During a lunch break on a recent weekday, dentist Mark Harris gleefully hops onto a makeshift stage in his rehearsal space and plugs in his treasured American Deluxe Stratocaster.
“With a maple fret board, plugged into a 1961 Fender Tremolux,” explains Harris as he cuts loose with some jagged, wall-shaking riffs ala Neil Young.
“It’s a real clean, chimey sound and it’s kind of the working man’s guitar sound,” Harris says of the Fender.
Most of his vast collection of instruments, all housed in a converted basement beneath his dental practice about an hour east of L.A., was purchased online.
“I think it’s just the trend in the music business,” says Harris.
“Lots of the other shops have just gone by the wayside because everything has gone online now. I’ve bought I’d say 75 percent to 90 percent of this stuff online. Guitars, too.”
There was a time when it may have seemed inconceivable to buy certain products online directly from manufacturers, like running shoes or cars -- but people do. And they have been for a while. Fender Vice President Richard McDonald says big guitar manufacturers are kind of behind the times.
“And today in the age of modern brands and customers' expectations, this type of evolution through specialty retail -- whether it’s sporting goods or clothing apparel -- it’s a pretty natural progression,” says McDonald, speaking from the National Association of Music Manufacturers convention in Anaheim, birthplace of Leo Fender.
“In some industries, it’s kind of a 10-years-ago conversation.”
A lot of people checking out instruments inside the crowed Fender showroom at last week’s NAMM convention had no idea they could also shop online directly from the company.
Dozens of musicians and merchants perused hundreds of candy-colored guitars, while ax-shredding demonstrators in black Fender shirts showed off the latest gear.
Greg Braught prefers to try before he buys. As he gingerly placed a vintage-looking sunburst-colored Fender guitar back on the rack I asked the Orange County musician if he’d consider buying that same guitar online.
“I would. As long as it had a good return policy just in case. But given Fender’s reputation for the quality of their build, I would,” says Braught.
“Having said what I just said, there’s no comparison to actually touching an instrument because it should feel like an extension of your fingers,” he adds.
“It should feel like extension of what you’re trying to bring out of your mind and heart.”
But Chris Cuellar, of Music Mike’s instrument store in Riverside, says he’s not too thrilled with Fender’s move.
“Internet is good for some things, but not for everything,” says Cuellar.
“It takes away that wholesome fun of going through your local music store and visiting a retailer that knows you and helps you pick your first, or third, or your fifth instrument.”
Cuellar concedes Fender is making an effort to steer customers to reputable dealers via a scroll-down function on its sales site. That listing includes his shop.
“But who’s gonna scroll? Let’s be honest, right, everybody’s so quick to click,” says Cuellar.
Fender waited until last year to make its wares available online. The rollout was remarkably muted, given the company’s attention to volume.
Fender’s McDonald says the company never intended to make a big splash in e-commerce. The move is more about creating a personal connection with customers, giving them purchasing options -- especially for musicians who may not have a guitar shop in their area.
That said, McDonald insists Fender is not trying to drive guitar shops out of business.
“Experiencing Fender electric guitars and amplifiers in a great local store with a knowledgeable sales person and consultant is the richest environment,” says McDonald.
“So if you look at the site, we’re constantly pushing people toward local dealers.”
But Cuellar worries that Fender’s move will trigger a domino effect that leads other instrument manufacturers to move in the same direction
“Once you take away the stores, you might as well take away the venues,” says Cuellar.
“I think if you have venues, you got to have stores, and if you have stores, you got to have venues around the corner somewhere,” says Cuellar.
“It just goes hand in hand.”
Fender declined to say just how its online sales are doing so far. But McDonald did say fewer customers seem to be using the site to actually buy guitars than to locate a Fender dealer in their area.