Take Time to Stop and Smell the Rosewood

According to Statista there were 1.39 million acoustic guitars sold in 2016.  So where do most people buy their guitars?

A multi-year survey of higher end ($900 or more) guitar buyers conducted by The Music Trades Magazine showed that 22% of respondents bought their last guitar online, another 37% got theirs at a major chain store and 41% found that instrument at an independent music store.

I’ve been playing guitar for about 50 years. My first instrument was a Gibson jumbo folk guitar that my parents bought for me when I was in high school and which I wish I had held onto given today’s resale value.  Over the next five decades I bought and sold nearly a dozen other acoustic guitars.  Only once in all those years did I buy an instrument online and I returned it within about 24 hours.

There is much to be said for the convenience of buying.  I confess that sites like Amazon Prime can be intoxicating, especially around the holidays when stores are crowded and parking is at a premium.  Still, about 88% of all US retail sales in 2016 took placein person and often in smaller retail storesaccording to the U.S Department of Commerce ().

Buying a guitar – or virtually any musical instrument – can be a trulysensory experience.  I’ve heard it said that we “eat with our eyes first” and only then do we experience the aroma and the taste of our food.  So, too, at least four of our five senses can come into play in picking out an acoustic instrument, whether it’s a beautiful Collings acoustic guitar, a Deering Ukulele, Gold Tone banjo or am Eastman mandolin, this is something we see at the Denver Folklore Centeralmost every day.

We first use sight in deciding which instruments we will even pick up and try.  If the guitar (or mandolin, or fiddle or banjo) doesn’t appeal to us visually, chances are we will move on to something else.  When we pick up an instrument we immediately sense its weight, balance and texture.  In these ways we use our sense of touch to decide which size instrument we like, which finish on the neck helps us play comfortably and how well it sits in our lap.

As we play, how the instrument sounds takes over.  Is the sound balanced?  Too much bass?  Too bright?   We each hear the sound that an instrument produces differently.  It can be an interesting challenge for our staff to match our own language for describing sound with how a buyer hears the same sound.

For the more experienced player or buyer a fourth sense, smell, may come into play.  When a new instrument arrives in our shop, whoever is checking it in will likely inhale near the soundhole to access the aromas of the unfinished wood inside.   While the outside of fretted instruments aretypically sealed and finished, the inside is raw wood.  Different tone woods – Mahogany, Spruce, Cedar, Rosewood, and Maple – each have distinct aromas.  Smelling the instrumentcompletes the sensory experience for some buyers.

Tempting as it might be to order a high quality fretted instrument online, I would personally miss these sensory experiences in a setting where I can compare lots of choices.  And since every piece of wood has its own unique character (having been cut from a different part of the tree than all others), so every finished instrument is unique in appearance, sound, feel and, even, smell.  So I’m quite sure my next instrument will be bought in person so that I can stop and smell the Rosewood.

Where I decide to buy my next coffee brewing machine is another matter.


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