Isthmus Feature Story
The March 24, 2000, issue of Isthmus, Madison’s weekly newspaper, gave us a very nice write-up. It seems that Isthmus writer Vesna Vuynovich Kovach had such a good experience purchasing a guitar here that she decided to write about it. Vesna’s article is especially recommended reading if you’re considering buying your first guitar.
By Vesna Vuynovich Kovach
A version of this story appeared in Isthmus, the weekly newspaper of Madison, Wisconsin.
When I was nine, we cashed in a pile of S&H Green Stamps for a guitar. I tried to learn to play it from instruction books and from Mr. Goeblein’s lessons down at the elementary school. But it seemed to have a sour sound that I could never quite tune out of it. The pegs fought back when I tuned them, and skewed out of place as I played. The strings sliced painfully into my fingers when I pressed down on them.
Guitar is hard, I thought, and envied the people “good at music” who could make beautiful noise ring gloriously from theirs. Every several years, I’d give it another try, with various guitars that passed through my life. Sometimes I got pretty good at ignoring how much it hurt. But I came to accept that I’d never be strong enough to play certain chords, especially the so-called bar chords, where you have to squish down all six strings with your index finger while twisting the others into impossible convolutions.
This January, it felt like time to try again, so I decided to visit Spruce Tree Music on East Johnson Street to see what they had to offer. It was an experience that transformed my rocky relationship with the guitar.
The moment I pulled open the wood-framed glass door to step inside, a rich, woody smell, powerful and calming as incense, filled my lungs. Dark and bright fused together, like a lump of amber or a deep note singing from a violin. My eyes adjusted to the soft light, and everything that appeared around me was wood: comfortably dull floorboards, acoustic guitars hanging from the ceiling and standing against the walls. Harps in the shop window; mile-high glass display cases with mandolins, violins, and ukeleles inside. A pair of golden retrievers, their smooth fur gleaming like polished maple, ambled to me.
A tall, bearded man who turned out to be co-owner Wil Bremer showed me the cheapest, most basic guitar they carry at about $250, it’s the one they recommend for beginners. I gave it an experimental strum, and I was stunned. Something was very different: it wasn’t torture to play it. Even the evil bar chord rang easily and true. Hey! You don’t need a vise-like grip to play the guitar!
Bremer tells me that my saga is actually quite common. “Bad guitars are the number one reason people give up learning to play the guitar,” he says. Spruce Tree carries many types of new and used guitars that range widely in quality and, of course, price. But, he says, they refuse to sell any guitar new or used that doesn’t meet their standards of playability.
Many people think quality doesn’t matter for a beginner or a child, so they wind up buying substandard instruments. Bremer’s partner, Julie Luther, says that’s a big mistake. “It’s even more important for beginners, because it needs to play easily and accurately. An experienced guitarist can negotiate difficulties. But for a beginner, if it’s hard to push the strings down, you don’t know if it’s you or the guitar.”
For a guitar to be playable, it’s not enough that it be made right. It has to be set up right, too. That’s why Spruce Tree takes pains to restring and make a cluster of adjustments (“Like an automobile tune- up,” says Luther) on every guitar before putting it in the showroom. “Poorly set-up guitars are a big source of discouragment,” says Luther, and not all retailers take pains to finesse each musical instrument that goes out the door.
How much difference can it make? A few years ago, just as she was about to ring up a hefty total for a classical guitar, Luther learned that the customer wanted it only for the softer nylon strings; his steel string guitar hurt his fingers. “He was a big, strong, broad-shouldered man, not a weakling,” she says. “He liked his guitar, but even after years of playing, it hurt. So I looked at it and saw it just needed $12 worth of adjustments. I told him. We made $12 on that transaction.
Why such a soft sell? “We’re a repair shop, first and foremost,” says Julie Luther, “That gives us a very different understanding of what guitars are and aren’t. We tell every customer to bring back their guitar after a few months. We’ll make sure it’s still adjusted right, free. We’ve developed a reputation along those lines.”
Meantime, I love my new guitar. I’m still a beginner, but I’m having a lot more fun. And by now, I do a pretty mean “Polly Wolly Doodle.”
Vesna Vuynovich Kovach is editor in chief of Erickson Publishing in Middleton, Wis. and a freelance writer.