With online shopping, buying instruments and gear online is easier now than ever. When I started playing bass, I was stuck going to Guitar Center or the local music store, hoping they had what I needed. Now, you can go online and shop at a myriad of online stores.
You have many options, though Musician’s Friend is becoming one of the most dominant names. But does this online retailer still compete with corporate giants like Guitar Center? I wanted to compare the two and see which one you should shop at.
Bottom Line Up Front
I suggest shopping at Musician’s Friend, even though Guitar Center is one of the most recognized music retailers. Musician’s Friend has nearly the same inventory as Guitar Center, and they offer free shipping and numerous deals. Guitar Center does have a physical store, which is a better option if you want to test out an instrument before buying it.
Main Differences Between Guitar Center vs Musician’s Friend
The main differences between Guitar Center vs Musician’s Friend are:
- Guitar Center has retail stores, whereas Musician’s Friend is exclusively an online store
- Musician’s Friend offers a generous return policy, whereas Guitar Center is more stringent
- Musician’s Friend is more centered around the customer experience, whereas Guitar Center operates like any corporation (to me, at least)
- You can play instruments in stores at Guitar Center, whereas you can’t test out gear at Musician’s Friend
- Guitar Center buys used gear, but I can’t see any offers from Musician’s friend
- Since Guitar Center has locations in-store, they can offer one-on-one service, whereas Musician’s Friend doesn’t
Guitar Center shouldn’t need an introduction. They’re the largest music retailer in the U.S., and they have locations throughout the country. Though they purchased Musician’s Friend, these are still two separate companies and have their own pros and cons.
- Huge inventory
- Has additional services, such as lessons and repairs
- Decent used selection
- Can buy used instruments and gear
- Numerous stores throughout the country
- May not get your money’s worth when selling your used gear
Instruments and Gear
Guitar Center arguably has one of the best selections of instruments, gear, and accessories. They carry major brands such as Fender, Gibson, PRS, and Ibanez, in addition to vintage, high-end, and niche brands. Guitar Center also has a decent used selection, especially if you’re looking for used or vintage items.
The only problem with Guitar Center is selections vary for each store. There have been times when I was told my local Guitar Center had an item–then I go to the store and find out it’s not there. That’s why I suggest ordering online unless you’re buying an expensive item.
Bottom line: Guitar Center has one of the best selections of instruments, gear, and accessories. Just know that inventory varies between stores, so you may want to play it safe and order online.
Retail and Online Stores
One of the main advantages of Guitar Centers over Musician’s Friend is you can easily find a physical store in your area. Even one of my ex-boyfriends who lived in a small town was able to find a Guitar Center within an hour of where he lived.
Plus, it’s easy to find what you need. While all stores are different, they all have the same layout–electric guitars and basses are next to each other, with a separate acoustic room.
There’s also a drum room and a section for pro-audio, live sound, and lighting. They don’t have the biggest orchestral section, but it’s still worth visiting if you need brass, wind, or string instruments.
If you’re like me and prefer shopping online, Guitar Center has a great online store. I’ve ordered items from there before and had no issues with shipping or out-of-stock items. I also like how you can read reviews on the website.
Bottom line: Guitar Center has many physical stores throughout the country, which is a huge advantage. The stores have an organized layout, so it’s easy to find what you need. You can also shop on Guitar Center’s website if you prefer shopping online.
I’ve never noticed a significant price difference between Guitar Center and Musician’s Friend, likely because the same company owns them. But the one thing I noticed about Guitar Center is they don’t offer as many deals as Musician’s Friends, especially when it comes to guitars.
Bottom line: Even though Guitar Center has similar prices as Musician’s Friend, GC doesn’t host as many sales as MF and other competitors. This often makes Guitar Center slightly more expensive.
Guitar Center offers free ground shipping on most orders in the U.S. On their website, Guitar Center doesn’t specify which items qualify for free shipping or if there’s a minimum order amount. All they state is oversized items, special orders, vintage, used, and clearance products don’t qualify for free shipping.
They explain there’s a $25 minimum purchase when shipping to your home, though you can avoid this by shipping an item to your local Guitar Center (excluding Hawaii and Alaska). Most ground shipping orders process the same day and take 2-5 days to ship. Guitar Center can also ship internationally. Shipping rates vary by country.
Bottom line: Guitar Center offers free ground shipping on most items, though there are some exclusions. There’s a $25 minimum purchase when shipping to your home, but no purchase minimum to ship to a Guitar Center store in the contiguous U.S.
Customer service varies by every Guitar Center store, though I haven’t always had the best experience. In case you haven’t visited Guitar Center before, they have different rooms with knowledgeable staff and salespeople working in each department. But there were times I needed help in the drum department, and only the instructor was there.
Since Guitar Center has a traditional retail setup, you can request to speak to a manager if you don’t get the help you need from the sales staff. You can also contact corporate over the phone, email, or chat. I tried using Guitar Center’s chatbot, and it didn’t seem like a human was operating it, but it’s okay if you have simple questions.
As in most retail settings, turnover at Guitar Center is high. I have had friends who worked in Guitar Center, only to leave to join a touring band, get employed by a major instrument manufacturer, or for any other reason. Just because you had a bad experience doesn’t mean you shouldn’t return.
Bottom line: Customer service varies at each Guitar Center store. Just know turnover is high, and you’ll get a different experience each time you visit. If you didn’t receive the help you needed, you can always speak to a manager or contact corporate.
Returns and Warranty
Guitar Center offers its Pro Coverage warranty, though it comes with an extra fee. Before paying for this warranty, the manufacturer has its own warranty. I suggest comparing these two terms to see if the manufacturer’s warranty will suffice. If you don’t feel the manufacturer’s warranty is good enough, then Guitar Center’s Pro Coverage is worth it.
I at least suggest buying Pro Coverage for used gear since the original manufacturer’s warranty probably expired. Regardless of your instrument, Pro Coverage covers damage caused by power surges, drops, spills, and more.
Guitar Center has a 45-day guarantee policy, though this varies by product. Many items, such as vintage and used instruments, recording devices, lighting machines, and DJing gear, have more restrictive return windows. Some items, such as clearance products, can’t be returned at all.
You can return any item you purchased online to your local Guitar Center store, or you can ship it back (though you will have to cover shipping).
Bottom line: Guitar Center has a Pro Coverage warranty, though it comes with an extra fee. I at least suggest buying it for used gear. Guitar Center has a 45-day return policy, though not all items qualify.
Musician’s Friend is best known as an e-commerce instrument and music gear store, but it originally started as a mail-order catalog in 1983. They were still one of the first companies to expand to e-commerce in 1997 and quickly became one of the most notorious online stores for musicians.
Unlike Guitar Center, Musician’s Friend doesn’t have a retail location. They ship all products from their distribution center in Kansas City, MO, and have call centers in multiple states.
In 2000, Guitar Center bought Musician’s Friend for $50 million. It’s important to note that both companies are still independent, and Musician’s Friend has pros and cons over Guitar Center.
- Every guitar and bass include a two-year warranty
- Free ground shipping on all orders
- Been in business since the 80s
- No retail location
Instruments and Gear
Musician’s Friend has a wide selection of new and used instruments and gear. They offer everything from guitars and basses to microphones and recording gear.
Musician’s Friend has nearly every major guitar brand, such as Fender, Epiphone, Gibson, Jackson, Schecter, Gretsch, D’Angelico, and PRS. They also carry major accessories and gear brands such as Orange, Boss, Gator, D’Addario, Martin, and Ernie Ball.
Bottom line: Musician’s Friend has a huge selection of both new and used instruments, plus a ton of gear.
While many people may think Guitar Center has an edge because of its retail stores, I find myself shopping on its website anyway. That’s why I suggest considering Musician’s Friend, especially if you prefer shopping online.
Their website has a modern view and is easy to navigate. I honestly think MF’s website has better navigation since the menu bar is at the top.
On the GC website, you have to click the three lines at the top left to load the product selection. They also have their own deals section, which is filled with pricey products such as instruments and live sound.
Bottom line: Even though Musician’s Friend doesn’t have a retail store, their online store has better navigation than Guitar Center’s.
As stated previously, Musician’s Friend and Guitar Center have nearly the same prices. I searched for various products on both websites, and the items had identical prices. But Musician’s Friend has an advantage since they host more deals. You can head to their hot deals section and see their marked-down items.
They also have the Stupid Deal of the Day. As you guessed, this is a crazy cheap item. Today, their Stupid Deal of the Day is a microphone cable that’s $20 off. This changes daily, so it’s a good idea to keep heading back to this page.
Bottom line: Musician’s Friend and Guitar Center have similar prices, but Musician’s Friend hosts more deals.
Musician’s Friend offers free ground shipping all over the continental U.S. This has no order minimum or specific product qualifications.
Your product will arrive 3-5 business days after Musician’s Friend processes your order (longer for APO and FPO addresses).
If you need your items sooner, you can choose next-day or 2-day express shipping. Orders to P.O. boxes, oversized items, and Saturday deliveries may come with extra charges. Musician’s Friend offers international shipping, though delivery times and shipping rates depend on the country.
Bottom line: Musician’s Friend offers free ground shipping on all orders, and you will receive your items within 3-5 days. This doesn’t include APO and FPO addresses, as well as international orders.
Even though Musician’s Friend doesn’t have staff members working at a retail location, their customer service is still superb. They have Gear Advisers available 24/7. These staff members are musicians, so they can answer any questions you have about instruments or gear and can offer a solution to any problem you’re having.
Musician’s Friend offers customer service via phone and live chat. While a bot will respond to some queries, Gear Advisers also use the live chat option. There’s also an FAQ page for quick answers to any questions you have.
Bottom line: Musician’s Friend doesn’t have retail salespeople like Guitar Center, but they have Gear Advisers available on the phone and live chat.
Returns and Warranty
Musician’s Friend reigns with their warranty–when you buy a guitar or bass from them, you receive a free two-year warranty on top of the manufacturer’s warranty. Keep in mind that accidents don’t apply to the warranty, just the manufacturer’s damage.
Since some exceptions apply, it’s best to contact Musician’s Friend first if there are issues. While Musician’s Friend will cover the labor and parts, you’re responsible for the shipping. If you purchased another item, you can get Gold Coverage for a fee.
Musician’s Friend also has a friendlier return policy. You can return your items after 45 days, and you can get an exchange or a refund.
There are some exceptions, but they aren’t as exhaustive as what Guitar Center requires. Since Musician’s Friend isn’t affiliated with Guitar Center, you can’t return your item in-store. You must ship them back to Musician’s Friend and pay for shipping.
Bottom line: You receive a free two-year warranty when you buy a guitar or bass. If you purchased something else, you have the option to purchase their Gold Coverage warranty. They also have a 45-day return policy that’s less exhaustive than what Guitar Center offers.
Since the online instrument and gear are vast, Musician’s Friend and Guitar Center have various competitors. Sam Ash is the most famous one, but I decided to focus on smaller stores and websites instead. However, I am including Sweetwater here since it is a music retailer and website.
I like to call Thomann the Guitar Center of Europe, though they expanded to North America. I’m mentioning this company first since they have items that I usually can’t find anywhere else.
For example, I ordered my brother a pair of limited-edition drumsticks from Thomann. The checkout process was smooth, and my brother received his gift relatively quickly.
I never needed to contact Thomann’s customer service, but others told me that they’re really helpful. They did communicate with me throughout my purchase, sending me shipping updates. If something is wrong with your order, they have a 30-day money-back guarantee; not as long as MF’s and GC’s, but still decent. Thomann also offers a three-year warranty for free.
Digging into the company’s history, I discovered they were actually formed in the 1950s by Hans Thomann, Sr. His son, Hans Thomann, Jr., who is also a passionate musician, took over the company in 1990. They have a physical store in Treppendorf, Bavaria, Germany, though they ship worldwide.
If you’re looking for a used or cheap instrument, I always suggest checking Reverb first. Look at Reverb as an eBay for musicians.
Anyone can put a used instrument up for sale, and builders or authorized dealers often list new instruments for sale at a lower price. Take a look at this PRS electric guitar that’s marked down by more than $130!
Do online marketplaces sketch you out? I usually am, but I trust using Reverb. All transactions are secure. If there’s ever a dispute, Reverb will handle it for you. The seller will ship the item directly to you, so you don’t have to worry about meeting up anywhere.
If all else fails, there’s always Sweetwater. Sweetwater is most famous for being an online instrument store, but they have a location in Fort Wayne, IN.
I’ve ordered from here before a couple of times, but I avoid shopping here since I get hounded by their customer service. That said, they have an impressive selection, and shipping is free and quick. Sweetwater doesn’t have as detailed of a return policy as these other stores, which I never liked.
Question: If Guitar Center owns Musician’s Friend, who owns Guitar Center?
Answer: It’s confusing. Technically, Ares Management took the controlling stake in Guitar Center’s ownership. However, their previous owner, Bain Capital, still has partial ownership of the company.
Question: I want to buy a guitar, but don’t have money. Is financing a good idea?
Answer: Yes, but you must pay off the credit card. You should also pay attention to minimum monthly payments and the interest rate. I also don’t suggest using a store credit card toward an expensive guitar.
Or, see if you can pay half in cash or debit and the other half on a credit card. It’s also not a bad idea to see if there are any deals.
That said, both Guitar Center and Musician’s Friend have good financing options. Guitar Center offers 0% interest for 48 months, while Musician’s Friend offers 8% cashback. Remember, these can still affect your credit score if you can’t pay your credit down.
Question: I have a Guitar Center credit card. Can I use it at Musician’s Friend?
Answer: Nope, you can only use your Guitar Center credit card in stores and on the GC website.
I suggest shopping at Musician’s Friend over Guitar Center. While Guitar Center owns Musician’s Friend, both are separate companies. Even though they don’t have a physical store, Musician’s Friend offers free shipping on most items and numerous deals.
Plus, you can find nearly the same inventory on the Musician’s Friend website as you can at Guitar Center. The only time I recommend Guitar Center is if you want to test out an instrument before buying or if they have a specific used or vintage instrument you want. But if you can find a better deal on Musician’s Friend, take advantage of that.