If there’s one thing that’s lacking for people trying to buy guitars online today, it definitely isn’t choice. Whether that’s a choice of brands, prices, styles, or even choice of retailers.
There are numerous big names when it comes to online shopping for guitars, gear, and all the associated accessories, but some stand out from the crowd as household names, Sweetwater and Musician’s Friend, for example.
Both of these stores have a well established online presence, and vast selections of gear for guitarists of all levels, but you might find yourself wondering, which is best? After having shopped at both stores, we strongly believe that Sweetwater offers a better customer experience than Musician’s Friend.
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ll be taking a deep dive into both Sweetwater and Musician’s Friend, giving you some background on these companies, and why we can objectively say that Sweetwater is the superior store – keep on reading to find out more!
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Sweetwater has a long history in the music gear retail space. Having been founded back in 1979 by Chuck Surack, who remains on the board of directors at Sweetwater today, they have remained in continuous operation under the same name.
Musicians’ needs have always been a central focus at Sweetwater – Surack toured with a band himself until starting the company. He found himself disappointed in the existing music equipment retailers of the time, and set out to create a true one stop shop.
Musician’s Friend History
Musician’s Friend had humble beginnings operating out of a Southern California Garage selling guitar strings via mail order. Being a relatively modern company (founded in 1983), they were quick to establish an online presence in the early 90s as the internet was just taking off.
Fast forward to 1999, and Musician’s Friend were purchased outright by music retail giants, Guitar Center in a multimillion dollar takeover, and to this day operate under their umbrella.
Musician’s Friend is currently run as an online only business. They formerly operated 7 different retail stores, but they were all absorbed by Guitar Center during the takeover.
Sweetwater on the other hand is primarily online, but they do have a megastore on their Fort Wayne Indiana Campus, with thousands of square feet of retail space open to the public.
In direct comparison, we find that the Sweetwater website is much more straight forward to navigate than that of Musician’s Friend.
Not only was it easier to use, but in a speed test on dareboost.com, the Sweetwater site also far outperformed Musician’s Friend, with their homepage fully loaded and interactive in 3.0 seconds, vs 6.3 seconds TTI (time to interactive) with Musician’s Friend.
Performance aside, Sweetwater also take more time to provide images of individual guitars, so customers can choose their exact instrument, making it as close as you can get to visiting a physical store to choose an instrument.
The points once again go to Sweetwater when it comes to customer service. Looking after customers is a core point of the business model at Sweetwater, with a dedicated “Sales Engineer” being assigned to every patron. They maintain fantastic scores on trusted review sites like Trustpilot, and operate with fairness and transparency.
Musician’s Friend, on the other hand, aren’t particularly renowned for their customer service. Their overall Trustpilot grade is poor, with a rating of “Bad”, which obviously doesn’t reflect well.
Musician’s Friend scores well in this area, with frequent, and often significant special offers and sales throughout the year, including their daily “Stupid Deal of the Day”, a random daily offer in which they heavily discount 1 select item.
Sweetwater do have sales and discounts, but they are less frequent, and in some cases difficult to find on their website. They do, however offer discounts on their demo models from their shop floor.
Both retailers offer large numbers of products for sale – Sweetwater claims to list 50,000 unique products for sale, with new items being added daily. Musician’s Friend has a larger offering, with a reported 85,000 items listed.
Due to their relationship with Guitar Center, who take a significant number of used guitars in trade across the country, Musician’s Friend has access to that entire supply of pre-owned instruments.
Sweetwater does have a small selection of used guitars for sale, but as they only have 1 physical location, they don’t receive a lot back in trade. What they do offer, however, is the Sweetwater Marketplace, an area of their site that operates much like Reverb, in which private sellers can list their used gear for sale.
Setup and Inspection
Part of Sweetwater’s appeal is their free 55 point inspection that every guitar over $299 gets prior to being shipped. One of their guitar techs will look over everything on the instrument, and repack the guitar before shipping it to the customer. It’s an added layer of protection on top of the factory QA that Sweetwater customers really like.
In addition, when buying from Sweetwater, you can (for an extra fee) have them perform a setup to your specification. You can ask for anything from a fret dress or action alteration, right through to a new nut or even upgraded pickups.
Musician’s Friend don’t have any such inspection to offer. Every new guitar they list, whether it’s $100 or $10,000 goes straight to the customer, factory sealed and uninspected. As they don’t have a team of guitar techs on staff, they are also unable to offer any kind of upgrade services, but instead, will recommend that you take your new guitar to one of the guitar techs at your local Guitar Center.
Pricing is an area in which both stores are working on an equal playing field. Especially for big box retailers, the manufacturers are very strict about how they set prices, so you’re unlikely to see much of any variation between Sweetwater and Musician’s Friend.
Sweetwater and Musician’s Friend both offer free shipping, but there are some differences in their policies, including qualifying items, and delivery times.
Musician’s Friend provides free ground shipping for most items over $25. Notable exceptions include large and heavy items, preowned gear, or international orders. They do offer upgrade options for next day or 2 days shipping for anybody looking to get their gear more quickly, but additional costs do apply.
At Sweetwater, their free 3 day shipping has no minimum price. If you order a single pick, shipping is still free! They do still have limitations when it comes to oversized items and international shipping, however. As with Musician’s Friend, there are expedited shipping upgrades available, too.
If you need gear now and you’d rather pay it off over time, both Sweetwater and Musician’s Friend offer multiple financing options. For instance, both stores offer a credit card (backed by Synchrony Financial), with almost identical terms. At Sweetwater they call it the Sweetwater Card, and at Musician’s Friend they call it the Musician’s Friend Platinum Card.
In both cases you’ll get up to 48 months interest free financing on select gear, depending on your individual creditworthiness, of course.
Musician’s Friend offers a split payment plan powered by Klarna, too, which takes the cost, and charges a designated card each month until the item is paid off. Sweetwater offers a similar program, but allows purchasers to choose between 3, or 6 month repayment plans.
Warranty and Returns
Musician’s Friend has the longer return window of the 2 stores, with 45 days vs 30 days from Sweetwater. In both cases they are theoretically “no questions asked”, so as long as the item you’re receiving is in like new condition, they will process a refund.
Sweetwater’s return policy isn’t as long, but they do offer something even more valuable – a free 2 year warranty on every item they sell. This does have some limitations, but it provides an added layer of protection on top of any manufacturer’s warranty that exists.
Musician’s Friend does not give out any free warranty coverage, but rather charges for their “Pro Coverage” policy. In fairness to Musician’s Friend, their pro Coverage is quite extensive, but admittedly it’s quite costly.
Final Thoughts on Sweetwater vs. Musician’s Friend
As we pointed out throughout this guide, there are some advantages to shopping at Musician’s Friend, but in our opinion, those few areas don’t outweigh the benefits of making your purchases at Sweetwater. Yes, it’s nice to have a big selection, but having the reassurance that comes with a free inspection, warranty, and great customer service is even nicer.
With Sweetwater, you’re dealing with real musicians who understand the products they’re selling. When you call for help, you aren’t speaking to someone in an overseas call center, you’re speaking to your actual Sweetwater Sales Engineer, working in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
Ultimately, both are great places to shop, but Sweetwater continues to impress and that’s why they’re our recommendation if you’re faced with a choice between the two.