line of guitars, also on the site. Most recently, GTRstore somehow got fashion designer John Varvatos to feature several of their guitars in his Bowery boutique in New York. These days, everyone simply assumes that “big-box” affordability and convenience are necessary for survival. Don’t tell that to GTRstore. They’re aggressively pursuing their chosen niche market, and they’re succeeding.

With a website that’s like a gearhead’s Shangri-la, Musictoyz, in Portland, Maine, knows how to rock a niche too. The store  stocks a wide variety of rare effects pedals and guitars, which are discussed regularly on the blog and the YouTube channel. The company also hosts its own online forum, complete with a live chat platform, so that customers can interact with experts while browsing the inventory. While its competitors were busy hesitating, Musictoyz jumped right into the online marketplace. Because it did, the shop has done more than just survive over the past 12 years. It has flourished.

And then there are shops like Destroy All Guitars. Instead of stocking tried-and-true brands, Destroy All Guitars specializes in offering custom axes from the biggest up-and-comers in the guitar-building community. You won’t find “Fender” or “Gibson” anywhere in the inventory, but you can get a great deal on a Fleck or RGB axe.

If Destroy All Guitars is the collector’s guitar site, DAG is the luthier’s. The shop keeps master builders on staff and regularly produces self-branded custom instruments of its own design. DAG’s first guitars – a batch of custom Stratocaster-Telecaster hybrids known as Telestars – were considered to be such a triumph of craftsmanship that they were featured in Premier Guitar.

Founded on the belief that bigger isn’t always better, today’s online guitar shops are proving that the boutique experience is alive and marketable. The medium may have changed, but the service, expertise and shop culture have not. Guitarists who remember the good old days will find the same exotic axes and the same grizzled, knowledgeable clerks behind the counters. Though online superstores flipped the guitar industry on its head, shops like GTRstore, Musictoyz and Destroy All Guitars are slowly flipping it back, one axe at a time.

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