Since the demise of the “mom and pop” music store, serious musicians and casual buyers alike find it to be increasingly difficult to get the gear they need locally, and as such have had to turn to big box stores to find what they’re looking for.
The two biggest names in the business are undoubtedly Sweetwater and Guitar Center. Both offer unparalleled selections at great prices, but the question remains, which is better? In our opinion, Sweetwater is a better store than Guitar Center, but to find out exactly why we came to this conclusion, you’re going to want to read on!
In this KillerGuitarRigs Guide, we’ll be giving you an in depth look at these retail giants, and some objective opinions on both to explain why one is better than the other.
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Sweetwater is based in Fort Wayne Indiana, and was founded by Chuck Surack in 1979. Chuck himself was a touring musician, and so, he had a clear understanding of what musicians wanted and needed. Surack is still the Chairman of the Board at Sweetwater and maintains a hand in operations.
Guitar Center History
Guitar Center was founded in Hollywood, California in 1959, by Wayne Mitchell. Mitchell got his start by selling Organs and organ accessories, doing business under the name “The Organ Center”. Commercial pressure from suppliers meant he eventually ended up stocking more amplifiers and guitar products over time, and as the rock and roll frenzy took hold in the 60s and 70s, guitars accounted for the majority of sales, and so, the business was renamed to “The Guitar Center”. Today, Guitar Center is owned and operated by investment giants, Ares Management.
Having physical locations across the United States is one of the few areas in which the Guitar Center bests Sweetwater. There are currently 294 Guitar Center stores across the country. This does give shoppers the opportunity to try before they buy (provided Guitar Center actually has the item in stock).
Sweetwater, on the other hand, currently only have 1 physical store, which is attached to their Fort Wayne, Indiana headquarters.
The Sweetwater website is far superior to that of Guitar Center. It’s easier to navigate, the images are clearer, and pages load much faster. The website is where one of Sweetwater’s best features comes in, too – the Sweetwater Guitar Gallery. Every guitar is removed from its box, weighed, and photographed from multiple angles. All of the pictures are posted on the website, and shoppers can actually choose which guitar they want to buy. This is great if you want to check out the wood grain of guitars with natural finishes.
When it comes to customer service, there are few businesses in any industry that do things better than Sweetwater. The most notable feature of their customer service is their team of “Sales Engineers”; the first time you make a purchase at Sweetwater, you’ll be assigned what they call a Sales Engineer – they’re effectively sales reps, but they are all just as passionate about music and the gear to make it as you are. They’re extremely knowledgeable about the inventory, and are always on hand to provide advice, and even go so far as to give you a direct line, so you get to talk with the same rep every time you need them.
Your assigned Sales Engineer will often check in between purchases with a phone call to see if there’s anything you’re looking for. It’s a great touch, and those who have bought from Sweetwater often find it difficult to shop at other music retailers afterwards.
Sweetwater are also extremely transparent about the condition of their demo guitars. Even though they’re sold at a discount, a detailed report of any defects or damage is posted on the listing, along with closeup pictures.
Sweetwater maintains an “Excellent” 4.6 stars rating (at the time of writing) from 1054 reviews on Trustpilot, which is no mean feat.
Customer Service at Guitar Center is definitely one of their weakest points. They don’t have dedicated personal sales engineers like Sweetwater, although they have recently introduced what they call “Gear Advisors”. In essence, Guitar Center Gear Advisors are employees who are more knowledgeable than the call center operators, but there’s no guarantee you’ll speak to the same person each time you call.
Guitar Center has also been reported by many online reviewers to be sending used or demo gear to customers who have specifically purchased new. From 210 reviews at the time of writing, they earned just 1.5 stars on Trustpilot, which is a grade of “Bad”.
Both Sweetwater and Guitar Center have special offers throughout the year, particularly on the big shopping holidays (think Black Friday). One nice thing about Guitar Center is that they post a random “Daily Deal”, in which they heavily discount one item for 24 hours – this is something not offered at Sweetwater.
There are products from literally hundreds, if not thousands of brands carried at Sweetwater and Guitar Center respectively. Both brands have huge product selections across basically every musical instrument and gear category imaginable, and with that in mind, it’s hard to say that one is any better than the other.
Because Guitar Center has more physical locations, they do take in guitars as trade in, meaning they have a larger used selection. The used guitars are listed online, making them available for purchase all over the country, regardless of where they were traded. The downside to Guitar Center’s used selection is that the online descriptions are usually pretty scant, and the pictures are often low resolution, making it difficult to see what you’re really getting.
Sweetwater do sell some used guitars via their online store, but they’re few and far between. Where they do have an edge on Guitar Center is their Used Gear Marketplace. The marketplace is similar to Reverb in that Sweetwater are only providing a platform for people to sell their own gear via – this means no outrageous markups.
Setup and Inspection
Guitar Center sells all of their guitars “factory-sealed from the manufacturer”, which means there is no final set of eyes cast upon them before they leave the store or the warehouse. They do recommend that customers take their new guitars to a luthier or tech after delivery to have a proper setup performed.
Sweetwater takes things to the extreme, and provides a free 55 point inspection service on every guitar over $299. In the packaging, you’ll get a hand signed tech’s report card showing exactly what was check and if any action was required. Sweetwater also employs an entire team of trained luthiers and guitar techs, and so, they’re able to offer a full range of upgrade and setup services before the guitar is shipped. You can have them perform anything from a simple setup to a Plek service, nut replacement, or even pickups and hardware upgrades – the sky is the limit.
Both companies have similar pricing on items across the board. It’s only on rare occasions that you’ll find an item at a significantly lower price at one store. Sweetwater does try to give the impression that their prices have been slashed from MSRP by showing that figure, then showing the “Sweetwater Price” as a much lower number, despite the fact that the Sweetwater price usually matches Guitar Center’s pricing.
Free shipping is available from both retailers, although delivery times and qualifying amounts vary.
At Guitar Center you’ll get free ground shipping on all purchases over $25, provided that the items aren’t heavy/oversized, or being shipped overseas. You can upgrade to 2 day, or next day shipping if you’re in a hurry, but both services carry a pretty hefty premium.
Sweetwater have no minimum purchase to qualify for their free 2 day shipping. As with Guitar Center, this offer doesn’t apply to oversize/overweight items, or items being shipped abroad. If you need your items faster, you can upgrade to next day shipping, too.
If you’re looking to get gear now and pay later, both Sweetwater and Guitar Center offer a range of finance and payment options. Both stores offer credit cards provided by Synchrony, and both have similar terms, on the Guitar Center “Gear Card”, and the “Sweetwater Card” you’ll get upwards of 48 months interest free, giving plenty of time to pay off your gear without interest.
Guitar Center offers a no credit needed “lease to own” program aimed at those with less than perfect credit, too, although we wouldn’t recommend it – for example, if somebody in Florida who is paid weekly takes up this offer and buys an item for $1000, they will pay a total of $2279 per the payment estimator on the Guitar Center website.
Sweetwater also offers a nontraditional payment plan, but doesn’t apply interest. For those who qualify, Sweetwater will offer 3- or 6-month payment plans in which the cost of the item is split into 3 or 6 equal payments. Each month, they charge the card on file for the agreed amount, and at the end of the term, you own the item.
Warranty and Returns
Another clear difference between Guitar Center and Sweetwater is with warranties and returns. Guitar Center don’t offer any kind of free extended warranty. They have their basic 45 day return policy, which we must add is reasonably generous. If at any point in that time frame you aren’t happy with a purchase, providing it’s in like new condition, Guitar Center should provide a full refund (with some exceptions as noted in the terms and conditions on their website).
As far as warranties at Guitar Center go, if you want anything above and beyond the manufacturer’s warranty, you will have to purchase the “Pro Coverage” extended warranty. In theory it covers quite a lot of scenarios, including accidental drops, damage caused by humidity, and even failures due to wear and tear. It more closely resembles an insurance package than it does a warranty program, and of course, there are limitations and exclusions.
At Sweetwater almost every product they sell is covered by a free 2 year warranty that, quite incredibly, even covers parts and labor, and faster turnaround times than the manufacturers can offer to boot. Even in the event that an item you buy has a longer warranty than 2 years, the Sweetwater coverage won’t negatively impact that. It’s truly a great deal.
While the warranty offer is clearly superior, it’s worth noting that the return period at Sweetwater is shorter. They do offer a no hassle returns policy in which you can return any item in like new condition that you aren’t happy with for a full refund within 30 days of shipping. Used items do get a longer buyback period of 90 days, but refunds are only issued for used items in the event of malfunction or failure not caused by the purchaser.
Final Thoughts on Sweetwater vs. Guitar Center
While there are some areas in which Guitar Center has an edge on Sweetwater, they simply can’t compete in the areas that matter most, which in our opinion are customer service, warranty, and setup.
Having such excellent customer service is a rare thing these days, and the team at Sweetwater really make it feel like they enjoy helping out fellow musicians. The 2 year warranty coverage should give any buyer huge peace of mind, too, especially when making big purchases. Finally, having that extra set of eyes verify the factory QA also means that there’s usually less chance of having to make returns or claims in the first place, as more obvious flaws are picked up ahead of time.
If you’ve yet to make a purchase from Sweetwater, you should absolutely give them a try.