What Should You Play in a Guitar Store

Guitar Noises #15: September 17, 2021

Every guitar store should have a sign along the lines of “Everyone welcome, come in, sit down and play.”

Trying out a guitar you don’t own shouldn’t be a reserved activity for people who shred like Steve Vai. In fact, since most people can’t shred like Steve Vai, we should expect to hear wildly different sounds of music inside a store.

I remember checking out a music store before I even played guitar. There was a kid, younger than me, killing it on some Clapton riffs. It sounded like he was playing the intro to Layla from Live Aid in 1985. But then it veered more to the version Clapton played at Knebworth ‘90. It was glorious. It left a big impression on me.

I started to think of guitar stores as special places for showing off what you could do. That kind of thinking stuck with me for too many years. How can you compete with people who have studied music forever? I realize now I’m not the only one who has felt shy about playing in a store. Any music store you go to, is probably going to have someone who works there, or just happens to be there, who plays guitar way better than you.

It’s a good thing to get over. Everyone should feel like it’s okay to try the instruments in a store. It’s one of the reasons why the music store still exists and hasn’t moved entirely online.

Personally I don’t think there should be a list of songs you aren’t allowed to play in the store. If you want to play the intro to Stairway to Heaven or Smoke on the Water it won’t bother me. I don’t work there. But I doubt any kind person would ask you to stop. Any store that asks you not to play, is basically asking you not to buy either.

Recently I’ve gotten used to not physically going into the music store. Everything is available online and I’ve even collected a new guitar using curbside pickup. After a recent lockdown ended I found myself in a music store again. I was stocking up on picks, strings, and the like. Of course I wanted to check out the guitars on display too.

I went in the acoustic guitar room and there was a guy in there already playing something. He really wasn’t very good. I could almost recognize what he was trying to play, but the notes and rhythm always failed right before the note that would have helped me name the tune. As he continued playing, he looked at me for some sort of approval. I had a mask on so he couldn’t tell if I was smiling or wincing. There was another guy in the room and even the back of his head looked annoyed.

But it got me thinking. What are you supposed to play in a guitar store? The struggling musician had just as much right to be there as anyone else. Maybe even more so. When he was walking around later I discovered he was on a first name basis with everyone who worked there. It was obvious this was his regular hangout spot. Haven’t we all missed having places like that in our lives? He really just needed to work on his guitar store repertoire.

So, what do you play in a guitar store?

The more I thought about that afternoon, the more I realized we need to be better prepared for trips to the store. No one ever talked to me about this stuff before, so I had to figure things out on my own.

What I decided is, I should develop my own guitar store repertoire. I actually tweaked this idea from watching Tony Polecastro videos. I know I gave Tony’s Acoustic Guitar Challenge a thumbs down in my review, but I still like watching some of his videos. I especially like his guitar reviews where he plays the same two songs on every guitar so you can hear the difference. (Here’s an example with a KLOS carbon fiber guitar.)

I started to think, I should be doing this in the guitar store. With every guitar I try I should play the same two songs the same way. Building a repertoire like this means I can practice those songs to perfection and not worry about what anyone else thinks.

Beginners often don’t have much of a repertoire. But they should work towards having one. Making sure you have two songs that you can play perfectly is a great goal to have. If you have a song that is almost there, don’t put it in your guitar store repertoire. Have a couple songs at your level, whatever your level is, that you can nail every single time. If there are other people in the room it won’t matter. Your aim is to be so rehearsed on those two pieces that getting nervous or feeling shy won’t cause you make a mistake. And because you know the music so well you’ll be better able to hear how the instrument truly sounds.

Don’t go in there with a “fake it until you make it” attitude. Have two pieces of music you have practiced so many times you can’t possibly mess them up. This is the “know it so you can’t blow it” method.

No one should be upset by hearing someone else playing in the store. Play Iron Man if that’s your best song. And never be shy or embarrassed by your playing in the store.

Be yourself. Because no one else can.