29 December 2010

The New Left-handed Guitar Saga

So, as most of my friends know, I started playing acoustic guitar about five years ago (switched from piano).

I'm left-handed, and being a lefty guitar player means it's always challenging to buy an instrument. Lefty guitars usually are the same price as right-handed ones, but since the vast majority of guitar players are right-handed you don't have a lot of choices at the music stores (Jimi Hendrix, as well as some other famous left-handed players, played right-handed guitars upside-down).

When I started, I got a perfectly nice Fender Chinese-made plywood acoustic. It was about $300 at Gelb Music in Redwood City, and honestly I think I chose pretty well. It's not too hard to play (some acoustics have a big gap between the strings and the frets, making them tough to learn on) and sounds really nice. I'm still playing that guitar every day and liking it, but I decided over a year ago it was time to pick up a second, nicer acoustic.

In particular, I decided to give myself more options by picking up an acoustic-electric (these are acoustic guitars with factory-installed pickups that can be plugged in to an amp if desired). Like any good consumer, I then spent a lot of time reading internet reviews of possible acoustic-electrics.

Now, there are a ton of great guitar makers out there these days. Unfortunately, the left-handed thing means that for guitars in the range I was looking at, unless I get fantastically lucky and find a shop with a lefty in stock, I'm probably going to be special-ordering. That in turn means it's tricky to buy from a smaller company, since I probably won't be able to try a left-handed guitar from them. It's a real limitation: when I try to play a guitar right-handed, about all I can do is strum G, C, D. However, knowing I was likely to end up special-ordering, I focused more on full-line guitar makers.

From the internet searching, the two guitars I focused on were the Taylor 110ce/210ce/410ce/etc. series and the Martin DC-1E. However, I also knew it would be good to try an Ovation and to try and find a chance to try some Takamines, a well-known Japanese brand.

The first stop for any left-handed guitar search is Tani Guchi Gakki, the world's only (as far as I know) left-handed guitar store. They're here in Tokyo in the Ochanomizu music store district. I went to Taniguchi and spent some time trying every acoustic-electric they had (that's only about 7 guitars). The Takamine they had in stock wasn't overwhelming, nor did I like the other Japanese brands the staff suggested. They did have a Taylor (I forget if it was a 110ce or a 210ce). I tried it and was surprised to find that I didn't like it at all, whether unplugged or plugged in. The sound was actually thinner (less bassy) than my Fender, and the electronics didn't offer much control and didn't even incorporate a tuner (the tuner itself doesn't matter much, but if you're gonna have electronics in the guitar there's no excuse for not putting in a chromatic tuner).

The surprise of the day at Taniguchi was the Ovation. They had a Chinese-made low-end Ovation that actually sounded nice whether plugged in or unplugged. I was surprised at how pleasant the Ovation sounded played unplugged. However, one offputting thing about buying the Ovation there was that the price was almost twice what the same instrument costs in the US, and there are a lot of slightly better Ovatoin models available that weren't in stock at Taniguchi. Still, it's a great store for lefties and it was very educational to spend the day there.

Since I was going to the US anyway about a month after (and I'm not in a hurry to buy the guitar), I decided to wait.

When I went to the US, I visited several guitar stores in the Bay Area and even went to a guitar fair at Marin Country Civic Center. I saw a lot of beautiful guitars, but almost no lefties at all and nothing I was interested in. But, when I was in Los Angeles I went to McCabes. McCabes is a legendary guitar store that support the music community in LA, and it's such a pleasant place. After touring through the store, I found the "lefty corner" where they had about 12 acoustic or acoustic-electric lefties. I went to find a staff person (in a different room) and said I wanted to try one of them; she looked at me and said, "OK, you should do that." You're always welcome to pick up any guitar at McCabes and try it out; this is the utter opposite of the attitude at most music stores. It's a really welcoming, warm place.

So I tried most of the acoustic guitar they had! It has big fun. Although I had already decided on an acoustic-electric, I tried the Art & Lutherie acoustic lefty which was awesome; if I was starting again, it would have been a great guitar for about $400-500. More relevant to my search, McCabe's actually had in stock a Taylor 710ce, one of the higher-end models in the Taylot series I tried the low end of in Tokyo. It was a very nice guitar, but even though McCabes offered a fantastic deal on it, it was a little out of my price range. Still, I was definitely thinking hard about whether to get that guitar or not. I finished trying all their lefty instruments, and gathered up my stuff.

I noticed that one rack over, they had a right-handed Martin DC-1E, the other guitar I had originally targeted from my internet searching. I figured I should at least hear what it sounded like strummed, so I picked it up and plugged in to the little demo amp at McCabe's. I contorted my left hand into a G chord and strummed across it, and with the first straggly chord I knew this was the guitar I wanted. Martins are famous for having a strong, full bass sound, and that's true even with the cutaways like the DC-1E. It was the full, emotional sound I love guitars for. In that one moment, all the other guitars pretty much passed away.

So now I knew *which* guitar I wanted, it was just a matter of *how* to buy it. There was no lefty DC-1E in stock, so this was gonna be a custom order, meaning I would be back in Japan. No one at McCabe's that day knew whether they could ship overseas or the procedure for custom-ordering a Martin, so they suggested I call back and talk to Louis or Nancy. I got caught up in other business for the rest of the trip and didn't deal with it until I got back to Japan.

I knew that generically I had two options: either I could custom-order through the Japanese Martin dealer, or I could try and get McCabe's or some other store in the US to custom-order it and ship it to me. The US route had two challenges: shipping (although DC-1Es do come with a hard case, so at least shipping was *too* dangerous); and customs duty (I would be importing the guitar, so it really was validly dutiable).

Both routes take a lot of trouble to investigate from Tokyo, so I let things slide for a few months (and in the meantime picked up a Fernandes travel/practice guitar, which is perfect for weekend trips out of Tokyo). Finally, last week I made the trek to the primary Martin dealer in Japan. I explained what I wanted, and found out:
  • it will take 3-4 months (that's about what I expected)

  • there's a 10% surcharge for custom orders (well, if you say so)

  • there's a 10% surcharge for left-handed (this is contrary to what Martin explicitly says on their site)

  • they charge full list price for the guitar (US dealers commonly discount guitars; the DC-1E goes for $1050-1100 on major discount websites)

  • and lastly, I don't think they've updated their prices based on the yen fluctuation. This is sadly common here: when the dollar drops, the price of many imported things should drop. But it doesn't, the distributor are pocketing the difference in most cases. Japanese retail is *painfully* inefficient compared to the US.

Bottom line: buying a DC-1E from the Japanese dealer would cost over $2000.

OK, that knowledge prompted me to get up in the middle of the night and call McCabe's to get a hold of 'Louis or Nancy'. It took two tries, but when Nancy came on, I explained what I wanted and she instantly said, "Oh, we can't ship out of the country."

"Oh" came my disappointed reply. But then Nancy showed why McCabe's is McCabe's.

"You need to try Elderly in Michigan, or Mandolin Brothers in New York. I think they both have international shipping."

Well, now that was useful. Indeed they do! Elderly is a dealer in Lansing, Michigan (about 40 minutes' drive from my hometown) which not only can ship internationally, they have published prices, rates, and conditions ($185 to Japan). Mandolin Brothers is another wonderful-looking dealer on Staten Island in New York, but I'm giving hometown advantage to Elderly.

Even with shipping, this was sounding a lot cheaper than $2000. But what about duty? The ever-helpful interneet found this page on the Japanese customs site. Duty rate for musical instruments: 0.

So, I'll be calling Elderly when they open (late tonight Tokyo time) to verify the total with them. Stay tuned for the final outcome but from the numbers they're showing my total cost will be about 1/2 the Japanese dealer... sure seems like a guitar will be coming to me in Tokyo via Michigan!