So I kicked off the great guitar upgrade adventure recently. I’ve had my trusty Yamaha for almost 8 years, but I can tell the dear thing has its limitations. I’ve been dinking around on guitar all my life and practicing in earnest for 3 years, even though most of the time I’m still too mortified to play in front my Baby Boomer friends who bought their first guitars before I was born. I’m starting to appreciate that it’s not always just the skill of the player, it’s the quality of the instrument too. Or at least I don’t have as much of a string-buzzing problem on my baby Taylor, which is a fine creature but hurts my left arm too much to play regularly. The time seemed ripe to embark on the quest.

Plus I just got an advance for my new book, The Songbird Thief, coming out from Harmony Ink Press in 2016, yes that is the sound of SQUEEEE!! It seemed appropriate to celebrate with music, since the book is about a musician. Even though I know it would be prudent to reinvest the advance in promotion for the book. Or keep trying to recover from the 30% income tax hit that came from working as a music teacher for all of 2014. So, prudently, I went straight to Guitar Solo.

Let’s talk for ten seconds about being a girl in a guitar store. Back in the 90s when I was a newly minted adult let loose on my own in music stores, it was more accepted for the (always male) staff to actually say things like “So are you looking for something for your boyfriend/dad/brother?” Now I get the feeling they’re only thinking that as they look over my shoulder for my inevitable chaperone. Some places have gotten better. Guitar Center in Emeryville might deserve its reputation for not training their staff on acoustic instruments and only stocking mega-brands, but they do have a few female employees, and I’ve always been treated with the same hipster disdain as any male customer as far as I can tell. Bless the retail staff at Starland Music; they’re an all-woman crew of walking encyclopedias and most of them can play rings around you. But Starland mainly caters to students, and this is an upgrade quest.

Also, full disclosure, I am a chick singer who strums. I’ll never be an instrumentalist first. There’s a tired stereotype that singers are not musicians, that we just grope around by instinct and have no training or discipline while the rest of the band works hard to make us sound good. But that stereotype mainly comes from the fact that not as many women played instruments up until recent times. Nobody calls Bono a dude singer. I applaud the hell out of the Tom Tom Academy and the Girls Rock Camps. I’m sure I’m not the only one who replayed that scene with Tia Carrere playing the bass in Wayne’s World over and over or obsessed about Kim Gordon. But those are exceptions.

At any rate, I did not get the standard chick singer treatment at Guitar Solo, so thumbs up to them. The nice staff person asked me about my price range and the style of guitar I was looking for and then picked out a few instruments for me to try. It was lunchtime on a weekday and with 2 staff and 3 or 4 other customers, I was the only woman there, but that’s no surprise. Everyone left me to shop on my own, which is way better than asking if I was there to look for a guitarist (!!). I commandeered a handy bench and spent the next 45 minutes trying to compare instruments.

I followed the advice I got to play the same thing on every guitar for an honest side-by-side comparison. My choices were a G major scale, the melody to If I Needed You, and Pretty Saro with different chord shapes. Next time I’ll be bold enough to sing my song choice louder, since what I need is a guitar that can stand up to my singing.

I didn’t think I’d be able to hear a real difference, especially since I wasn’t the only one test-driving the stock right then, but I was wrong. I played a Larivee cutaway that was bigger than I wanted and I wasn’t especially looking for a cutaway, but it had a nice even voice (and I do love things made in Canada, ever since that adorable little Art & Lutherie guitar I rented at Acoustic Corner in Black Mountain, NC for the Swannanoa Gathering). And I tried out 3 Blueridges with different woods. One had a similar sound to the trusty Yamaha, a little too bright for me. One clearly had a bowed neck and I didn’t want to get into repairs before I even bought the thing.

And one was Goldilocks. It had rosewood back and sides, which gave it that warm counterweight sound I was looking for. It was narrower than my dreadnought, so it was lovely and comfortable to hold, but it didn’t sound too light. I tried the other ones and then went back to Goldilocks in between. The sales guy came by to offer me a discount on it. I only hesitated because a) this was my first stop on the quest and b) I was holding out hope for a used instrument I could afford. But I may just be back for that lovely thing.

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Next stop on the shopping tour: Gryphon Strings!

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