For the past two years Guitar Center has been quietly remodeling its flagship Hollywood, California, location.
Now that the job is done, the company's not being so quiet anymore.
On Saturday night in front of the company's Hollywood store, in a feat on par with diverting the river Nile, Guitar Center shut down all six lanes of Sunset Blvd., erected a giant stage and held a free concert with mesmerizing young rapper/drummer/singer Anderson .Paak and his stellar band.
In another attention-grabbing move—one that should thrill guitar lovers—the store has put some of the world’s most legendary guitars on display at the main entrance, including Eddie Van Halen’s famous “Frankenstein” guitar, Eric Clapton’s beloved “Blackie” Fender Stratocaster and Cream-era Gibson ES-335 and B.B. King’s Gibson “Lucille #15,” which hasn’t been played since the late bluesman performed with it on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson in 1990.
Guitar Center has invested $5 million to knock down walls, raise ceilings and transform its flagship store from what was once a semi-ragtag, 30,000-square-foot amalgamation of disparate rooms into what I would describe simply as the ultimate guitar petting zoo.
The metamorphosis is dramatic, and if the aforementioned publicity stunts are any indication, Guitar Center clearly wants you to notice.
As a regular shopper on Sunset Blvd.’s “music row” (a group of retailers that includes Sam Ash, Mesa/Boogie, and, of course, Guitar Center), I noticed things were different at GC Hollywood the moment I stepped through its back door. (That’s right, L.A. regulars, you can finally enter the store from its rear parking lot!)
Once inside that door, the next thing you’ll see is a new stairway—at the top of which sits a brand-new multi-room teaching center, complete with eight private lesson rooms and an ensemble space.
“We’ve transformed nearly all of our 290 Guitar Center locations to include teaching facilities,” says Donny Gruendler, the company’s vice-president of education. “We’ve hired the best teachers we can find all over the country, created a proprietary six-level teaching program with Hal Leonard and have already taught over 735,000 half-hour lessons nationwide this year alone. And we often reach out to local communities too, by offering free music workshops on Saturdays.”
Of course, it’s more exciting to enter the new Hollywood store from the front sidewalk, where a huge, new half-block-long mural (courtesy of artists Patrick Griffith, Amanda Lynn, and Scott Marsh) graces the face of the building and blasts your retinas with colorful images of music making, including a near-three-story-tall portrait of Jimi Hendrix.
And in a stroke of perfect feng shui, if you’re standing on the store’s famous RockWalk — which features handprints from over 100 legendary musicians (my favorite print being Billy Gibbons’ left one, because it features a brass slide embedded in the concrete) — you can now see, through the double glass doors, directly into the store’s famous vintage room, which currently houses over 250 vintage instruments and 180 top-shelf new electrics (such as Fender, Gibson and Paul Reed Smith custom shop offerings).
“Even in this age of Internet shopping, the huge majority of the gear we sell is from our brick-and-mortar stores, not online,” says Michael Amkreutz, executive vice-president of merchandise, marketing and eCommerce at Guitar Center. “A static image on a website is nothing compared with the real thing. With that in mind, we wanted to create a space where you can see an instrument, feel it, touch it, play it and fall in love with it.”
To reach that aim, the store is now more “experiential,” says Amkreutz, who points to several newly constructed interactive celebrations of musical gear as proof — a gargantuan wall-mounted pedalboard that allows you to instantly try out any of 182 stompoxes and multi-effectors, dozens of pairs of studio monitors you can instantly switch between via a simple touch-panel interface, interactive microphone displays from Shure and Sennheiser/Neumann, towering walls of Martins, Taylors and other acoustic instruments, a clinic space featuring a stage rigged with a line-array P.A. and large LED video screens and a room where people can grab drum sticks and test out 100 different snare drums. (Thankfully, that last room is well-separated from Guitar Land.)
In an era when click-bait journalism has tried to proclaim the guitar to be dead or on life support, it’s reassuring to see a major retailer investing so heavily in the futures of both the guitar-buying experience and music education.
“Keyboards and DJ stuff are doing well — and to that we say the more the merrier — but our stringed instruments division is not only healthy, it’s the healthiest part of our business,” says Michael Doyle, vice-president of guitar merchandising at Guitar Center. “Guitars and guitar-related products are still the dominant part of what we do. Interestingly, in 2018, acoustic and acoustic-electric guitars have actually outpaced electrics, sales-wise. Part of that is because customer demand is moving up-market towards higher-end American instruments, but it’s also because manufacturers are doing a really good job at not merely coming out with compelling new products, but also launching them in a timely and organized fashion.”
Speaking of manufacturing, Doyle is excited to point out that Guitar Center has been developing new ways of bringing guitars to market, and he cites the new semi-hollow ML3 electric from Chapman Guitars as one example.
“That guitar was designed not just by Rob Chapman, but also by his 650,000 YouTube followers,” says Doyle. “It’s the world’s first crowd-sourced electric guitar. Rob is not just some guy tinkering in his backyard. Rob is a great guitarist and builder who has embraced the digital age. He has a tribe of followers. I call it tribal-sourcing — the tribe voted on every stage of the ML3’s evolution.
“On the other hand,” continues Doyle, “we are still doing extremely well with traditional brands, such as Gibson, Fender, PRS, Taylor and Martin, to name a few.”
For Amkreutz, the biggest challenge of Guitar Center Hollywood’s extreme makeover was that the store had to remain open throughout the entire process.
“It was the most complex remodel ever,” says Amkreutz. “It was like switching out the engines on a 747 while flying it. But we got it done.”