If you’re a musician, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard of both Guitar Center and Sweetwater.
In today’s world, online shopping is a part of just about every person’s life in one way or another.
Living in isolation means having to order things you’d normally purchase at a store from an online shop instead – and that includes guitars, pro audio gear, strings, instrument cables, and the list goes on.
So maybe you find yourself in need of a new guitar, a new amp, some headphones, etc.
Perhaps, in your self-isolation, you decide that you want to begin producing your own music with said “new guitar,” so you need to purchase even more gear.
Of course, the problem is that there aren’t many physical shops with this stuff available. What do you do? Google search!
You quickly realize that there are loads of places to purchase gear online, but in terms of reputation, product selection, availability, and pricing, two of them stand out among the crowd: Sweetwater and Guitar Center.
So today, I’m going to be walking you through a head-to-head comparison in this Sweetwater vs Guitar Center article, so you can decide which site will better suit your own personal guitar needs.
Sweetwater is one of the largest online retailers in the world for musical instruments, pro audio gear, and more, with over 50,000 products available on their website and at their location in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
If you’re looking for just about any new piece of gear, guitar, or software plugin, there’s a good chance that you’ll find it on Sweetwater’s website. If it appeared at the NAMM show, it’s probably already on Sweetwater’s website.
What I find really cool about Sweetwater is the fact that it was started out of the back of a VW Bus in 1979 and in spite of its massive success, it’s still family-owned.
I think that speaks volumes to the leadership of its founder, Chuck Surack, and the company’s relentless dedication to providing the best customer service and expert advice in the world – and they’re not even paying me to say that.
They literally have a 13-week intensive course that every sales representative must complete before they ever speak to a customer, and the training doesn’t stop there, as new products are constantly released.
Guitar Center Overview
While not primarily an online retail store like Sweetwater, Guitar Center is the largest retail musical instrument sales chain in the United States.
They have 294 locations across the country and offer a massive selection of guitars, drums, DJ equipment, pro audio gear, and more.
If you’re a guitarist and you’ve ever been to a Guitar Center location, you understand that bright-eyed feeling of walking in and seeing walls as high as 20 feet covered in guitars of all kinds. You feel like a little kid in a candy shop!
Sweetwater vs Guitar Center: What’s the difference?
While Guitar Center’s physical stores are great, I want to focus more on the online side of things for the purpose of this article – because Sweetwater’s one location is easily 10x more exciting than any one of Guitar Center’s 294 locations.
All of that aside, purchasing something online, especially something as sensitive as a guitar (or any musical instrument), can be pretty risky since you’re foregoing the chance to try it out before taking the financial plunge.
So there are some things you need to look out for and be aware of when embarking on your online search for a new guitar.
Things you should consider before selecting an online guitar shop
Website User Experience
In today’s world, the user experience on a website can tell you a lot about the company running it.
You’ve probably seen a website or two that looked somewhat primitive or undeveloped, and that probably made you feel hesitant to continue browsing the pages – let alone purchase something.
The user experience is essential, and since you’re the user, you get to decide what you do and don’t find trustworthy.
If you set out online to find the best place to buy a guitar online, you’d likely rule out any websites short of outstanding in terms of website design, and ease of navigation and search.
For example, if you’re completely new to the world of guitar and you want to order your first guitar online, you’ll likely just want to scroll through pages and pages of various guitars until you come across something you like.
This can take hours, and even days depending on how many websites you visit, how long you spend considering each instrument you come across, and how many instruments any given website has.
Scrolling through pages of all the guitars on both Sweetwater and Guitar Center could take a long time. That’s why each website has its own search and filter functions, to help you narrow things down more quickly.
On Guitar Center’s website, you can utilize their guitar-finder tool to help you narrow down your choices, or filter by price range, brand name, category, number of strings, color, model, all the way down to the guitar’s country of origin.
If you’re a first-time guitar buyer on Sweetwater, you might have a little more trouble finding something that’s best for you.
There are options to refine your search by price, brand, series, etc, but there’s no discernible starting point for online shoppers new to the guitar.
This is where Sweetwater’s customer service and sales representatives come into play, who are available by phone and chat.
Arguably the best part of shopping for a guitar online is the wide variety of instruments to choose from.
I mean really, the internet is a vast place, and the selection of guitars on websites like Guitar Center and Sweetwater are a true reflection of that.
There’s something for everyone, and the reality is that no matter which store has what, you’re going to stick with the store that has what you want.
Both of these stores have a massive selection, and you’re likely to find something you like on either one. Sweetwater has over 3000 different guitars to choose from, and Guitar Center has almost 10,000 – all from the big brands you’ve probably heard of like Fender, Gibson, PRS, Taylor, Martin, and the list goes on.
In terms of everything else like pro audio gear, microphones, drums, DJ equipment, and everything else, Sweetwater definitely takes the cake.
The company started out as a mobile recording studio and eventually turned into a retail store for all types of music gear, so it’s no surprise that their focus is on all things music, and not just guitar.
That being said, the guitars that are for sale on Sweetwater are only top quality, while Guitar Center is just that -the center for guitars.
Either way, the selection you’ll find on both Guitar Center and Sweetwater far surpasses what you’re likely to find in just about any local guitar shop or music store, so shop with confidence in either place because you’ll probably find something you like in both.
One of the biggest factors you’re probably considering (especially if you’re looking for your first guitar) is price. Most of the time, the price for any guitar from a major manufacturer will be the same no matter where you go. It’s usually standardized across the board.
What you should be on the lookout for are deals. Different guitar stores will offer different deals during various times of the year, so it’s important to keep an eye out for when these sales are going on because it could save you a lot of money!
If you find a deal on a guitar you like, make sure you check other websites to see if there are similar (or better) deals going on. Some deals are instrument-specific, and others will be based on the model or package.
Another thing that affects the price of your guitar is the cost of shipping. Sweetwater offers free shipping on just about everything they carry, which is amazing.
Guitar Center might offer free shipping if you spend above a certain threshold (like you see pictured above), but it’s likely that you’ll have to pay a shipping fee, which will increase the cost of your new guitar by an unfriendly amount.
Good customer service is often hard to come by in the world of music and guitar shops. You’ll usually find some burned-out twenty-something who doesn’t want to be there whose manager is absent and equally uninterested.
Luckily, Sweetwater is a true beacon of hope. Sweetwater’s customer service is easily the best I’ve ever experienced in terms of friendliness, knowledgeability, and guidance.
I mentioned this earlier, but every sales representative goes through a 13-week intensive training course dubbed, “Sweetwater University,” where they learn about everything from audio, mechanical, and electrical engineering, to live sound and studio recording techniques – on top of learning about the thousands of products Sweetwater offers.
There’s nothing worse than talking to a customer service representative who doesn’t even know what a pickup is. With Sweetwater, you can’t rest assured that they know their stuff inside and out.
Guitar Center’s customer service can be characterized as inconsistent. One day you might be connected with a rep who knows what they’re talking about, and another day, you might speak with someone who doesn’t even play music. It’s pretty much a 50/50 split.
With all of that said, Sweetwater definitely has the edge (by miles) in terms of customer service.
The first time you purchase something from Sweetwater, you’re connected with a single sales representative.
Anytime you need anything, have questions, or want to purchase something else, you have that sales representative’s phone number – which makes the entire customer experience more personalized and enjoyable.
Shipping a guitar anywhere is a risky thing to do. Once it leaves the warehouse, just about anything can happen, so it’s essential that it’s packaged well enough to withstand the journey and reach you in one piece.
Because guitars come in large boxes, the cost of shipping can be pretty high, which may or may not be a deal-breaker for you. On top of that, the risks associated with shipping a sensitive item like a Guitar probably make you want to fast-track your shipment to get it out of the hands of strangers and into the safety of its new home!
Sweetwater offers free shipping on most items, arriving in 1-5 business days, while Guitar Center isn’t quite as generous. Guitar Center offers free shipping on some select items, but it’s highly likely that you’ll end up paying for shipping if you order something.
The other thing to consider when it comes to shipping is the condition in which your guitar arrives. Has it been set up already? Are there loose screws, old strings, or factory oil in places it doesn’t belong?
The cool thing about Sweetwater is that they conduct a comprehensive, 55-point inspection of every guitar priced $299 and up before shipping. They also repack it with fresh materials and double-box it so that it gets to you unscathed. All of that for free… so I think Sweetwater wins in terms of shipping as well.
A warranty might not be the first thing that you think about when looking around for a new guitar online, but life happens so they can certainly come in handy!
I mean, imagine getting your new guitar and then losing it in a freak accident, totally beyond your control. A warranty might just be your best friend in that case.
Sometimes instruments (or products in general) will arrive on your doorstep defective in some way, and that’s really what warranties are for.
Lucky for us, Sweetwater offers a free 2-year warranty on their products, and this is on top of the manufacturer’s warranty.
So if something goes wrong, all you have to do is give your sales representative a call and they can walk you through the process of finding the best solution, and getting you an instrument that works the way it’s supposed to – free of charge.
Guitar Center’s warranty is, again, a bit less generous. They offer what they call Pro Coverage, which comes with an added charge on top of what you’re paying for the instrument and shipping. The manufacturer’s warranty is free, so you’ll have some sort of safety net, but not much of one.
While this is only necessary for the worst-case scenario, it’s important to know about the return policy. Buying a guitar online comes with plenty of risks as it is.
Not being able to try out any given guitar before purchasing it is something I’m personally hesitant to do. However, knowing that I’ll be able to return the guitar if I’m not satisfied in any way – and get my money back- allows me the freedom to purchase online with confidence.
I know from experience that both Sweetwater and Guitar Center have great return policies for their musical instruments.
Sweetwater offers a 30-day “no-hassle” return. So you can return your items for any reason within a 30-day period. If you purchased a used item, the return period extends to 90 days, and if your purchase was shipped to you for free, you’ll have to pay return shipping – which isn’t that big of a deal since you didn’t pay the shipping, to begin with.
Guitar Center offers a 45-satisfaction guarantee, which simply means that you have 45 days to decide if you’re satisfied with your purchase or not once you’ve received it. If you’re not happy with the product, you can return it, no questions asked, for a full refund (minus the cost of shipping).
The great part about both Sweetwater and Guitar Center is that they both give you confidence in making a purchase online, knowing you can return it if you’re not satisfied within a fair amount of time. I would say that these two are tied when it comes to returns.
Sweetwater vs Guitar Center: Which should you buy from?
Personally, I would purchase a new guitar from Sweetwater over Guitar Center simply because of the free 2-year warranty and free shipping.
Most guitars will be priced the same in both places, so a warranty and a little saved in shipping make Sweetwater the better choice in my opinion.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Sweetwater owned by Guitar Center?
While Sweetwater and Guitar Center carries many of the same products at nearly identical prices, the two companies are not related in any way. Guitar Center Holdings Inc. is owned by the parent company, Ares Management. Sweetwater Sound is owned by its founder, Chuck Surack.
Is The Sweetwater Site Trustworthy?
Sweetwater’s site is absolutely trustworthy. You’ll not only find almost anything you could possibly want from the music world, but there are knowledgeable customer service and sales representatives available almost anytime to help with your decision-making process, as well as free shipping, a free 2-year warranty, and a 30-day no-hassle return policy.
Why Is Guitar Center So Expensive?
Guitar Center is often more expensive due to the costs added on top of the ticket price of your guitar. Not all items are shipped for free, so you’ll likely have to pay an added fee, and if you want a warranty for your new guitar, you’ll have to pay extra for that as well. Most items are marked for the same price whether it’s from Sweetwater or Guitar Center. It’s just the extra fees that tip the scales out of Guitar Center’s favor.