When you want to buy a guitar or need some gear, it’s easy to stop by your local Guitar Center. But I’m someone who likes to order from different companies, especially when it comes to music gear. Something small like strings and picks I order online.
So years ago, I was searching around websites to find the best alternative store. I came across Sweetwater and read positive reviews about their store.
They had what I needed, so I ordered a couple of things. Since then, I’ve shopped at Sweetwater more and definitely noticed some pros and cons with this company. I wanted to compare them to Guitar Center and see which is better. If you’re unsure where to buy your next instrument or gear, continue reading my Sweetwater vs. Guitar Center guide.
Bottom Line Up Front
Main Differences Between Sweetwater and Guitar Center
- Sweetwater only has one location in Fort Wayne, IN, whereas Guitar Center has locations throughout the U.S.
- When you order from Sweetwater, you get your own sales rep, whereas you don’t get personalized treatment at Guitar Center
- Sweetwater requires no minimum purchase for their online store, whereas Guitar Centers requires a $25 minimum
- Guitar Center has a better vintage collection, whereas Sweetwater has more used gear
- Guitar Center has a larger inventory of all music instruments and gear, whereas Sweetwater focuses on quality
Sweetwater is one of the largest online music stores in the world, first made popular by their retail store in Fort Wayne, IN. Touring musician Chuck Surack formed the business in 1978, first forming a recording studio in his VW bus.
Nearly ten years later, his recording studio achieved success, and he became the exclusive Kurzweil dealer. His business grew from here, selling more than pro audio gear. Today, Sweetwater sells guitars, drums, DJ equipment, and keyboards. Sweetwater soared when it started selling online and is one of the most reputable online instrument and gear retailers today.
- Free shipping on all orders
- Lots of great deals
- Impressive used section
- Wide inventory
- Financing options
- It’s the place where us real guitarist often go to shop
- Annoying customer service (their personalization can seem obsessive)
Instruments and Gear
Sweetwater has a wide selection of instruments and gear. They carry everything from guitars to keyboards. You can find the biggest guitar and gear brands in their inventory, such as PRS, Epiphone, Fender, Boss, and Gibson.
But how does Sweetwater stand out from Guitar Center? The small details matter here. For example, I’m comparing the PRS SE Hollowbody II Piezo Electric Guitar on the Sweetwater and Guitar Center websites. Both retailers feature the guitar in black gold burst and peacock blue, but Sweetwater also features the finish in dog hair. That’s because many manufacturers partner with Sweetwater to produce unique finishes.
Bottom line: Sweetwater has nearly every instrument and gear you could need. But Sweetwater stands out because they partner with various brands to produce finishes you won’t find anywhere else.
Retail and Online Stores
As stated previously, Sweetwater has only one retail store in Fort Wayne, IN. However, they can ship throughout the U.S., so you should have no problem ordering your items.
That said, I like the Sweetwater website better than Guitar Center’s. In the top menu bar, you have multiple navigation options, such as shopping by category, deals, new products, used, and more. There’s also a search bar up top if you need to find a specific product. I’ve used this search bar before, and I never had problems finding what I needed.
The images are clearer on the Sweetwater website than Guitar Center’s. Going back to that PRS example, the finishes look vivid on the Sweetwater website, and you can better decide which color is right for you. Plus, you can easily navigate around the descriptions and read reviews.
Bottom line: Sweetwater only has one store in Fort Wayne, IN. However, I like Sweetwater’s website better than Guitar Center’s. It’s easier to navigate and the pictures are clearer.
This is where many people say Sweetwater reigns, but I find their customer service to be an annoyance. I think I had one semi-large purchase from Sweetwater (I think a pedal).
Otherwise, I only bought simple strings and picks. I was getting hounded over the phone and email from my rep. I finally picked up the phone and explained never to call me back. For a while, I was getting mail from them (I didn’t remember opting in to receive mailers), and I still get their sales emails to this day.
That said, you do get a personalized sales rep when you order from Sweetwater. This is helpful if you’re buying your first guitar and don’t know what you want or are buying a guitar you didn’t try in stores.
Bottom line: Sweetwater’s customer service (or sales calls) annoyed me, but others may find their personalized sales rep to be very helpful.
While these two companies have similar prices, you’ll find more deals on the Sweetwater website. Nearly all of their categories have deals, and they also feature promos, rebates, price drops, bundles, and a massive used section. Guitar Center also hosts many deals, but because Sweetwater offers more ways to save, you’ll spend less when you buy from this company.
Bottom line: Sweetwater hosts more deals, so you’ll save money in the long run.
Warranty and Returns
Sweetwater includes a free two-year warranty, which also includes free labor and parts. Unlike most store warranties, this one from Sweetwater doesn’t have many exclusions. In fact, the only items the warranty doesn’t cover include accessories (such as guitar strings), consumable parts, and the individual components of the gear.
However, Sweetwater’s return policy is extremely confusing. On their website, they say to contact a sales engineer to get your RA number. Then, you have to follow a prompt that seems more complex than it should be.
That said, Sweetwater has a 30-day return policy (90 days for used gear), though shipping costs will be deducted from your refund. If you’re returning certain orchestral instruments, Sweetwater may also deduct a sanitization fee. The non-returnable items are also pretty vague; for example, they say you can’t return “oversized” items but don’t specify what that means (such as height and weight requirements).
Bottom line: Sweetwater has a two-year warranty that’s completely free and includes free parts and labor. That said, I’m not a fan of their return policy. You can return items for up to 30 days (or 90 for used gear), but Sweetwater may deduct additional shipping and sanitization fees from your refund.
Sweetwater offers free shipping on nearly its entire inventory. Ground shipping takes 1-5 business days after they process your order and 6-7 business days for shipments to Hawaii and Alaska. Remember that free shipping is only available to the continental U.S., not Hawaii, Alaska, or international shipments. Shipping is also free to FPO and APO addresses, which is a huge perk.
Bottom line: You can get free shipping from Sweetwater, and most of their inventory qualifies.
Guitar Center is the most recognizable company for instruments and music gear. They’re the biggest musician’s retailer, with stores throughout the country. Guitar Center also has one of the largest instrument and gear websites. Nearly all musicians turn to Guitar Center to buy and sell instruments, gear, and even purchase recording and live sound products.
- Huge instrument and gear inventory
- Retail locations throughout the country
- Financing options
- Better return policy than Sweetwater
- Additional services, such as lessons and repairs
- Customer service isn’t always helpful (I’ve walked out of the retail store on more than one occasion).
Instruments and Gear
Most musicians turn to Guitar Center when they need a new instrument or more gear, and there’s a reason why.
They have an outstanding selection of gear and sell all the biggest brands. I think Guitar Center has a bigger edge than Sweetwater, namely since they have an impressive vintage selection. They also sell used gear and niche brands. However, Guitar Center doesn’t partner with brands to produce unique finishes like Sweetwater.
Bottom line: Guitar Center has arguably one of the biggest selections of instruments and gear that you could find.
Retail and Online Stores
All Guitar Center stores vary, but most have the same general layout. The electric guitars and basses are displayed in the main part of the store, with a separate acoustic section. Most stores also have a drum room, where you will find drumsticks, cymbals, drumheads, and all other percussion items.
From my experience, some Guitar Center stores are more organized than others. The store near me is pretty cluttered; the amps are mixed throughout the guitar section, and the pro-audio gear is in a random corner of the store.
I’m also not a big fan of their website. Unlike Sweetwater, Guitar Center doesn’t have a big menu bar with all the departments. You must click the “Shop” button on the left-hand side to pull up the menu bar. That said, the design of the product pages is fine.
Bottom line: Most Guitar Center retail stores have the same layout, but some are more organized than others. Their website also has weird navigation.
Guitar Center’s customer service isn’t as annoying as Sweetwater’s, but that doesn’t mean it’s better. GC’s customer care can be a hit or a miss.
Usually, I don’t great service. There have been times I had a question and couldn’t find anyone from the sales team. Or, if I could find someone, they either didn’t attend to me immediately, or only one person was helping out five other people.
If this experience happens to you, I suggest contacting a manager to resolve your issues. When this happened to me, I just left the store and ordered the product from another company like Sweetwater, or directly from the manufacturer.
You can also contact corporate by phone, email, or live chat. I’ve used the live chat before, and you get a bot. If you need to talk to a human, I suggest calling corporate.
Bottom line: Guitar Center’s customer service and sales team won’t hound you with phone calls and emails, but they’re usually not helpful, either. Since Guitar Center is in a retail location, you can request to speak to a manager. You can also contact corporate, but note you’ll talk to a bot if you use their live chat.
As stated previously, Guitar Center and Sweetwater have similar prices. I actually compared this Fender Telecaster on the Guitar Center and Sweetwater websites, and it’s the same price on both.
That’s because the price is standardized by the manufacturer, so these companies can’t stray too much from that cost. That said, Guitar Center doesn’t mark down products as frequently as Sweetwater. I also think their used section is at a better price than Sweetwater’s.
Bottom line: Guitar Center has similar prices as Sweetwater since the manufacturer determines the price. GC doesn’t host as many sales as Sweetwater, but its used section tends to be more reasonably priced.
Warranty and Returns
Guitar Center doesn’t offer a free warranty like Sweetwater. Instead, it offers its Pro Coverage warranty for an extra fee. Don’t forget that the manufacturer also includes a warranty for your instrument, so don’t jump on paying the price for Pro Coverage.
I suggest researching the manufacturer’s warranty and what it covers first since that coverage may be sufficient. That said, I at least suggest purchasing Pro Coverage for used and vintage instruments since the manufacturer’s warranty is likely no longer good.
Bottom line: Guitar Center offers its Pro Coverage warranty, but it comes with a fee.
Guitar Center offers free shipping with in-store deliveries, and there’s no order minimum. You can also order products to ship to your home, and most items qualify for free shipping.
However, Guitar Center requires a $25 minimum when shipping to your home. Remember that the free shipping perks exclude Alaska and Hawaii. You can also pay for two-day and next-day shipping if you need your order quicker. Guitar Center can also ship internationally, but delivery times and shipping rates vary by country.
Bottom line: You can get free shipping with no minimum when delivering to a Guitar Center store. You can still get free shipping to your home, but it comes with a $25 minimum.
Did you realize neither Guitar Center nor Sweetwater is right for you? Honestly, I don’t blame you. These often aren’t the first places I look when I need music gear. Here are some other instrument and gear retailers I recommend.
If you’re looking for used instruments and gear, I suggest turning to Reverb first. Think of Reverb as the Facebook Marketplace for musicians. This is where authorized dealers sell new yet marked-down instruments for sale, and other sellers can list used instruments and gear for sale.
Since you do have to handle communications and shipping with the seller, do your own due diligence before ordering anything.
When working with an authorized seller, look at their shop and other listings to ensure they’re a legitimate business. If you’re buying used instruments and gear from a general seller, check the condition of the product, pictures, and read the seller reviews.
I still suggest inspecting every part of the guitar or taking it to a luthier/repair professional after receiving the item, just to ensure it’s playable.
You’re entitled to a refund for damaged or defective products, but you must contact the seller within seven days of delivery. If there are any communication issues with the seller, Reverb can intervene, which I find beneficial.
If you’re based in Europe or the U.K., you likely heard of Thomann. This is a German instrument and gear retailer that has been in business since the 1950s but expanded to a global scale once they set up their online shop.
If you’re like me and are based in the U.S., don’t think you will have to wait forever and pay exorbitant fees to receive your products–Thomann has a U.S. warehouse, and they ship all over the country. I’ve ordered from Thomann before and always received my products in a timely manner.
If you ever have issues with your products, Thomann has a 30-day money-back guarantee. They also have a three-year warranty for free that applies to all purchases.
Thomann carries all major instrument and gear brands, and they also have some rare and limited edition items.
Since Guitar Center owns Musician’s Friend, I figured I would mention this company last and emphasize the other two alternatives. But I still like to mention this company as an alternative to Guitar Center.
Musician’s Friend is an online-only retailer that has nearly identical inventory as Guitar Center, including hardware, gear, and accessories. They also sell all the same brands. I also like Musician’s Friend for niche brands, their used section, and vintage items.
But what separates Musician’s Friend is their numerous deals, often making them cheaper than Guitar Center. They even have a Stupid Deal of the Day; as the name suggests, they significantly mark down one product every day, so it’s always worth checking out.
Right now, they have an Epiphone guitar up for $399, so you save $200! Plus, Musician’s Friend always offers free shipping.
Question: Does Guitar Center own Sweetwater?
Answer: No, they’re both separate companies. Ares Management owns Guitar Center, though their previous owner, Bain Capital, still has partial ownership of the company. Sweetwater Founder Chuck Surack owned his business until 2021, when Providence Equity purchased a majority share of the company.
Question: Should I Buy a Guitar Online or in Person?
Answer: This depends on your preference. I’ve only purchased guitars in person, and I prefer holding and inspecting them first. At the same time, you have a better selection when ordering online, and you can take advantage of more deals. Before ordering a guitar online, I suggest knowing the retailer’s warranty and return policy.
Question: Who Ships Faster–Sweetwater or Guitar Center?
Answer: I never ordered online from Guitar Center, but Sweetwater ships pretty quickly. From what I’m reading on their websites, it seems both companies take the same amount of time to ship products. However, shipping also depends on inventory and manufacturing delays.
Sweetwater vs Guitar Center: Bottom Line
I suggest buying from Sweetwater over Guitar Center. Even though Sweetwater has only one retail location, they have excellent inventory on its website, offer finishes that Guitar Center doesn’t have, and shipping is always free.
I always received my products quickly when I ordered from Sweetwater, so that’s also a plus. The only downside to Sweetwater is I found their customer service to be too annoying, so I also suggest considering the alternatives.
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