Boyertown or Bust

Disclaimer: These are all first-world problems. I acknowledge that. I am fortunate to have funds to buy an instrument, and to have a car to drive to these places, etc.

Audra’s main uke is an Ohana pineapple concert, with no pickup. As we put together our live Fricknadorable set, I decided to primarily play my Taylor GS-8, which also doesn’t have a pickup. After a few gigs in our early days using conventional vocal/instrument miking with four mikes (two for vocs, two for instruments), we chose to go with “bluegrass” miking, where we work our vocals and instruments around a single condenser mic. This works great at bluegrass jams that use that setup, and it works great when we provide our own sound with a CAD M177 mic.

Unfortunately, it confuses the hell out of our of sound techs (even experienced ones), and presents all types of issues at open mics where quick setup is essential. So, reluctantly, we decided it was time to find a uke with a pickup. I have also considered getting an after-market pickup for my Taylor GS-8. We considered putting a pick-up in the Ohana, but it would require drilling. The other options using small condenser mics and preamps just didn’t look like a good fit. Thus began the quest starting in 2015 for a uke with a pickup that also met Audra’s other criteria. I already had other guitars with pickups (including a Taylor 314), though they are not always my favorite to play. Still, the guitar considerations were secondary given Audra’s unique requirements.

With my birthday coming up, I was also going to treat myself to an acoustic 4-string bass with a pickup. It wasn’t essential, but for jams and open mics, I thought it would be nice to not have to carry an amp. I’m playing so much bass lately in multiple projects that I thought this would be a worthwhile purchase.

Buying any acoustic instrument online – sight unseen – is problematic for a number of reasons. I’ve had reasonable luck with a few guitars purchased online, but the Oscar Schmidt OU5LCE uke that I got for Audra – while a beautiful instrument that I enjoy – turned out to be a bust for Audra’s small hands. Our latest quest was definitely an instrument purchase that required hands-on experience.

After searching high and low locally, and then also in Maine during our recent vacation, we determined the best thing to do was check out Funky Frets in Boyertown – a shop that is said to carry 100 uke and lots of other instruments.

The Trip
The first available weekend happened to be the same weekend as the Philly Folk Fest, where Funky Frets takes instruments to the festival for sale and closes their regular shop. We postponed our trip for the following weekend. I was in touch with the store via email and everything looked good going in.

The much-anticipated Saturday (8/27) came, and we drove 2.5 hrs to Boyertown via the PA Turnpike, arriving shortly after Funky Frets opened. The store looked promising from the outside, though somewhat underwhelming at first glance inside. We were greeted by a clerk and two young children. The kids were obviously hanging with mom/grandma. The boy was enthusiastic and clearly future salesperson material, explaining how to turn an amp on and off by unplugging it. Cute. The girl was not interested in being there and made this clearly known through her high-pitched vocalizations.

That was all very fine. We pressed on, examining the options for the uke mission and the secondary quest for an acoustic bass. We were fully prepared to spend several hours there if needed.

My quest for an acoustic bass was shut down quickly as there were no instruments to try.

There were maybe 30-40 ukes in sight to play, many of which were lower end models. The clerk explained that they were wiped out from their folk fest sales. There was also another festival happening at the time we arrived, and some of their stock was tied up at that event.

In the end it was a bust. Two and a half hours for nothing (except the promise of Middle Eastern food somewhere nearby, which in itself would be worth the trip).

We consulted with the Google mystery box to see what other options might be around. Two hits came up: Barry Bachman Music and Guitar Center. I haven’t written a full report on my feelings about Guitar Center, but I can see that will be necessary to add further context to this story. Maybe that can be the prequel.

With nothing to lose, we went to Barry Bachman Music – clearly a mom and pop place, which was fine by us. We were greeted by two men (father/son?) and a shop with only the most basic stock of low end guitars. There were no ukes or basses.

“I hope you’re not looking for a guitar,” said the one man. A short chat about the plight of small music stores and their big box nemeses followed. The only reason this store was on the map was because of the lessons they offer.

We really didn’t want to go to Guitar Center. I usually don’t have good experiences there when looking for something specific. Another option, Sam Ash in King of Prussia, was more appealing. I recalled a positive experience there once before when I purchased a cajon. A quick GPS re-route of our original course would put us there in under an hour and still within the vicinity of plenty of non-Italian, non-Americana, non-Mono-culture restaurants.

At Sam Ash we were surprised to find a decent selection of ukes, and at least a few basses. Audra and I split up into the different areas of the well-stocked acoustic room to focus. One of the basses, an Ibanez PCBE12MH Acoustic Bass, Open Pore Natural caught my eye immediately. The “open pore” matte finish was understated, the neck felt great, and it had good volume unplugged. There was no battery in the preamp compartment, but Rick, the salesperson, was very patient with my request to try it out and got me setup quickly while juggling other customers.

Plugged into a small Fishman Loudbox acoustic amp, the Ibanez had a pleasing tone. The Carlo Robelli and Fender basses didn’t appeal to me quite as much. Out of the three acoustic basses, the Ibanez was the clear winner for my budget. The lack of a case/gigbag in the price of the instrument was (as always) a disappointment. My take on this is that ALL instruments should come with some kind of case. Period.

Turning to Audra’s search, she was surprised to find that a Cordoba tenor uke was a strong possibility. It felt right, passed her E-chord test with her small hands, sounded good acoustically and once we got the battery unwrapped, also sounded good plugged in. The only thing Audra didn’t like was the position of the jack connector. Since I have a Cordoba nylon string guitar (bought used from Ebay), I was thrilled that she found a quality instrument by a trusted manufacturer.

We talked with Rick about gig bag options for the bass and the uke, and began the negotiation on a good deal for two instruments and cases. Then Rick pointed out a more expensive Kala Archtop Uke (KA-JTE/2TS), also a tenor. Kala is known for their entry-level instruments. During our year-long search, Audra discounted them out of hand. This Kala was one of their better models, and also met all of the requirements, and at least on the spot, sounded a bit nicer compared to the Cordoba. The jack for the plug was in a better location (at the end pin). We were thrilled to have options where previously we had none, so after a quick sidebar, we agreed the Kala was the one, and the Ibanez bass was a good buy.

A year-long quest had come to an end! Rick rang us up and it was a done deal. By this point it was going on 1:30. A former Stevie Vai band guitarist was giving a talk at 2:00, but we wanted to grab lunch, and if possible beat the traffic home.

We found a great Indian restaurant not far away, and looked forward to some jamming with the new gear, possibly some wine on the deck, and a fire on a wonderful summer night.

It wasn’t to be.

On the way home, the Indian food didn’t agree with Audra. I was feeling OK, but we both were glad to get home and take some time to rest. Audra did all of the driving, so once we were home she tried to take a nap.

After answering some messages, I took the bass into the studio to play it through my Ampeg PF*500 amp. I expected it to sound even better than the little Fishman I had tried in the store. I immediately noticed something odd. The E string sounded dead. The other strings rang out very clearly. Playing across the strings from E to A showed a jump in volume as you tracked from one string to the next.

Since I have experience making the same sort of pickups in this unit, it was readily apparent – the piezo element for the E string was either dead, or it was improperly aligned with the string.

In terms of issues, this is significant for playing through an amp or PA. It’s like running on three regular tires and your donut spare – it will get you to where you are going, but it is less than ideal, and you better not hit any challenging terrain. For a new instrument, it just wasn’t acceptable.

I immediately called Rick. We had a civilized, if rather confusing, chat about my options. There was something about how Sam Ash stores are not set up to take payment over the phone. Their warehouse could make something happen, but not without me going back down to King of Prussia. I proposed a mail order swap, allowing me to ship the defective unit back from home – I have done that with Sweetwater successfully. But that was not feasible with Sam Ash.

I had 45 days to return for a refund, or arrange for an exchange, but it would be at least a week or more before an exchange could happen – and not without getting the original unit to the store.

My options were:

  • Go back down Sunday. But I had a recording client that afternoon, and really didn’t want anything to even potentially interfere.
  • Go back down Monday on my birthday (yeah, that sounded like fun)
  • Wait until another opening in our schedule at the beginning of the school year, which wasn’t likely.
  • Leave at 5pm, get there at 7 before they close at 8.

I explained the situation to Audra and she agreed it was better to get this out of the way now before the school semester started, pepper harvests took over, and time became even more tight with our schedule. Audra was still recovering from our lunch, but agreed to go with me provided we took my car this time and I drove. I called Rick to confirm he’d be there, and we set off. We were not even home an hour before we turned around to hit the road again.

On the Road… again
From the road we called two other stores near King of Prussia to see if we could make this trip count for a bit more than this frustrating return of the Ibanez bass. The other places we called either didn’t have stock, were going to be closed at 6pm, or were too far out of our range. There was a Guitar Center in King of Prussia, but they closed at 8pm as well (same as Sam Ash) and it wasn’t clear if we’d make it there in time.

During the drive back down, Audra commented that when this was all done, we would be spending approximately the same amount of time as we did getting up to Maine for our vacation – roughly 8-9 hours with stops.

Thankfully the trip down was uneventful. Audra’s stomach settled down, and my own gastro issues were under control.

Once at Sam Ash, Rick quickly processed the refund. There were no other units to swap, so I returned both the case and the instrument. The case was not a 100% fit anyway. Rick was cool. I was clearly frustrated, and he handled it well. It’s clear that instruments aren’t always QCd before they go out on the floor, and hopefully this unit is addressed before they try to sell it again.

Since we made great time getting back down to King of Prussia, we decided to squeeze in one last attempt at Guitar Center. Sure, it could be a complete waste of time, but what the hell. We made it there with time to spare. They had a Dean EABC Cutaway Acoustic-Electric Bass. I played this model (or the non cutaway version) many times before in several other stores. A friend also owned one. The Deans are pretty predictable and consistent, and it was on my short list assuming no other options presented themselves.

There were two Ibanez basses at $250 and $400 price points, neither with a case. The Dean had no case either, but for the $200 or so that the instrument was worth, I wasn’t surprised. When I complained about this trend, one of the salespeople said, “Welcome to America,” alluding to the penny-pinching that continues by stores and manufacturers who try to squeeze everything they can out of consumers while providing less value.

After clearly driving the salesperson crazy with my questions, I played all three basses acoustically and through a proper bass amp. Pickups were all good, even competing with the two awesome funk bassists playing electric 6-strings behind me. The $399 Ibanez had a killer preamp with both high and low impedance output, but didn’t appeal to me as much for other reasons. In the end, the Dean was a known quantity. Sure, there was no case, but a quick check online found that a case or gig bag was available for a reasonable price on Amazon.

GC wanted to charge me $250 or more for the Dean, but I talked them down to $200 with price matching to Amazon. This was such a game, with me doing web searches across all the major vendors looking for one that GC would match.

I didn’t save on tax, but at this point the Dean was a known quantity in my hands that I could go home with right then. GC also tried to up-sell me on insurance for accidental or incidental damage, which I declined. Perhaps this is another motivation for not selling instruments with cases. Maybe they want you to be paranoid so you buy their insurance plan.

Satisfied that this second trip wasn’t a complete waste, Audra and I split the driving home and got back by about 10:30pm, exhausted.

This tale was worth typing up simply for therapy, but also to share some thoughts that other musicians might appreciate, and possibly some insights on the state of sales in the music market, and the travails of being a consumer today.

Again, these are all first-world problems and frustrations. I’ll get over it. I acknowledge that I am fortunate to have funds to buy an instrument, and to have a car to drive to these places, etc. I’m also lucky Audra was patient with me and understood the desire to resolve this quickly.

Those that know me well understand that I am interested in supporting local businesses, and building community. However, I also have pretty high standards of customer service, having worked in the service and music industries in some way for over 25 years.

Should I have purchased locally to avoid all the hassle associated with a “big box” retailer? I don’t know. I think I have a pretty good relationship with most of our local music stores. They just don’t have the selection required most of the time. I feel awkward asking them to order stuff just for me to play and possibly reject. I know their profit margins are low. Most of the time, I can order online and save then the hassle.

Is mail order the answer, or the enemy? I have a decent representative at Sweetwater, though they don’t always have exactly what I’m looking for. But at least they back their return policy and I don’t get any weird explanations about “brick and mortar” processing vs their online store. Maybe if I lived in Indiana and actually went to their retail store, I would have the same problem as what happened above. And if the store doesn’t do proper quality control, you may have the same problem as you would via mail order.

I really think you can’t win. You’re not going to keep the mom and pop from going out of business because they aren’t going to carry the stock – it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. As much as I wish that weren’t true, I think it’s inevitable. It may just be far more cost effective, less harmful to the environment, and a better use of everyone’s time to buy online. We spent eight hours in the car. Any discount we got on multiple purchases was eaten up in gas ($29 to be precise). Never mind my *time* which runs anywhere from $25 to $75 an hour depending on how you calculate it. Even if we take only the additional 4 hrs of hassle, that is $100 – $300 of my time that I just won’t see returned.

Sometimes I joke about a few colleagues who seem to purchase/return stuff online in a serial fashion. Clearly it pays to do your research and buy smart, but even when you go to a shop in person (small or large) you’re not guaranteed a good experience. And that is really a lesson about life in general. You can’t always get what you want. OK, point taken, but what does it say about the current state of commerce, not just in the music sector, but elsewhere? Maybe that is one for the economists.

Another insight – perhaps a bit more bright – artists will go to great lengths to share their love of music, and to have the right tools for the job.


By jjdeprisco

Sonic explorer, sound artist, guitarist in Fricknadorable, software designer.