NEW YORK — This summer, a pair of independent musicians — Baltimore’s Danny Greenwald and Brooklyn’s Noah Wall — released new albums online. This is not exactly notable, and on the surface there is little overlap between them; Greenwald’s music favors woozy loops and dreamlike soundscapes, while Wall’s songs range wildly from solo piano to noise rock. But there is one crucial fact that ties the albums together: They were both recorded at the neighborhood Guitar Center.
In surreptitiously recording oblivious customers — from young teens stumbling over scales to the stereotypical ponytailed shredders — and then assembling these sounds into something new, Wall and Greenwald make a sly commentary on the corporate retail store’s monoculture.
“Guitar Center is like the Wal-Mart of music stores, sterile and following scripts to sell you more stuff,” Wall said about the national chain that served as muse for his album, cheekily titled “Live at Guitar Center.” “The sound of Guitar Center is a chaotic din. I never even set foot in one until I was desperate for strings and a piece of gear that my local shop didn’t have.”
Greenwald, who grew up in Columbia, Md., also avoided the chain store as a kid. “I would go in and be turned off by the whole environment,” he said. “But I did go there to buy my very first electric guitar when I was 14. I just remembered it was bright red, and there were pictures of Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow everywhere.” Greenwald said he patronizes stores such as Atomic Music in Beltsville, Md.
On both Greenwald’s “No Stairway” and Wall’s “Live at Guitar Center,” one can hear the sound of David vs. Goliath, with two small independent musicians casting rocks at the corporate giant. But with recent reports of financial woes, Guitar Center might not be quite the behemoth it once was.
Guitar Center wasn’t always the industry giant. It was founded by Wayne Mitchell in 1959 and began as the Organ Center, a single shop in Hollywood set up to sell and repair small appliances and electronic organs for use in homes and churches. In 1964, Mitchell was approached by Joe Banaran, president of the Thomas Organ Co., to sell a new line of amplifiers and guitars by the Vox brand. And since a new rock-and-roll group called the Beatles used Vox amplifiers almost exclusively, it was a smash success, and the company soon changed its name to the Vox Center.
But as the decade wore on and rock-and-roll culture became dominant (alongside companies such as Marshall, which made the eventual amp of choice for everyone from Clapton to Jimi Hendrix to the Who), the future of music no longer resided in selling Vox amps or organs for living rooms but rather guitars for a new generation of kids wanting to be rock stars.
Soon the company rebranded itself as Guitar Center and began to expand. By the 1990s, according to Guitar Center’s Web site, “grand openings were taking place at a rate of 1 to 2 stores a month.” In 1997, the company went public, and in the 21st century it acquired both Musician’s Friend and Music & Arts Center. Eventually, Guitar Center accepted a buyout bid from Bain Capital Partners for a deal reported to be worth $2.1 billion. The company continued to expand, with more than 240 locations across the United States, squeezing out smaller independent stores in the process. But in May 2013, Standard & Poor’s, citing “weak operating trends,” lowered the company’s rating from an already low B-minus to CCC-plus, meaning Guitar Center’s stock was now at “junk bond” status.
Last year, Ares Management took a controlling stake in the music retailer. But while the company recently opened a mammoth flagship store in Times Square, Forbes reported in May that Guitar Center may “finally sink.” The article included a copy of a new employee agreement “decreasing sales commissions from 10% on profit and 2% on gross down to 0.25%,” meaning that salespeople were looking at a significant reduction in commissions.
“There’s something dystopian about the whole place,” guitarist Dave Harrington said.
Harrington plays guitar in the electronic duo Darkside and, more recently, in a Grateful Dead tribute act alongside Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo. “Guitar Center is like the guitar store at the end of the world. It’s so intimidating. You walk in and instantaneously feel like you’re in some cosmic audition. But it’s also the most anonymous environment you could possibly make music in.”
Harrington then acknowledged that the guitar he played most while touring with Darkside was one he bought off the rack at the Guitar Center location where Wall recorded his album.
Musicians of all stripes have a love-hate relationship with the chain store, which they often despise out of hand when compared with their local independent retailers. But Guitar Center can also seem like an oasis, whether for a musician in need while out on tour or a curious kid growing up in the suburbs.
“Since I started playing guitar in middle school, I’ve been extremely into Guitar Center,” Matt Mondanile said. As the guitarist for New Jersey-based indie band Real Estate and his own recording project, Ducktails, Mondanile still finds himself returning to the store. “Going to Guitar Center grounds me,” he said. “I have been to almost every Guitar Center in the Los Angeles area, and it makes me realize that I am just a dude trying to get a good deal on some music gear.”
“No Stairway” came into existence from Greenwald trying to utilize Guitar Center’s plethora of top-notch gear for an unbeatable price: free. “I decided to try to record their high-priced synths to try to commandeer their sounds on my own, but what I was able to get wasn’t that great,” Greenwald said. “But one day this gnarly dude was just going for it on a drum kit. I took a quick sample, slowed it down, and that’s how it really started. I started to hear some kind of solace in a place that is sonically hellish.”
While not offering an official comment, Guitar Center is aware that such instances of recording go on in their stores. Per policy, customers are allowed to try out any of the instruments.
One recent afternoon, I met Wall near Union Square in New York. “After school is peak time to go to Guitar Center as the kids flock there and show off,” he said.
For a week, Wall would go to this particular location every day, a pair of binaural microphones that looked like headphones on his ears recording for hours at a time. “I would grab a book like ‘Guitar Chords for Beginners’ so that I would look innocent,” he said as we walked into the din of the store. “That way I could get really close to people without them suspecting or else intimidating them. No one ever caught on, and I was definitely loitering.”
As we walked around Guitar Center, the range of noise was vast: beeping phones, voices over the intercom, loud screeches of packing tape being pulled off a reel. And behind it all there was an incessant, formless noodling on various guitars and drums. Wall walked toward the drum room and his smile widened: Three separate drummers, with headphones on their heads, had gone from playing three random rhythms to being completely synchronized, unbeknownst to one another. “In terms of serendipity, there was this Jackson 5 song on the record, ‘ABC,’ played on different days, one time on the keyboard, another on slap bass,” he said.
A Guitar Center employee named Raeph, tattooed from neck to knuckles, asked us whether we needed any help. Wall asked whether he is ever overwhelmed by all the sound here.
“I can tune out all the noise,” he said, then added: “Should there be 5 million guitar players? Hell, no. Do I need to hear ‘Enter Sandman’ ever again? Hell, no. If I hear the intro to ‘Sweet Child O’ Mine’ will I throw myself on that person? Hell, yes. But I work in a music store, so I have to have an attitude that’s conducive to being around music.”
Raeph said he has been a Guitar Center employee for 13 years. He has been playing drums for over 30 years, primarily in very loud black-metal and hard-core bands. He grumbled about Guitar Center’s changing corporate environment, the recent cut in commissions, but shrugged at the suggestion that bankruptcy might loom in the company’s future.
“Technically, my role is the same,” Raeph said. “My job is to help kids build their dreams.”
He then walked over to ask a customer whether he needed any help.
Beta is a freelance writer.